A few Sussex horticultural societies can trace their roots back further but this Society holds events every month of the year; an uncommon feature among horticultural societies anywhere in England.

Background

In the late nineteenth century, Victoria was firmly on the throne assisted by her prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli. Society as a whole had a high moral tone and Victorian Britain had progressively become more accepting of the need for social change. Wide-ranging improvements in education, housing and welfare, especially for those within the lower classes, were deemed both necessary and desirable.

Land ownership in the Heathfield area was very fragmented and mainly comprised small farms and holdings. It was not good land. It was more suitable for fattening bullocks than growing cereal crops. The area was pretty much free of the larger estates although one or two big houses did exist. This situation encouraged smaller trades to support the smaller farmers. The 1851 census of Cade Street, for example, showed 2 harness makers, a saddle maker, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a boot maker, a butcher, a baker and a school mistress.

Chicken Fattening

The major industry of the area was chicken fattening. This was ideally suited to small-holders as it needed limited capital investment and the sheds, hutches and pens needed could be made by their own hands.

The birds were force fed a paste of ground corn, oats and animal fats. They were expected to quadruple their weight in a few weeks. Chicken cramming was a well established trade by the time the railway came in 1880 and was able to take advantage of the new distribution opportunity presented.

Heathfield in 1890

In 1890, Heathfield as we know it did not exist. There were no buildings in the High Street except a pub, the “Welcome Stranger”, on the corner opposite the current Fire Station. There was a windmill in Mill Road. There were a few cottages around the ”Prince of Wales” pub, in Tower Street, around Vines Corner and near “The Crown” pub. The main centres of population were Old Heathfield and Cross in Hand with steadily more and more houses and a few commercial buildings appearing around the area of the new railway station and goods yard.

Founding of the Society

The idea of creating a local society was strongly promoted by Francis Scott, the new owner of Heathfield Park. The founding fathers seem to have determined that those who did not earn their living from horticulture could produce more and better crops from their own gardens if they had greater knowledge and improved their skills.

The Society was founded in 1890 with the stated aim of creating a greater interest in horticulture among the people of the district and for disseminating knowledge in such matters. It chose to use the rather cumbersome title of the Heathfield Amateur and Cottage Garden Mutual Improvement Society.

Some highlights from the Society's History

The Society's first show was held in the area of the Gibraltar Tower in 1891. It was deemed a great success, attracting visitors from all the surrounding villages and all the elite of the area. Two of the judges were well known local nurserymen and the third was head gardener to a Lady Neville.

The 1892 show also included exhibitions of exotic fruit and plants from some of the big houses in the area. The 1894 show was a wash out; it rained all day. The shows continued at the same site until 1906 when Gibraltar Tower was opened for the first time and Heathfield Band made its first appearance. It is thought the shows carried on using this site until 1916 and restarted in the same place in 1920.

At the start of the second world war, the Society was concerned about whether it should continue, especially with the increasing mobilisation of both men and women and the additional pressure on those left at home. The Government extolled everybody to produce food with its “Dig for Victory” campaign and asked all horticultural societies to help and support them in achieving that important goal.

The Society held Autumn Shows in the early part of the 20th century. Other possible shows were considered but there is no record of any being held. However, in 1979, the society introduced a Spring show. The Society now holds a Spring and Summer Show every year.

Monthly Meetings

Monthly Meetings have always been an important element of the annual programme. Horticultural knowledge, skills development, crop rotation, garden design and soil fertility were regular topics from the outset. Over the years, social evenings, local history, natural history, local buildings and evening visits to local nurseries or well known gardens have all become regular features.

BBC Gardeners Question Time

On Friday 3 April 1970 the Society hosted the recording of the BBC Gardeners Question Time radio programme. Franklin Engleman was the Question Master and the celebrity panel comprised Fred Loads, Bill Sowerbuts and Professor Alan Gemmell. The programme was broadcast on Sunday 12 April and repeated on the following Tuesday. The Society is hoping this popular, long standing radio programme will again ask it to act as host when recording one of their shows sometime in the not too distant future.

Chelsea Flower Show medals

The Royal Horticultural Society invited Affiliated Societies to enter a class at the Chelsea Flower Show calling for a matching window box and hanging basket. The Society entered in the class in 1995, 1996 and 1997. However, the entry fee and associated travel costs were quite high. But cost did not stop the Heathfield & District Horticultural Society from winning a silver medal in 1995 and a bronze medal in 1996

Society Holidays

Between 1997 and 2005 many members enjoyed holidays arranged by a Committee member to places including Loire Valley, Germany, Normandy, Belgium, Caen, Brittany and Scotland. Sadly it is no longer possible to offer these holidays at attractive prices.

