As you will see in a fascinating article below from an 1987 edition of the Musselburgh News, compiled by a past Treasurer of the Society, the MHS has always had its Annual Show at the centre of its activities.

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Mr G. Suffolk, Musselburgh News, 11 December 1987

In its early years, Musselburgh Horticultural Society provided the means for competition between the gardeners of the large houses in the vicinity of Musselburgh. These were the homes of the Hopes, Elphinstones, Wauchopes and Dalrymples.

The patrons of the Society were these very people, as well as some local dignitaries residing at Inveresk who had large gardens and gardeners to maintain them.

The Show was, in effect, a Trades Exhibition at which were exhibited the garden produce and floral displays which graced these persons’ tables. Prizes won at the Show enhanced reputations of the professional gardeners and the minutes record their movement to other positions, one, in fact emigrating to a post in Canada.

These “practical” gardeners, as they described themselves, were the “action men” of the Society and, apart from being the main exhibitors, served on the committee and acted as office-bearers. The posts of president and vice-president were given to the gentry from the big houses and they presided on the day of the Show.

Committee meetings however, were controlled by a chairman, elected by the committee, although in the years immediately preceding the First World War the chair was usually held by a vice president, Major Meldrum, the agent for the National Bank of Scotland, and an insurance company, and also a member of the School Board and the local Gas Board.

He was described in the minutes as “our worthy chairman” and was congratulated for his “well thought of ideas”. He was responsible for promoting the Society’s first annual dinner at Mrs. Woolley’s Hotel (The Musselburgh Arms).

It must be remembered that at this time there were not many people who had homes with gardens. Most people lived in tenements and their contributions to the Show were their window boxes.

The Fair Day Association, with a view to creating some colour for visitors attending the races, offered prizes amounting to two guineas for the best window box displays.

What is surprising was that winners had to bring the boxes to the Show in order to receive their prizes. This practice discontinued as entries tapered off and the quality deteriorated. However, another class of exhibitor was emerging. The housing developments at the turn of the century enlarged the “cottager class”.

These people were encouraged to compete by growing “flower plots”, and the plots were judged just like our town gardens scheme today, but as this class of competitor increased, they exhibited at the Show, so much so that by 1909 it was agreed, after a great deal of discussion, that the committee should be re-organised and comprise eight practical gardeners and seven amateur gardeners.

It may be of interest to know who the 1909 committee were – Mr. Grey, Preston Lodge; Mr. McArdie, Inveresk Gate; Mr. Thomson, Drummore; Mr. Kidd, Carberry Tower; Mr. Bryce, Newhailes, and Messrs Armstrong, Matthews and Wright, addresses not stated. The amateurs were Messrs. Ferguson, Sandilands, Leggat, McGregor, Hawley and Mr. Gemmell, County Councillor of Braehead, Inveresk.

The Show, as is the practice in recent years, was opened at 3 p.m. The charge at noon was one shilling, equivalent to a present day £1 so not many ordinary folk could have afforded entry. At 3 p.m. the charge was reduced to sixpence, no doubt to encourage folk in as an audience for the speaker.

The Show remained open until 7 p.m. after which, for an admission charge of three-pence, a concert was organised and “many talented artists performed” no doubt local talent. An extract from the Musselburgh News confirms that the 1893 Show as held at the old Grammar School. By 1906 it had moved to a tent in Pinkie Grounds, owned by the Hopes. In 1910 it moved to Inveresk Church Hall.

The newspaper records the following entries for 1908: 50 pods of French beans; 24 pods of broad beans; six heavy potatoes; 24 pods of peas; six carrots; six spikes of gladiola; 12 cactus dahlias; 12 carnations of picotees; 12 pansies. There was also an entry for German greens – were these Winnistadt?

The shows towards the end of the first decade added jams, scones, honeycombs etc. to the handicrafts of the Industrial Section. This level of entries was maintained until 1956 as confirmed by the schedule of that year, but in more recent times the entries for each class have been reduced in number. Some classes have disappeared.

The year 1893 had a class for peaches and melons, and Councillor Tomlinson, as an added attraction for that year’s show, exhibited 34 varieties of potato. Prize money in these years averaged £35 but there were no trophies as we know them today. Prizes were donated for specific classes, and if the patron died the class and its prize were deleted from the schedule unless someone else could be persuaded to donate the prize.

Some prizes were donated by firms such as Tillie & White of Edinburgh. They gave a “fine barometer” for the best exhibitor and three cash prizes totalling £1/3/6d. Suttons of Reading gave £1 provided the winning entries were grown from their seed.

In 1951 there was a determined effort to encourage patrons to donate trophies. The big houses were approached but the outcome was disappointing – the old gardens no longer existed in their former glory and no doubt interest in horticultural shows died out in those quarters. On 22nd August 1952 Mr. Borthwick, a professional gardener, presented the Challenge Shield to the Society.

By 1956, in addition to the Borthwick Shield, the following trophies had been received: the Cruden Trophy, the Coronation Trophy and the Riding of the Marches Trophy. Medals from the Dalrymple family for sweet peas and from the magazines “Amateur Garden” and “Woman’s Own” were also awarded for vegetables and industrial exhibits respectively.

