Shirley Leaf and Petal Company have been making beautiful artificial flowers and leaves for over a hundred years. A range of materials are used to make creations for theatre, film, weddings and more. The basement of their shop, which is located in Hastings Old Town, holds an incredible collection of objects that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also a record of social history.
Upon entering the shop, it is instantly obvious that this is an industrious space. Materials are displayed as far as the eye can see and a hubbub of creation is audible from a back room. Beneath this world of work, a small museum tells the story of skilled makers and changing fashions. Walking down a stairwell covered with metal moulds of eye-catching animals, transports me into a maximal space filled with objects – most of which I have never seen anywhere else before. Throughout the museum, glass fronted display cases are packed with row upon row of metal implements. These have been numbered precisely because they are still used by the business today; each one producing a different style of leaf or flower. And as I scrutinise these attractive objects, the amount of effort and care gone into creating artificial flowers and leaves soon becomes clear.
The information leaflet tells me that these tools were mainly forged by the Bick family in London, and can be linked to the Victorian fascination with botany. 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.
Other intriguing facts are revealed as I explore the space further. Such as the company having to employ hundreds of home workers to meet the demand for waxed flowers and leaves at weddings. These now faded fashions are brought to life by the curious objects on display – a sturdy leather embossing machine; a bright sign requesting experienced flower makers and a mannequin draped with beautiful false flowers.
It is wonderful to think that this business is still thriving today and that the museum objects remain in use. The owner of the museum explained that when she moved the business from its previous factory premises, she was determined to have these unique objects available for the public to see. The story that they tell is one that is rarely told, and the fact that they have been displayed in a working museum defintely brings it to life.