Brief History

Want to know a little more about the history of the society then have a read below or using the following links to jump to particular parts of our story.



The earliest records suggest a foundation date of 1884 for the society with the name Letherhead Horticultural Society, without the first ‘a’.  


Initially, the Society’s horticultural activities were confined to an Annual Show, which was part of a major local social event.   The first Show for which we have a record was held on August 20th 1884 on the cricket ground of St. John’s School, Leatherhead and the Leatherhead Brass Band entertained those attending.   Subsequent Shows were held annually in late July in the gardens of the ‘great and good’, at Elm Bank Garden, Cherkley Court, Givons Grove, Downside, Thorncroft Manor and The Red House.   In addition to the exhibition and show tents, the event included sideshows, stalls, raffles, a brass, or silver bandstand and evening dances.  The original shows also included exhibition vegetable and flower entries by professional gardeners from the great houses, mainly in Mickleham and Leatherhead, Fetcham and Ashtead, with separate entries from local allotments and individual private houses.   There were also exhibition stands for local nurserymen and seed merchants.  Carters Seeds a famous national seed merchants being one of these local firms.   These flower and vegetable exhibitions and competitions were together called ‘The Leatherhead Annual Flower and Cottage Gardeners’ Show’.   From 1886, a separate beekeeping section was introduced by the Surrey Beekeepers Society, which was maintained in subsequent Shows until the early 1930’s.   Entries for all sections of the Shows were typically of a very high standard.


In 1893 Cherkley Court was struck by lightning on Show day and the ensuing fire caused much damage.  The newspaper reports stated that the Annual Flower Show was being held that year at Givons Grove and the Show organisers came to the assistance of Mr. and Mrs. Dixon the owners of Cherkley Court in saving many paintings and much of the furniture.  Subsequently, the Show went on despite this crisis and as usual proved very enjoyable and successful.


Sometime between 1900 and 1914 the Society changed its name to The Leatherhead and District Horticultural and Industrial Society.


World Wars I and II


Show events continued until the impact of the First World War led to yet another change in status with the establishment of the Leatherhead Allotments and Gardens Association, as a successor.  Mr. E. Barden J.P. founded the renamed organisation whose prime purpose during the war was to encourage the production of home grown food on allotments and in gardens, in a time of extreme shortage.   The allotment holders of Highlands Road, Kingscroft, Barnett Wood Lane and Poors Allotments formed the backbone of the membership.   After the war Mr. Barden as Chairman and his committee reinstated the Annual Flower Show under the direct control of the Association, which is why we count our Annual Shows from that date.   The format of the Show was kept as near as possible to that of the pre-war period.  


It is thought that from its inception and certainly from 1924 until Mr Wilkinson’s death in 1940, the Annual Flower Show was held in the gardens of his home, Thorncroft Manor.  Mr. Wilkinson was also made President of the Association from 1929 until his death in 1940, which strangely coincided with that of Mr. Barden who died later that same year whilst still holding the position of Chairman. 


During this period the Association was split into two sections run by separate committees, one for ladies and one for men, a reflection of the pre-war Society’s Shows.   Each had its own classes for exhibitors and awards were also split between the two committees.   Fund raising for this event was achieved by raffles, whist drives and sewing B’s.   Notable occasions included: in 1926, Mr. R. Sayer being awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Silver Medal for the best-kept allotment in Surrey; in 1928, notice being given that the new Leatherhead By Pass was to be built across the Poor’s Allotments, but members would be allowed to continue cultivation of the unaffected plots; at the same time Kingscroft Allotments were sold to a developer, who in the event failed to provide the necessary deposit, the deal fell through and the allotments continued to be cultivated until they were eventually sold for development in the 1930’s.  In 1930 the land required for the By Pass was purchased under a Compulsory Purchase Order and the work including the construction of a new Poor’s Allotment boundary fence on the west side of the By Pass was completed in 1933; also in 1930 the Society became affiliated to the National Gardeners’ Guild and in 1931 to The Royal Horticultural Society, an association that continues to the present day; in 1936 the Association won first prize in the Coronation Procession for George VI; a visit to the Carters Seeds Nursery in Raynes Park in 1935 was followed by the inauguration of a series of lectures, one of which in 1937 was given by Constance Spry, who, as a result was persuaded to take part in the 1938 Annual Show as a judge for the Table Decorations’ Exhibits.


