A historic flower show that once attracted more than 10,000 visitors to Stonehenge almost 180 years ago is to make a spectacular comeback this weekend (September 29-October 1).

English Heritage, the charity that manages the UNESCO World Heritage site and Neolithic monument, has arranged for a spectacular three-day display of more than 5,000 dahlias to pay homage to the annual dahlia shows that once took place at Stonehenge in the 1840s.

At its height, the Stonehenge dahlia show attracted crowds of up to 10,000 people, all coming to see the spectacular flower sculptures alongside displays of prize-winning dahlias, cricket matches and brass bands, with tents and marquees set up close to the stones. 

In 1842 one of these winners – then a new variety of dahlia – was named the ‘Hero of Stonehenge’. This year, English Heritage will award the title ‘New Hero of Stonehenge’ to a winning dahlia, chosen by a panel of experts together with visitors to Stonehenge.

According to the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette (September 1842), “the extreme novelty to selecting Stonehenge for a dahlia exhibition, and a delightful sunshine, attracted, as was expected, most of the fashionables of the neighbourhood to the spot.

“Such a scene of gaiety was never before witnessed on Salisbury Plain… Parties of gentlemen and elegantly dressed ladies were scattered about in all directions.”

The show became so popular that it was necessary to erect a sign commanding that “no vehicles, booths, or standing pitches” should be put within 50 yards of the stones”.

English Heritage Landscape Historian, Louise Crawley, said: “It is wonderful to see these beautiful flowers return to Stonehenge after nearly 180 years, and to have such a colourful element of Stonehenge’s more recent past brought to life again. 

“The original shows were an opportunity for people to gather and parade in their finery, and we hope people will do the same this weekend!

“The floral sculptures give us a real flavour of what those original shows may have been like, and the original Hero of Stonehenge may no longer be in cultivation, but with so many wonderful varieties to choose for ‘best in show’, I know that with visitors help, we will be able to find a worthy successor.” 

Gardening writer and broadcaster Arthur Parkinson said: “I am so excited that English Heritage has decided to tell the story of the Stonehenge dahlia shows of the 1840s and cannot wait to see which locally grown flower will be crowned the New Hero of Stonehenge.

“I’ve grown dahlias for some time and the heroes for me are the single and anemone varieties, which literally give life to a garden, brimming as they are with nectar and pollen for our precious pollinators."

To recreate the spectacle of the original Stonehenge dahlia shows, floral sculptures or ‘devices’ as described in the 1840s, including a giant trilithon, will be fashioned by local flower arranging clubs beside a meadow of blooms surrounding the Neolithic village.

Dahlias grown by local members of the National Dahlia Society, will be displayed in the style of a traditional flower show, during a special three-day exhibition in the Visitor Centre.

Visitors will learn about how flower show winners are chosen before they are invited to judge for themselves and choose the new ‘Hero of Stonehenge’.

The charity hopes that families flocking to Stonehenge for the show as they did in the 1840s will have the chance to promenade and pose in front of the ancient stones, much as their Victorian predecessors may have done, but this time with wearable dahlia headdresses.