Girls will be boys? The terms of employment were simple, if a little strange. The first two women admitted to the staff at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1897 were to be known as ‘boys’ and had to dress like boys too.
So began a story I wrote for the sadly short-lived Scottish Garden magazine. It was republished on Sceptical Scot last year and I’m reblogging it here now in tribute to the pioneering women gardeners whose lives are about to be celebrated in the second edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women due this year. Thanks to some new digging they are now more clearly visible.
The first women gardeners were asked to accept the odd terms of the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh in order to take their discreet place in a man’s world. That meant tucking their long hair under a boy’s cap and coming to and from work in an overcoat big enough to cover what they were wearing underneath — boy’s knickerbockers, boy’s flannel shirt, boy’s tie, boy’s waistcoat and boy’s shoes with gaiters.
Or not. For the first few months the two trainees made excuses and got away with skirts until the Regius Keeper, Sir Isaac Bailey Balfour, put his foot down. Summoned to a meeting, the more outwardly rebellious ‘boy’, Constance Ida Hay Currie, aged 24, was dismissed after saying that nothing would induce her to wear such a “repugnant costume”. Instead, as Balfour recorded in a memo, “she considered it an advantage to show she was a woman in order to encourage women to take up gardening.”
It was a bold statement at a time when women’s achievements more often went unseen in a man’s world. The botanic gardens of Kew and Edinburgh were progressive enough to take part in the “experiment” of employing women but dressing them in men’s clothes was, perhaps, a way of keeping them invisible.
The other woman took a different line. Lina Barker, aged 31, agreed to wear the trousers, completed her training and then went on to set up Scotland’s first, and probably only, school of gardening for women. Her partner was Annie Morison, from the Borders, who had been invited to take the place of Constance Hay Currie in the potting sheds and nurseries of the Botanics.
Suffragettes wielding spades
You won’t find any sign of the school now on the hill near Edinburgh Zoo. The experimental gardens and greenhouses were long ago replaced with housing. Only the old Valuation Rolls show that Edinburgh School of Gardening opened in what was then the village of Corstorphine in 1904. Ironically that was the year that George Forrest, another protégée of Isaac Bailey Balfour, set off on his first plant collecting expedition to China. He remains highly visible. Almost everyone with an interest in gardens knows about Forrest. He is remembered in books, exhibitions and, best of all, the plants he introduced to our gardens. But who has heard of Lina (also sometimes spelt Lena) Barker and Annie Morison? Who knows what happened to the ambitious young women who graduated from their school over the next couple of decades? Who credits them with design and development of Scottish gardens?
Fragments in libraries and archives give tantalising glimpses of these women. Fortunately one of them turned to writing. The words of Madge Elder, who was to work at The Priory, Melrose among other Borders gardens, give human shape to otherwise shadowy figures: Lina quiet and reserved; Annie, chatty and outgoing; both with weathered faces and “work-a-day” hands. “I suppose the two principals would be considered the ‘new women’ of their day, a type I had not met before,” Madge Elder wrote in the 60s. “We soon discovered they were fervid suffragettes, and in me at least they had a willing convert.”
It seems odd now that women had to fight so hard to claim their place in gardening. Gertrude Jekyll’s first book, Wood and Garden (1899), was selling well. In England Jekyll and Ellen Willmott had been awarded the RHS Victorian Medal of Honour in 1897 but women students were still not eligible for scholarships (women were not admitted to the RHS council until 1968). In Edinburgh at the beginning of the twentieth century women were not even admitted to meetings of the Scottish Horticultural Association. The idea of women in the garden at all seemed to cause male members confusion. On the one hand there was the patronising guest lecturer, C.W. Burbidge from Dublin, ridiculing the weaker sex, “The bonnie lassies are quite welcome to come and play in the garden. But tall and braw lads in the bothy will pity their struggles with the spade.” On the other, there was the SHA president, David Thomas, complaining that women had an unfair advantage in the “experimental gardening schools”, which were not available to young men entering horticulture.
