Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Schools of Gardening for Ladies

By Judith M. Taylor

“Ladies” are rather thin on the ground these days but in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras middle and upper class women were usually known as ladies. We are all staunchly just “women” now. That had nothing to do with any sort of special title but was purely a matter of upbringing and status. As such they were largely unable to do many things we all enjoy today because it is was not “ladylike”. Only men were supposed to earn the family’s living. Overcoming that taboo began gaining traction during the time that women’s suffrage was on the horizon. I do not believe that was coincidental.

Until the recent past an unmarried woman of the more refined classes could not look forward to a rich and fulfilled life. If she lacked a dowry she was out of luck. The work open to her was very restricted. All that the Bronte sisters could do officially was to become teachers or governesses. The other choice was to become companion to a wealthy woman, as a “gofer”. Both occupations were lonely and considered declassé.  These women were invisible. Think of the poignant scene in “Jane Eyre” when the county ladies and their guests from London visit Mr Rochester in their elegant riding habits. Jane simply shrivels up.

An alternative title for this essay could be “Headstrong Women of Means”. Two such characters emerged in England at about the same time with very similar goals.  Both had the idea that training women of that sort to be gardeners would allow them to find rewarding work.

Frances, Viscountess Wolseley

Frances, Viscountess Wolseley, 1872 – 1936, viewed these women with a very sympathetic eye. She did not hesitate to call them bluntly surplus but unlike some of her consoeurs she took action. In her case she saw salvation for them through horticulture. Although she had been presented at court she never wanted to marry but instead devoted her life to horticultural education. She wrote several books but “Gardening for Women” and “ Women on the Land” are the best known and most germane. Her father, General Sir Garnet Wolesley was elevated to the peerage for his services to the country. She was his only child and quite unusually was allowed to inherit the title. After her death it went into abeyance.

Frances Evelyn Maynard, Countess of Warwick, always known as “Daisy”, 1861 – 1938, inherited very large fortunes from both her father and grandfather at the age of three, providing an income of £30,000 per annum, an astronomical sum back then. When she married Lord Brooke, who became the Earl of Warwick, this money was combined with that of her husband, also a very wealthy man.
At first she used the money to enjoy herself, throwing extravagant parties and disporting herself with men like the Prince of Wales. Contemporary portraits show her to be a very lovely young woman. She also wanted to create beautiful gardens and displayed her skill at the family estate at Easton in Essex.

Countess of Warwick - c. 1895

A severe scolding by the editor of the Socialist newspaper The Clarion, Robert Blatchford, about her wastefulness and how the money used for such a party could have fed hundreds of poor people or helped to educate some of them in the 1890s opened her eyes.  She had naively thought that the classic “trickle down” system would help to alleviate poverty in her area. It is eternally to her credit that she took the criticism to heart and mended her ways. Countess Warwick became a card carrying Socialist and thus an enemy of her class.

In a strange echo of Ellen Willmott’s fate she too ended up quite poor but for different reasons. The bulk of her income came from the products of her lands. When the agricultural depression hit in 1893 and lasted for several years her income dropped sharply. Huge quantities of grain from Ukraine and Canada were a glut on the market, driving   down prices. She also spent very freely but not as wantonly as Miss Willmott. She used her money to benefit others less fortunate than she was. Her younger son only inherited the rather paltry sum of £37,000 when she died.

Among her significant projects were a school for fine needlework to encourage young women to earn a living and the school for agriculture and gardening which she began in Reading but later transferred to her husband’s estate at Studley in Warwickshire. This was not too far from Birmingham. The countess campaigned for better housing and many basic improvements in the Darwinian world of late Victorian Britain.

From about 1890 to 1930 schools of this type thrived. They were not unique to the British Isles but could be found on the Continent and to a lesser extent in the rest of the English speaking world. Some graduates did indeed go on to find work but it took time to overcome built in prejudice. Sir William Thistelton -Dyer, who took over direction of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from his father in law Sir Joseph Hooker, grudgingly hired a small group of women as general gardeners in about 1900. To keep prurience at a minimum he insisted they wear long brown knickerbockers and strong boots while they worked. This policy backfired. It is said that trainloads of frisky men would travel down to the gardens and leer at the women as they worked.

Dyer expected the women to do exactly the same work as the men and gave them the same pay. In the evenings they had to join study groups and improve their education.  It could be a very long day. The experiment lasted for a few years. Some women left to get married, some found gratifying work but a small number stayed on to enjoy tiny promotions. They came back into their own very strongly once Word War I got under way. The men all left to sign up for the forces and women became essential to keep the garden running.