On the approach of war, in 1939, the Association under the guidance of Mr. Barden was again made responsible for the upkeep and operation of the various Trust Land Allotments in Leatherhead, as it had been during the Great War 1914 - 1918.  By agreement, in 1940, a separate limited company was set up for this purpose under the auspices of the Board of Agriculture and registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act to manage all the Trust Land Allotments in the Leatherhead area.  


As a result, by common consent in 1941, the Leatherhead Allotments and Gardens Association and all its peacetime activities were again suspended for the duration of the war.   The elected committee remained active to help oversee and promote these important wartime activities.   At their peak, in 1941, some 541 allotments were in cultivation under the control of the Company.  Based on this relationship, during the Second World War, arrangements were made by the Board of Agriculture to provide garden lime at special discount prices to anyone owning an allotment under the control of the Company.   This arrangement subsequently developed into the provision of ‘The Hut’, which in its later guise of ‘The Store’ continues today.   During the Second World War, the land at the Leatherhead Foundry site adjacent to Rye Brook was requisitioned for allotments, under the control of the Association, but in 1954, Leatherhead Urban District Council reclaimed it for future industrial development.


The Society's Resurrection


In 1946 the Leatherhead Allotments and Gardens Association was resurrected by the surviving committee and began by taking over the sales’ role of the Company.   In 1948 the Board of Agriculture and Leatherhead Urban District Council offered the Association the use of the Warden’s Hut on the corner of Copthorne Road for the storage and sale of garden lime, pea and bean rods and ‘Growmore’ fertiliser at an annual rental of 5p.   From this time on it was always referred to as ‘The Hut’.   Subsequently, interest in the Association declined.   During the first eight years after the war, no Annual Shows were held and the activity of the Association was confined to the sale of garden lime and compost to allotment holders.   This rapid decline of the Association became so dire that in 1952, a proposal was made to wind up the Company and the Association.  This motion was defeated and the then Chairman resigned.   The remaining members then abandoned the Company and set about rejuvenating the Association.  Eventually, after several false starts, in 1954 the Annual Show was reinstated, initially for three years at the Fairfield Road Auction Rooms and subsequently at the Working Mens’ Club in Upper Fairfield Road, where it continued until 1966.   Since 1966, except for the years 1978 and 2002, when no show was held, and between 1995 and 2001 when it was held in Therfield School Hall, the Annual Show has been held annually at the Leatherhead Parish Hall.   By 1957, the Association’s membership had increased and ‘The Hut’ that had only nominally existed in 1956 saw a marked improvement in sales and as a result an additional storage shed was erected on the ‘Old Warden’s Post’ Hut site.   In 1958, a motion was carried at the Annual General meeting of the Association to change the organisation’s name back to its original, but with an updated spelling as Leatherhead Horticultural Society, as it remains to date. 


In 1963, a series of lectures were introduced to the annual activities programme and in 1965, an annual garden visit was inaugurated with a visit to the Lincolnshire Bulb Fields.   In 1971, the land on which the‘Old Warden’s Post’ was located was to be sold for housing development.  As sales at ‘The Hut’ were steadily increasing the Society decided to establish a new building to replace it.  With the agreement of Leatherhead Urban District Council, ‘The Store’ as it is now known, was relocated on land leased from the Council in the Poor’s Allotments car park on the west side of the Old Leatherhead By-Pass between M25 Junction 9 to Heathrow and Copthorne Road.  It was opened for trade in 1972 and has continued to supply a valuable service to the membership ever since.   In 1976, the Society became affiliated to Merrist Wood Horticultural College.  

In 1966, the Society applied to the B.B.C. to be included as a venue for Gardener’s Question Time.   At last in 1984, its wish was granted and after further delays the event hosted by the Society was eventually held in 1989, in Leatherhead Parish Hall. As a result of these events and an associated membership drive, the membership of the Society grew to a peak of 1205 in 1992, which made it one of the largest horticultural societies in the country.   As part of this expansion a major extension to ‘The Store’ was opened in 1990.   This was badly damaged on Christmas Day in the same year, but after repairs and with various modifications ‘The Store’ has traded on this site ever since for the benefit of the membership.   It is now open to ‘Members Only’ every Sunday morning between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m, from the end of January to mid of November each year.   Non-members can join at the door.      


