As happens with most traditions that have small beginnings, the infancy of the Windmill Hill Show went almost un-noticed by the Press, and no records have come down to us. It is generally believed the early Shows were held at The Horse Shoe Inn. Fortunately a press report of 1889 stated the show was in its 6th year, so we can date its establishment with reasonable confidence to 1884. The Shadwell family related that the first show arose from friendly rivalry between the landlord Charles Simmons and his son-in-law Henry Shadwell, but the story did not appear in print until nearly a century later, in 1978.
There was a brief mention in the press of the Sports in 1886, but the earliest report about the Flower Show was in April 1888. In that year the Flower Show and Sports were first held together, at Windmill Hill Place, with the squire, Herbert Curteis, taking a leading role, and the Show began its rapid growth into one of the most prominent flower shows in the neighbourhood.
People came from far and wide to see the exhibits and watch the sports. The local shops closed for the day. Any family who could pay the admission fee was welcome, and it was the norm to dress up for the occasion. There were sideshows and a band, and the evening would end with dancing. The sports became a big event in itself, run under Amateur Athletics Association rules, and attracting competitors down from London for the day. Women competed in the horticultural classes from the start. In 1898 a women’s bicycle race was first introduced, and in the following year there were running races for women and girls.
Without the conscientious and hard-working Herbert Curteis, it is unlikely Windmill Hill Flower Show would have become a regular fixture, or survived into the 20th century. He provided the venue, coordinated the efforts of his committee, and wrote countless letters. A lot of physical effort was also required to set up the show, with heavy marquees to be transported and erected. The tenant farmers and tradesmen participated in the large committee, and no doubt expected their men to provide the labour. The committee called itself by various titles over the years, such as ‘Wartling, Herstmonceux and Bodle Street Flower Show and Sports Committee’. Not surprisingly, everyone else called it simply Windmill Hill Flower Show. It was only in 1965, when it affiliated with the Royal Horticultural Society, that the current name, Windmill Hill Horticultural Society, was adopted.
With so much outlay required, money was always a concern. The Show depended on the generosity of subscribers, who were recruited by a team of men appointed for the purpose. The local gentry were expected to pay for the prizes. Nevertheless bad weather could result in a big loss, and there were years when a deficit had to be carried forward to the following year. The programme of events throughout the year was a modern development, introduced to provide additional funds to support the Show. Nowadays it is the other way round; with no large outlay on marquees, the Show usually pays its way, and supports the rest of the annual programme.
‘What area does the Show cover?’ is a question people often ask. The rules have varied over the years, as the committee sought to balance the number of entries with the space available. It went without saying that the Show covered the parishes of Herstmonceux, Wartling and Bodle Street, where the Curteis family owned land. In early years the area was defined as Hailsham Union, meaning the parishes of Arlington, Chiddingly, Hailsham, Heathfield, Hellingly, Herstmonceux, Hooe, Laughton, Ninfield, Upper Dicker Common, and Wartling. For most of its history the Show has been open to anyone, and this remains the case today.
After a break during WW1, and the death of Herbert Curteis, the Committee re-formed, with the Simmons family, landlords of the Horse Shoe Inn, continuing their important role as Treasurer and Show Secretary. The Show resumed on a similar scale as before, with a wider range of side-shows and attractions, such as a Horse Parade and a Tug of War Competition. The venue was now the 5 Acre Field. A notable change after the War was the establishment of a Ladies Committee. Initially the role of the ladies was organising the sports, but gradually women began participating fully in running the Show.
A century on from WW1, the Show continues on a firm footing, but on a smaller scale, at the Reid Hall at Boreham Street, in the parish of Wartling. As well as Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables and Home Produce, there are classes for Flower Arrangements, Handicrafts and Photographs. Sadly there is no longer a brass band, or dancing.
Helen Goodship 2017