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“Gardeners in bloomers”: Early horticultural schools and colleges for women

Updated: Mar 31, 2023


The first female gardeners at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew wearing their famous bloomers - a somewhat short-lived and controversial part of their gardening uniform. Courtesy RBG, Kew


Introduction


Before the 19th century, middle and upper-class women with an interest in botany and gardening rarely took up a spade themselves – gardeners were employed to care for their plots, do the necessary work, and carry out the garden owner's instructions. A generalisation perhaps, but such women were usually depicted wafting around a garden admiring the flowers – as can be seen below, rather than actually getting their hands dirty!


'The Rose of all Roses' by Wilhelm Menzler

Detail from ‘The Four Seasons, Spring’, 1565 by Pieter Breughel the Younger showing men and women working in a 16th century garden


It was only lower classes of women who worked in gardens, employed as weeders – those who carried out unskilled, poorly paid and often back-breaking, monotonous work. Although the woman depicted in Breughel’s painting of a 16th century garden seems rather happy about it, as well as being rather well dressed!


Another generalisation I know, but these paintings do serve to show the vast difference between the classes of women in the garden and what they did. So contrast these women with the front cover of Mrs Jane Loudon’s 1840 book, Gardening for Ladies, which shows a lady (albeit, it must be said, in not very sensible gardening attire) surrounded by the accoutrements of gardening and with a rake in her hand. In her book, Mrs Loudon recommended ‘physical’ gardening for ladies – even suggesting (to the horror of some) that they take up digging themselves, pointing out that “a lady, with a small light spade may, by taking time, succeed in doing all the digging that can be required in a small garden...”. Many women had, of course, being doing such work for centuries growing vegetables to feed their families, but for most of the burgeoning middle-class women of the19th century this was a new, and rather bold activity.


'Mrs Loudon's Gardening for Ladies', 1840 by Jane Loudon


Amongst her many gardening publications, Mrs Loudon also wrote the Lady’s Companion to the Flower Garden (1840-44) and began her own journal in 1842, The Lady’s Magazine of Gardening. Other female writers followed including Louisa Johnson whose 1851 book, Every Lady’s Guide to her own Greenhouse, Hothouse and Conservatory, encouraged women into the greenhouse– until then the usual preserve of the Head Gardener.


In her writings, Johnson presumed that her lady readers, although they loved their gardens, “knew little or nothing of plants” and therefore required instruction on the “ordinary operations of potting, showing, striking cuttings, and other necessary work among plants…”. Johnson also pointed out that, being mistresses of their homes, her readers were not eager “to submit to the whim and caprice of a professional gardener” – despite often being more than happy to direct their domestic servants, male or female, to assist them in the garden and greenhouse...


Despite the difficulties of Victorian dress, more and more women took up gardening. Not surprising perhaps when, as already mentioned, you consider the social limitations on activities for middle and upper-class women of the time. And, as a simpler style of gardening became more popular towards the end of the 19th century (and as the extremely labour intensive carpet-bedding fell out of fashion), gardening became a central part of middle-class life - and the garden itself became an easier place for a lady to manage.


Professional gardeners had always been men but, at last, women slowly began to join their ranks. There are many excellent books and articles about the history and role of women in the garden over the centuries, but my blog concentrates mainly on women of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods who studied at horticultural colleges and gardening schools, and went on to work as professional gardeners - although I also mention, briefly, the work of women during the world wars.


Horticultural Schools and Colleges


It was The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew under the then Director, William Thiselton-Dyer, which first employed female gardeners back in 1896 - all of whom had qualified at the Horticultural College for Women in Swanley, Kent.


Kew’s female gardeners were initially made to wear the same gardening uniform as their male colleagues, but their brown woollen bloomers (as can be seen in the photograph at the beginning of this blog) soon hit the headlines and caused something of a furore – as the satirical magazine, Punch, recorded:


From the roofs of the buses they had a fine view

Of the ladies in bloomers who gardened at Kew.

The orchids were slighted, the lilies were scorned,

The dahlias were flouted, till botanists mourned,

But the Londoners shouted, ‘What ho there, Go to;

Who wants to see blooms now you’ve bloomers at Kew.”


After such a blaze of rather unwelcome publicity, the powers-that-be at Kew quickly changed their minds, and their female gardeners reverted to wearing skirts.