Meanwhile, a certain Miss Barker’s lecture on Women Gardeners in 1906 confronted prejudices and urged only women truly interested in gardening to come forward, “because just now people do naturally judge the whole question of gardening for women by the merits or demerits of the one or two examples they happen to come across.”
Gender and class
Hostility to women is complicated by class conflict. While gardening could be a profession for wealthy women it was hard labour for most working men. But all women were excluded from training until the opening of women’s horticultural colleges. By the early 1900s, according to the Museum of Garden History, there were three in England: Swanley in Kent, Studley in Warwickshire, and Reading. But graduates still had difficulty finding work, which is why the director at Swanley made an arrangement with the botanic gardens at Kew, Edinburgh and Glasnevin in Dublin.
It is impossible to tell how serious Constance Hay Currie was about a career in horticulture. Poor old Sir Isaac Bailey Balfour had to write several letters before she accepted the post and her letters were always stamped with the name of a hotel; in France, London or Edinburgh. But whatever the politics of the dress code (questions were later raised in the Scottish Office and in the House of Commons), the “boys” at RBGE seemed to receive the same training as their male counterparts. Lina and Annie left in 1899 with high grades (higher than most real boys) in subjects such as botany, forestry, landscaping, chemistry, meteorology, manuring, and bookkeeping.
So to the school on the sunny, south slope of Corstorphine Hill where the Misses Barker and Morrison next appear as ratepayers for the Edinburgh School of Gardening. According to Madge Elder, who joined in 1910, the two women infected all students with enthusiasm for hard work. “They had no use for dilettantes, dabblers, or ‘fair weather gardeners’,” she wrote in the Scots Magazine, “There was no man employed to do the heavy work.”
By day students dug, manured, forked and hoed, working on borders, rock gardens, under glass and in a small vinery; meeting in the potting shed to tidy up. “We were never allowed to put away dirty tools”. In the evening they studied chemistry, botany and horticulture at the Edinburgh and East of Scotland Agriculture College, the only girls on the course. There was one thing that puzzled Madge. “I am surprised our principals did not devise a more suitable uniform. We still wore blouses with skirts to the ankle…”
During the First World War, the school concentrated on training women to work in what became the Land Army. The end of war brought changes. Women over 30 got the vote in 1918; the SHA elected their first women president, Miss M.E. Burton, in 1920. Lina Barker began to specialise in alpine plants and the school probably closed in 1930. The last Valuation Roll entry is for 1929, the year Lina Barker died. She was 62.
Births, deaths and rightful recognition
And the others? Constance Hay Currie became Mrs W.H. Long and was last heard of in Reading in 1931. Madge Elder retired from gardening in 1948 to become a writer. But there the trail went cold. Until recently Annie Morison and the few named students of the school seemed to disappear without trace. Even Madge Elder, a truly remarkable woman in her own right, does not leap out of the reference index in the Edinburgh City Library.
According to the late Sue Innes, co-editor of the first Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (BDSW), that is not at all unusual. Historically, Scottish women’s achievements are often unrecorded. “There was once a view at the Scottish Record Office that if a letter was from a woman to a woman it was probably not worth keeping”. Dates of birth and death of even prominent women 100 years ago can be hard to find. That posed a challenge for researchers of the dictionary (first published in 2005) by Edinburgh University Press. But there is a place in the gardeners’ section for Lina Barker, Annie Morrison and Madge Elder. Thanks to diligent research of garden historian Deborah Reid (there’s a details of how she began HERE) we can now give clearer shape to the lives of these pioneering women in the new BDSW.
This article first appeared in the short-lived Scottish Garden magazine where pictures were reproduced with permission of the Museum of Garden History now the Garden Museum (thanks also to staff of RBGE Library, Edinburgh City Library and Corstorphine Trust).
*Thanks to Deborah Reid who is contributing entries of other women gardeners in the BDSW. And to Scotland’s People
Featured image shows women horticultural students at Studley Castle, Warwickshire, probably around 1905.