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The history of working women at Kew

Michele Losse
8 March 2011
In celebration of International Women's Day, Michele blogs about the employment of women at Kew. The first women gardeners were appointed in 1896.

Lady gardeners of the 19th - 20th century

To coincide with International Women’s Day on the 8 March, I thought I would tell you about the history of women at Kew. The first women gardeners were appointed by the then Director, William Thiselton-Dyer, in 1896. They had qualified from the Horticultural College for Women at Swanley in Kent. Thiselton-Dyer was a strict disciplinarian and had introduced uniforms for gardeners as a symbol of status, as well as imposing order within the establishment. Thus, our first lady gardeners had to wear the same uniform as the men, so as not to distract their male colleagues when working alongside them.


Lady gardeners - Gertrude Cope, Alice Hutchins, Eleanor Morland (Image: RBG Kew)

The first of the lady gardeners were Annie M Gulvin and Alice Hutchins. The compilers of the Journal of the Kew Guild for 1896 had mixed feelings about their appointment: "Some of the work seems too laborious for them but this is their affair… Given fair play and no favour we do not object to anyone competing in the field of horticulture, be it prince or peer, retired army officer or young lady. The pity it is that in the case of women, marriage would terminate their gardening career". By 1898, Alice Hutchins had been promoted to sub-foreman (!) and Annie Gulvin had been replaced by Jessie Newsham and Florence M Potter.

The year 1902 was the last Kew had any lady gardeners, but the First World War saw their re-employment to replace the men who had gone to fight. Over 30 women gardeners worked at Kew until 1918; some stayed on until March 1922, when the employment of women gardeners was discontinued. Women were recruited once again during the Second World War to replace male gardeners. Many were employed until 1946, after which numbers were cut dramatically. From the early 1950s women students were recruited at the rate of one or two a year, until the 1970s when their number increased to become equal with male students.

Artists, specimen mounters and scientists

It is more difficult to trace the employment of women in the scientific sphere, such as the Herbarium and Jodrell Laboratory. There are no sources available prior to 1893, the date of the first publication of the Kew Guild Journal. Matilda Smith (1854-1926), a botanical artist, is the first and only female to appear in the 1893 Kew Guild Journal. She is mentioned as having been employed since 1878, when she was recruited by Sir Joseph Hooker, and worked for a further 43 years. The sole artist for many of these years, she drew botanical illustrations for Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Matilda Smith, botanical artist

The majority of the women employed in the Herbarium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries appear to have already had links with Kew, mostly through their relatives. In 1894, Miss Ada E Fitch, ‘Specimen Mounter’, may have been the daughter of Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892), who was a botanical artist at Kew from 1841 to 1880. In 1905, she was joined by a Miss C E Hemsley, 'Sub-Assistant' in the Herbarium, who may have been the daughter of William Botting Hemsley (1843-1924), Keeper of the Herbarium from 1899-1908.

The employment of women in scientific roles steadily increased in the early 20th century, especially after 1915. In the 1950s, female scientists obtained a more prominent role, especially as they became allowed by law to stay on after they married. Today women are actively involved at Kew in a variety of roles and of course continue to be, from gardening to archiving!


Further Information


6 February 2013
Thanks for your comment, Richard, and for confirming that Ada was in fact Fitch’s daughter. We do hold a copy of Muriel’s interview in the Library – I will have to listen to it!
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3 February 2013
Ada Fitch was the daughter of W H Fitch as the recorded interview with M. Muriel Whiting [who worked as a volunteer at the Herbarium from at least 1926] in possession of Kew confirms. Seemingly Ada and her sister worked together at Kew whilst living on Kew Green.
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12 February 2012
In her Journal, 19 May 1896, Beatrix Potter wrote that, among other things at Kew that day, she had "a distant glimpse of the two young women presumably in knickerbockers tying up flowers." So happy to see them here.
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