But Kew's employment of women was a good start, and women aspiring to become professional gardeners finally had some options, and other institutions for women opened. One proponent of women gardeners was Daisy, The Countess of Warwick (1861-1938). Writing in the Christmas edition of The Land Magazine of 1897, she published a scheme for training women in the lighter branches of agriculture and gardening, primarily to create suitable forms of employment for middle-class women. Despite her aristocratic upbringing (and famously being a mistress of Edward VII), the Countess became a socialist in later life and developed an interest in women’s rights and education. She thought that “dairy work, market gardening, poultry-farming, bee-keeping, fruit growing, horticulture, [and the] grading, packing and marketing of produce, would appeal to many women of education…”.


Initially opening a college in Reading in 1898, the students’ training comprised the above subjects. Following its success, the Countess moved her establishment to Studley Castle in Warwickshire in 1902 (the Reading college continuing with its own courses) and it became the Studley Horticultural & Agricultural College for Women (more usually known at Studley Castle College). Of course, only educated, middle-class women need apply...


A contemporary account of the college, situated in a park of 340 acres, describes gardens and glass houses, while instruction in “fruit bottling and preserving, marketing, manual processes and business methods” were added to the subjects studied. Students were also prepared for various national diplomas in dairying, as well as the usual RHS exams.


‘Students in the grounds of Studley Castle College, Warwickshire’. Courtesy the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading


The college ran both two and three-year courses with student numbers between 30 and 40. Full training with board and lodging was £80-£120 per annum according to the level of accommodation required, while non-resident students paid £13 6s 8d per term. 'Nature Study' courses of two weeks (for both men and women) were held at the college in the summer.


Studley continued successfully into the 1920s when it received official recognition as a training institution from the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. After the Countess’s death in 1938, the college continued to offer a variety of courses in horticulture, agriculture, and dairy farming - even training members of the Women’s Land Army during the 2nd World War. The college continued until 1969 when the withdrawal of a Government grant forced its closure.


Market gardening was also an important subject of study at this time and The Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm, opened in 1906 by Misses Jones and Peers, also educated women for horticultural roles – two of them later working at Kew during the war.


Advertisement for the ‘Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm’. From ‘The Graphic’, 1 August 1908


By 1910, there were seven colleges for aspiring women gardeners – mostly from the professional classes as the tuition and boarding fees, ranging between £60-100, were beyond the pockets of the lower classes. There were also numerous gardening schools and private tuition available – as can be seen in the table below from Horticultural Education in England, 1900-40: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools by Anne Meredith.


The colleges provided degree-level tuition with an academic atmosphere and specialist staff, which would have been lacking in some of the gardening schools. Although many of the schools, along with the colleges, did encourage their students to take the RHS General Examination as well as the National Certificate in Elementary Horticultural Practice. Successful completion of such a course (especially for those who completed the RHS General Examination) would, it was hoped, lead to a career as a head gardener or a position overseas (usually somewhere in the British colonies).

One of the major schools was the Glynde School for Lady Gardeners, established by The Hon. Frances Wolseley (1872-1936) in 1901-2 with a line-up of important horticultural figures of the day as Patrons – including Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott and William Robinson.


In 1905, a local newspaper, the Sussex Express, reported on the school and its “very valuable work…where young women of good education and a love of out-door occupations may be trained to a useful and profitable means of livelihood.” Adding that “those for a taste for rural pursuits could certainly not do better than take up gardening under such pleasant and systematic conditions as obtained at Miss Wolseley’s school”.


Wolseley believed that gardening offered young ladies of talent and industry the chance of an independent and useful life. She viewed gardening as a means of social improvement and a way of revivifying rural life. Fortunately, she wrote several books on the subject the first of which, Gardening for Women (1908), explains the philosophy of the school and promoted the value of women gardeners. She also wrote Women on the Land (1916), In a College Garden (1916) and Gardens, their Form and Design (1919).


The chief object of the two-year course was, she wrote "to give sound practical training in gardening and in the management of the more hardy garden plants, to improve taste in the laying-out and arrangement of gardens, and to teach the routine of a private garden.” The students also “grew and sold flowers and vegetables, learnt about garden maintenance, glasshouses and glazing, as well as about plants and planting.” They were also taught about garden design.


Wolseley felt strongly about the need in England for “more well-trained, educated, foreseeing people as gardeners”, writing to The Daily Mail in January 1915 about this need, and outlining the two-year course at the college during which 3-4 ladies would have the use of a “comfortable cottage” and “would receive coals, milk, [and] vegetables...”.


With the outbreak of war in 1914, and as male gardeners at Kew and from gardens all across the land left their employment to join the war effort, women stepped in to fill the gaps and Kew began to employ trained female gardeners from horticultural colleges and private gardening schools.

