In 1950 I did a school exchange visit with my French pen pal, Jean-Pierre Serrier. He lived just outside Paris and during the three week stay we visited Paris several times. Jean-Pierre's family had a small cactus collection which spent the winter in the cellar! In August the plants looked fine. On our trips to Paris we often passed the market stalls on the side of the river Seine. Some of them sold cacti and succulents and I bought a few. The French family gave me some cuttings and I returned to Southampton with about 20 plants. I was 'hooked'! In the next couple of years I made myself known to anyone I noticed had cactus plants in their greenhouse or, more often, on their window sill. Kenneth Harle ran a cactus nursery in Lower Basildon just north of Reading near the river Thames. He supplied Woolworth's and other outlets with nice clean healthy seedlings and many of the older generation of cactus growers started with his plants. In 1952 and 1953 he put on a display of plants at the Southampton "Fish Keepers" show at the Avenue Hall. There I met George Hiscocks who had a lot of cacti and lived fairly near me in St. Deny's. We decided it would be a good idea to have a Southampton Branch of the NCSS. I joined the national cactus society in 1953.
Having found out where Lower Basildon was, I cycled to my aunt's in Reading from Southampton and from there visited Kenneth Harle a little further on. My aunt lived at 1 Ramsbury Drive and later took in Gordon Rowley as a lodger when he got a job at Reading University. Gordon later bought the house from her and developed it into 'Cactusville'. Another time in the early fifties a friend and I cycled to a nursery near Arundel to visit an elderly eccentric who lived in his greenhouse. (This is quite commonplace in Holland now but seemed a bit strange then; also thinking about it, the elderly gentleman was probably a lot younger than I am now!) Anyway he gave me a 2 foot (0.6 metre) topcut from a Cereus peruvianus which I strapped across my saddlebag and took great care getting on and off my bike on the way home.
After twice meeting George Hiscocks at the fish show, I persuaded my neighbour, Bert Thompson, to put an advert in the 'Echo' to see if anyone else was interested in forming a local branch. There were several names, thanks to my contacts and the newspaper advert and the first meeting happened at the back room of the Royal Arms, Padwell Road, in March 1954. I was up to my neck in 'muck and bullets' at the time doing my National Service. My dad went to the first few meetings and reported progress. In 1955 I was freed from National Service and soon got involved in branch activities. I probably joined the committee in 1956 and have been involved ever since, many years as treasurer, as vice chairman and more recently chairman.
Bert Thompson was the first secretary and Elsie Margetson was one of the first chairmen. Elsie was a teacher from Winchester and had been growing cacti for years and was very encouraging to new growers and collectors. George Hiscocks started to import plants from Edelman in Holland and everyone was able to get a good variety of choice plants. I seem to remember that nearly all of K. Harle's plants were mammillarias. After a few years we moved from the pub. I don't remember the reason, perhaps we were not spending enough at the bar (you could get a nice plant for the price of a pint), or perhaps we were drinking too much! The next meeting place was the committee room of the St. John's Ambulance Hall in Kings Park Road. This was like having a meeting on a coach, the room was long and narrow and difficult to socialise in as there was only a narrow through way from front to back. We were allowed to use the main hall for our 10th anniversary meeting when Mr. Hampshire and Winnie Dunn visited us. George Meager was chairman at that time.
Growing numbers and the meeting place restrictions caused us to move to the Spiritualists Church Hall off the Avenue. The hall was down a dark lane behind the main church, and more than one member found themselves in a spiritualist service before they realised they were at the wrong meeting!
Ian Acton moved from Newcastle in the mid-sixties and quickly got involved. He became branch secretary about 1965 and negotiated a rental for the newly built Allotment Association Hall in Bangor Road, Freemantle. This served us well for over thirty years but the hall deteriorated and parking became a problem. In 1968 the branch enrolled its 100th member, a young man called Oxborough. He was a botany student at Totton College and as I live near to it he spent many summer lunch times in my greenhouse. Ken Halstead was chairman then, Ian Acton secretary and myself treasurer.
We continued to meet at Bangor Road until 2001 when we moved to the Church Hall at West End which is much more comfortable and has proved a good move. We have been getting new members join and some away for years have started coming back to meetings.
Some of the names that come to mind during our 50 year history are Elsie Margetson, George Meager, Ken Halstead, Doris Meager and Roger Labbett as chairmen. Bert Thompson, Ken Thornton, Ian Acton, David Phillips and Richard White as secretaries.
We are proud at Southampton to have had David Neville as a member since he was a teenager. Ivor Biddlecombe has been show secretary for about thirty years, following George Cozins. There are so many people who have done so much for the branch over the decades that I cannot name them all, I cannot remember all their names for one thing! We are indebted to Margaret Corina for organising the 50th Anniversary celebration Convention and also the 'prickly potting' attraction at the show at Broadlands, well supported by her husband, David.
To sum up - the branch would not be what it is today without the support and contributions of many people and especially the committee and helpers of today. Everyone should be proud of Southampton & District's first 50 years. I wish you continued success in the next 50!