The QNI was originally founded with money donated by the women of Britain for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, hence it’s original name: Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Institute for Nurses. A second collection was made ten years later on her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. However, money was always short and fundraising had to continue for the charity to survive.
In 1926 at a meeting of the Institute’s Council, Ms Elsie Wagg came up with the idea to raise funds by opening private gardens to the public and charging admission. The proceeds would go to support the QNI and the district nursing services that were affiliated with it. The National Garden Scheme was born.
The first gardens open
In June 1927, 349 private gardens opened, including Sandringham in Norfolk and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Members of the public paid one shilling each to enter. The scheme was so successful it was continued into September by which time over six hundred gardens had opened and over £8000 was raised. In following years a network of county organisers was established to encourage and support garden owners to re-open their gardens annually. As well as the Royal Family, the Royal Horticultural Society, Country Life magazine, the BBC and the Automobile Association were all early supporters. By 1930 the number of gardens opened reached 900 and Sir Winston Churchill and Vita Sackville-West were among those who opened famous private gardens to the public.
The Second World War
The Second World War severely curtailed the scheme as gardeners downed tools, ornamental gardens were sacrificed to the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and estates were requisitioned. With the end of the war, the Royal Family led the way in rebuilding support for the scheme and opening gardens including Sandringham, Frogmore, Harewood and Coppins. From 1947, the National Trust also played an increasing role, opening estates that had been surrendered to the Exchequer by their former owners in lieu of tax and death duties.