Eventually, the demand for women gardeners greatly exceeded supply. By 1916 Wolseley, writing in her book In the College Garden, thought that the new year had “brought encouragement with regard to the future prospects of women-gardeners, for there has been decided recognition of their worth in the opinion of practical men-gardeners and the RHS has at length shown its approval by admitting women as well as men to the competition for a Degree in Horticulture.” However, Wolseley also thought that it was not just the war and consequent shortage of men that brought about this change, but that women joining such colleges were no longer seen as “amateurish, helpless” ladies, but “practical, energetic [and] fully competent”. And she was convinced that even after the war there would be a “vast outlook of work and happiness for educated women, the daughters of professional men.”


Women working in the hothouses at Windsor Castle during the 1st world war


Unsurprisingly, not everyone thought women gardeners were a good idea. In October 1915, a disgruntled male reader of the Gardeners’ Chronicle wrote that the employment of women in gardens constituted “a growing menace to the future standard of gardeners’ wages” and deplored their lack of experience.


Fortunately, the Curator of the gardens at Kew, William Watson, rebuffed this negative view writing that Kew was already employing fifteen women. And he stated (quite sensibly), that “the gaps must be filled or the gardens will cease to be.” Watson further defended women gardeners, and those employed at Kew in particular, writing that “their enthusiasm, industry and efficiency are equal to those of the average young man. They work the same hours, and are paid the same wages, as the men who have been engaged to keep the places of those who have enlisted.” Interestingly, he added that the “women’s associations” (presumably meaning the colleges and gardening schools) had instructed them to insist on wage parity. He also pointed out that there were “in the country many women who have had training and experience as gardeners.”


By 1916, as more Kew gardeners left for war, the Gardeners’ Chronicle (March 25, 1916) reported that “24 women gardeners are being employed temporarily” to fill the gaps. Fortunately for us, the Kew Guild Journal of 1916 lists their names and where they had been trained. As can be seen from the list below, most of them were from horticultural colleges, schools of gardening, universities, horticultural venues such as farms and fruit growers, or had been privately trained.


List of women gardeners employed at Kew, ‘Kew Guild Journal’, 1916


Despite Watson’s endorsement of the female replacements however, the authors of the Kew Guild Journal seemed to have mixed feelings about their new colleagues:

Some of the work seems too laborious for them but this is their affair… Given fair play and no favour we do not object to anyone competing in the field of horticulture, be it prince or peer, retired army officer or young lady.” They did worry, however, that (as was normal at this time), “marriage would terminate their gardening career.”



‘Kew’s Women Gardeners’, November 1916. Courtesy RBG Kew


Frances Wolseley was, however, pretty forthright that colleges and gardening schools should only take “the right type of young woman”. She thought working-class women were totally unsuitable for horticultural colleges, and also considered that some “rough-mannered, undisciplined middle-class women” who had been trained as gardeners in the “early days” of colleges and gardening schools were also unsuitable. “How it was ever thought that fragile, tender little plants could thrive if some of this description watched over them, I cannot conceive”, she thundered!


‘The Right Kind of Women-Gardeners’. From ‘In a College Garden’ by the Hon. Frances Wolseley, 1916

A bit harsh perhaps – but, reading the chapter ‘The Profession of Gardencraft’ from In a College Garden, Wolseley obviously considered that young ladies from the colleges and gardening schools would be employed as ‘head gardeners’ – not just jobbing gardeners, and therefore they needed to be on a suitable social footing in order to interact with potential employers. She also extolled the merits of paying them adequately, writing: “A woman gardener, like all head gardeners, should be paid in proportion to the amount of brain-fag, deception, and other disagreeables that, by honesty and intelligent supervision, she recues her employer from being the victim of. Then too her practical, well-trained skill, her scientific education, deserve remuneration.” (I can't help but wonder what the disagreeables might have been...!) Wolseley's school prospered until the end of the 1st world war, and finally closed in 1933.


Conditions and pay were also something that exercised the women working at Kew. According to the Kew archives, the women working there during the war often banded together with the remaining male workers when it came to trying to improve conditions or pay. The women, who worked the same hours and received the same basic wages, initially only received half the weekly war bonus payment that the men received. But after appealing this decision, by 1918 they had secured an equal war bonus and actually increased gardeners’ basic weekly wages from 21s to 24s.


