Who said women could be gardeners?

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The only way to learn is to DO the actual work.                                     Beatrix Havergal, 1939

Imagine a little girl growing up in a strict Victorian vicarage. Beatrix lived for her own little garden but every couple of years her father was posted to a different vicarage in a different town and she was torn away from her beloved little garden.

As she grew older, of course, this became no surprise. She learned not to invest quite so much of herself in her garden, but leaving it still hurt. It was so important to her.

Older again, she needed either a husband or some way of making a living. She had  no patience with men – she couldn’t be bothered with their endless posturing – and anyway she was stronger than most of them. The alternative was earning her own living and becoming a governess was really the only choice for a well-brought up young lady.  Except that Beatrix wanted to be a gardener.

Women did not garden for a living. True, many women through the ages had tended gardens either for vegetables to feed the family or as a hobby. But for a living? No. Definitely not. It was man’s work.

It was Beatrix Havergal who changed all that. True she started out with the small step of teaching at a girl’s private school rather than being a governess. Rather eccentrically she asked if she could have a small garden at the school and she was allowed that. Her enthusiasm spread to the girls and a class in gardening was started, with Beatrix as the teacher. In addition she became gardener for the school.

This last was a big step and it led to an even bigger one. She left the girl’s school and opened her own school for young lady gardeners. This became so successful that in 1932 she founded the Waterperry School of Horticulture, a residential horticultural college for women.

It had a character all its own. It was located in a beautiful Queen Anne mansion, an architectural jewel that was far beyond anything her students had ever expected to be their home, even temporarily. Lectures, one student said, took place in “our beautiful common room, with a vast expanse of sherry coloured carpet below and exquisite crystal chandeliers above, and usually there was a log fire burning in a marble fireplace. The whole mantelpiece was supported by long-suffering Grecian maidens.”

But all was not glamour. The girls had to start work at 6:40 am. At 7:50 am they assembled in chapel for a service. Supper was at 7:30 pm. Between times Miss Havergal expected hard work. Machinery was virtually non-existent although two carthorses helped with some of the heavier tasks.

In their two years at Waterperry students learned how to do all aspects of gardening, from designing the layout through to the heavy digging and planting. Girls who may have come from families where they were allowed to arrange flowers but not expected to put in any effort to actually grow them found that her motto was “The only way to learn is to DO the actual work.”

As the students worked Miss Havergal crusaded to have women gardeners accepted as head gardeners on estates large and small as well as in municipalities. She saw no point in teaching them if there were no jobs that matched their capabilities.

Nowadays we call them horticulturists, but women are accepted in the role by most people. By creating professionals, Miss Havergal (known to her friends as Trix) created that acceptance for women almost single-handedly.

Beatrix Havergal’s work was rewarded when the Queen awarded her the MBE.  Beatrix died in 1980.

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