One dark February night I gave a talk to the ladies of the W.I. in Highley, a few miles down the road from my own village. One of the slides shown was of the Fancy Pansy ‘George Carter’, and I was able to inform my audience that this variety had been raised in Highley some time in the 1950's by Mr. H.I. Milner. While taking refreshments, one of the ladies informed me that Mr. Milner's son was still resident in Highley. My mind focused at once on the thought that H. I. Milner's records might still be intact, thus on returning home I penned a letter to Mr. Malcolm Milner.
The name Milner will always be an indelible part of the history of our Society. A founder member, H.I. (Harry) Milner was a raiser and exhibitor of great repute. Even a brief glance at our early records shows the extent of his influence on the growing and showing of violas and pansies. This was a time when the florist blooms were at the height of popularity, Birmingham Botanical Gardens hosted the shows and a "first class concert" was held in the evening. Harry Milner's reputation for outstanding displays grew each year and testimony to this is the large number of trophies and medals he was awarded. Records also show that he raised and introduced some fine varieties of viola and pansy, sadly all extinct save for ‘George Carter’. From the Uplands allotments of Handsworth Wood came the likes of ‘Oxhill Harlequin’ a sport of the family viola ‘Mrs. M.B. Wallace’, ‘Milner's Fancy’, ‘Malcolm Milner’ and many more. As we still have ‘Mrs. M B Wallace’ in cultivation, who knows if it might "sport" again?
Harry Milner was still exhibiting, albeit on a reduced scale, at Southport in the 1950's when it was still the premier venue for violas and pansies. Our Chairman, Mr. Tom Mantle, was also showing at this time. Our Novice Trophy bears the Milner name, thus ensuring it will always be part of the Society.
Imagine then my delight to be contacted by Mr. Malcolm Milner and receive an invitation to visit. The first thing to strike me on entering was the cups and trophies that had been won outright. These included the very first Challenge Trophy from 1914 and the Challenge Bowl from 1923. Mr. Milner was quick to say that he had searched the house top to bottom but could only find a small bundle of photographs and literature. What treasure there was. The photographs showed examples of the many large-scale displays as well as some most interesting views of the growing beds, one at least pre-dating the Great War. Catalogues for "Milner's Exhibition Violas and Pansies" from 1930-34 shed some more light on varieties being grown at that time, and who raised them. A box full of medals showed the full extent of what had been achieved over four decades. A trip to the top storey revealed the 'staging chest', a large purpose built trunk that was designed to carry everything, including the blooms to the show; I am told that rail was the favoured method of travel. I had wondered just how the large displays were constructed, the contents of the box revealed all. Glass tubes of all sizes, metal arches with rings to hold tubes, adjustable stands, all precision made for the job; even the screws were hand made. Mr. Milner told me that his father was a perfectionist who always tried to improve his staging each year, thus the collection grew. So it had stayed for many years, packed away and nearly forgotten. My letter made Mr. Milner aware that the Society survived. Like many he thought it extinct, but was pleased to know that in fact it was in growth and thriving once more.
Thus I departed late in the evening with my Land Rover full. The photographs, literature and staging equipment were all generously given, in addition to six silver medals. I shall try to reproduce some of the photographs in future newsletters; the silver medals will be used one each year for the best exhibit in the Annual Show. Staging equipment I shall clean and repair as necessary, my ultimate aim being to try and recreate, even if on a smaller scale, some of the large displays of the past. Our sincerest thanks must go to Mr. Malcolm Milner for his generosity. A few more gaps in the Society's history have been filled by a gentleman who has never grown or shown. He had two particular memories, one of his nimble child's fingers taking out side shoots on the growing beds and of innocent sleep underneath the staging at some large show. His parting words were "If I find anything else, I'll be in touch".
Since writing this piece I have cleaned and assembled the display stands. The majority of the fittings are brass and all go together with ease and precision. I shall attempt to grow enough quality blooms to do them justice.
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