The History of the Horti: Chapter 6

In the previous chapter the question was asked, would the new momentum following the appointment of new Chairman Tom Chapman in 1976 be continued into the new decade?

The Energetic Eighties

Not a great start

This was the time of the new Thatcher government which went through tough times in the early part of the decade, then recovered to achieve more economic success as time went on.

To some extent the history of the Horti in the 1980s mirrored the Thatcher years though it seems unlikely that there was a direct connection. The Committee discussions began to express concern in 1980 when, after a record growth of entries to show competitions in 1979, there was a significant decline in the following year, combined with a reduction in membership numbers.

This was followed in 1981 by a report that the Village Show made a loss which led to discussions about the potential for cost reductions and even combining with Wilstone Show in future years. There were also concerns about the decline in the number of committee members and show helpers. The wording of the minutes stated that entries and membership had ‘dwindled alarmingly’ which shows the extent of the concern. There was even a comment that something had to be done if the forthcoming 50 year anniversary was to be reached.

The Committee decided that a campaign for increased awareness and recruitment of new personnel was required. A special letter was prepared from Chairman Tom Chapman and Secretary Alan Taylor, to be followed by a door to door campaign in which every home would be visited by a Committee member.

New Faces, New Momentum

It may not have been a direct result of this campaign but in the next two years some significant new appointments were made to the Committee. Derek Mills joined and soon after became Vice Chairman while his wife Sue was appointed Secretary. Other appointments that were to provide benefit in future years were Ted Michel who brought welcome design skills to the table and Stephen Darville, who was to be a future Chairman.

These appointments seemed to coincide with an atmosphere of greater optimism and more new innovations. A hot air balloon was introduced as a feature of the Show for the first time in 1984 and new sideshows were suggested including ‘crockery smashing’ and welly wanging’ with a joint of meat as a prize for the latter. It was also decided to expand the scope of the Tug of War by introducing ladies’ teams in fancy dress with a rose for each member of the winning team.

The concerns about the profitability of the Show were soon forgotten as the shows of 1982 and 1983 made good profits and the bank balance rose to £1600. Interest rates were very different in those days and Alan Taylor as Treasurer was able to put £900 of this balance in a deposit account earning 11%!

Committee changes

It was a significant blow to the Committee when in 1986 Derek and Sue Mills, Vice Chairman and Secretary respectively, had to resign when they moved to live outside the village. It was a measure of the respect that the Committee had for their contribution that they were invited to continue as Vice Presidents, boosting the numbers of that ever declining group.

It seems from analysis of the meeting minutes that, at that time, Mills was one of a trio of Committee members who were driving things forward while Tom Chapman began to take more of a back seat, perhaps the right approach for a Chairman with an enthusiastic team around him. The other two members of that trio were Ted Michel as mentioned above and Mike Atkins who had joined the Committee in1985. Mike, then running Atkins Bakery, had already been supporting the Show in a number of ways,- supplying food products and organizing the Hot Air Balloon – and his appointment to the Committee in 1985 was a valuable addition.

There must have been a danger that the momentum would be lost after the Mills’ departure but this seems not to have been the case. Over the next few years, the Horti moved forward with a series of successful shows and a number of new innovations.

More than a Show

One feature of the 1980s was an increase in the number of social events, in addition to the show. This had been tried in previous decades but not to the same extent as this one and not with the same level of success. Not every event was successful, for instance a planned visit to Spalding in 1982 had a ‘poor response’ and a charabanc trip to Windsor in 1989 also failed to create enough interest to go ahead.

There were however three events which were started in this decade which have stood the test of time and which are still an important part of Horti activities today. The first was the introduction of community Carol Singing on the 23rd December 1985, around the Christmas tree with mince pies and, before the end of the decade, Santa Claus came along to add to the festive feeling. This event, despite bad weather on a couple of occasions, had become a firm fixture by the end of the 1980s.

1989 brought two more events which have truly stood the test of time. There was the introduction of the first Bonfire Night party, with fireworks and a barbecue. Again all the signs from the Committee minutes are that this launch was successful with positive feedback from village residents. The other launch was even more significant and changed perceptions of the Horti, bringing much fun and enjoyment to both audience and participants.

Pantomime time

The pantomime, first shown on 23-25th February 1989, has become a firm fixture in village life and has given much pleasure to the community in the 24 years that have followed. It was the culmination of the work of the reinvigorated and enlarged Committee that drove the Horti forward in the second half of the decade. The main decision that led to the success of this innovation was to persuade Neil Gurney to lead the production, even though he was, and still is, a resident of Wingrave.

