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North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville

Chapter 29 - The Cottage Garden Show

In the August 1869 issue of the parish magazine the vicar said "Last year the cottage garden show was but tentative, a mere trial to see whether North Mymms and Woodside were able to produce a sufficient number of competitors for the prizes to make it worth while to carry out such a scheme another year. This year the cottage garden show had produce that would bear comparison with any parish of equal extent in the neighbourhood."

And so the North Mymms Horticultural Society was born in 1868. It has had its ups and downs, it has flourished and it has lapsed, its show has been held on days of unclouded skies and on dismally wet days, but it is still, like a famous advertisement of yesteryear, going strong.

The rules as to who could compete and who were debarred and the schedules of the early days are typical of the period. The committee consisted of the gentry, with the schoolmaster doing the clerical work. The gentry subscribed to the prizes and "our poorer parishioners" were never allowed to forget "that the encouragement which the cottage garden show gives to their industry, forethought and care is owing to the kindness and liberality of their richer neighbours" (parish magazine, August 1870). The shows were usually held in the deer park, Myms Place, but when held at Oaklands, then the home of the Dymoke-Green family, or at Leggatts, where Gurney Sheppard lived, a cart was provided to take all the exhibits.

By degrees the scope of the show was widened to include cookery, needlework and hobbies. As most cottagers kept a few ducks or hens, prizes were offered for "the heaviest couple of this year’s birds," and after a series of lectures on bee keeping, honey too was included. When sewing machines were practically unknown it was natural to include "best-made set of baby linen," prize 5/-; or "man’s white shirt," prize 2/6; while girls at school entered for "socks or stockings, knitted, white or coloured," prize 2/6. Neat patches on flannel shift or calico sheet, darns on socks and even, one year, a patchwork quilt were all prizewinners.

While the emphasis has switched from vegetables to flowers and the annual show has become three shows taking place in the spring, summer and autumn, it is surprising that the face value of the prizes has hardly altered, though there are many more prizes given today. In 1868 that first prize of 5/- was more than a third of a man’s weekly wage, and was therefore eagerly competed for; today 5/- may possibly pay for a small packet of choice seeds which will be nursed and cosseted for next year’s show. The chief prize of £1 awarded for best garden, when won, was a god-send to many a poor mother who needed new shoes for her children.

Reporting the show in the magazine always included a note on the weather and a reference to any outstanding exhibit, thus for August 1870 we read "Our third annual cottage garden show took place on July 28 in the Deer Park. The long-continued drought (the scorching sun of last month had burnt up all the beautiful roses) notwithstanding, the July vegetables exhibited were undoubtedly finer than on either previous occasion.

In early 1874 James Harding died and the obituary notice in the magazine is worth reading. Headed "A veteran," it goes on:

"During the last month an old soldier has ‘passed away’ from among us who deserves a notice in our parish magazine. James Harding, who was born in Suffolk in 1796, joined the Suffolk Militia and from that volunteered in 1812 into the Third Foot Guards. He went with them through all the hard-fought battles of the Peninsular War … the Battle of Waterloo … was wounded at the sortie of Bayonne 1814. We all remember him as the skilful, painstaking florist. His garden attracted the notice of everyone who passed Mount Pleasant. Harding’s roses were the finest in the neighbourhood; his hollyhocks were the grandest; his onions the largest, his strawberries the choicest. The patient, industrious old soidier waged war with weeds in the days of peace, and again and again did James Harding carry off some of the best prizes at the cottage garden show."

We hear no more of the cottage garden show until September 1884, when there is a glowing account of "its renewal after ten years’ cessation," but what happened to cause the vicar the following year to write "We shall all wish for a fine day and let us add our prayers that no feeling of jealousy may arise to mar this united effort for the good of our parish" we shall never know.

ln 1906 there was another revival, and this time the show was held "in the village hall recendy erected by Mrs. Burns." During the weeks preceding the show Mr. Deans, of the Sussex County Council, had given lectures on cottage gardening and in the discussion that followed one lecture the "duties of judges were considered and a request was made that the potatoes presented for a competition might be sent in hot in consideration for the judges" but no clue is given as to why!

The North Mymms branch of the Women’s Institute was formed in 1918 and four years later its officials met the vicar and other interested people "to consider whether the annual flower and vegetable show which during late years has been confined to the members of the W.I. should not now become a parochial affair." By 1925 it was once more a parish organisation and the highlight that year was "the exhibit of pressed flowers from the girls’ school. We had no idea that such a wealth of wild flowers grew in the neighbourhood, 320 varieties and all of them named." All in all show day was a holiday, especially when a good band was in attendance.

Dorothy Colville, 1971

Chapter 30 - A Sunday Afternoon Visitor
Index - North Mymms Parish and People

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