The first woman landscape gardener in Britain, Fanny Wilkinson was one of a circle of pioneering women social reformers, including Millicent Garrett Fawcett, campaigner for women’s suffrage, her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman doctor in Britain, and cousins, Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, the first women interior decorators. Fanny also worked with Miranda and Octavia Hill developing public gardens for the benefit of the poor, Octavia later being involved in setting up what was to become the National Trust.
Born in Manchester on 6 June 1855 to Matthew Alexander Eason Wilkinson (1813-1878) and his second wife, an American, Louisa Letitia Walker (1826-1889), Fanny Wilkinson was the eldest child in a family of four daughters and two sons. Her father was one of Manchester’s leading physicians and, at the time of his death, had just completed a term as president of the British Medical Association. The family lived at No.19 Gore Street, Chorlton-upon-Medlock, Manchester, an affluent suburb of large properties.
Matthew Wilkinson’s first wife was Frances Barlow who, at the age of 20, had inherited Middlethorpe Hall and the estates of Middlethorpe and Dringhouses in York. She was descended from the wealthy Barlow family, Thomas Barlow acquiring the estate in 1698 and completing the building of Middlethorpe Hall in 1702. Frances was a widow; her first marriage was to a wealthy clergyman, the Revd Edward Trafford Leigh, of an old Lancashire family after whom Trafford Park in Manchester is named. The couple were married in 1828 and settled in Cheadle where Trafford Leigh was rector, visiting York frequently. In 1847 Trafford Leigh died and his widow returned to Yorkshire, settling at Dringhouses. Frances married Matthew Wilkinson in 1851 but the marriage only lasted a year when Frances died in 1852. Matthew inherited her properties and estates, becoming Lord of the Manor of Dringhouses. He continued to live and practise in Manchester.
Move to Middlethorpe Hall
On Matthew’s death in 1878, Fanny moved with her mother and sisters to Middlethorpe Hall where the family lived apparently well, employing a cook, four maids and a gardener. An interest in gardening was accepted as a leisure pursuit of upper-middle-class women but certainly not as a career, involving design, hard landscaping, dealing with horticultural suppliers, supervising male gardeners and keeping accounts. Women were not accepted on horticulture or landscape gardening courses. In an interview for the Women’s Penny Paper, 8 November 1890, Fanny said, ‘I was always fond of gardening as a child, and I took it up because I felt it suited me, and I wanted to do something…. When my father died we went to live at our own place, near York, and there I began to devote myself to gardening in a practical way.’ Her freedom to pursue a career came ‘when my younger sister grew up I found I was not wanted at home, and looked out for work’.
Becoming a landscape professional
By 1881 the daughters had begun their association with Bloomsbury in London, Fanny’s sister, Louisa, studying at art school, lodging in Gordon Street, and, by the end of 1883, Fanny completing, very unusually for a woman, an 18-month course in landscape architecture at the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture. Her acceptance on the course was fraught with difficulty as women had never previously been accepted. However, she persevered and, with that overcome, Fanny showed a similar determination in seeking suitable employment. She said she had to work hard to master ‘taking surveys, levelling and staking out the ground, drawing plans to scale and making estimates’ but that she ‘enjoyed the life exceedingly…. As a profession for women I decidedly think landscape gardening and indeed all work connected with gardens is good, but they must be regularly trained for it and have a taste, otherwise it will be mere drudgery.’ In her work she said that she preferred to employ her own men but that ‘often my customers prefer that their own men should work under me. This is often a stumbling block, since the gardeners occasionally imagine they know better, and they are often stupid and pig-headed. I have great bother with them now and then.’
By early 1884, she had become honorary landscape gardener both to Miranda and Octavia Hill’s Kyrle Society, founded in 1877 ‘to give pleasure to the poor’, and also to the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association (MPGA). After living in Shaftesbury Avenue with its ‘dirty tramps’ and ‘loose women’, Fanny took up residence with her sister, Louisa, at No.6 Gower Street, two doors from No.2 Gower Street where their friends Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett lived. Fanny was the first woman in Britain to work as a professional landscape gardener and conducted her practice from the heart of Bloomsbury for the next 20 years.
Public open spaces
The purpose of the Kyrle Society – named after the philanthropist John Kyrle (1637-1724) – as with the MPGA, was to secure unused open spaces and lay them out for the benefit of the inhabitants of the metropolis, capitalising on the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act which had been passed in 1881 as a result of Octavia Hill’s lobbying. The act allowed disused burial grounds to be passed directly to local authorities with the power to use public funds to establish and maintain public gardens. In 1887 Fanny was responsible for laying out Vauxhall Park, covering eight acres of land on which stood, among others, the house and garden previously occupied by Henry and Millicent Fawcett. In 1890, ‘HRH the Prince of Wales, who opened the park, expressed his admiration of the skill which had been shown in the designs and plans and complimented the lady landscape gardener, who was presented to him.’
