England's first female professional landscape gardener

Fanny Wilkinson
Our thanks to Bodleian Library for permission to reproduce this drawing
FANNY ROLLO WILKINSON (1855-1951) was the first female in England to become a Professional Landscape Gardener. She paved the way for women to enter the profession, which until then had been a strictly male preserve.

Fanny was born in Manchester in 1855 and after her father's death the family moved to Middlethorpe Hall in Yorkshire, where she acquired her love of gardening. In 1882 she was accepted as the first female student by the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening.

AMAZING CAREER Initially she worked for the Kyrle Society, most notably at Vauxhall Park in Lambeth. In 1884 she secured the position of Honorary Landscape Gardener to the MPGA, which at the time was the leading gardening charity. Within two years she persuaded the Association that her employment should be put on a formal basis - with a proper salary – which was quite an achievement!

Vauxhall Park, Lambeth
Vauxhall Park, Lambeth

WORKING FOR THE MPGA Over the next 20 years Fanny created more than 75 public gardens throughout London. These ranged from large parks to small churchyards, where she often supervised sizeable groups of previously unemployed men. Her biggest project was Myatt's Fields in Camberwell, followed by Meath Gardens in Tower Hamlets.

She also worked on the conversion of many churchyards into gardens, including St Anne's Limehouse, St Luke's Chelsea and St George's Bloomsbury. She designed several London Squares, including Red Lion, Wilmington and Northampton Square. Her career was certainly unique for the time.

A MODERN ICON Fanny exhibited at major exhibitions, including the Glasgow Exhibition in 1888 and Chicago Exhibition in 1893. She became a founder member of the Women's Agricultural and Horticultural International Union in 1899. This later became the Women's Farm and Garden Association, which was instrumental in founding the Women's Land Army during the First World War. She was certainly at the cutting edge of the Women's Rights Movement and the campaign for women to work in a man's world. In the light of this, her role in the Suffragist Movement comes as no surprise! Again she was active in helping to secure the vote for women, working closely with Millicent Fawcett, her neighbour and relation by marriage.

Myatt’s Fields, Camberwell
Myatt's Fields, Camberwell
Red Lion Square
Red Lion Square

RECOGNITION In 1890 Fanny was interviewed by the Women's Penny Post, which gives an insight into the way she approached her work. She comes across as a very capable and confident individual, who certainly knew her own mind and was a great role model for women of her time. In 1899 she published a pamphlet on the planting and maintenance of trees in public thoroughfares, which was greatly valued by London Local Authorities.

LIFE AFTER THE MPGA Fanny retired from the MPGA in 1904 to become the first woman principal of Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. Here, she trained a legion of women gardeners, many of whom became well known in their time, including Annie Gulvin and Alice Hutchins, the first women gardeners to be employed at Kew Gardens. After Swanley, Fanny moved to Snape in Suffolk, where she gardened and kept goats until her death in 1951 at 96 years of age!

There is no doubt that she was an outstanding individual whose ground breaking career was well ahead of its time.

Meath Gardens, Bethnal Green
Meath Gardens, Bethnal Green