The History of the National Dahlia Society
The dahlia was introduced into Europe from Mexico in 1789 and into England in 1803.
15years later in 1818 a Mr McNab staged “a beautiful display of dahlias “ at a meeting of the Caledonian Horticultural society in Edinburgh and a year later a Scottish nursery, Messrs Peacock staged 300 varieties at the same venue.
By 1836 the Dahlia Register of the Horticultural Society of London , later to become the Royal Horticultural Society, listed over 700 varieties and at the same time referred to 45 dahlia shows held as far apart as the Isle of Wight and Sheffield.
In less than 40 years the dahlia had established itself as an exhibition flower and was beginning to do the same as a plant for garden decoration.
There was no national dahlia society in this period but there were local dahlia societies as well as many general horticultural societies who catered for dahlia growers. The RHS was also actively encouraging the dahlia; at one of its floral meetings in the Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1848 over 3,000 blooms were said to be on show.
Dahlia shows at both local and national level flourished over the next 45 years but it wasn’t until Christmas Eve in 1881 that the National Dahlia Society was officially formed, its primary objective being to raise funds to hold a “Grand National Dahlia Show “at the Crystal Palace in September 1882. The money was raised and the show was held. It was a great success and since then, with the exception of some of the war years and the funeral of Princess Diana, a National Show has been held annually.
At first membership was low, probably not more than 100 to start with as long working hours and low pay would not encourage many working people to become members and exhibiting was expensive. There was little incentive for non- exhibitors to become members as for a long time the Society did nothing other than organise shows.
The first break-through came in 1903 when a sub-committee was set up to produce “The Official Catalogue and Cultural Guide of the NDS” which was published in 1904, free to members and 2/- to the public. It was something like a combination of the Annual, Bulletin and Classified Directory that we publish today with advice on dahlia growing and a list of 675 varieties. Publications were kept up to date with annual supplements.
In March 1910 the first National Conference was held at a restaurant in The Strand, London with speakers on “Growing dahlias for exhibition” and “Growing dahlias for garden decoration” and this became an annual event usually in March.
In 1912 local societies were allowed to become affiliated to the NDs but were not really encouraged as it was stipulated that they must offer a minimum of £5 in prizes for its dahlia classes. However shows continued to flourish but in terms of membership the Society had not been successful – in 1913 it had only 116 members, including a few overseas members. Despite shows being suspended for the duration of WW1 the Society hung on and resumed its activities in 1919. Prior to the war any prospective new members had to be sponsored by an existing member but after the war social values had changed and the Committee realised they had to get members from wherever they could so a Finance Sub- Committee was formed and in 1920 they set about improving the society’s image. There were just 2 categories of membership – nurseries at 10/6d per year and Ordinary Members at 5/- per year. The financial limitations on Affiliated Societies were also lifted. Over the next few years membership started to rise.
A “Year Book” was first published in 1925, free to members and this also contributed to a further growth in membership. By 1926 membership stood at 260, twice the pre-war figure and over the next 10 years membership rose annually reaching just over 600 in 1935, including 17 Affiliated Societies. Of these 13 were overseas, 2 in Lancashire and one each in Surrey and Yorkshire.
In 1927 it was decided to offer a Gold Medal to the best seedling grown for garden decoration in the Wisley Trials. The first year the trials were ruined by an early frost but the medal was awarded for the first time the following year- a tradition which continued until a few years ago but which will hopefully be reinstated in 2021.
In the between war years practically every present day activity was either introduced or extended.
During WW2 the Society kept going as far as possible and membership actually rose in that period. After the war the Society got back into its stride again and by 1948 membership had reached 1339, including 120 Affiliated Societies. This may have been due to the increase in home ownership and also the increased interest in gardening created by the “Dig For Victory” clubs during the war.
It was around 1947 that it was decided to inaugurate a Northern Committee of the National Dahlia Society to meet the needs of members in the north. They did this by organising bureaux at Southport and other northern shows and in 1951 held its first Northern National show at Harrogate.
The next 20 years were the “Golden Era” of the Society, by 1966 membership reached 7545, a figure which has never been exceeded.
Since then membership has slowly declined but over the last 5 years or so has been steady at around 1800 thanks to the efforts of the Society’s Executive Council and its enthusiastic members. With the introduction of the new interactive website we are hoping to appeal to a new generation of dahlia growers.
Over the years some things have changed a lot, others very little – the publications, the shows, the AGM and Conference and the aims of the Society are still the same as they were over a hundred years ago “to popularise the flower it represents and to extend its cultivation through the length and breadth of the land, for no matter what purpose it may be grown, whether for the exhibition stand, the decoration or the garden or the adornment of the home”.
• Founded 1881
• 1882 first National Show at Crystal Palace
• 1903 first National publication
• 1910 first National Conference
• 1912 Affiliated Societies admitted to NDS
• 1920 Memberships made open to all
• 1925 first “Year Book” published
• 1928 gave Gold Medal for best dahlia for garden decoration at the Wisley Trials
• 1947 Northern Committee established
• 1951 first Northern National Show at Harrogate
• Trials for varieties with exhibition potential at Bradford
• 1996 Trials for varieties with exhibition potential moved to Leeds
• National Show moved from Westminster to Shepton Mallet
• 2012 National Show moved to Wisley
. 2019 New web site launched