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Strewth! Women gardeners, with no chaperone!

Sandi Pullman

Sandi Pullman

January 18, 2016

This year, 2016, it will be 125 years since Australia’s first school of horticulture the Burnley School of Horticulture was established by the wise men of the Victorian Department of Agriculture in 1891. In the beginning the school was for training boys however in 1893 women were invited to lectures but they were not able to actually study or graduate. This article is going to concentrate on the development of women in horticulture and admission of women to Burnley in 1899 horticulture, so if you would like more information on the history of Burnley, please refer to Anne Vale’s excellent articles.

A most scandalous event happened in 1899. Women were admitted to Burnley School of Horticulture and they came alone, by themselves without chaperones. Outrageous I say. Social conditions were beginning to change all over the world. Women were demanding the vote, the right to own their own property, earn their own money and have control over their bodies and child-bearing. They were breaking out of the stifling corseted dresses and wearing more comfortable clothes which they could breathe in and work in.

Women hoeing at Burnley c1900 Source University of Melbourne Burnley Archives

Women hoeing at Burnley c1900 Source University of Melbourne Burnley Archives

In the Burnley Archives there is a wonderful picture of the women hoeing in long white dresses with straw hats. They look divine, but how impractical, as the dresses were long, with tight fitting bodices and they only wore ordinary walking shoes. Eventually an unofficial uniform was established at Burnley, starting off in 1916 with brown knickers, leggings under a Holland smock and a soft felt yokel hat. Then, in the 1920s and 30s women started wearing jodhpurs, shirts, hats and boots.

You may think Australia was somewhat behind mother England but in the horticultural world we were not, and we should be very proud of this. Burnley was established in 1891 only three years after the first Swanley Horticultural College, Kent, England in 1889. Horticultural education in England became very popular and schools and colleges were popping up everywhere. According to Anne Meredith’s article Horticultural Education in England, 1900-1940: Middle –Class Women and Private Gardening Schools there were about nineteen private horticultural schools in England plus at least three more that were public colleges, and two or three colleges that began as private schools and then became public.

Ina Higgins in 'John Higgins the Rebel Judge' by John Rickard, 1984.

Ina Higgins in ‘John Higgins the Rebel Judge’ by John Rickard, 1984.

The English schools and colleges were for middle class women, but Burnley did not differentiate. Burnley would accept any woman as long as she could pay and had a basic education. In 1899, Frances Georgina Watts Higgins (always known as Ina) approached Charles Bogue Luffman, first Principal of Burnley School of Horticulture, because she wanted to learn how to prune roses and then discovered that the horticultural bug of wanting to know more got into her. Luffman agree on the condition that Ina would find six interested women to join her.

Ina found 72 women ranging in age from 16 to 65, showing that women were keen to learn. In the end about 25 ladies enrolled. The women attended on two half day afternoons on Tuesday and Friday. The course consisted of lectures, demonstrations and limited practical hands-on work (no heavy work was allowed).

Luffman had socialist leanings (a political and social system of social ownership and democratic control of the production). He taught the women about small farm production, with the idea that they could run their own small business or to supplement their income. Subjects were: garden making and management, table-grapes, lemon culture and bush-fruits and vegetable culture. These choices he felt were suitable for women as they required moderate exertion and could yield a living on a small block. Later on bee keeping, poultry and dairy cows were introduced. I would be very surprised if Luffman had not known about what was happening in England, especially as what was happening in Swanley was being reported in February 1899 in the Australasian newspaper.

Charles Bogue Luffman

Charles Bogue Luffman

Luffman was seen as innovative and progressive and the governing Board of Horticulture were horrified that there were women students. There were articles in the newspapers about the Board of Horticulture and they were criticising Luffman saying he was incompetent, especially his pruning techniques for fruit trees. But this seems to be a smoke-screen and the real problem was the women students. However the Fourth Progress Report of the 1900 Royal Commission on Technical Education, sums up that, in their opinion, Luffman is a

“capable and enthusiastic Officer and that he has successfully rebutted the charges of mismanagement made by an irresponsible body.”

Some articles discuss the issue and an English article published in the Leader newspaper (Melbourne) on 7 October, 1899 talks about women in clerical positions taking men’s jobs, using phrases like:

“everywhere women are crowding into occupations which were years ago were exclusively held by men. It is a tremendous invasion.”

(* As yet I am still researching articles of protest about women gardeners using Trove).

By 1910 it seems that women were no longer able to study at Burnley. Luffman resigned in 1908 and the next principal was Mr. John Cronin from 1908-09. Did the Horticultural Board finally get its way? But not for long though, as by 1911 Edward Edgar Pescott (1909-1916) was the principal and Olive Mellor (nee Holtum) was awarded her Certificate of Competency. She then had the cheek to push for being allowed to study full-time and was awarded her Diploma in 1915. This reopening of the door let a flood in of very talented and capable women like Emily Gibson, who worked with Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin and went on to further studies at King’s College at the University of Durham in England. And, of course, there was Edna Walling. These early women students were trail blazers, all doing new things such as Olive Mellor who pioneered a radio gardening program and Emily Gibson working with the Griffins and learning more about landscape architecture.