The Committee were very much part of the production. Chairman Stephen Darvill led the way as Widow Twankey while Treasurer Alan Taylor played the part of Emperor with newly joined member Serena Williams as So-lo. Just as important were those working behind the scenes, Alison Morgan as Wardrobe Manager and Maria Moorat helping with make-up. This was a hands-on Committee. The picture below shows the inaugural programme.

A new Chairman

Tom Chapman stepped down as Chairman in 1988 though he continued to hold the honorary position of President. His place was taken by Stephen Darville. Stephen was not to last long as Chairman, resigning early in 1990, but his period of office was important in two significant ways. First it was the time of the launch of the Pantomime and Bonfire Night party as mentioned above; second, it brought much new blood into the committee. In 1987 there were thirteen members, in 1988 fifteen and in 1989 twenty-one.

Stephen Darville sent out a farewell letter which was curiously double edged. The first part was the Chairman’s review of a successful year and he also made some positive comments about the role of the Horti in the community. He stated that his reason for resigning was pressure at work but then went on to complain about the pettiness of ‘gripers in the village who seem determined to decry the efforts of active villagers while contributing nothing themselves’. He also warned the Committee not to allow the formation of factions to affect the Committee’s work.

Celebrity Frustration

It was perhaps understandable that after the search for celebrities to open the show in the 1970s had finally had success with the stars of Crossroads, there would be attempts to find more and better names. As in earlier days however the ambition exceeded the success levels and there were no big stars’ names appearing on any of the 1980s programmes.

There was however no lack of trying and Committee meetings regularly featured name suggestions. ‘Doreen Williams’ was mentioned in the minutes of 1980 meeting and though this was clearly intended to be a repeat of the earlier invitation to Dorian the well-known equestrian commentator, there was no apparent success. The disc jockey Dave Lee Travis who lived nearby was approached several times with similar results.

There was a similar lack of success with approaches to the Dankworth family, Avril also politely declining as her brother John had done in the previous decade. More realistic targets were a presenter on Chiltern Radio and the editor of Gardening News but these did not work out, even after the offer of a £25 fee and expenses. One sarcastic Committee Member suggested in 1988 that Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck should be contacted!

A more realistic approach was adopted in 1985 when Dorothy, the landlady of the Boot pub, did the honours. There was however a triumph in 1988 when a new approach was adopted and this achieved welcome press coverage. There was a children’s race beforehand (see photo below from the Bucks Herald) and the winner opened the show. The Berkhamsted and Tring Gazette also reported the event and adopted a similarly sarcastic theme by suggesting that film star Joan Collins was unable to make it!

The Dodgy Doughnut Challenge

We mentioned in the previous chapter that a newspaper report in 1986 had featured the ‘Doughnut Challenge’ disclosing that a local resident had deposed the reigning champion – who had won every year since 1972 – by consuming more doughnuts in the allowed time of one minute. Further research confirms that this competition was the brainchild of Mike Atkin whose company naturally supplied the required food.

There is however some mystery about where the competitions of the previous fourteen years had taken place; certainly there is no evidence that there had been similar competitions at the Village Show. Further doubt was created by the fact that Michael Cheney of Tring, who was supposed to hold the unlikely record of seventeen doughnuts in one minute, could only consume five on the day compared to the winner’s achievement of seven.

That winner was Andy Mason, later to be founder of well-known local business Masons Coach Hire, whose photo is shown below with the newspaper report. The logical conclusion is that this was a clever piece of public relations by Mike Atkins which, from all reports, was typical of his energy and creativity.

Changing Times

The 1980s saw a number of other changes, mostly trivial but perhaps significant:

  • The Show’s 1936 title of ‘Annual Exhibition’ continued until 1989 when ‘and Village Show’ was at last added to the schedule
  • The separation of Committee members into ‘Mesdames’ and ‘Messieurs’ was finally abandoned in 1984
  • The absence of references in meeting minutes seems to indicate that the bulk purchase of potatoes was abandoned soon after the spelling mistakes of 40 plus years had been corrected in 1978
  • The Vice President count continued to decline with only nine left in 1989, even after the appointment of the Sue and Derek Mills

A Significant Passing

It is perhaps appropriate to end the chapter and part one of this history by recording a significant event which took place at the end of 1989, the death of Gordon Savage, Headmaster of Long Marston School from 1934 to 1944. It was seen in the first chapter that Gordon did so much to found the Horti and drive it forward, particularly during wartime when he had so many other challenges to cope with.

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