The Dawlish Cottager's Garden Society was founded in 1860 and held it first summer show in the grounds of Luscombe Castle in 1863. Dawlish in those days was more rural than it is today, it was called ‘A Handsome Village and bathing place that lies in a picturesque valley opening to the sea’. Fishing was still an important part of the village life and Dawlish was celebrated for its orchards and cider. The railway had arrived and there were six trains a day to Exeter and Plymouth. There were many large ‘gentlemen’s’ houses, some occupied all year round and some like now were second homes as the Dawlish winter climate was seen as some of the best on the Devon coast.
In 1873 the society’s committee was made up of 32 gentlemen with a smaller separate Ladies’ Committee. The show that year had categories for cottagers, market gardeners, professional gardeners, and amateur gardeners, alongside classes for handicraft, allotments and children’s activities. All categories had cash prizes ranging from 12/- for some 1st prizes to 1/- for 3rd.
The summer show or Annual Exhibition as it was called was a big event in Dawlish with a military band providing the entertainment. In 1884 admission to the show between 2-4.30 pm was 2/6, from 4.30-5.30 it as 1/-, from 5.30-6.30 6d and then after 6.30, just 3d. When you consider one of the classes was for a collection of vegetables from cottagers earning no more than 15/- (75p) a week, then 2/6 (12p) would have been a lot of money.
In 1882 the 1st Autumn Exhibition of flowers, fruit, and vegetables was held, this was part of the Horticultural Society but with its own organising committee. It developed into the Dawlish Chrysanthemum Society and the exhibitions ran for 21 years until 1903.
In 1908 after a gap of 20 years the Summer Show restarted at Luscombe Castle, by 1912 the venue had moved to Oaklands. During World War One the focus of the society moved to growing vegetables with the product going to the British Navy. In 1923 the society revived the summer show holding a joint Dawlish and District Horticultural and Fancier’s Society show in ‘The Hut’, (pigeon fanciers).
1935 saw the formation of the Dawlish Unemployed Allotment Association and in the following year the merger into the Dawlish and District Garden and Allotment Society, with an annual subscription of 1/-. The new Chairman, Mr Douglas Bishop remains in this post until 1961. 1945 saw the first summer show after WW2, which was held in The Hut, in later years it moved to the grounds of the Manor House and from 1953—1977 to a marquee on The Lawns
The 1975 the summer show was so popular that it was held over two days, and society meetings were held in the afternoon, in 1978 a single day show had 700 entries and 2,000 people paid 5p to go in. In 1979 the society membership peaked at 112 with annual subscription at 60p
In 1995 although the society still had high membership numbers and money in the bank, it almost wound up as the key officers’ roles could not be filled. Mrs June Collis, former town mayor stepped in at the 11th hour and took up the role of Chair and the society has flourished ever since. With the new allotments starting in 2007, the society dropped allotments from its title, to be the Dawlish Garden Society. In 2011 the summer show moved to its current venue of the Strand Centre, having been held in several locations including the carnival marquee since 1977. The current committee hope that a full presentation and exhibition of the history can take place next year and that the society will continue to flourish for another 160 years.