In a month when we have been discussing the death of a noted Conservative Prime Minster, it is perhaps a strange coincidence that April, the 19th to be particular, was the date commemorating another famed prime minster – Benjamin Disreali, who died on that date in 1881. So popular was he and his polices that in 1883 an organisation within the Conservatives was formed, called the Primrose league to commemorate the man and promote his political views, centred on one nation Conservatism.
A rose by any name!
In those days, Monarchs never attended the funerals of Prime Ministers; even one so well thought of, Victoria was apparently very fond of him! However, this did not prevent her sending a wreath of primroses. Attached to them was the note ‘His favourite flower’.
Here lies the confusing because someone thought that this meant Disraeli, but actually Victoria meant Albert! Despite this anyone wishing to show support to the prime minister and his work wore a primrose on their lapel. Even soon after the death of Disraeli, the wearing of primroses had so popular that a reported in the Pall Mall Budget:
“Lord Beaconsfield died Wycombe was full of visitors and they all wanted primroses. One enterprising genius established a regular business. He employed bands of children who scoured the countryside far and near for primroses, which he made up into bouquets and sold to visitors, guaranteeing that each bunch had been gathered on the favourite walk of the late Earl. Innumerable basketfuls were disposed of in this way, and now, no doubt, primroses are somewhat scarce.”
The correspondent went on to discuss that:
“Primrose Day is leading to the extirpation of the primrose; and unless the eccentric craze changes, the last primrose is likely to take its place with the “last rabbit” in the British Museum.”
Primrose fever had certainly begun early as the Daily Telegraph on 1888 it was noted:
“Never have primroses been so largely worn Merchants in the city, ladies in the West-end, cabmen on their hansoms, ‘bus drivers, errand boys, and nursemaids were alike in their tastes.”
The correspondent in the Pall Mall Budget further noted that:
“At Hughenden the work of extinction has progressed apace, and Primrose Day will find few primroses blooming on the wooded slopes of Hughenden Manor… Up the hill and through the park hardly a primrose was to be seen. ….. After wandering the long way through the wood I carne at last upon a tuft of the missing flower.”
However at the grave:
“Here, indeed, I found some primroses. At the head of the grave they grow in a circle, but their effect was obscured by the gorgeous, not to say gaudy, flower-bed which occupied the rest of the grave. There, in the form of a cross, flowered a brilliant display of hyacinths of all colours, mingled with which were, here and there, bright red and yellow tulips, the whole forming a mass of colour much more characteristic of the Oriental taste and policy of the late Prime Minister than the pale primrose. The grave is carefully tended, and a perpetual succession of flowers is kept up all the year round…..The Queen’s wreath still lingers at the head of the grave, looking rather the worse for wear, and partially concealing the inscription.”
The custom was not restricted to Buckinghamshire and membership grew to a peak of one million members according to the Primrose League gazette of April 1978. It appears to have been very popular in Devon and the other side of the country. Sutton (1996) in her Lincolnshire Calendar notes how widespread the celebration became. A correspondent noted:
“My father used to cycle to the woods in Potterhanworth, a day or two before Primrose Day. He gathered as many he could, and my sisters and I had to do them up in little bushes. He would cycle all the way to Lincoln to sell them on the market to raise funds for the party.”
Another recollection notes:
“I was a girl guide and when it was Primrose Day we all had to go out to gather Primroses. We pulled them from the ‘banks’. Sincil Banks. Then we took them around the streets of Lincoln to the old people’s houses, for whoever wanted to wear one.”
“My parents used to walk us to Skellingthorpe Walks to gather primroses. There were so many it was like walking on a yellow carpet. We tied them up in little bunches with tiny pieces of twine. Sometimes the flowers were so cold they nearly froze your fingers. Then we had the jolly job of selling them on the market. A lot of people like to wear them. Mother used to wear an enamel badge, it was shaped like a primrose and yellow in colour, she was in the Primrose League.”
Records show that London’s Disraeli statue was regularly adorned with wreaths. However, it was at his grave that the most noted celebration of the custom was the laying of flower wreaths on monuments to him. The most famous being the Hughenden Pilgrimage to his grave. This would be followed by a service at the church and luncheon at the Manor. This was heavily reported in the media up until the 1940s with a number of notable Pathe reports showing a great congregation of well dressed and not so well heeled it appears, flowing down the lane to the grave carrying a great range of wreaths and floral tributes. According to one report, the laying of the wreath could often be done by the sitting leader of the party or more usually an ex-prime minster, Winston Churchill (his father was instrumental in its foundation) and Alex Douglas-Hume who were both the Grandmaster or chairman of the association as we would call it.
This ceremony appeared to have petered out in the late 1980s or early 1990s (the last report I can find is in 1987) although I have been unable to confirm this. This disappearance of the custom went hand in hand with decline in the League. Then on the 16th December 2004, the Daily Telegraph reported:
“this week saw a significant event for any observers of political history: after 121 years, the Primrose League was finally wound up. The league’s aim was to promote Toryism across the country. ‘In recent years, our meetings have become smaller and smaller,’ says Lord Mowbray, one of the league’s leading lights. Its remaining funds have been donated to Tory coffers. “On Monday, I presented Michael Howard and Liam Fox with a cheque for £70,000,” adds Lord Mowbray proudly.”
However, despite a few groups surviving notably in Leicestershire I believe, a visit to London’s Disraeli’s statue on the 19th and you will find no evidence of wreaths, and although the National Trust at Hughenden Manor celebrate it in their way, with talks, the death of the Primrose league in 2004, appears to have been the last nail in the true celebration of Primrose Day. Fortunately someone thought to plant primroses on his grave and these flower on the day. I am sure he would have approved…Albert that is!
learn more about the League from this excellent website and thanks to John King for the help with this article http://primrose-league.leadhoster.com