ENCOUNTER WITH KING GEORGE V AT RHS CHELSEA
My father, John Simon, was a landscape gardener. He set up his business in Hampstead, north London, at the age of 21 and exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show five times in the 1930s, culminating in his winning a gold medal in 1939 for his exhibit of a formal town garden. He met my mother, Beryl, when he was commissioned to landscape her father’s garden in 1934. After the War he moved his business to Maidenhead, Berkshire. He died in 1988 aged 78 and among his papers I found an account of his life as a landscape gardener titled ‘When I Look Back’, hand-written on 80 pages of foolscap when he was nearing retirement – his handwriting being something of a challenge to decipher. This includes an amusing record of the circumstances of his meeting King George V at his first Chelsea exhibit in 1932, which I have reproduced in an edited version here.
In 1932 my father had recently set up as a landscape gardener on his own account. He had no capital and, although then unknown in gardening circles, decided to aim high and boldly applied to the Royal Horticultural Society to exhibit sink gardens at the 1932 Chelsea Flower Show, which he considered to be a cheap way to get his name before the public. He was called to attend the RHS committee rooms to be interviewed by Colonel Durham, RHS Secretary. My father was told that there was no space for further sink gardens, but was offered a site on the rock garden bank. He inspected the site and decided to accept the offer. Being unable to fund the exhibit, he negotiated with a stone supplier to take 15 tons of Purbeck stone on a sale or return basis. With so much stone to get in place and only one labourer at his disposal, my father was fortunate to receive generous assistance from his old Kingston employer, who was also exhibiting, enabling him to complete his exhibit on time.
John Simon’s Chelsea exhibit, May 1932
At 21 my father was the youngest exhibitor at the Chelsea Show that year. He later recalled an unexpected encounter on the opening day:
“In those days the rules on opening to Royalty were pretty rigid: 11 o’clock in the morning, everyone out. We exhibitors withdrew to the refreshment tent provided for us and awaited the judging; at about 1 o’clock we were allowed back to our own sites. It was a bit like seeing what Santa Claus had put in our stocking – whether we had an award or not. To my utter delight I had one: my first ever effort and a Bronze Banksian medal. I felt then like the King of England. Little did I realise that it would be but a few minutes before I met him. Protocol had it that the owner of any [exhibiting] company could be on his site for the Royal visit providing he was clad in morning dress. This gear I hired from Moss Bros, top hat and all; I think I looked rather fine.
I had assembled quite a vast rock water garden with cascading waterfalls and stepped down pools. To those I added six rather fine goldfish. The residual water from my out-spill fell into a drain at the edge of the public path and gurgled away back to the adjacent Thames. Dressed in all my regalia, awaiting honoured guests, I was suddenly put into a quandary because I only had three goldfish. Where asked I had the other three gone? With a sickening sense of the inevitable, I realised they were down the drain. The cast iron grating carrying away the water wouldn’t budge. I dashed to my hidey hole behind the exhibit, grabbed a chisel and club hammer, hurled my top hat and jacket on the turf, rolled up my pristine white shirt sleeves and got to work. This was rewarding. I managed to prise up the ironworks and delving down into squishy black mud, retrieved the first healthy fish. I then really had to work for the remaining two. …..
At that moment I heard a very kind voice saying to me “Are you having trouble young man?” Without looking up I replied, yes, I was in trouble but now it seemed over: I had rescued my goldfish. I stood up covered in mud to see no one more or less than the King of England. …. He asked me what might happen to the hapless creatures without my rescue and I could only say that I thought they would be sucked back into the tideway and would die of pollution. …. He also congratulated me upon choosing Purbeck stone and the way I had assembled the exhibit. …. By then the Queen was way ahead and my new found friend had to miss about the next eight exhibits further down to catch up.
Little did I know that there were members of the press within earshot of everything the King and myself said. It became pretty apparent however when my mother bought the Evening News as usual only to read of her son’s encounter with King George V and all we said to one another.”
John related that the following year at his Chelsea exhibit, the King remembered him and enquired after his fish.
Treasurer, Berkshire Gardens Trust