Calke Abbey
Calke Abbey - Auricula Theatre
History of the Society

Tradition has it that the auricula was introduced into England by Flemish weavers fleeing religious persecution on the Continent. A more likely explanation is that the plants arrived by interchange between leading Continental and English gardeners, as happened with many other plants.

Around the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century a large number of what were called Florists' Societies were formed. A Florist was defined as a gardener who grew a limited range of flowers to a strictly defined set of rules or standards. The modern use of the word more commonly refers to a retail shop selling cut flowers. Amongst these Florist Flowers were the auricula, anemone, carnation, laced pink, ranunculus, double hollyhock and the old English or broken tulip, which has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Of these flowers it is true to say that the auricula alone is in a stronger position today than at any time in its history. On a few occasions in recent years the three National Auricula and Primula Society sections have staged shows that exceeded 1000 plants. Although calling themselves sections the three groups are actually independent societies linked by a common purpose.

The old florists' societies were concentrated in the North and Midlands with a smaller number in East Anglia and the London area. Shows were also held in the West Country in small towns like Taunton.

In the first part of the nineteenth century there are numerous references in local newspapers to auricula shows. They were usually held in the club room of an inn being advertised by a copper kettle hung outside. The kettle was the main prize and was a much appreciated addition to the modest household equipment of those days.

Judging was done by passing plants from hand to hand round the table with the decision reached by consensus. There also existed a good deal of personal animosity and gamesmanship, happily almost entirely absent today. The proceedings ended with a meal or feast together with, one suspects, much consumption of ale.

In the 1860's and 1870's, with the spread of railways and improved living standards of the skilled artisans in the North, an attempt was made to form a National Auricula Society. National shows were held between 1862-65, initially at Regents Park, London. After some criticism of the organizers these ceased in 1865. However in 1873 the Royal Botanical and Horticultural Society of Manchester invited a group of Northern enthusiasts to hold a show at the Town Hall. This was the beginning of the Northern Section. Soon after, in 1876, a group of Southern enthusiasts formed the Southern Section and held a show at the Crystal Palace.

The Midlanders lagged behind their fellows, but in 1900 a Midland Section was formed, with the first show held at the Botanical Gardens on April 25. This was in association with the Daffodil Society.

Why do three separate societies exist, all calling themselves sections of The National Auricula & Primula Society? No one knows how or why this situation came about but occasional attempts to merge have proved unsuccessful.

The '& Primula Society' part of the title reflects the growing interest in primulas. This began at the turn of the century when dozens of new species were introduced, mainly from the Himalayas and Western China.

In 1986 a group of enthusiasts organized a show at Saltford, between Bristol and Bath. Shortly after they joined the Midland Section to form the Midland & West Section. The 1986 show revived a tradition that had been dormant in the West Country for 100 years. At about this time a group was also formed in the North East as part of the Northern Section. Currently the three societies hold nine major annual shows, four of which are mainly for primulas.

More people grow auriculas today than ever before with other members of the primula family even more widely grown. Interest in auriculas has increased dramatically in recent years and a number of commercial concerns sell an ever increasing range of named varieties. However for much of the plant's history the auricula has been maintained and is now flourishing due to the efforts of dedicated amateur growers. The vast majority of the best varieties have been raised and grown by amateur members of the three societies.

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