Andrew Lambirth

Flower power

Constance Spry (1886–1960) was a remarkable figure who exerted a powerful influence over the taste of generations of home-makers, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s. Born in Derby, she was brought up in Ireland where she studied hygiene and physiology, with a view to a career in nursing. A natural communicator, she soon found herself lecturing on first aid and home nursing for the Women’s National Health Association in Ireland. From the start there was a noticeable emphasis on self-help and what can be done in the home. But Spry was always capable of working equally well with larger institutions, and at the beginning of the first world war she became secretary of Dublin Red Cross.

Two years later she escaped an unhappy marriage by skedaddling to England, where she found work as a welfare supervisor. Another five years were to elapse before she was appointed headmistress of the Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School (for girls) in East London, but it was here that the mature vision of Constance Spry began to emerge. In order to brighten up her schoolrooms, Spry began to bring to work bunches of violets or sweet peas, and noticed at once how much they were appreciated. As a result, she started teaching basic flower arranging to her pupils, stressing how cheaply this could be done with a little imagination and the use of wild flowers (whose glories are often disparaged as weeds), twigs, leaves and berries — the sort of thing that could be found even on urban wasteland or growing beside a canal.

This is where the tag ‘a millionaire for a few pence’ presumably comes from, and accounts for Spry’s early reputation as a social reformer and democratic guru of home-making. Her ideas were ingenious and essentially philanthropic, and brought a great deal of pleasure to many, at the same time revolutionising the formal presentation of flowers.

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