Today I want to share with you a secret discovery I made on a recent trip to Hastings to research for my upcoming book, Secret Sussex (update: this has now been published. See here!). I wanted to share it with you in case you’re planning a trip to Hastings and fancy adding something unique and unusual to your itinerary.
It’s set on Hastings’ High Street in a shop with beautiful old Victorian facade, which on first glance looks like an ordinary high street florist. Get closer, and you’ll see that all of the little flowers decorating the front window and spilling out the door are in fact, artificial.
This is the headquarters of a curious and thriving company called the Shirley Leaf and Petal Co. It specialises in making artificial flowers, petals, leaves and foliage for film and television sets, film production companies, theatre shows and fashion houses.
It opened in the 19th century in east London, but moved to Hastings in 1910 and today is owned by a lady called Breda Wilson (pictured below). Her shop filled with faux flowers and foliage galore is a gem in itself but, hiding in its basement is the Flower Makers’ Museum – a little-known working collection consisting of everything involved in manufacturing fake flowers and foliage.
Brenda set it up in the basement here in 1981 when moving locations from a factory. The collection tells the story of the company, from it’s starting point in 1911, up until the present day. It starts on the stairs, which is bursting with displays and stock, and leads down to two rooms in the basement. You’re free to browse around alone and touch anything within reach.
One of the rooms contains a large pressing machine set behind glass and a huge collection of thousands of cutting tools on shelves. tany. Experts would frequently bring back rare species of flowers and plants from around the world. These samples would then be cast in wax, or plaster of Paris, in order to create moulds for the artificial leaf and flower industry. Amazingly then, these tools are not only a record of a unique industry, but also of an age of botanical discovery.
Another room is loosely organised into sections – one area is set up to look like an old factory office dating back to 1910, with ledgers, old health and safety notices even the original clocking in and out machine.
Another area is devoted to clothes and other things decorated with the flowers. At one point, the company had to employ hundreds of home workers to meet the demand for waxed flowers and leaves at weddings.
Every bit of space is filled. There are bales of silk and other fabrics, and a million boxes of supplies everywhere. Small cardboard mounted displays can be leafed through and contain samples, ephemera and correspondence relating to noteworthy film or theatre jobs.
The Shirley Leaf and Petal Co has made all kinds of floral creations: chiffon leaf trails for the English National Ballet, olive leaves for the Oberammergau Passion Play, leaves for the Disney film Pocahontas, trees for inside the Millennium Dome, dahlias for Glyndebourne Opera House, and most recently, hundreds of petals for the Broadway production of Frozen. The largest creation they’ve worked on was called the ‘singing tree’ made out of over a million leaves and incorporating hidden seating for a choir, which is currently touring the world.
Find the Flower Makers Museum at the Shirley Leaf & Petal Co, 58A High Street, Hastings East Sussex TN34 3EN