Fanny Wilkinson stood down from the posts termed “honorary”, to put herself on a more business-like footing and to be paid as a professional whilst also doing private work. She said, ‘I certainly do not let myself be underpaid as many women do. There are people who write to me and think because I am a woman I will ask less than a man. This I never do. I know my profession and charge accordingly, as all women should do.’ She was responsible for laying out 75 public gardens for the MPGA over 20 years spanning London from Wandsworth to Plaistow and from Camberwell to Haverstock Hill, the greater number in the East End ameliorating the lives of the poor.
She travelled extensively throughout London and its environs looking for potential spaces, landscaping and developing hard surfacing for playgrounds, gymnastic apparatus, sandpits and drinking fountains, surrounded by grass, flower beds, shrubs and trees. In Meath Gardens, Bethnal Green, she employed 30 men from the ranks of the unemployed and in Myatt’s Field, Camberwell, a site of 14 acres, she supervised 220 unemployed men. She turned numerous disused churchyards into gardens and also laid out gardens for philanthropic organisations such as the Women’s University Settlement, the Women’s School of Medicine and the New Hospital for Women. She took on pupils but typically said, ‘I am always willing to take 2 or 3 pupils, but my terms are not low. I cannot receive anyone at less than £100 per year. It would not pay me for my own trouble and expense.’
Greening the city
She wrote a pamphlet on trees, Suggestions for the Planting and Maintenance of Trees (1899/1900), which was sent to all local authorities in the metropolis, advocating planting plane trees in the centre of towns where the atmosphere was smoke-laden. Her initiative led to trees being planted along the capital’s main roads including Romford Road, Barking Road, Mount Pleasant, Holborn, Whitechapel Road and the Thames Embankment at Putney. She had hoped to turn Marylebone Road and Euston Road into continental-style ‘boulevards’, but her vision was never realised.
In 1904 she resigned from the MPGA to be free to concentrate on her role as the first woman principal of Swanley Horticultural College which had admitted women gradually, eventually becoming a women-only college. Fanny had been involved with the Ladies’ Branch of the college from the early 1890s. By 1898 members of the College Council included five women doctors, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who were interested in furthering scientific training for women, horticultural studies involving the study of botany, physics, chemistry, building construction and bookkeeping. Finding work for women after college became easier as they found posts as gardeners for an increasing number of radical, middle-class women. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson employed women gardeners at her home, Alde House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, as did Fanny Wilkinson at her house at Snape, Suffolk. The gardens of girls’ schools, which provided a supply of students for the college, also employed women gardeners.
In 1916 Fanny retired as principal but was recalled during a crisis in 1921-2 to help the college. She continued her association with the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural International Union of which she was a founder and which had held early meetings at her home in Gower Street. Renamed the Women’s Farm and Garden Union, it launched, in 1916, the Women’s National Land Service Corps to recruit ‘educated women’ to work on farms during the First World War.
Fanny enjoyed an active retirement, breeding goats at Swanley Cottage, close to her sister, Louisa, at Green Heys, Snape, Louisa having married a brother of Millicent Fawcett. She died, unmarried, on 22 January 1951, aged 95, a few days after a fall.
Middlethorpe Hall was the home of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, letter writer, traveller and pioneer of smallpox inoculation, in 1713-4. In 1946 it was owned by Sir Francis Terry. The hall was acquired by Historic House Hotels in 1980 who sympathetically restored the early-18th-century house and derelict gardens. In 2008 the Historic House Hotels group, including Middlethorpe Hall, was donated to the National Trust which continues to operate the hall as a country house hotel.
Researched and written by Pat Hill
Elizabeth Crawford, Enterprising Women, The Garretts and their Circle (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2002)
Elizabeth Crawford, ‘A Woman Professional in Bloomsbury: Fanny Wilkinson, Landscape Gardener’, UCL Bloomsbury Project
Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Wilkinson, Fanny Rollo (1855-1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, May 2008)
Discovering Dringhouses 2, More Aspects of a Village History, (Dringhouses Local History Group, 2016)
‘Middlethorpe Hall, Yorkshire’, Report by Historic Buildings Consultants, for Historic House Hotels(November, 1990)
Women’s Penny Paper, Vol.III, No.107, 8 November, 1890)