One hundred and Thirteen Years old.-1903 - 2016
By Joseph Borg
A short announcement in the newspaper, The Daily Chronicle of February 17th, 1903, invited all interested persons to attend an inaugural meeting of the Malta Horticultural Society which was going to be held at the Palace in Valletta on Friday February 20th at 5.30 pm. The meeting was to be held under the presidency of H.E. general Lord Grenfell of Kilvey G.C.B., GCMG. The birth of the society was about to happen in none other place than in the most prestigious building in Malta ? The Palace.
Fifty nine years earlier, in 1844,on the 12th April, the ?Societa Medica d?incoraggiamento? appointed a secretary to call an inaugural meeting for a proposed Societa Agrarja and to appoint its first committee as earlier decided on the 1st March of the same year by a group of doctors. The situation in the important agricultural sector, was getting worse as the market for cotton was diminishing drastically.
Forty years on, the cotton had practically ceased to be grown commercially. Cummin, on the other hand though loosing also on its importance, was still being grown commercially .
But interest and opportunities lay in the growing of early potatoes, beans and onions in addition to citrus fruit, figs and melons for exporting to England .
The trend for exporting to England, apart from the economic benefits accrued, exposed our farmers and growers to grow cultivars of vegetables which the English market demanded. On the other hand the effects of a maritime power as England was at the time, could be seen in the continuous increase in popularity of decorative trees, shrubs perennials, and even annuals. Most were brought to Malta by keen British garden enthusiasts, botanists serving with the services or with the civil government. The interest shown by successive British Civil Commissioners and Governors in the agricultural and horticultural sectors is well documented.
Against this scenario, the older Societa Agrarja was concentrating more on livestock, cereal and seed production, fruit, vegetables, poultry and forage crops growing under trials in the society?s experimental fields. One must bear in mind that the department of Agriculture was not yet set up. By the turn of the 20th century, the interest in horticulture and floriculture increased. It was the right time for the Horticulture society to come into existence.
The 20th February 1903 inaugural meeting was attended by a group of influential people of the island. Presided by H.E. Lord Grenfell, the meeting was a success and the provisional committee was confirmed. The first committee was then composed as follows:-H.E. Lord Grenfell was elected as President, the Hon N. Tagliaferro FRHS., as vice president, Contino Alfred Caruana Gatto LLD. ? a noted criminal lawyer and botanist] as secretary, Fred Rapinett as asst, secretary, Lt. Col. Francia as treasurer, and the following as committee members:-
Dr. John Borg MA.,MD.[an eminent botanist and medical doctor],Profs. F. Debono MD, Rear Admiral Gugh Hallet, Col. McKean CMG, Alex Montanaro.Lt. Col. Witaker, Lorenzo Falzon, Magistrate Profs. GB Mifsud LLD, Capt. G. Mompalao dePiro, and Capt. EN Price. RN. ? a naval officer and keen gardener whose private gardens in Pieta, today form part of the grounds of St. Lukes hospital. Only the stone gazebo of Capt. Price?s garden, situated close to the helipad, still stands to-day.
During the first meeting it was stated that the first three horticultural shows previously organized by the civil administration at Valletta were very well received. This led the governor to push for the constitution of a body or a society to keep on the momentum gained so far.
Two sub-committees were formed , namely ;
The Floreal and Arboreal sub committee composed of Albert Cassar, Profs R Debono, Cyril Lescg, Vol. McKean CMG, Magistrate Profs GB Mifsud LLD., G. Mompalao dePiro and Capt Price RN.
The Fruit and Vegetable sub-committee composed of Dr. John Borg,MA, MD, W. Briffa, Rev. S.J. Dobson, Lorenzo Falzon, Rear Admiral Hugh Hallet, A Montanaro, and General C.R.A. O?Callaghan.
