Unearthing the female pioneers of professional gardening with Fiona Davison

Fiona Davidson and Matthew Appleby

There are a few well-known Edwardian lady gardeners - Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Wilmot are two. They tended to be wealthy and able to forge their trade in their own large gardens.

"Less well known are the professional gardeners and particularly women professional gardeners", says Fiona Davison, the head of libraries and exhibitions at the RHS.

While looking for stories of gardeners at RHS Garden Wisley, she "uncovered a bundle of letters in the Lindley Library... [telling of a woman] claiming a scholarship which was the prize for coming top in the RHS's professional exam in 1898. And the letter said you can't have the scholarship because you're a woman and the scholarship was to train at the RHS garden at Chiswick and Chiswick didn't train women."

Her curiosity piqued, she set out to uncover this fascinating and hidden history and has compiled her findings in her book, An Almost Impossible Thing, The Radical Lives of Britain's Pioneering Women Gardeners

The book captures stories from the 1890s to the First World War, "when this kind of little golden moment, this boom in women wanting to start careers in gardening happened".

She documents reaction to these women at the time: "There was a big, strong, negative pushback from the horticultural establishment... most male gardeners were not receptive to this idea at all. And there's some absolutely corking letters in Gardener's Chronicle and in the Journal of Horticulture... lots and lots of outraged letters."

The discussion covers the social context of those pre-war years but moves to reflect on present day concerns regarding opportunities for women in horticulture: "There's a kind of common pattern that women do child care and go part-time and that does make it harder to progress to the very top of professions."

Reflecting on the lack of female Gold award-winners at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, she says: "There is a kind of conservatism with the little scene that you recognise and reward what you're familiar with. If a sponsor is sponsoring a big garden they want a gold medal at the end of it, almost guaranteed. So what do they do? They look around it in the past: Who's won a gold medal? And so it becomes self-perpetuating," but with women heading up the NFU, the Landscape Institute, the RHS and Defra she agrees, "it is changing and it will change more".

Presenter: HortWeek editor Matthew Appleby
Producer: HortWeek digital content manager Christina Taylor

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