In 1986 a new annual gardens competition was introduced, ‘The Joseph Birtwistle Award’ awarded to the three best local gardens judged to give the greatest pleasure to passers by.   Dr. Margaret Birtwistle, an Honorary Life Member of the Society, gave this award each year at the Annual Show in memory of her father.   A second annual award was also introduced in 1986 – ‘The Woolman Medal’.   This was awarded to an individual member who was elected by a panel made up of members of the committee, as an award for outstanding service to the Society during the year.   In 2000, when the Rules of the Society were rewritten, this medal was discontinued and a new status of ‘Honorary Life Member’ was introduced.  The number of members to whom can be awarded this is limited to 2% of the membership at the time of the award and this status is only granted on the basis of a vote by the membership at an AGM in response to a citation by the nominator expressing the exceptional service given by the recipient.   In 2003 another new award was introduced, ‘The Patricia May Gillespie Vase’.   This trophy was awarded annually at the ‘Plant Sale & Coffee Morning’ for the ‘Best Spring Garden’, as judged by a panel in the same way as ‘The Joseph Birtwistle Award’.   The trophy was donated by John and Lynne Gillespie in memory of Patricia Gillespie, his wife and her mother


Recent Events


Between 1992 and 2001, partly due to the opening of a local B & Q and the launch of several large local Nurseries and Garden Centres, the occupation of local allotments and the membership of the Society both went into a serious decline.  In response, steps were taken to halt this critical decline in the Society’s fortunes.   In 2002, a new fund-raising charitable and social event was initiated, the ‘Plant Sale & Coffee Morning’, which for the past seventeen years has been held in our President’s garden at 19 The Mount, Fetcham.  This event has proved to be both popular and successful.   Gates open from 10:00 a.m. until Noon on a Saturday in late May, whatever the weather.   A small part of the proceeds initially went to help fund the Society, but as the fortunes of the Society improved, the majority and for the last nine years all the proceeds have been distributed to our chosen local charities lat year we raised £1,300 which was split between 'The France, Bookham' and the Leatherhead Branch of  'The Samaritans'.  In addition plants have been grown for sale each week at ‘The Store’ for local charities, which last year raised £1,425. This was split equally between three charities.’ 'My Time for Young Carers', 'Princess Alice Trust' and 'Mid-Surrey Dementia Care Trust'. In total more than £24,000 has been raised since 2002 and distributed to some 25 separate charities.   Further to these charitable donations, the Society also supports local schools and other organisations in setting up schemes, or providing plants for gardens and educational projects. 


 In 2005, a new day-out event was introduced to the Society’s programme.   This was a visit to the Wey – Arun Canal for a round trip at Loxwood and a meal out, which has proved to be a great success. In 2006 the Society introduced our ‘Spring Show’ as a new event coordinated with the Society’s A.G.M., which has proved a popular uplift to this event.  


Since 2006 the demand for allotments soared from a 50% occupancy in 2005 to 100% and a peak waiting list in 2009.   Reflecting this social change, membership of the Society, which had reached a nadir in 2005, is now stable at around 450.


The most recent innovation to our activities has been the reintroduction in 2012 of an ‘Annual  Lecture’ open to the general public, which is held at the Parish Hall in the Spring.  Previous contributions include the Head Gardener from Polesden Lacy, two senior members of the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley and a Garden Historian.  This event has proved to be popular with Society members and the general public. Previous contributors are the Head Gardener at Polesden Lacy, senior members of the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley, a Garden Historian, the Head Gardener of The Royal Palace Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court and last year, the Chairman of Sanderstead Hoticultural Society. This coming year’s talk on Wednesday 17th May starting at 20:00 is being given by Vicki Cooke, the Head Gardener of the Royal Palace Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court.  The title of her talk is ‘The History and Development of this Garden at Hampton Court.


The Birtwistle Award competition funded by our President in memory of his wife Dr Margaret Birtwistle comprises three separate awards relating to each of three local allotments.  The awards are made for themerit of each allotment’s collection entry as judged in the Annual Show – see Society News Page  


The Society is currently a member of the National Vegetable Society, the Surrey Federation of Horticultural Societies and we remain Affiliates of the Royal Horticultural Society.   We are proactive in revising and refreshing our activities and are always happy to consider new ideas, or suggestions