Has the rose had its day?
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