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Procter, Chrystabel Prudence Goldsmithlocked

(1894–1982)
  • Howard Bailes

Procter, Chrystabel Prudence Goldsmith (1894–1982), horticulturist, was born on 11 March 1894 at 11 Kensington Square, London, the elder daughter of Joseph Procter (1865–1945), a member of the London stock exchange, and his wife, Elizabeth Harriet (1862–1925), the daughter of William Brockbank and his wife, Jane, née Benson. Brought up as an Anglican, she moved towards the Catholic church in her early thirties, but was also associated with the Society of Friends, of which her mother had been a member until 1893. Procter had a metropolitan childhood, but each of her homes possessed a large garden and allowed her to indulge a love of plants and animals. After attending Norland Place School (1904–8) she spent four years at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, which she found 'a very happy school' (Flora and fauna, 10). She was proud to be a Paulina. Both parents, keen educationists, assumed that Chrystabel and her sister Joan would proceed to Cambridge. By the age of fifteen, however, Chrystabel had lost her hearing. Both she and her father thought that attendance at university would be impossible. She turned, therefore, but with delight, to gardening.

After a spell of war service in the Voluntary Aid Detachment Procter attended (1915) the Glynde College of Lady Gardeners, founded in 1902 by Viscountess Wolseley. Glynde made intense demands on its students and offered only one afternoon off from Monday to Saturday, a privilege readily revoked for a small mistake. After Glynde, Procter accepted the invitation of Frances Gray, the high mistress of St Paul's, to become the gardener of Bute House, Luxemburg Gardens, where the school had its playing field and an orchard. At first paid merely as ‘gardener's boy’, she joined the teaching staff and received the title lady gardener once she had passed the Royal Horticultural Society's teachers' honours examination (1919). An immense success both as a teacher and a gardener, she transformed the 5 acres of Bute from an overgrown and weed-covered area into a flourishing vegetable, flower, and fruit garden and also maintained there a small piggery.

Keen to develop her career, Procter moved on in 1925 to a similar post at Bingley Training College in Yorkshire, where she learned to cope with land that was stony and exposed compared with the enclosed clay grounds of Bute. After seven years at Bingley she returned south and took up the post of garden steward at Girton College, Cambridge, in January 1933. There she was successful in developing spectacular flower beds in the courtyards and, during the Second World War, growing vegetables for the war effort. In autumn 1939, for example, her staff picked a complete ton of damsons, which was then sent to the Cambridge canteens for evacuated children; 13 cwt of potatoes were produced in 1937–8 but 19 tons in 1941–2. Her garden reports in the Girton Review convey her professional ebullience. Cloisters Court, she wrote in the autumn 1934 issue, 'will have in it Red Hot Pokers, late Michaelmas Daisies, Chrysanthemums. It is hoped it will then shout a welcome to Freshers on the day that they arrive.' An emergency appeal to college members and alumni for crocuses in the late 1930s produced 11,000 corms, and 'Girton then became a serious rival of Trinity in March' (Flora and fauna, 116).

Though devoted to Girton, Procter was tempted away in 1945, when she was offered the post of estate steward at Bryanston School, Dorset. She adjusted easily to her new responsibilities. The governors expressed concern that she might be offended by the school's tradition of nude bathing, but she told them by telegram: 'Stop worrying about my modesty I have none.' For clearing weeds and brush, she let the boys deploy a flame-thrower, which, she noticed, they loved to use.

By the time she was fifty-five Procter could afford to retire (1950). She spent the next few years travelling in Australia and east Africa, and living in Kenya (1957–61) with her great friend Helen Neatby, a principal at Kaimosi training college. She returned to England in 1961 and occupied the ensuing twenty-one years with her correspondence, meeting old acquaintances, attending horticultural and Paulina events, and writing.

Throughout her life, Procter had combined work as a gardener and teacher with writing and publishing. From childhood she developed the habit of sending essays, letters, and poems to newspapers and journals, especially to the Daily Express, Everyman, and Time and Tide. As a teacher, she contributed to periodicals such as Education, Mother and Child, and the Practical Senior Teacher. Many of her poems or occasional pieces were used by the Tanganyika schools broadcasts in the late 1950s. Her autobiography, 'Flora and fauna', she vainly sought to have published before she died. Helen Neatby: a Quaker in Africa she had printed in 1973. She was a fellow of both the Linnean Society and the Royal Horticultural Society and a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

Although she lived during her last years in a nursing home at Weston-super-Mare, Procter remained alert and active to within a few days of her death on 21 June 1982. She should be remembered as a remarkable gardener who developed beautiful and useful grounds at Bute, Bingley, Girton, and Bryanston and whose writings and teaching influenced and trained hundreds of pupils. For her, as she explained in an article for the Practical Senior Teacher (1934), gardening was an introduction to natural science, a preparation for life, an outdoor laboratory, and an aesthetic training ground.

Sources

  • Girton Cam., Procter MSS
  • C. Procter, ‘Flora and fauna’, Girton Cam., Procter MS
  • Paulina (1908–82)
  • J. Brown, A garden of our own: a history of Girton College garden (1999)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Girton Cam., papers
  • St Paul's Girls' School, London, file

Likenesses

  • photograph, St Paul's Girls' School Archives, London

Wealth at Death

£56,424: probate, 13 Aug 1982, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Girton College, Cambridge