Edna Walling, Millie Gibson & Olive Mellor: Photos courtesy SLV

Edna Walling, Millie Gibson & Olive Mellor: Photos courtesy SLV

Ina Higgins thought women were better garden designers and managers, more suitable for nursery work and had a better ability for pruning, grafting and budding as their fingers were lighter. She knew one gardener in journalism, and others running their own jobbing business. She was very firm that women should not undercharge for their services and women and men should be paid the same. In an article in the Argus in 1913, she advised that women should work cheerfully with men, not be hostile to them and to quote her

“Woman never rises without lifting man up with her”.

Interesting, Ina describes the characteristics of a ‘girl’ who would be suitable for outdoor work. She gives the middle class Edwardian view of a suitable person of the time: they would have a strong spirit of self-reliance and self respect; that an out-door job such as gardening is beneficial for the development of character and mental health, that the girl will rational, have self-control, be observant, and pay special attentions to orderliness, be able to endure hard work and have faith. Ina also says in the article Horticulture for Women, (The Argus, 12th December, 1913 p. 13)

“a true horticulturist can never be a selfish individual”

Another late Victorian/Edwardian belief was that women were the nurturers and therefore had an innate love of beauty, order and joy. This belief applied to their home-life; men were the bread winners who went out into the world while women stayed at home where they would, supposedly, be content doing domestic duties.

While the First World War was a tragedy and complete waste of life, it opened up many new opportunities for women that previous were not available to them during and after the war. One of tragedies of the First World War was that it caused many women to never marry or have their own families. This meant many had to for the first time earn a living to support themselves. By 1916, women were back studying at Burnley, many full-time and being allowed to do physical work. By the 1930s the standards had dropped to the pits. There is a wonderful picture of the girls driving the Clydesdale horse and note the girls are in overalls! Shocking!!!!

PHOTO TAKEN AT BURNLEY AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE: JULY 1946Source: Museum Victoria. This image is: Public Domain Item no. MM 21625

PHOTO TAKEN AT BURNLEY AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE: JULY 1946Source: Museum Victoria. This image is: Public Domain Item no. MM 21625

Looking back over the last 125 years, Burnley School of Horticulture has produced some remarkable people, some famous, some well know and others forgotten through time but all have been great horticulturists. Indentifying the very early students (from 1894-1911) is difficult as the student records no longer exist. Some of our very early graduates are: Ina Higgins, Rita Godfrey, Emily Gibson (née Grassick), Joan Jones (née Anderson), Tessa Smith, Betty Beggs and Mollie Shannon, Mrs. Tuckett (we are unused if she was a student*) and Tom Parramore (Principal of Ryde School of Horticulture, NSW). Later successful graduates are Hilda Kirkhope, Robert Boyle, Grace Fraser and our most recent is Phillip Johnson, winner – Best in Show, 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Burnley has a wonderful record of equality let it continue….

For information on our birthday celebrations, log onto http://ecosystemforest.unimelb.edu.au/#burnley-125

*Mrs. Tuckett was one of the Patrons of the Women’s Horticultural Association of Victoria along with Ina Higgins and in 1905 published a book on her garden ‘Omama’ in Murrumbeena called ‘A year in my Garden’.

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Drew Batt
8 years ago

Thanks you for the brilliant reminder of a time long past, but events that seem so familiar. By coincidence I mentioned the ‘scandal’ of Bogue Luffman and the women students at Burnley in a post I am writing for Hortitales. I am very grateful to you for your articles on Luffman in Australian Garden History Vol 14/15, and Anne Vale’s book (Exceptional Australian Garden Makers) for providing me with source material.

Sandra Pullman
8 years ago

No worries, yes the ‘scandal’ of Luffman was shocking and so was allowing women students, the place has never fully recovered from either scandal.
Cheers Sandi

Stuart Read
8 years ago

Good one Sandi! Burnley may have been 3 years behind a college in UK, but (check out the film ‘Suffragette’ for a reminder/the time line at the end), Australian women (not to mention New Zealand’s) were decades ahead of their Pommy sisters in gaining basic political rights to vote – social hotbeds of experimentation in the colonies seemed less stifling (albeit with rumps of sexism and racism, alas, even today) than ‘the homeland(s)’. Thoses Misses Higgins, Mellor, Gibson et al deserve a lot more scrutiny and focus. Keep up the great work. Perhaps more entries for http://womenshistory.net.au/category/2012-women-with-a-plan/ ? Stuart.

Sandra Pullman
8 years ago

Thanks Stuart Glad you enjoyed it and great idea, will check out womens history.