Sweet Peas, Suffragettes and Showmen

There was an immediate connection with Royalty, since the first hall was opened on Vincent Square in 1904 by King Edward VII. The Art Deco hall on Elverton Street was opened by HRH Princess May in 1928.

“It surprised me, just to what extent the aristocracy of the day were involved in events, and through them the effectthey had on the development of society,” Dee tells CN. They regularly patronised and sponsored exhibitions and events. Baroness Burdett-Coutts donated 3m to philanthropic causes. Her events helped improve the quality of British food. Some of the money made from shows also went to benevolent funds and into supporting hospitals.

We learn the Suffragette movement held meetings at the Halls, even disrupting one event to get their point across. Nothing like a bit of face-to-face experiential, Pankhurst was an early pioneer!

The Halls were active venues for many political meetings over the years and Dee traces the social and economic impact of shows held there on the society its events mirrored.

There are chapters on the first shows, including Chefs and Cookery, Dogs, Cats & Rabbits, Nursing, Midwives and Medical, and Travel and Exploration – Empire.

We learn some interesting facts, including the first main exhibition being the 16th Universal Cookery and Food Exhibition in May 1905.

Fitness and Health is a recurring theme and Dee brings to life the work of the surgeon Sir William Arbuthnot Lane who founded the New Health Society and ran an exhibition of the same name in 1928 and 1929. “The only constant is change,” Dee reminds us, lest we be tempted to think lifestyle and fitness and indeed many other trade and consumer shows are a 21st century invention.

Asked to pick out a favourite character from his gallery of aristocrats and philanthropists, Dee settles on the wonderfully named Madame Martina Sofia Helena Bergman Osterberg who held her ‘Physical Training displays’, in the Halls in 1905 and 1906. Dee, whose own career has included a stint in the military, reminds us the Swede established Britain’s first physical training college for women using methods the British Army borrowed to train its recruits.

Asked to pick out the most disastrous event ever held at the RHH, Dee chooses The Grocer magazine Awards in 1993 where the booming sound resulted in the event being closed down. Dee says the most extravagant show he witnessed was The Bentley’s Entertainment ‘60s party for Intercapital Brokers, organised by Peregrine Armstrong-Jones in 1994. ‘It had a wonderful psychedelic theme and it was the only time a two-tier structure was built inside the Halls,” says Dee.

Another highlight was the Terracotta Warriors exhibition which ran for six weeks and was seen by 650,000 people.

The Lawrence Hall featured on the BBC TV Ident TV for five years.

Does Dee fear for the venue’s future, given the likely fate of Earls Court post-2012?

“Yes. I fear for the long-term longevity, due to the location issue and specifically affecting the Lawrence Hall. Surrounded as it is by residents, it will be increasingly difficult to manage.”

The only constant is change.

Sweet Peas, Suffragettes and Showmen, Events that changed the world in the Royal Horticultural Halls, by Rene Dee, is published by Phillimore & Co Ltd.

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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