Open Gardens

Alan Titchmarsh, the TV presenter and self-styled nation's head gardener, made an appeal to all horticultural societies in 1999 asking them to raise funds for The Children's Society by holding Open Garden events. The Society organised some events but, unfortunately, the “by invitation” arrangement that it was encouraged to employ did not work at all well. Something had to change.

The solution, and the model followed to this day, is for members to open their own gardens on a given day to fellow members and their friends. Everybody pays a relatively small sum to enter the garden[s] [much less than yellow book prices] to have a nosey around and enjoy a free cuppa and a free slice of home-made cake in good company.

The Society has raised many hundreds of pounds over the years for charities and good causes using this method. However, this money is now used to pay for the community service the Society proudly provides every year: two shows staged on behalf of and open to everybody in the local community.

Discounted Seed Purchases

The Society sold seeds from two merchant to members at a discount to the normal list prices. One merchant gave the Society money while the other gave free packets of seeds. These packets became prizes in monthly draws. When seeds were sold at discount prices in retail outlets, the activity was no longer viable, and it ceased in 2009.

Society Emblem

Class 74 in the Society's 2012 Summer Show schedule called for juniors aged 7 – 12 years old to submit ideas for a Society emblem. The winning entry came from Jasmin Evans. Her basic idea was refined and developed by a graphics designer and the resultant emblem is now proudly displayed on all publications and this website.

Membership

The original rules of the Society established five different categories of membership These same categories of membership also appeared in the new rules of 1951 when it became known as the Heathfield & District Horticultural Society. Over the years things have changed and there has only been one class of membership for many years.

It seems that membership was viewed by the Society in its earlier years as a privilege that could be bestowed on those they deemed suitable and worthy. Several applications were rejected in the early years, many applicants were “scrutinised” before being accepted and if you were not known by the Committee you could have little hope.

Limits on the distance within which a member had to live were very common for organisations in those days; in our case, members had to live within five miles of Old Heathfield church. A proposal was made in 1913, and similar proposals were made at several subsequent annual meetings, to reduce the distance limitation rule to four or even fewer miles. The mind boggles at the chicanery, or perhaps maliciousness, of some of our early members.

Happily, the limitation on membership by distance from any point is long gone. The Society has recruited from all age groups wherever they may live for some years. We even have a member living in Orpington who regularly attends meetings.

Reflecting the sentiment of the time, the Society decreed that any members serving in His Majesty's forces during the second world war should retain their membership on an honorary basis for the duration.

Interestingly, membership numbers have fluctuated widely over the years: 125 members in 1962; 70 members in 1992; 116 members in 2004; and 72 members in 2011. The Society expects membership to exceed 100 in 2015 and hopes to see the total rise steadily above that figure in the coming years

Finances

Detailed financial records are not retained beyond seven years, so end of year balances and any special money issues are the only financial information available from the past. The first of these special money issues arose at the end of 1940. The Society had great difficulty in clearing a debt of nearly £60 for the hire of marquees at the earlier Summer Show. After the second world war it was again in financial difficulty and had to secure an overdraft facility of £75.

Things financial improved gradually and by 1949 the bank balance was in the black at £10. However, the balance hardly kept pace with inflation for several years and only totalled £130 in 1977. It seems to have moved forward more vigorously for the next few years and reached the more healthy sum of £600 in 1985.

Thirty years later, in 2014, the balance was about five times that sum. That may seem a huge increase but the bank balance has really only just about kept pace with inflation over the last three decades. The Society aims to progressively increase its financial reserves in the coming years.

125th Anniversary Year

In 2015 the Society is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1890. It is thriving and in good health with membership growing and finances improving. This is particularly reassuring when two nearby sister horticultural organisations have had to close in recent years through lack of support and/or falling membership.

The Society now unquestionably covers Heathfield and the surrounding district with members from Hailsham, Hellingly, Mayfield, Burwash, Burwash Common, Five Ashes, Horam and Maynards Green as well as Punnetts Town, Broad Oak, Waldron, Cross in Hand, Old Heathfield, Cade Street and Heathfield itself. The Society looks forward with confidence to the coming years and its 150th anniversary in 2040.

Acknowledgement

The Society is indebted to Vice President, Colin Rose, for undertaking the research, for presenting his findings to the 19 January 2015 meeting and for his help and commitment in preparing the above notes.