Lord Grenfell, who was soon to be relived of his post as Civil Commissioner by Sir Henry C. Mansfield Clarke, made a proposal to the Council of Government that a subsidy be given to the society. This proposal was accepted and kept to this day by all successive governments. On the 12th March, barely three weeks after the institution of the society, a notice was published to announce that the Society?s first Spring Show was going to be held towards the end of April. The Malta Horticultural Society was affiliated with the Royal Horticultural Society of England Meanwhile, just a week later, Lord Grenfell left Malta on the 19th Marc 1903.
The first show was in fact held on the 2nd and 3rd May 1903 at the Gymnasium (4) [ Further research may reveal that the gymnasium was probably the Vernon Institute, alias the present day Central Bank of Malta building]. There were competitions in 6 classes, namely cut flowers, cut flowers arranged, plants in pots, ornamental plants, vegetables and one for novices. [These were first and second time exhibitors, as there were exhibitors who took part in the previous shows organized by the Civil administration as well as by the Societa? Agrarja .Prizes were distributed by Lady Mansfield Clarke.
The Stress made by the new society on flowers and decorative plants cannot go unnoticed. After all, members of the committee were well aware of and encouraged to keep in contact with the English Royal Horticultural Society [RHS] and with other societies such as the Sweet Pea Society and later the National Rose Society. The fact that the society?s first vice president, a Maltese, The Hon. N., Tagliaferro was a fellow of the RHS shows that there was considerable interest in horticulture amongst influential people.
The second Spring show was held on the 7th and 8th May 1904 (6) and from then onwards the society kept organizing the show even in the war years of 1914 /1918. It organized specialized shows during the year, as well as various seminars. It published pamphlets, leaflets and books on a variety of horticultural, arboricultural and floricultural subjects authored in the main, by members of its committee, Amongst these, there were, Dr. John Borg MD, John Briffa MBE, Capt Price,RN, Carm Zammit Marmara MBE, and Salvino Zammit FRSH.(6).
These publications were based on the lectures given to members of the society in the best private gardens and villas of the early 20th century. Amongst these we find Villa Debono in Lija, Villa Grech Mifsud in Mosta, Villa Frere at Pieta, Villa Fiorentina in Attard, Villa Chelsea at B?Kara and the gardens of San Anton.
During later years the show was organized at the Industrial Hall, which was situated in a pre World War 11 building where to day there is the square directly opposite St. John?s Cathedral. Sometimes it was held also in the public section of the Argotti Botanic Garden in Floriana.
Later on, during 1921, the society acquired the permission to hold its Spring show at San Anton Gardens in lieu of at Valletta. One must bear in mind that San Anton Gardens were opened to the public as we know them to-day, only in 1882 during the governorship of Sir Arthur Borton (4] .
From that year onwards the show continued being presented at San Anton Gardens.The 1937 show program shows the importance of the event because it carried an announcement saying that on Saturday 8th May H.E. Bonham Carter would be planting an evergreen oak tree at San Anton Gardens to commemorate the coronation of H.M. King George VI. By that year the classes of competitions totaled to 93.(7)
Although the Spring show continued to be held during the war years, the most impressive one was the Victory Show held on the 11th and 12th May, strongly supported by exhibitors and the public. (8). Over the years the society expanded its list of competitions to the present total of 209 classes, apart from a large number of classes pertaining to participating clubs and organizations. The society also saw the birth of various clubs specializing in flower arranging, and specific pot plants. Their presence in the society?s show enriches it and shows the importance of the decorative horticulture trade.
Throughout its 108 years? history, the society has been nurtured and helped in various ways, including financially, by the government of the day including the present one .
Profs. G. Micallef, Socjeta Agrarja ,1994 Mnarja Programme.
Malta Blue Book, 1838. National Archives, Santo Spirito.
Frederick W Ryan, Vittorio Baron ,. Malta. Adam & Charles Black, London 1910.
Joseph Borg, The Public Gardens and Groves of Malta and Gozo 2005 Colour Image.
The Daily Malta Chronicle, 1903.
The Daily Malta Chronicle, 1904.
The Malta Horticultural Society archives.
The Daily Malta Chronicle, 1946.