Early history of the Jersey Battle of Flowers

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Early history of the Jersey Battle of Flowers



From a Battle of Flowers history by Chris Lake

“Without doubt the Battle of Flowers, or rather the continuity of Jersey's annual gala for 12 years, has helped to make the name and fame of Jersey as a holiday resort over a far wider area than would otherwise have been the case, and it is this fact, combined with the comparatively big amount of publicity that the Committee have during the past few years obtained, which has accounted for a large proportion of the 7,000 visitors who arrived during last week and the 2,000 who have come deciding to spend their holiday here at all”.

Evening Post report

The author of this account, part of a lengthy article in the Evening Post on the second Friday in August 1913, went on to write about the success of the past 12 Battles. before writing optimistically about future Battles to come.

When he wrote that this was a 'landmark in the long line of battles which we trust will follow this one', however, he could not have known that a year or two hence floral warfare would be replaced by real warfare on the Somme; nor could he have known that it would be another 38 years before the Battle would return to the Avenue.

Instead he looked to the success of an event which began as a one-off special: an event planned by a fetes committee whose brief had been to organise an all-Island celebration of the coronation of a new monarch for the first time in over 60 years.

Following the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901, the portly King Edward VII was to be crowned king on Saturday 9 August 1902.

The committee did their work well. The main streets of St Helier that August weekend were decorated with specially constructed arches, garlanded with flowers. Dances and Government House parties were arranged, there was to be a firework display, and on the day of the coronation itself, a floral parade was organised which was described at length in the Jersey Times and British Press two days afterwards, on Monday 11 August 1902.

Part of that report reads as follows: “The sun shone on the dense masses of people on the slopes and adjoining park and on a scene never hitherto witnessed in Jersey. For half an hour the fun was fast and furious; at times the flowers flew in veritable showers, and laughter was continuous.”

Since that sunny August afternoon, only two world wars have seriously threatened this colourful annual event, and, in all more than 250 million flowers have been picked, arranged or thrown for the day of Battle.



Initially, however, it was a novelty, a novelty whose success surprised the fetes committee. and also the reporter for the Jersey Times.

For having written about the large double arch, supported by imitation white and green marble pillars, which was surmounted by the words 'Long Live the King and Queen' he wrote: “The number of carriages taking part in it far exceeded all expectations”.

In other words he was surprised by :he Island's eagerness to become involved, just as he was surprised by the way Islanders entered into the spirit of the occasion and made a real effort to dress up their floats: 'Their floral treatment was surprisingly good considering that the best of the floral season is already past', he wrote.

He went on: 'Without making the invidious inference that others were not worth mention, we may specifically refer to the turnouts of some of the winners, including Orviss and Mr David Devant, who were awarded Bannerettes "for effect" and Mr Bouchre and the White Coons for "animation".

The White Coons were also there, in the Triangle Park, later that evening, for between 6.30 and 8 pm they were at their very best as they entertained the crowd.

They were not the only artistes on stage that evening, and live entertainment has continued to be a feature at the Battle of Flowers during the years, although recently human enterprise has given way to entertainment of a more mechanical kind, which is why jugglers, acrobats and banjo-playing minstrels have given way to funfairs and roundabouts.

The presence of fun fairs is a sign of the times, perhaps but the White Coons (who appeared at the Battle several years running) and Miss Allandale and Miss Ada Watson, who introduced the duet Ping Pong, must have made wonderful viewing.

Finally, before we roll back the years, to 1902 and then forward, to the present generation, it is worth considering that if the second Saturday in August 1902 had been blighted by rain, and if the very first Battle of Flowers had been an appalling disaster, this book would never have been written and 200 million flowers would. have remained unpicked.

War looms

'The Battle of Flowers Committee have decided to suspend this year's Battle until a more convenient time.'

When the Battle of Flowers Committee produced this brief, sad statement in June 1914, the world was preparing for war.

Ironically, the Battle of Flowers programme had already been printed, that irony emerging after a brief glance at its cover. For the Battle — which never took place — was scheduled for 13 August, an inauspicious date for the superstitious, and another eight years were to pass before the Island was to see anything approaching the colour and carnival spirit of pre-1914 days.

By 1913 (not one of the best Battle years, partly because of the problem of funding), Jersey's Battle of Flowers day, normally held during the first week in August, was attracting crowds of between 20,000 and 30,000 — the one exception being Thursday 15 August 1912, when it rained.

Even then the local press declared jersey's Annual Gala ‘A Success Despite The Elements’ and proclaimed that the exhibits were the best they had been for the last five years.

Perhaps, but high winds and piercing rain prevented the organisers from illuminating a four-mile stretch from Horseshoe Quarry along the Avenue with 12,000 lampions and 6,000 lanterns (linked to a special generator, specially adapted to outdoor fetes, courtesy of Messrs Harper and Clements), and the strong south-westerly winds meant that many of the rockets fired during the grand firework finale disappeared over Westmount, much to everyone's disgust.

However, the standard of entry was excellent, and the number of travelling floral displays was staggering.


Large committees

Within a decade the Battle of Flowers had come so far. The president of the Municipal Fetes Committee (who supervised the Battle and other entertainments) was the Constable of St Helier. In 1902 it had been Philippe Baudains, but by 1912 it was J E Pinel who supervised a vast array of people with special responsibility.

Fifty-seven people sat on the General Committee, 31 on the Executive Committee, 45 on the Entries Committee, 13 on the Amusement Committee, plus other representatives on the Seating, Advertising and Voting committees.

It must have been an administrator's nightmare at the time — no walkie-talkies to find out what was happening at the other end of the arena, no microphones or loudspeakers, no electric scoreboards, and, come to that, no electricity either, apart from a portable generator and four miles of electric cable.

The voting system was also fraught with difficulties. Prizewinners were judged by members of the public who occupied the more expensive seats. They had two votes in each category, and these were handed in to members of the Voting Committee who scurried away to a nearby tent to count them as the exhibits very slowly passed by.

As soon as the votes had been counted, the results were written on a large blackboard, although this system caused all kinds of problems. The main one was of delay - most Battle parades went on far too long as the votes were being counted - and although one blackboard eventually became several, strategically placed along the Avenue and made so that they could swivel, the easiest way of finding out who had won was by asking the person in front of you to ask the person in front of him, and so on, until the news was relayed from the front to the rear of the stands.

By that time, of course, the winning exhibit had passed by a long time before.


Why 'Battle'?

So much for the problems of the parade and the problems of scoring — but why did our forefathers call it 'Battle' day?

That question could have required no answer if it had been asked 40, 50 or 80 years ago — everyone knew the answer, and would go to the parade grimly determined and suitably armed. Here, for example, is a contemporary account of the Battle of 12 August 1909, immediately after the judging had finished:

“On the “commence fire" being sounded by buglers, the real fun commenced. We speak of the Battle of Flowers the whole year round, but the actual battle is only a ten-minute turn".

“Still, people come from the north, the south, the east and the west to see it. They lose their individuality, too.

“Staid old men become again as romping children, the stern official throws off his robe of dignity and austerity, and even the cleric forgets for a moment that he has a distinguishing collar which gives him away. If one threw a bunch of flowers at a fellow on an ordinary day we should most probably be summoned for assault, but with the Battle of Flowers everything is different.”

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