Eventually it was no longer bizarre for women to hold important gardening positions both private and public and the schools started to merge with colleges and universities or other large organizations which now would accept their candidates.

In all there must have been between twenty five and thirty schools. The number is not exact as some schools run out of her own house by an amateur only lasted two or three years and were not counted. Some graduates left to found their own schools in the United Kingdom and abroad. A graduate of the Studley School, Miss Judith Waldron-Skinner, founded the California School of Gardening for Women in Hayward, California, not far from San Francisco. It lasted from 1921 to 1936 when it merged with Stanford University. The premises are now a shopping mall with its parking lot.

One of the most famous of these schools, Waterperry near Oxford, was started in 1932 by Miss Beatrix Havergal, a graduate of Studley. She was taken on as the groundkeeper at a private boarding school for girls where she laid out the tennis courts. While there she became friends with the woman in charge of the housekeeping. They left together and pooled their savings to start their own school of gardening. Vita Sackville West,1892 – 1962. creator of the astonishing gardens of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, managed to snag two of Miss Havergal’s best students, Pamela Schwerdt and Sybille Kreuzberger. They ran Sissinghurst for more than thirty years after Vita’s death. Waterperry closed at the end of 1970 and Miss Havergal died in 1971.

Beatrix Havergal

Lady Wolesley opened her school in 1901 at her own estate in Sussex, Glynde. At first she ran it from her house but two years later took on property about five miles away to be the college proper. All the schools required a certain level of discipline in order to function but the pupils were there by choice, paying hard earned money and not likely to mess about. Lady Wolesley came from a military background and set up much stricter rules with rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. She created a board of very prominent honorary directors to indicate the high level of her aspirations. They included Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Ellen Willmott. The latter was rather a joke as Ellen Willmott wanted no part of women gardeners at any time.

The curriculum at each school tended to be much the same but there was a broad range of optional subjects which varied with the vision of the principals and what was available in their districts. Apart from botany and all the requirements to pass the examinations of the  Royal Horticultural Society, young women could learn how to manage a market garden, keep bees, keep poultry or run a dairy farm. Market gardening was an important reality. In some cases selling their produce at local market helped to fund the school. That was the case with Miss Havergal at Waterperry. Formal landscape architecture was also taught by specialists like Edwin Lutyens who came just for those sessions.

All these private schools required a fairly substantial fee for several reasons. It could be up to £100 per annum which was a lot in those days. One reason was simply to pay the expenses. The other was to keep the clientele at a distinct social level. The daughter of a farm labourer or cook could never save up enough money to enroll in such a school.

 In 1870 Parliament passed the Education Act. While it had many shortcomings it was the first step in making public education free for all children up to the age of fourteen. Previously elementary education had been solely in the hands of the Church of England which only let go kicking and screaming. Groups like the Fabians were also busy trying to get adult education adopted as a principle. 

The London County Council was an enlightened body and set up institutes for adult learning at strategic points across the city. It was there that a shop assistant or solicitor’s clerk could go after work and learn enough to get a better job. Gardening and horticulture were taught at some of these places, mainly in the south of London. For a fee of five shillings rather that many pounds they could learn botany, nature study, elementary gardening skills and other necessary subjects. As it is stays light until 10 pm in the summer such classes were possible.

Another public institution accepted women graduates very early. The University College at Reading had an agricultural department whose classes were open both to men and women over sixteen years of age from 1893. The director was the highly qualified John Percival from Cambridge. This college had very extensive grounds and also took advantage of its proximity to a major seed company, Messrs Sutton and Son. The field trips were very educational. Eleven acres were devoted to orchards and the curriculum was broad. Students were prepared for the higher horticultural examinations. The  cost was intermediate between the expensive private schools and the subsidized LCC classes.

Recalling this era is a labour of love. Women were really getting into their stride. If you wanted to earn your own living in an honorable and productive way what better than to become a professional gardener. Its freedom compared very favourably with working in shop or an office. The results were very rewarding in so many ways and quite often included a nice cottage on the bigger estates.


Wolesley, Viscountess Frances Garnett 1908, re issued  2012

Gardening for Women

London               Forgotten Books     

Way, Twigs  2006

Virgins, Weeders and Queens

Gloucester        Sutton Publishing Limited


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989. This book has recently been shortlisted for a prize from the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

1 comment:

  1. This was a great post, Judith! It's encouraging, isn't it, to read accounts of women who were managing to carve out their own path, pursue their interests, despite the constraints resulting from lack of educational opportunities and coverture? Your women gardeners are a bit like the women artists I discovered who became students at the new Slade School of Art, opened in the 1870s by a forward-thinking philanthropist. There were small sparks of hope! Thanks for sharing your research.


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