Has the rose had its day?

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Charles Quest-rit­son Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

IT was only a short item in the news­pa­per—the sort you usu­ally ig­nore as you turn the page. ‘Rose Society to close,’ it said. ‘The Royal Na­tional Rose Society [RNRS] has called in the ad­min­is­tra­tors.’ It came as a shock, but was not en­tirely sur­pris­ing. I knew that the society had strug­gled for many years; bad man­age­ment, bad fi­nan­cial con­trol and bad strate­gic plan­ning had brought it to its knees at last.

The RNRS had a dis­tin­guished his­tory. It was founded by Canon Reynolds Hole in 1876, mainly to run shows in which gar­den own­ers and their gar­den­ers could com­pete for prizes. It started as the Na­tional Rose Society of Great Bri­tain and was granted the ac­co­lade ‘Royal’ in 1965. Queen Alexan­dra and Queen El­iz­a­beth the Queen Mother were among its royal pa­trons.

The rose helped us through the dark post­war years of the 1950s and 1960s. Those cheerful Flori­bun­das and Hy­brid Teas in a mul­ti­tude of colours were the joy of ev­ery gar­dener in Bri­tain. The society’s gar­dens at St Al­bans were al­ways a thrill to visit, beau­ti­fully main­tained and full of well-grown roses. In its hey­day 50 years ago, the RNRS’S mem­ber­ship—more than 120,000 —ex­ceeded that of the RHS.

I joined its gov­ern­ing coun­cil in 1990. We had about 20,000 mem­bers at that time, but it was an age­ing mem­ber­ship that was not be­ing re­placed by younger en­thu­si­asts. Many spe­cial­ist plant so­ci­eties have lost mem­bers in re­cent years, but all re­act by in­creas­ing the ben­e­fits of mem­ber­ship and liv­ing within their means. Most of my fel­low coun­cil­lors were pas­sion­ately de­voted to roses and con­vinced that their beauty alone was enough to re­gen­er­ate the society and beget a mul­ti­tude of new mem­bers.

Year by year, the num­bers de­clined. I re­signed in 1999 when I re­alised that coun­cil mem­bers had been ex­cluded from es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion that they needed to make de­ci­sions. The mem­ber­ship had, by then, fallen well be­low 8,000 and the society had em­barked on a dis­as­trous plan to ex­pand its gar­dens at St Al­bans, just when it should have been trim­ming its com­mit­ments.

The idea was to cel­e­brate the late Diana, Princess of Wales, with a gar­den that would be fi­nanced by the sale of com­mem­o­ra­tive roses and backed by an enor­mous fundrais­ing ap­peal in North Amer­ica. Un­for­tu­nately, the per­son to whom the society en­trusted its fundrais­ing not only came up with un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions, but turned out to have a his­tory of un­filled busi­ness deal­ings.

The society did not do due dili­gence, bor­rowed money to fi­nance the pro­posed ex­pan­sion and was caught so heav­ily in debt that it had to sell its hand­some head­quar­ters, now oc­cu­pied by the Royal En­to­mo­log­i­cal Society.

There­after, the story was one of in­creas­ing mis­ery: an ever-de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship and an on­go­ing fail­ure to ad­just to changed cir­cum­stances. There were too many pension hol­i­days. Le­ga­cies were treated as in­come rather than cap­i­tal, but the over­draft grew big­ger. The society’s lead­ers were not equipped to re­verse the trend, al­though Peter Beales held the pres­i­dency for a few years—a good choice, be­cause he was no stranger to fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

A new gar­den was made (and very good it was, too), but it was open to the pub­lic for only a few weeks of the year and poorly pro­moted. The society’s web­site was al­ways fee­ble and of­ten out of date. Vis­i­tors com­mented on the lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties to have lunch, buy roses or shop.

What of the fu­ture? It is pos­si­ble, of course, that the ad­min­is­tra­tors will find a way of re­viv­ing the society in a new, slim­mer form that will give good value to its mem­bers, sup­port the spe­cial­ist breed­ers and nurs­ery­men and pro­mote the rose as a na­tional sym­bol. But what it comes down to is this: we need a Bri­tish Rose Society. Some­one must start work on a new one im­me­di­ately. The ini­tia­tive could come from a spe­cial­ist en­tity such as the His­toric Roses Group or a pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tion such as the Bri­tish Association of Rose Breed­ers, but most of us look to the RHS, with its brim­ming cof­fers and 400,000 mem­bers, to get it go­ing.

The RHS should con­vene all in­ter­ested par­ties to launch a new Bri­tish Rose Society at a meet­ing to co­in­cide with its Au­tumn Gar­den Show. Let’s see if it comes up to the mark.

Mean­while, it’s been a bumper year for roses in Bri­tish gar­dens. Never have I seen such large and shapely flow­ers. How­ever, I dare not think their beauty enough to re­launch the RNRS.

Way out: mem­bers found it dif­fi­cult to visit the RNRS gar­den

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