Flower of Scotland: Sprouston remembers Borders minister who was sweetpea king

Sprouston Sweetpea Festival.
Sprouston Sweetpea Festival.

ON a warm summer’s day in July 1911, a Borders minister cycled to the railway station at Kelso with a couple of bunches of sweetpeas.

The Reverend Denholm Fraser from Sprouston put them aboard the train for London where they would be the entries from him and his wife in the Daily Mail’s sweetpea competition.

The bunches of small scented blooms from the Borders were to join a staggering 38,000 other bunches, attracted by the possibility of winning what was then the colossal first prize of £1,000 – almost £90,000 at today’s value.

Second and third prizes of £100 and £50 were still the equivalent of a year’s pay for many in 1911.

A display of the entries was put on at the Crystal Palace in London on July 28 and 29, although there was room for only 2,500 in the enormous marquee erected for the occasion.

On July 28, back in Sprouston, the ABC Telegraph machine in the local post office chattered into life, astonishing postmistress Mima Ross with its message.

Sprouston Sweetpea Festival.

Sprouston Sweetpea Festival.

She ran across the road to the church manse waving the piece of paper on which she had transcribed the message.

She told Mr Fraser his sweetpeas had come first in the competition, only for the minister, reading the message, to reply: “No, my dear. You’re wrong! My wife has won!”

Just 20 minutes later, Ms Ross returned to the manse with another telegram and the news that Mr Fraser had taken third place for his sweetpeas.

Mr Fraser had long dreamed of building a chancel in Sprouston’s little church and the £1,050 prize money went towards this.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the triumph, Sprouston is holding a three-day sweetpea festival in August, with a competition for the flowers.

Seed company Unwins has donated 500 packets of sweetpea seeds for schools and community groups.

As well as ceilidhs and concerts, the event will include a display of sweetpeas grown in exactly the spot in the manse garden where Mr Fraser and his gardener, Alec White, grew their prize-winning flowers.

The festival will also feature a talk by John Carrier, chairman of the National Sweetpea Society. A member of the Duke of Roxburghe’s family will present competition prizes.

One of those behind the festival is Peter Neilson. “It was our present minister, the Reverend Jenny Earl, who pointed out that this year was the anniversary of the competition and that we should mark it,” he told TheSouthern. “The competition is open to anyone and we’re hoping for a really great entry. We will be erecting a marquee for the festival, which will run over three days, August 12, 13 and 14.”

Church elder Alex Irvine says the success of the Frasers’ blooms was also due to the weather in the summer of 1911 as much as green fingers. “They had rain at the right time and sun at the right time,” he explained. “So, hopefully, local gardeners planning to enter our competition will get some good growing weather this spring and summer!”

The man growing the sweetpeas in the manse garden for the Sprouston festival is local National Trust for Scotland gardener Peter Davies.

“They are very easy to grow – absolutely,” he said. “Growing them to the standard that Mr Fraser and Alec White did back in 1911 is what is difficult.

“They would have spent hours every single day tending and looking after them.”

Alex went on: “Sweetpeas have such a fantastic scent that I think the 1911 judges would have been going on that as much as what the flowers looked like.

“Our competition will have four classes – experienced adults, amateur adults, children and schools – so there is a class for everyones.”

The judges will be well-known Borders gardeners Tom Neillans and Bert Duncan and an entry form will be posted on the website www.sproustonsweetpeas.com

The organising committee chairperson, Rosie Redway, says excitement is already building in Sprouston for the festival. “We have a lot of people now on board to help with the organising and running of the festival.”

As for possible logistical problems if this summer’s festival attracts the same level of interest as the 1911 event, Peter laughed. “If we end up with 38,000 entries, we’ll need to look at getting a slightly bigger marquee!”

Monty’s method

Writing recently, Daily Mail gardening expert Monty Don said from mid-February onwards was the time to sow sweetpeas:

“If you’re sowing them in a pot, soak the container in a basin of water for 10 minutes, then keep them moist, but not sodden, in a place where the compost will not cool below about 5°C.

“I sow three or four seeds in a 3in pot, and when I plant them into their final position, I do not separate them but plant the contents of the pot at the base of each support (usually a wigwam made from hazel or bamboo) poles.

“If one or two do not germinate, don’t replace them; one strong plant will produce as many flowers as half a dozen weak ones.

“But if you buy sweetpeas from a garden centre, you might find as many as a dozen in a pot, so thin them out dramatically.

“The new growth in spring is vulnerable to a late frost, so avoid planting them in the ground until at least mid-April.

“The period between being planted out and growing strongly is when they are most vulnerable to slug and snail attack.

“Many of these problems can be avoided by simply sowing the seeds directly into the soil where they are to grow. Mid-April is the best time to do this, sowing two seeds to each support.

“To get the best from them, dig a pit or trench and fill it with good manure or compost. They will need tying in every week or so for the first few months.

“Sweetpeas prefer cool, damp conditions, so a regular soak is essential in a hot summer. If you want sweetpeas to be at their best, regularly pick off every bloom.

“As you do so, remove any seed pods that appear.”