By Carol Buckley.
Perhaps the Chelsea Flower Show’s existence owes more to one person than any other: Sir Harry James Veitch. Born in 1840, Veitch was the great grandson of a Scotsman who immigrated to England and ended up managing the gardens at Killerton House in Devon, and who, with land given to him by the baronet, later started what became a nursery dynasty.
In 1863, Harry’s uncle and father, James, decided to split operations, with James opening James Veitch & Sons in Chelsea, London. This was the Victorian heyday of gardening and botanical exploration, and the Veitch nurseries dispatched plant hunters, including Frederick William Burbidge, Richard Pierce, and Charles Curtis, to the ends of the earth “discovering” new cultivars. In an innovation for nurserymen, these specimens were protected in greenhouses that lined Kings Road and Brompton Road in Chelsea.
Harry Veitch, who took the reins of the business after the death of his father and older brother, ran a tight ship. He managed additional sites and, by the time he was 40 years old, employed 400 workers. The heads of the various departments of this famous nursery were highly respected, and many future gardeners of large estates were educated at Veitch’s.
Harry was a trained horticulturalist and was known in particular for the hybridization of orchids. He began working for his father at age 14 and continued his education in Germany and France and at University College, London. He received many awards in his lifetime, including the Order of Légion d’Honneur. He was the first nurseryman to be knighted - by George V for his work with the Chelsea Flower Show. He was also Chairman of the Orchid and Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Gardener’s Royal Benevolent Institution for many years.
Harry participated, along with Sir Joseph Hooker, in the first international exhibition ever held in Russia, in St. Petersburg, in 1869. He had been involved with the Great Horticultural Society Exhibition in London in 1866, and when he revisited the idea, in 1912, he was the only surviving member of the orchestrators. The 1912 show was housed in the Royal Chelsea Hospital. In 1913, he was tasked with moving the Royal Horticultural Society flower show from South Kensington to the hospital.
Known for his energy and commitment, Harry retook the helm of the firm, at age 70, after the death of one nephew; he closed the Veitch Chelsea nursery in 1914 after the death of his other nephew. Harry died a few years after his wife, Louise Mary, in 1924, leaving no heirs, except the plants he cultivated.
Popular with royalty from its inception, the Chelsea Flower Show held its centennial in 2013 and is still going strong. It is scheduled again for May 2017.