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Allen [née Gill], Marjory, Lady Allen of Hurtwoodlocked

  • Hal Moggridge

Allen [née Gill], Marjory, Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1897–1976), landscape architect and promoter of child welfare, was born on 10 May 1897 at Hazelstubbs, Gravel Hill, Bexleyheath, the daughter of George Joseph Gill (c.1860–1947), a water-rate collector, and his wife, Sarah Shorey (Sala) Driver (1864–1953), who worked for the press section of the Inland Revenue. George Gill was a cousin of Eric Gill, and temperamentally a reformer. In 1908 he took his family of four sons and Marjory to live on a smallholding, Brambletye Farm, Cudham, Kent. From 1910 to 1916 Marjory was educated at Bedales School in Hampshire (of which she subsequently became a governor), where she was encouraged to experiment in garden design and was free to explore the surrounding downland. She took a horticultural diploma course at University College, Reading, between 1918 and 1920. On 17 December 1921 she married the socialist politician and pacifist (Reginald) Clifford Allen, later Baron Allen of Hurtwood (1889–1939); they had a daughter. They were very happy, sharing a common attitude to life and a deep love of the countryside around their home on Abinger Common near Guildford. Marjory Allen was known to her close friends as Joan. She was a stocky woman, with square shoulders and a strong face, not much interested in dressiness.

Marjory Allen was closely involved with the small group of people who were practising the art of landscape architecture in the 1920s and 1930s and was elected the first fellow of the new Institute of Landscape Architects on 25 March 1930. This was on the strength of the roof garden she was then creating at Selfridges, the idea for which she had herself put forward. This was followed by a series of other commissions to design London gardens, such as the BBC balcony gardens in Portland Place, and a roof-top nursery school playground in St Pancras, all designed from home. She was chairman of the coronation planting committee, 1937–9. After Lord Allen's death in 1939 she moved to London where her formidable energy and her warmth were turned to the promotion of landscape architecture, her chosen career, and to the well-being of children. In retrospect her achievements in the latter field may seem the more memorable, even though these were so vividly informed by a feeling for landscape design.

In 1939 Allen was elected vice-president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, a position which she sustained through the war years until 1946. She lectured about the future of the profession, promoting the role of landscape architects in the design of parks, housing, roads, factories, and other areas of the human environment. She believed that:

landscape architecture is essentially a fine art, which embraces the wide field of physical planning of the land for human use and enjoyment. It is concerned … with developing and promoting an environment that will bring refreshment, delight and health to the urban population.

Wartime Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects, 3, April 1943, 4

Her jauntiness is illustrated by the words attributed to her—'let's call an international meeting and possibly have an international federation arising from it'—which led in August 1948 to a conference in London and Cambridge where the International Federation of Landscape Architects was founded (Harvey, 11).

In parallel with this work on behalf of her profession, Allen became increasingly interested in the well-being of children, both in Britain and beyond. In 1944 she ran a single-handed campaign to expose the conditions under which children in institutions were living; this led to the passing of the Children's Act in 1948; her publication Whose Children? of 1944 was part of this effort, which Sir William Haley described as 'a classic case of how one person can influence opinion, stir a government into action by setting up a commission of inquiry … and pass a Bill' (Cretney, 208). She was chairman of the Nursery School Association of Great Britain (1942–8), then its president (1948–51). She was founder president of the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education, a member of the Central Advisory Council for Education (1945–9), and chairman of the Advisory Council on Children's Entertainment Films (1944–50). In 1950, as liaison officer with UNICEF, she developed programmes for handicapped children in Europe and the Middle East.

Allen's ideas began to focus particularly upon the plight of children growing up in cities, bereft of opportunities to release the natural energies of youth. She was early to recognize the deadening effect upon children of high-rise living; she wrote of new tower blocks being built in Glasgow as 'a kind of psychological pollution' (Allen, Planning for Play, 14). Practically minded as ever, she promoted the idea of adventure playgrounds, junk playgrounds where the young, lightly supervised to limit danger, could indulge in risky, messy, and untidy activities and could do their own thing, whether energetic, creative, or peaceful.

Allen wrote a series of illustrated books: The Things we See: Gardens (1953) and The New Small Garden (1956), both with her old friend Susan Jellicoe, Adventure Playgrounds (1954), Play Parks (1960), Design for Play (1962), New Playgrounds (1964), and finally Planning for Play (1968). Pictures, painstakingly assembled from numerous sources, some overseas, were often as powerful as the carefully researched script. The image of a child leaping through the air from a pile of loose soil with an expression of concentrated enjoyment won over many of the sceptical and cautious. At the same time, inspired by the Emdrup waste material playground in Copenhagen, she imitated the idea of adventure playgrounds, chairing the Lollard Adventure Playground Association between 1954 and 1960 and the London Adventure Playground Association. Later she extended these ideas to become chair of the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association, which particularly provided play opportunities for disabled children. She wrote in Planning for Play that:

the purpose of this book is to explore some of the ways of keeping alive and of sustaining, the innate curiosity and natural gaiety of children. Gifts that are so vivid and creative have importance for future careers and happiness … we should never forget that play is not a passive occupation. For children and young people it is an expression of their desire to make their own discoveries in their own time and at their own pace. At its best, play is a kind of research … an adventure and an experiment that are greatly enjoyed.

Allen, Planning for Play, 10–11

She died on 11 April 1976.


  • Lady Allen of Hurtwood, Planning for play (1968)
  • M. Allen and M. Nicholson, Memoirs of an uneducated lady: Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1975)
  • S. Harvey and S. Rettig, Fifty years of landscape design (1985)
  • Landscape and Garden (1934–9)
  • Wartime Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects (1941–6)
  • Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects (1946–70)
  • Landscape Design (1970–76)
  • G. Jellicoe, Landscape Design, 115 (Aug 1976), 7
  • S. Harvey, ed., Reflections on landscape: the lives and work of six British landscape architects (1987)
  • S. M. Cretney, Law, law reform and the family (1998)


  • U. Warwick Mod. RC, corresp. and papers


  • group photograph, repro. in Harvey and Rettig, Fifty years of landscape design, p. 155
  • photographs, repro. in Allen and Nicholson, Memoirs of an uneducated lady