Harold Hill Horticultural Club
George Orwell, writing in his wartime essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, cleverly observed the relationship between the English and their hobbies:
‘…it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feeling whatsoever. What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”.’1
Living up to Orwell’s remark, the following Harold Hill-based clubs were mentioned at least once in the pages of the local press up until 1956: Animal Defenders’ League, British Legion, Tenants’ Association, Angling Club, Ambassadors’ Amateur Dramatic Society, Catholic Association, Old Folks’ Club, St John Ambulance Brigade, St George’s Ambulance and Nursing Corps, Army Cadets, Air Training Cadets, Catholic Women’s Association, Catholic Men’s Association, Cycling Club, Sunshine Club (for the blind), Hilltop Social Club, MotorCycle Club, Dagnam Park Entertainments Committee, Roman Catholic Parents and Citizens Association, Mothers’ Club, Community Association, Sports Club, Dramatic Society, Working Men’s Club, Higher Income Tenants Association, Poultry Club, Women’s Social Club, Friendly Women’s Club, Pensioners’ Pals, British Red Cross Society, Questors Dramatic Society and Three Clubs Choir.
These were the clubs reported on in the press, and there would have certainly been more, with many individual streets having their own social clubs. Many of these clubs, such as the Catholic Association and the Community Association, had multiple societies under their wing and would allow space for them to operate in their own respective halls. Although some of the above were founded for religious reasons – or, like the various Tenants’ Associations, for practical reasons – they also took it upon themselves to organise for leisure purposes. Added to this were the political parties of all colours who had their own social committees, as well as the various churches who used their own halls for their own clubs.
But the biggest of all these hobbies and entertainment societies was the Harold Hill Horticultural Club, with a membership at its height of 1,500. Starting in July 1947, when 27 prospective members gathered in a prefab house to discuss possibilities, the first chairman, Mr C. Crotchley, announced:
‘We are living on a new estate that you might say is spoiling the countryside. Anyone who loves the countryside can see it being spoiled each day. Roads are being cut, houses are shot up... But the idea of being a gardener is to minimise that as much as possible, and it is societies like that that can achieve some small measure. By building gardens you can bring back to nature some of the beauty owing to it.’
At the time of this speech, the club had 259 members; by 1953, it had 1,000; a couple of years later, it had 1,500 members. It would seem Harold Hill folk loved gardening – for most, if not all, this was the first time they’d had a garden of their own and they took full advantage of what was presented to them.
By the time of the fourth horticultural show in 1952, the club had prize-winning sections for best gardener, vegetables, flowers, fruit, as well as sections for women, handicrafts, children and old folks, with all these categories having several subsections each.
By the fifth annual show, the then-secretary announced that Harold Hill could be proud of its gardens: ‘The estate is becoming, as I said in the Town Hall five years ago, a city of flowers.’ The annual summer flower show proved to be Harold Hill’s biggest crowd-puller, with all local dignitaries attending the event, such as the mayor and MP.
This was the era before garden centres – and even if there were any such businesses in Essex, the people of Harold Hill had neither the transport nor money for such goods. Consequently, people made do with what was around them. The LCC, despite persistent rumours, never provided topsoil for gardens, and so every weekend all the men from a particular street would concentrate on one house at a time and take soil from nearby fields, while Dagnam Park – having become known as ‘the Manor’ because of the derelict old aristocratic mansion – was pillaged of plants and bulbs. Sunday would witness a flow of residents, wheelbarrows full, streaming to and from the park. People were also resourceful with the builders’ waste, and many rockeries were built with the rubble left lying around in gardens.
George Orwell, The lion and the unicorn : socialism and the English genius, Secker & Warburg, 1941, p10 ↩