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 Fellows!’
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.