The First Women Professional Gardeners

by frankbeswick

Women have always gardened. but they first took on professional duties in the late nineteenth century.

The profession of gardening developed in nineteenth century Victorian Britain, as social attitudes to women began to change. At first there were but few female gardeners, but women did take enthusiastically to the role of gardener and soon some highly proficient ones achieved high status in the gardening world, becoming head gardeners. Institutions that trained women gardeners soon developed,some being all-female colleges, though not all were very good. These women led the way for the women gardeners of today.

Picture courtesy of Lynea

Women in the Garden

Let us dispense with the silly idea that women's gardening only began in the late nineteenth century. Since  there have been gardens there have been women working them. The excellent series "Tales of the Green Valley" which explored life on a restored farm from seventeenth  century Britain, told of how  on farms of  that period there was a division of labour: the men prioritized the fields and the women tended the garden and the smaller animals, though in Spring men did the digging of the garden for the women and women helped with harvest in summer, so not a clear division of labour or indeed a rigid one. In fact rigid divisions of labour are not ancient, being a product of the early nineteenth century to some extent.

In the mediaeval period the women of the house was expected to be a herbalist, so many women tended a herb garden for the plants that gave medicines, dyes and insect repellents. In fact the lady of the manor was not supposed to be a lady of leisure, for her herb garden tilled by her and the maids was to provide for the staff of a sizable house. But during these periods there were no professional women gardeners, for the women did the gardening job as part of wider domestic duties.

In the eighteenth century there were in parts of England many herbswomen, who grew and sold herbs as street vendors, and it is said that the competition among them was fierce. [The Gardens of the English Working Class, pages 42-44.] Moreover, by 1821 there were definitely women working on estates in routine gardening roles, as the Gardens of the English Working Class reports that one female garden worker was very pleased with the new Amazon Dress that her employer had provided, but no one seems to know what an Amazon Dress was. Have female readers any ideas, as I haven't a clue? The woman who got the dress also requested that her steel tipped gloves used for weeding paths be repointed. But this is a gardening tool not known nowadays

In the nineteenth century Middle Class women whose houses had gardens took to gardening with vigour and some enterprising people started to design tools whose size and weight were more suited for women. It was at this period that the small spade was introduced, for prior to that farm spades were often long handled and too large and heavy for some women to lift. [I use a large, long-handled Irish fork, which my wife cannot lift.] During this period there was a famed garden writer named John Loudon who wrote acclaimed horticultural books, but his sales were eclipsed by those of his wife, Jane, who found a gap in the market and wrote Instructions in Gardening for Ladies and The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden.  This showed that women were taking to gardening with fervour. 

It was in the late nineteenth century when gardening was becoming a respected, though as usual not well paid, trade with its own specialized corpus of knowledge and examinations that women began to take up the professional opportunities that it provided, giving them an alternative to nursing, teaching or other kinds work deemed suitable for women. In fact gardening was soon deemed a job fit for ladies, though some people pondered on the physical difficulties that wielding heavy professional tools posed for them. 

The Gardening Courses

The first problem that women faced was that traditional training arrangements were unsuitable, as apprentice garden boys dwelt in the garden bothy, a shack where groups of young males lived together. A female bothy did not appeal to the young, middle class girls entering gardening, for they aspired to dignity and comfort, so such conditions were unsuitable for women. Women therefore needed colleges dedicated to their training. The first such college was Swanley in Kent, established in 1889 and which began to take women in 1891, becoming women only in 1901. The first two female professional gardeners, Annie Gulvin and Alice Hutchings, who were employed at Kew Gardens, were Swanley graduates. But they suffered the problem that Kew was concerned that their loose dresses would damage plants, so they were allowed to garden in bloomers, but women in underwear attracted prurient attention, and so soon they were allowed to wear the same uniform as males: tweed jackets and breeches,caps and heavy boots. Heavy boots were considered vital for safety,even now when I took  my RHS practical gardening examination, I had to have my footwear checked to see if it met safety standards. 

But Swanley girls went to places, and in 1897 Annie Morrison and Lina Barker went to Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens and soon realized that Scotland needed its own school for women gardeners, so they established the Edinburgh school of Gardening for Women. Very soon afterwards Writtle College in the South of England went co-educational, accepting women students on gardening courses.

The Swanley girls were charged £80 a year for board, lodging and tuition, but they had to provide their own uniform, books, laundry and table napkins. Uniform was a warm tweed coat for winter and a lighter tunic for summer,blouses, stockings,belt and a felt or straw hat for summer.  

There is also Lady Warwick, affectionately known as Daisy by her students. Daisy, a wealthy philanthropist committed to women's progress  used her fortune to establish Lady Warwick Hostel at  Reading College in Southern England, where the girls would stay in a place of safety where they  would study at the college. It later moved to Studley Castle in the Midlands,where it taught its own courses and entered its students for the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society examinations.Lady Warwick eventually had to rein back her activities as she had used up much of her fortune and she stepped down from the college principal's role.  

