There are two different types of flower show — the specialist and the general. The specialist shows date back a long time — no-one is quite sure how long — but the general shows really started in the 19th century.
The flower shows in the 18th century are usually called 'florists' feasts'. This is because they were held at public houses, and to make it financially worthwhile for the landlord, competitors and visitors would stay for a meal. In fact, in Tetsworth (Oxfordshire) in 1755, the advertisement for the carnation show said that anyone wishing to see the plants without partaking of dinner would have to pay one shilling towards the cost of the following year's event.
These florists' feasts were for carnations, pinks, tulips, ranunculus, hyacinths, auriculas and polyanthus. These were all known as 'florists' flowers' and different parts of the country were famous for specific plants. Glasgow was known for pinks, Manchester for auriculas, although anyone who was keen probably grew several different plants — after all, the shows would be at different times of the year depending when the flowers were in bloom. These plants were chosen because they produced variable seed, so clever cross-pollination gave rise to lots of new varieties that were in great demand and expensive. They were given names by their raisers and were generally known as (for example) Gorton's Champion — this was helpful if two people called their new plant the same name.
The overall prizes at florists' feasts were usually, but not always, a piece of silver — like a silver teapot, but there were sometimes what seem now to be very strange prizes. In 1768 in Ipswich the first prize at the tulip show was a hat valued at 25 shillings.
After a few years, the role of nurserymen at these general shows changed. At first they entered the competition on the same grounds as everyone else, but soon they had their own classes and sometimes they showed plants without entering the competition.
At least one William Caldwell was a florist and won prizes at an Auricula show held in May 1824 and a Carnation Show in August the same year. These shows were held at The Volunteer pub in Knutsford, where Mr. Roberts was the landlord. At the 1825 Auricula show, William Caldwell won the overall prize (a kettle) and also 10 other prizes (out of a total of 24). These included 'Caldwell's Knutsford Lass' and three of his new seedlings.
We have found several references in newspaper reports to Caldwell's at flower shows between 1875 and 1938. Sometimes the business was there as a competitor, other times as an exhibitor and sometimes just providing a display of plants which would hopefully encourage new customers to the nursery.
Often the displays were not for competition, but still warranted a medal. Caldwell's were successful several times at the Botanic Gardens in Manchester. They won a silver medal for herbaceous Alpine plants (Chrysanthemum Show,1901); a Certificate of Merit for a miscellaneous collection of flowers (Rose Show, 1903); a silver medal for miscellaneous plants (Rose Show, 1905); and an award of merit for their trade exhibition (Chrysanthemum Show, 1905).
Although the Botanic Gardens closed down in 1907, there were other places for Caldwell's to exhibit. They won a silver medal for their trade display in 1913 at the South Manchester and District Horticultural Society show; two gold medals at Alderley Edge (once in 1924 and again in 1935) and in 1938 the Bramhall, Cheadle Hulme and Woodford Agricultural and Horticultural Society awarded Caldwell's a gold medal for their herbaceous collection.
Once it was Caldwell's providing the prizes. In 1897 at the Styal Floral and Horticultural Show, they offered special prizes for sweet peas, which were won by J. Rowlinson and A. Cooper of Styal.
Sometimes Caldwell's simply provided the plants as a display. At the Worsley Agricultural and Horticultural Show in 1876 they had a 'splendid display of stove and greenhouse plants' in the main tent, and at the Manchester Botanical Society in 1878 they exhibited 'some fine stove and greenhouse plants'. Nine years later, at the International Horticultural Exhibition in Manchester (1887) Caldwell's display of evergreen trees and shrubs was ranged along the right hand side of the broad walk leading past the pavilion. In 1896 they provided a display of cut flowers, including 45 varieties of sweet peas, and a collection of roses at the show in Bowdon and in 1903 they had a 'variety of choice roses, hardy herbaceous blooms, &c.' at the Marple and District Horticultural Society. In 1910 the nursery sent groups of flowers and plants, not for competition, to the flower show at Mobberley.
You can hear more about Caldwell's and flower shows in the oral histories — memories.