But, as with other women in society working as replacements for the men away at war, it was not to last. As men began to return from war, they expected to return to their jobs. And so by December 1919, only 6 women gardeners remained at Kew all of whom worked in the Flower Department. And, by the end of March 1922, the employment of women gardeners at Kew ceased altogether until the outbreak of the 2nd world war, when they were needed once again. However, the war years had shown that women were just as good as men and the need for horticultural training remained.


Another of the foremost horticultural colleges for women was the Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. Its history is a little different for the others mentioned in this blog in that it was originally founded, in 1889, as a college for men only. However, by 1894, the majority of its students were women and, in 1903, it became a women-only college, with fees for various courses offered at £80. By 1918, Swanley was also offering its first courses in garden design. Two of Swanley's first graduates, Alice Hutchins and Annie Gulvin were later amongst the first women gardeners at Kew (Alice is one of the ladies wearing the notorious bloomers in the photograph).


Swanley was also somewhat different in that it became well-known for a more science-based, formalised study regime, rather than having a sole emphasis on apprenticeship training in horticulture. According to a 2013 article about Swanley's scientific bent by Donald Opitz, its syllabus was designed to be both theoretical and practical – with students expected to attend lectures on a variety of topics as well as “give as required, time for laboratory practice.” They were also expected to contribute to “the practical and experimental work in the college’s gardens, glasshouses and workshops.”


‘Students in the botany laboratory at Swanley c. late 1890s’, showing a mixed class, when men still studied there


'Bee-keeping at Swanley'. An apiary was established at which, despite their somewhat restrictive clothing, the students kept bees

Despite its scientific emphasis, Swanley also offered diverse courses such as animal husbandry, botany, jam-making, poultry rearing and bee-keeping. After the second world war however, the college merged with an agricultural college, becoming Wye College, part of the University of London, until it finally closed in 2009.


The last of the great women’s horticultural schools was the Waterperry School of Horticulture, founded in 1927 by Beatrix Havergal (1901-1980) and Avice Sanders (?-1970) - Havergal herself having studied at The Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm. This residential college for women offered courses combining theory and practical instruction with high standards of efficiency. The school’s diploma was considered equal to those issued by Kew and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. The school only finally closing in 1971 following Sander’s death and Havergal's retirement.


‘Women pruning pears in the walled garden at the Women’s Horticultural College at Waterperry House in Oxfordshire, 1943’. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, during his years as the official photographer for the UK government’s Ministry of Information


Fashion


As I'm fascinated by the clothes people have worn for working in the garden over the centuries, I can't write about these women without mentioning their clothing. In Frances Wolseley’s book, Gardening for Women of 1908, she devotes an entire chapter to ‘Dress for Lady Gardeners’, beginning by saying “The question of clothes is always an important one to the feminine mind” – something I don’t think has changed much! However, she considered “neatness and suitability to the climate” as the chief considerations.


As mentioned, students of various colleges often wore a collar and tie, and Wolseley thought that this gave lady head gardeners “a neat appearance” although she was practical as well, writing that “The colour of the coat and skirt should depend upon what will least show the soil when it rubs off as tools are handled or heavy mud is walked through.” Although she thought that the specially designed uniforms favoured by some colleges and schools, while some were “becoming to slim, graceful figures, they are by no means suited to all, and are somewhat too conspicuous to be really desirable.


Very different from when I studied for a horticultural degree some years ago. We students mostly wore jeans and sweat shirts, and the college's only requirement was that, when working in the gardens, we also wore steel toe-capped boots - for health and safety reasons quite rightly! Although all the ladies at these colleges and gardening schools were required to wear "stout leather boots".


At Glynde, Wolseley's students dressed in a khaki-coloured coat, a daring mid calf-length skirt, white blouse and felt hat. Winter’s warm tweeds being replaced by lightweight linen in the summer months. For practical activities, the students wore breeches (albeit with a short skirt over the top for propriety – no-one was going to repeat Kew’s mistake!), with gaiters and leather boots, as can be seen in the photograph below. Very fetching.


'The Captain’, showing the uniform of the lady gardeners at Glynde. From ‘In a College Garden’ by Frances Wolseley, 1916

Swanley’s students were provided with a similarly practical uniform consisting of tunics, knee-length breeches and gaiters, covered with a sturdy cotton smock.


However, the young ladies who studied at the Countess of Warwick’s school had a more demure look than those of some other schools. She dressed her students in long Edwardian skirts, the hems of which were often bound in leather to make it easier to clean off mud, along with neat white blouses - and, like most of the others, with a collar and tie. Still somewhat restrictive perhaps, although they were allowed graceful straw hats in the summer to keep the sun from tanning their fair skin. After all, a ‘sun-tan’ was not a sort-after look at this time for any lady!