There were only two occasions when the Society ceased to function. The first was the 1914 War, when a notice appeared in the Musselburgh News cancelling the Show. It is not clear how this happened, but it could be that patrons and gardeners from the big houses were called to the Colours because of their military connections with the Territorial Army. The minute book in our possession for that period unfortunately ends in March 1914, and there are no further records until 1929 when a joint Show with the Allotment Association was held in Inveresk Church Hall.

Prior to that date the Allotment Association, which had been formed in 1917, had been holding shows but on a much smaller scale, exhibiting vegetables and a small number of industrial classes. We are fortunate that Mr. Guthrie has possession of a programme and schedule of the 1923 Show which like others was organised to raise funds for the Dalrymple Loan Hospice and the Musselburgh Ambulance Wagon.

The Society does not appear to have got going again until 1930, at least in respect of organising shows. The first Show solely planned by the Society was held in 1930. It was advertised in the press; billposter men walked along the High Street and the Trades Band played outside the hall in Dalrymple Loan. Inside the hall the public were additionally entertained by the new fangled “radio music” – which was that heard on the wireless sets and presumably played on a radiogram.

Funds were raised, as they had been in earlier times, by collecting books. These were organised on an area basis, two members responsible for an area.

In the 1905’s there was a “Free Gift Scheme” and 1000 books each containing five tickets were purchased from the Hogarth Press of Portobello, and I should imagine that gifts were donated by members as they do at present for the Tombola. The gradual slide to gambling as a means of raising funds!

The shows of the 1930’s continued at this level of activity until 1939 when that year’s Show as held just in time, because War broke out the following week. With the war, the Society went into suspense until 1947, apart from an occasion when its funds were used to assist the Red Cross.

The 1905’s were probably the halcyon years for the Society, although there is no evidence to suggest that active members ever exceeded 20 or so. For example, in 1949 the committee consisted of seven office-bearers and 19 committee members, but only 14 turned up at the AGM. Nevertheless, those who were active did much to further the ambitions of the Society. The 1950 Show attracted 62 exhibitors and 662 entries.

Festival of Britain year 1951 saw co-operation between the Town Council and the Society in the inauguration of the town’s “Garden Competition” when it was decided that prizes would be awarded on the basis of 50 points for cleanliness, 30 for layout and 20 for produce. The 1952 Show attracted 65 exhibitors and 715 entries; 1953 Coronation Year 87 exhibitors and 726 entries; and 1956, the year of the /Riding of the Marches, 81 exhibitors and 627 entries.

Great plans had been made for 1956, the Riding of the Marches. Initially a three or four day show in a tent was suggested, but in the end it was agreed that a two-day Show would be sufficient.

Mr. Romanis, a member for 30 years until his death in 1960, was the president, and Mr. Sivess, who did much to revive the Society following the Second World War years, was Show Steward.

Mrs. Hamilton was serving on the committee that year and remained a committee member for more than a quarter of a century. Not everything was crowned with success. In 1955 the Society organised a Bulb Show and this was followed by lectures, but to quote the minutes: “These did not meet with the anticipated success”.

Also about that time, i.e. 1953, saw the revival of the “Visiting Committee”. The purpose of this committee, which had been suggested in the early 1900’s but not taken up, was to inspect the gardens of competitors whenever there was some doubt about whether the exhibits had actually been grown by the exhibitor or not. It would be interesting to know how people reacted to a visit.

The story meantime ends in the 1960’s. In that decade Mr. Adam Hamilton became secretary and held the post for 22 year. Much was achieved in these years.

Prior to this time it was necessary to attend some days after the Show to collect your prize money, and nervous breakdowns almost arose on the day of the Show when assessing points for trophy winners.

Major improvements in organisation reduced the confusion and allowed prompt payment of prize money. The Show was moved to the Brunton Hall Concourse in the 1970’s.

On Mr. Hamilton’s retrial some four years ago the task was taken over by the Society’s first woman secretary, Mrs. Parley. She and her husband George, the latter in the office of President, made great strides in developing the Society’s finances as well as introducing a number of innovations to the Show itself.

Mr. Guthrie and I have been searching old copies of the Musselburgh News for information about the Society’s origins. We were unable to go back further earlier than 1893 because no earlier copies of the newspaper now exist.

However, the minutes record Mr. Young of Tranent saying in 1910 that he had a schedule in his hand dated 1878, and Mr. Blair, Secretary in 1893, had been a member for 16 years and this would take us back to 1877.

We know that the Royal Caledonian Society started in 1808, Broughton’s was started in 1853, and Penicuik in 1842, so Musselburgh, with its horticultural background, should go back to at least these times, but at present we lack the evidence.

The story will not end here. We may go into suspense, although I hope not, but whatever happens someone is sure to take up the baton and carry on with the Show.

Despite recent research, members have been unable to determine the exact origins of the Society, although they believe it goes back at least to the 1840’s.

People concerned about the poor attendance at the 1987 AGM may take some comfort from the fact that it was not the first time such a meeting had to be abandoned.

The 1907 AGM was adjourned because only eight members turned up. It was also a bad year for the Show because of falling entries.

In 1909 the AGM had to continue in the absence of the secretary and a special committee meeting was convened the following month because of his continuing absence.