Kew Guild website

Kew Guild

Astrid Purton explores the archives of Kew Guild, an association for current and former Kew staff, held in the Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
22 June 2018
Astrid Purton

Kew Guild, its foundation

The Kew Guild was founded in 1893 as an offshoot of the Kew Mutual Improvement society (itself created in 1871). At the time, it aimed to allow past and present staff and students at Kew – fondly known as Kewites – to stay in touch with one another. In 1964, the Guild was registered as an official charity and as such, today, it also administers funds to support the advancement of horticultural and botanical knowledge. More about the Guild's current work can be viewed via the Guild's website.

The Guild’s Archives

The Guild's Archives capture the organisation's inner workings and allows it to recall the decisions it made and why. It also supports business continuity by providing the organisation with a centralised information point, which is particularly important given the Guild is manned by volunteers often separated by geographical distance.

However, the Guild archives are not solely constituted of dry, bureaucratic records such as meeting minutes and annual accounts – far from it. These archives also capture the personal stories and histories of Kew's gardeners over time. Personal correspondence, reminiscences, obituaries, the journal, season's greetings, photographs and more, all give a valuable insight into the day-to-day lives of Kewites and are, in essence, the human face of the Gardens.

For example, the Archives reveal something about gender politics and Kew. As Desmond and Hepper highlighted in their book  A Century of Kew's Plantsmen: A celebration of the Kew Guild, during the 1950s women gardeners were encouraged to wear strict attire in order to be “as unattractive as possible to the young male gardeners [and discourage] sweethearting” (p.29-30). Meanwhile, in 1913, one of the Garden's tea pavilions was burnt down by Suffragettes (p.32; p.62). As well as intriguing anecdotes such as these, the Guild's archives also holds an iconic photograph of the first women gardeners at Kew.

Kew's Lady Gardeners, 1898

Kewite life

The Archives also reveal the fun-loving and competitive nature of Kewites, as seen through their penchant for taking part in a wide-range of sporting activities. Indeed, since the Guild's inception, sport has been a key feature of Kewite life. In 1894 for example a cricket club was already in place (1894 journal; p.31). Over the years there have also been football, swimming, tennis and athletics clubs amongst others, as well as the establishment of various sporting competitions and races. Of these, the Kew to Wisley road relay race is perhaps one of the best known. First established in 1951 this race is now an annual tradition and sees teams representing Kew and [R.H.S. Gardens] Wisley race each other over, on average, a 20 kms distance. Indeed, the fun-loving and competitive nature of Kewites appears to extend to all manner of activities, including beer-drinking competitions (2012 journal; p.151).

Kew Tennis Club, 1908

Above all, however, the Guild Archives demonstrates how the organisation has supported Kewites over time, through the administration of funds, prizes and Awards, in order to meet its charitable aim of advancing horticultural and botanical knowledge.

Left: Alan Titchmarsh receiving the Metcalf Cup in 1971. Alan graduated from the Diploma in 1972, Right: In 2016, Alan was awarded the Kew Guild Medal for distinguished work as a horticulturalist

And so, for an idea of what life at RBG Kew was really like for the ordinary men and women who tended the gardens, there is no better place than the Guild's Archives to find out more.

Discover the Kew Guild Archives

The catalogue of the Kew Guild papers is now available in our Archive Catalogue. These papers can be viewed in LAA’s Reading Room. Please email to book an appointment.

If you would like to find out more about the Kew Guild or become a member, please visit their website.


Further reading:

A Century of Kew's Plantsmen: A celebration of the Kew Guild by Frank Nigel Hepper and Ray Desmond, published 1993.