‘Studley Castle Horticultural College for Women. Tutor and students in

the garden, 1910’. Courtesy Warwickshire County Record Office. Note the hats!


Women at War


The subject of women studying horticulture continues way beyond my timeframe of the late Victorian/early Edwardian period of course, and I want to briefly mention their pivotal role during the world wars. As already mentioned, some women that joined the Women's Land Army during the 2nd world war had trained at Studley. Having been formed during the 1st world war, the WLA recruited women to ensure continued food production during mens' absence, and it did the same during the 2nd.


The Handbook for the Women's Land Army for the 1st world war also expressed concern for the manner of dress and behaviour of their members: “You are doing a man’s work so you are dressed rather like a man: but remember that just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like an English girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.” They were also expected not to wear any jewellery nor to be seen to put their hands in their pockets.


1st World War recruitment poster for the Women’s Land Army, 1917


'Women on the Home Front 1939-1945, The Women’s Land Army'. Ministry of Information Official Photograph. At least the requirement for any sort of tunic or dress over their breeches/trousers had long gone by this time



Going back to the women working at Kew, the excerpt below is from a magazine article of 1942 which describes the women as "Fully trained girl graduates from agricultural colleges all over the country" working at Kew to replace men who had been called up.


Women gardeners at Kew during the 2nd world war, from the article 'Girls Take Over', 'Illustrated Magazine' of 1942


Excerpts from the text read: "These fifty girl gardeners, very efficient, wearing breeches, leggings, leather aprons and clogs, are tending the fruit, vegetables and drug plants. They put in as many hours as the men. And they are very enthusiastic about their work... Hundreds of tons of fruit and vegetables will be produced this year [at Kew] and much of the work is being undertaken by the small army of girl gardeners... The girl gardeners are kept busy in the big hot-houses set aside for tomato growing. They are growing huge quantities of cauliflowers, cabbages, onions, leeks and potatoes. The “Kewties” are doing a great job.


There's a short British Pathe film (without sound) that’s also worth a look. It dates from 1939 and shows women training at Swanley. As it's titled Land Students in Training, I presume it shows students studying there before going on to work for the Women's Land Army - just as some women studied first at Studley. Here’s the link Land Students In Training (1939) - YouTube



And to conclude


It took decades for attitudes to women as professional gardeners to change - just as attitudes to women working in all walks of life. The article above, and the British Pathe film, both acknowledge the important work undertaken by these women, but still somewhat condescendingly refer to them as "Kewties" and "Eves" respectively. However, the early horticultural colleges and gardening schools certainly played an important role in allowing women to garden in a professional capacity.


Opportunities for women in horticulture today are, of course, vastly different. It's a great profession for women, albeit still not without its challenges and, in the last few years, its reported that record numbers of women have joined agricultural and horticultural colleges. For anyone interested in the statistics, see link below to the 2019 Horticulture Sector Skills Survey commissioned by the RHS and other UK leaders in horticulture.


For information on some modern-day inspirational women in horticulture, please see links below - as well as the RHS video titled, International Women's Day - Who Inspires You? where garden designer, Anne-Marie Powell, mentions the early horticultural colleges for women. (Note: it can take a little while to load.)


The RHS celebrated International Women’s Day in March 2021 by asking garden designer Anne-Marie Powell to briefly talk about inspiring women in horticulture


References:


Anne Meredith, Horticultural Education in England, 1900-40: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools, Garden History, vol.31, no.1 (Spring 2003).


Books by Mrs Loudon, Louisa Johnson and The Hon. Frances Wolseley are available online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library Biodiversity Heritage Library (biodiversitylibrary.org)


Catherine Horwood, Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present, 2010

Twigs Way, Virgins, Weeders & Queens: A History of Women in the Garden, 2006

Miriam Hopkinson, RBG, Kew blog, Women Gardeners during the 1st World War


Donald L. Opitz, A Triumph of Brains over Brute: Women and Science at the Horticultural College, Swanley 1890-1910, Isis, vol.104, No.1, March 2013



Further Reading - links to:




Horticulture Sector Skills Survey Report 2019 (rhs.org.uk) See page 33 for details on 'Gender Balance'




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1 comentário


Convidado:
20 de jan.

The heroine of my book is very interested in growing things at age 10. She will become a 'famous' horticulturist as she grows. I found so much to help me when reading this article.

Curtir
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