Stonehenge has long been interpreted as a place of coming together, whether for the Neolithic ceremonies that may have taken place among its stones 4,000 years ago, or amid the festival atmosphere of modern solstice celebrations. Rather less well-known, though, are the Victorian gatherings that saw huge crowds flocking to the Salisbury Plain site to enjoy the spectacle of masses of vibrant dahlias. Held between 1842 and 1845, these events combined the fun of a village fête with competitions offering prestigious prizes to particularly skilled gardeners, and attracted thousands of eager attendees. Despite their success, though, they ran for just four years, and today have faded from popular memory.
After coming across newspaper clippings mentioning the 1840s dahlia shows, English Heritage thought it would be interesting to share this lesser-known part of Stonehenge’s recent history – and in September they achieved their aim of bringing a dahlia festival back to the site, teaming up with historian Brian Edwards, who has carried out extensive research into the Victorian shows, to create a special three-day exhibition that took place at the end of the month. When I went to this event, dozens of flowers were on display inside the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, grown by local members of the National Dahlia Society and accompanied by information boards telling the story of the Victorian festivals. Meanwhile, a multicoloured meadow had blossomed around the reconstructed Neolithic houses that stand outside, at the heart of which was a giant floral sculpture of a trilithon, under which visitors in dahlia headdresses were excitedly posing for selfies. The modern exhibition was certainly a striking tribute to its Victorian predecessor, and during my trip Brian Edwards described what it would have been like to attend one of the 19th-century events.
‘Let’s imagine you’re an ordinary person heading to one of the festivals,’ he said. ‘You’ve walked up from Salisbury – a very early start – and as you move across the Plain you can see all the other people herding towards the stones. There are lots of other people on foot, people on horseback, people packed into carriages, gigs, and farm carts. These events were so popular that, a local newspaper reported at the time, on festival days it was not possible to get a carriage anywhere in Salisbury after noon. As you got nearer you would see canvas marquees – one of which offered formal dining for 160 people, the other housing the competition displays – and booths, and you would hear music from the band, probably popular favourites and patriotic airs.’ The smell of food would have added to the atmosphere, he added – though, while you might have expected the air also to be heavy with the fragrance of flowers, dahlia blooms generally do not have a scent.
A floral fad
While Stonehenge is today a popular tourist destination, on average drawing more than a million visitors per year, it was not enthusiasm for the Neolithic monument that was drawing such large crowds in the 1840s. Rather, Louise Crawley and Jennifer Wexler explained, the festivals reflected a passionate devotion to dahlias, which had captured the public imagination nationwide in the preceding decades. Part of their popularity stemmed from their novelty: indigenous to Mexico and Central America, dahlias had only been introduced to Europe at the end of the 18th century, and it took concerted efforts to get the frost-prone flowers to flourish in Britain’s rather cooler climate. Cultivation of dahlias was therefore initially the preserve of the gentry, who could afford to build glasshouses to shield their treasured plants from the winter chill, and to employ gardeners dedicated to their care. What began as a fashionable hobby soon became a competitive craze – dubbed ‘dahlia-mania’ by a contemporary writer – with individual flowers changing hands for huge sums, tuber theft becoming a real problem, and specialists and nurserymen striving to create the most attractive new varieties.
The first dahlias that came to Britain were single blooms, but hybridisation soon led to double blossoms and the ball shapes that we are familiar with today – indeed, experimentation produced a seemingly unlimited array of shapes and colours, making dahlias a popular and very versatile addition both to domestic flower arrangements and competition exhibits. Blossoming in the late summer and early autumn, they were initially incorporated into existing flower shows towards the end of the festival season – but by the 1820s dahlias were starring in dedicated events of their own, with shows held in Essex, Yorkshire, and the Midlands.
Wiltshire was a little later off the mark, but the county’s first specifically dahlia-themed contest was staged at Marlborough town hall in August 1834, and 1838 saw the foundation of the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society. This group held annual shows in the grounds of the Crown Inn, on the Everleigh estate of local landowner Sir John Dugdale Astley, but when their aristocratic patron died in 1842, the society found themselves homeless. It fell to the society’s honorary secretary John Keynes (grandfather of the economist John Maynard Keynes) to find a new venue for their competitions.
Flower festivals had traditionally been held indoors, in local pubs and town halls, but Keynes’ search coincided with a growing public enthusiasm for open-air events. Floral competitions had already been held in zoos and public gardens in Bath, Surrey, and Chiswick, and it was hoped that a similarly in-vogue venue might be found in Wiltshire. There was only one other landowner nearby who could easily accommodate the thousand or so people who had attended the society’s previous shows: Sir Edmund Antrobus. Helpfully, the baronet was a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, but it was not his lands near Amesbury Abbey, where he had just built a smart new house, that Keynes wanted to use. He had his sights set on another aspect of the baronet’s estate: Stonehenge. The monument was a well-known local landmark and had previously been used to house elite entertainments such as cricket matches and coursing meets. It seemed ideal and, with Antrobus’ support, the dahlia competitions were swiftly relocated.
