Sandy’s Garden ... Primrose Day

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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My copy of Chambers’ Book of Days tells me that April 19 is Primrose Day.

And the internet tells me that, and I quote, “Primrose Day is the anniversary of the death of British statesman and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, on 19 April 1881. The primrose was his favourite flower; and Queen Victoria would often send him bunches of them from Windsor and Osborne House. She sent a wreath of primroses to his funeral.”

As a consequence of the primrose having been Disraeli’s favourite flower, when, his admirers founded an organisation in his honour to promote the principles of the Victorian Conservative Party and to praise the virtues of colonialism two years after his death, they named it the Primrose League. Like many an organisation, the members wanted a badge to reveal their membership of the organisation to the world; and what more natural than their choice of the primrose to be the centrepiece of this badge, which carried the proud Latin motto Imperium et Libertas … Empire and Liberty. And, although few people today will ever have heard of the Primrose League, by 1910 there were more than two million members at a time when the entire British electorate totalled fewer than eight million! I suspect that any of today’s political parties would give its eye-teeth for a supporters’ organisation of more than two million paid-up and enthusiastic members, even if many of them were not actually voters. Don’t forget that, although the late Victorian authoress Flora Thompson … who described English village life so vividly … wrote about women’s fondness for “the pretty little enamelled primrose badge, worn as a brooch or lapel ornament,” these women did not have the right to vote.

Well, the Primrose League declined steadily throughout the greater part of the twentieth century, although it was not finally wound up until 2004. One wonders if many of the members ever realised that their name and their badge were almost certainly the result of a misunderstanding? There is no convincing evidence that Benjamin Disraeli had any particular preference for the primrose over other flowers, nor much evidence that he had much time for any flowers of whatever species. What is true is that, since the primrose had been Prince Albert’s favourite flower, primroses were grown in abundance in the gardens of royal residences; and it is true that Queen Victoria often sent her Prime Minister bunches of primroses when they were in season … round about now … and that Disraeli understandably thanked her effusively for the gifts, describing the primrose on one occasion as “the ambassador of spring.” So, when he died on 19 April 1881, Queen Victoria commanded that a wreath of primroses be sent to his funeral, describing them as “his favourite flower.” But it is more than likely … as I also learn from my Book of Days … that the word ‘his’ in the accompanying note refers to the late Prince Albert and not to Benjamin Disraeli at all!

It has entirely gone out of fashion to describe 19 April as ‘Primrose Day’, the day when Disraeli’s statue in Parliament Square in London used to be decorated with primroses by his followers, as was his grave in Hughenden, Buckinghamshire. Still, it might be fun to recall an old tradition by inviting one’s favourite florist to make up a buttonhole or a small corsage featuring a primrose to be worn on 19 April in memory of Britain’s glorious … if nowadays politically-incorrect … imperial past, if not in memory of Benjamin Disraeli. We forget or ignore our past at our peril; and we should, at regular intervals, remind ourselves of the great nation we once were and eschew the current tendency to think only in the present, ignoring the past and giving too little thought to the future.