In the preface to their 1914 catalogue, Kelways claimed that “The history of the gladiolus since 1851 is co-extensive with, and almost entirely a part of, the history of the firm of Kelway & Son.”
Gladioli catalogues from 1888, 1895 & 1921
James Kelway had distributed the first of the modern florists’ hybrid gladioli in the 1860s. By the 1870s Kelways gladiolus catalogues listed almost 800 varieties. At that time they had 8 acres devoted to gladioli: 6 for plants in bloom and 2 for seedlings. In 1899, the year of James’ death, they had 25 acres of gladioli, which they claimed to be the largest culture of its kind in the world.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Kelways introduced an entirely new strain of gladioli. They crossed the recently discovered Gladiolus primulinus with their own Gladiolus Kelwayi variety to produce a gladiolus that was more delicate than the older types. They called them ‘Lang-prim’ hybrids, and they were greatly admired. ‘One of the greatest horticultural triumphs of this century’, was how one writer described them.
Langprim hybrid gladioli
In 1905 they introduced a pure yellow form of gladiolus, which they named Golden Measure. It gained the Premier Award of the National Gladiolus Society as ‘the best yellow variety in commerce’ in 1912.
Twenty years or so later James Kelway Junior was responsible for introducing a new scented gladiolus into this country. In 1925 Captain Erskine, British Representative at Gore, in Abyssinia, sent him some corms which he flowered in his own garden. James wanted to name the new flower erskini, but Captain Erskine preferred it to be named after his wife, and so it became known as Gladiolus murielae. In 1932 the British Gladiolus Society gave it an Award of Merit, although some time later it was reclassified as Acidanthera bicolour murielae.
In 1927, despite the depressed state of the economy and of Kelways’ own finances, they were able to mount a display in the British Gladiolus Society’s annual exhibition of an astonishing 3,000 gladioli blooms in 125 varieties. They were rewarded by the award of the only gold medal for best exhibit, as well as a number of other prizes.
Sadly, gladioli were gradually going out of fashion, and were never cultivated on such a large scale again.