The inaugural event, held in 1842, was a huge success. An estimated 10,000 people came to see the exhibits; many travelled on foot, but more than 1,000 vehicles were counted by a contemporary journalist. Attendance figures were no doubt boosted by the ‘delightful sunshine’ described by the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, as well as the ‘extreme novelty’ of the venue, but they are particularly impressive when you think about the relatively remote location of Stonehenge, and the fact that railways had not yet reached Salisbury. Contemporary accounts mention visitors enjoying music, a cricket match, picnicking, and ‘an abundance of refreshments’, and the festival proved so popular that in 1843 its successor had to be accompanied by a notice: ‘It is respectfully requested that no vehicles, booths, or standings may be placed within 50 yards of the Stones, that all parties may have access to them.’
While descriptions of these events mention the presence of ‘most of the fashionables of the neighbourhood’, festival days were a social melting pot attended not only by the local well-to-do but also professional gardeners and throngs of ordinary enthusiasts including tradesmen, farmers, and family groups.
Beyond the entertainments and sideshows that drew many in the crowds, the main purpose of the events was, of course, the competitions that saw nurserymen, gardeners, and green-fingered amateurs submitting their best blooms to various categories in the hope of taking home a silver cup. In Victorian shows, flowers were not typically displayed in vases, as we would expect today, but on boards and in bottles, with numerous dahlia heads presented for scrutiny side-by-side. Competitors could also enter ‘floral devices’ – ambitious sculptures crafted using thousands of vibrant flowers mounted on wires – and John Keynes himself was renowned for such creations, having previously presented an imperial crown emblazoned with the word ‘Victoria’ at the Salisbury Royal Dahlia Show in 1837. His ‘devices’ won first prize at each of the Stonehenge festivals, and while no images of his creations survive, we have descriptions of their subjects. In 1842, Keynes swept to victory with a design surely carefully judged to appeal to the event’s patron, Lady Antrobus: her husband’s familial coat of arms. In 1843, he entered a patriotically themed device called ‘Queen and Constitution’, while 1844 and 1845 saw even more imaginative offerings. One depicted a balloon with a basket beneath it, holding a man and ascending; the other showed a floral car pulled by four swans.
Fast forward to the present day, and the special exhibition held at Stonehenge this year entered into the spirit of these creations, featuring large sculptures created by local flower-arranging groups. Some took their inspiration from the nearby Neolithic monument, with Porton Flower Club’s contribution using rosy orange and pink blossoms to represent the sunrise over a trilithon and a bluestone, and Forest Edge Flower Arranging Society creating a symbolic altar reflecting the importance of the sun and moon to solstice celebrations. Others addressed wider-ranging themes, including Salisbury Cathedral’s strings of red and pink dahlias that referenced Indian wedding garlands, and sunny blooms massed among mossy logs to evoke ideas of nature.
Victorian fashions for particular varieties of dahlia flourished only briefly before being superseded by others, and with no photographs of the Stonehenge festivals, we have few records of what the exhibited examples looked like. Descriptions of some of the flowers do survive, however – among them, a new variety that won great acclaim in 1842, known as the ‘Hero of Stonehenge’. Cultivated by William Whale, the Head Gardener at Elcot Park in Berkshire, this was apparently a dark mulberry dahlia with a head some 125mm in diameter and 16-18 petals deep.
The festivals themselves also faded as tastes changed, and by the 1860s floral devices like those displayed at Stonehenge were being derided as ‘monstrosities’. While these once-popular events were gradually forgotten, though, their lasting impact on Stonehenge itself is undeniable.
Although we know the site had been visited in the 17th–19th centuries, and had been targeted by souvenir-hunters and by individuals (including Christopher Wren, twice) who graffitied their names or initials on the stones, it was not a tourist destination. It had been a useful landmark for local communities; the subject of folk histories linking it to druids and the wizard Merlin; and an object of curiosity for the learned groups that had begun to form a century earlier (such as the Society of Antiquaries of London; see CA 389). Meanwhile, although its solstice alignments had been mooted by William Stukeley in the early 18th century, these were not widely appreciated until the 1860s, when the first significant gatherings to mark the astrological event were held.
It was the flower festivals of the 1840s, Brian Edwards contends, that transformed public perceptions of Stonehenge, attracting the interest of ordinary, previously unengaged people for the first time. The exhibitions, with their accompanying music, contests, and picnics, injected fun into an enigmatic, remote site, and by drawing crowds from all parts of society, they essentially democratised interest in, and interactions with, the ancient stones. By the time railways arrived in the area in 1847, there was already a precedent for visiting the site, and Salisbury’s carriage-drivers were well-prepared to serve the day-trippers who now poured off local trains – contemporary accounts tell of circular scenic tours that took in Stonehenge and the remains of Old Sarum. Although the monument remained in private hands until 1918, it had been set on an unstoppable course to become the world-famous attraction that it is today.
• Louise Crawley is an English Heritage Landscape Advisor and Historian.
• Brian Edwards is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Regional History Centre, UWE Bristol.
• Dr Jennifer Wexler is an English Heritage Properties Historian.