I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to curate this exhibition at Sissinghurst. It is free to visitors of this world-famous garden and runs from 5 May until 21 October. Highlights include a beautiful suffrage banner embroidered by Gertrude Jekyll and one of Vita Sackville-West's own garden notes which, we believe, has never been publically displayed before.
Glynde College of Lady Gardeners
One of the pleasures of giving talks on Gardening Women is having the chance to talk to people afterwards and hear their own stories and memories. After a recent talk I gave at the Guildford Literary Festival, I was delighted when a lovely lady came up to me to say that she had a copy of The Hon. Frances Wolseley's Gardening for Women inscribed by Chrystabel Procter. Chrystabel went on from Wolseley's Glynde College to become Head Gardener at Girton College at Cambridge. I have written about her experiences there in the late 1930s and during the Second World War in Gardening Women, including her battles with the dons who insisted on stripping the garden for flower arrangements in their rooms.
So it was a double thrill when I received these photographs of the book showing not only Chrystabel's name inscribed at the front in ink, but also several comments that had been pencilled in to the text. While we can't be positive they were written by Chrystabel, the writing is similar enough to think we can be confident they are. Scroll down to read her comments on Gertrude Jekyll, women not having the strength to garden seriously alongside some pretty non-PC language on 'native gardeners' in South Africa, and the lack of holiday time for all gardeners. Gail is lucky to own such a little treasure and I thank her for sharing it with us.
Browsing at an antiques fair today near my home in Suffolk, I came across a copy of Jane Brown's A Garden of Our Own'. Not an antique but pretty rare nevertheless. Published in 1999, this is a slim booklet was brought out as a history of the Girton College Garden. I hadn't seen it since I visited Girton three years ago while doing research for Gardening Women.
What I was looking for was information on Chrystabel Procter who had been the gardener there from 1932 to 1945. Chrystabel was, according to garden historian Jane Brown, 'the most outstanding of the college's gardeners'. I followed her career from the Glynde College of Lady Gardeners to her final job at Bryanston boys' school.
Procter transformed the
gardens of Girton between 1933 and 1945, planting 11,000 crocus corms and
creating autumnal displays of Michaelmas daisies, chrysanthemums and red hot
pokers to ‘shout a welcome to Freshers on the day they arrive.’
Not that she had an easy ride when she arrived in 1932 as I soon found out.
‘Don’t waste your time trying to grow flowers,’ Miss
Swindale, Girton’s previous gardener told Chrystabel. ‘All the Fellows had the
right to pick flowers for themselves for their rooms whenever they wanted to
and almost wherever they wanted to [and] even breaking branches off the
flowering and other trees was permissible and commonly done by certain
Miss Swindale explained that this practice had once been permitted only in certain places, but had now gradually spread to almost all parts of the estate except the borders in the front drive. ‘I couldn’t bear it’, she added, ‘and now the Research Fellows are doing it too.’ With her customary commonsense Miss Procter eventually stopped what she considered vandalism by growing flowers especially for room decoration, but it was a hard-fought battle to get the College staff to agree to this compromise. It was also agreed that ‘scissors must be used, as few leaves as possible should be gathered. The Committee would be very grateful if Fellows would abstain from picking from any tree, shrub or shrubby creeper.’ These rules applied during vacation as well as during term, so there was no time of year when Miss Procter’s horticultural domain was not under attack from lurking flower arrangers.