Glynde College, in Sussex, was founded by Lady Frances Wolseley, who was an enthusiastic agricultural reformer,among other good causes. It  trained lady gardeners and produced Christabel Proctor,the head  gardener at Girton,the then all female college in Cambridge. Not as successful as some of the others, this college closed in 1933.  

Some Women Gardeners

Two stand out, Annie Gulvin and Lina Hutchings, the first women employed at Kew Gardens, which only employs top quality gardeners, the ladies in bloomers. Gulvin was a woman of great talent, for on leaving Kew she went on to become  a head gardener at the age of twenty. She worked at Iscoed in Wales, where she managed a staff of five and gained great respect from her employer,  staff and the public. Then she moved on to Burstall in Suffolk, Eastern England, also as head gardener, but her career finished when she married and she fades from history and and no more is written of her. But she would not have finished gardening, for after marriage Annie would have most likely had access to her own garden to control as she liked, not as an employee but as a wife and garden owner.   

Lina Hutchings had a more adventurous life than Annie, her friend and colleague did. Having been promoted a Kew Gardens to sub foreman of the alpine pits she took on a gardening job in Ipswich and took on the head gardener's role at Burstall after Annie married. She then went on to marry fellow Kew student William Patterson and went with him first to the West Indies, where he worked for the government and then to West Africa, where he took on another government job. But she was no shrinking violet,for she traveled with him around West Africa, penetrating areas never before seen by a white woman. She and William retired to the pleasant climate of Uganda, but she died later while visiting her daughter in England. 

After Annie and Lina there were no  women gardeners appointed at Kew until World War ne, where men were in short supply, and the appointment of females was discontinued until World War Two. Only some gardens employed women gardeners. For example, the famous Lost Gardens of Heligan, which were restored as a working pre-World War One garden, employed only males, though now he restored garden has a staff that includes males and females. 

We should not  be disappointed by the small numbers of names given here, for some women gardeners are known only by their names and no more is known of them. You rarely get long-lasting fame as a gardener, but gardeners don't generally seek it.   

Updated: 06/08/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 18 days ago

Chickens. Lambs.calves.

DerdriuMarriner 18 days ago

The first paragraph in the first subheading, Women in the garden, considers men doing farming and women doing gardening and small animal-tending.

What kind of animal sentients were considered small animals tend-able by women?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

Probably not to men asbmuch. Women head gardeners are more common nowadays in modern times and are the results of social progress.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

Unitedstatesian interpretations of eastern-pond wealthiest families into the early 20th century associate women employed as cooks, governesses and housekeepers in great houses with female members of Austen and Bronte character-like families fallen on hard socioeconomic times.

Did that apply to men employed in such counterpart positions as butlers and head gardeners?

Might such a prescription, concomitantly also such a proscription, apply to the first women employed as head gardeners in great houses?

frankbeswick on 07/21/2017


DerdriuMarriner on 07/21/2017

frankbeswick, There's a photo, available online from Catherine Horwood's Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today, of Cope, Hutchings and Morland in their "uniform."

frankbeswick on 06/22/2017

Thanks Katie. Now a query. Do you grow blueberries in the same soil as the other berries that you grow? I ask this because I grow them in pots filled with [acidic] ericaceous compost as I believed my 6.5 pH soil not acidic enough.

Another question. I am dealing with blackberries that are spreading from outside the plot. How do you prevent your blackberries from spreading all over the place?

You are right, Katie, women have ever been gardeners. Not all of them, as not all men are. But even non-gardening women like my mother valued the garden, and she was dedicated to home grown and home-made foods. She always encouraged my interest, and she made a point of ensuring that we ate what I grew. When we had blackcurrants and plums she [and Veronica] turned them into jam.

katiem2 on 06/22/2017

This woman, for one, loves to garden. I live in the suburbs of Westerville Ohio, the population is 37,667. I have managed to take advantage of my space. I have 6 blueberry bushes, a large area of black and red raspberries, a black berry patch, grapes growing over my backyard swing a couple of apple and plum trees.and a small vegetable garden, enough to stock up and share with neighbors. I also enjoy flowers and such. Great article

blackspanielgallery on 06/15/2017

This was a good practice. I see nothing like this going on today.

frankbeswick on 06/10/2017

Almost certainly correct, but there is also the fact that the land had a sabbath. However, there was the practice of gleaning,whereby the ears of corn that fell from the plant during harvest were left for the poor, This was the practice spoken of in the book of Ruth. The same practice extended to fruit trees, which could be beaten but once for their fruit, and afterwards must be left for the poor.

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