Women Rule the Plot

Peter King  pub. 1999 by Women’s Farm & Garden Association

Reviewed by Sheila Carey-Thomas, HGT Research Group

In 1899 a group of distinguished women met together in London to set up a Union to promote the training of similar minded women in farming and gardening.

At that time women of a certain social standing had three opportunities for training. The first, established in 1880 and surrounded by 43 acres of farmland & gardens, was at Swanley College in Kent. Every aspect of agriculture & horticulture could be taught to the fee paying students who were by 1903 all women. A second avenue was Lady Warwick’s College at Studley in Warwickshire together with her similar establishment at Reading. From 1900 onwards the third opportunity came from the newly formed Women’s Agricultural & Horticultural International Union.

The organisation was of slender means, with no funds or permanent office & no paid staff and was mainly of the employer class. As such they had first hand knowledge of the poor wages and working conditions in rural employment and were deeply concerned at the lack of opportunities for horticultural education.

To mark it’s 100th anniversary Peter King has published a detailed history of the Women’s Farm & Garden Association (as it was later known) and makes much of the well-known names such as Gertrude Jekyll, Madeline Agar, Brenda Colvin & Sylvia Crowe who have been associated with it.

One of the problems with this history is that it is limited to the history of the WFGA with out showing the bigger picture, for example we are told that they were instrumental in founding the Women’s Land Army. In 1916 a deputation from the Corps went to a meeting at the House of Commons to discuss the creation of a new national women’s organisation to help with the war effort. But no mention is made of Edith Olivier who also attended or of the work she had been quietly doing in Wiltshire.

Edith, a livelong friend and mentor to Rex Whistler, lived a rural existence on the Wilton Estate and as more and more men left to fight at the beginning of WW1 she recognised there would soon be a serious deficit in farm workers. Realising that this was an opportunity for women she contacted her cousin Sidney Olivier, President of the Board of Agriculture who agreed to implement her plans. She became involved in recruiting volunteers and organising their training on local estates and soon built up a local register of 4000 girls. By 1917 there were over 260,000 women working as farm labourers and after the war ended, Edith was awarded an MBE for her work.

Thanks to the Land Army far more land was put to the plough in 1917 than any time pre-war. The growing numbers of women and their expertise changed the attitude of farmers from reluctance to real gratitude.

After the war the WFGA continued to grow and by the 1920’s was taking stands at Chelsea and the Royal Agricultural Show. Although it lost momentum after WW11

The organisation has had a resurgence, especially with the WRAG scheme (Women Returners to Amenity Gardening Scheme) which enables women to gain practical experience in famous gardens such as Highgrove, Chenies Manor & Folly Farm.


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