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date: 05 December 2023

Havergal, (Grace) Beatrix Helenfree


Havergal, (Grace) Beatrix Helenfree

  • Mary Spiller

(Grace) Beatrix Helen Havergal (1901–1980)

by Valerie Finnis, 1960s

© Valerie Finnis; collection Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library

Havergal, (Grace) Beatrix Helen (1901–1980), horticulturist and teacher, was born on 7 July 1901 at Roydon Manor House near Bressingham, Norfolk, the second of three children of the Revd Clement Havergal (1858–1941), vicar of Bressingham, and his wife, Eveline Mary Barrett (1869–1931). The children had a happy life despite friction between their father, an eccentric and repressive character, and their artistic and romantic mother. In 1902 the family moved to Inkberrow, near Redditch, after which they moved to Paris, where the Revd Havergal was assistant chaplain to the British embassy for two years. After a short stay in Bagthorpe about 1905, he became rector of Brent Eleigh, in Norfolk. At first the children were educated at home by a governess but in 1912 Trix, as she was called, and her elder sister, Frances, went to St Katherine's, a boarding-school at Walmer in Kent. In 1914, after a legal separation, Mrs Havergal took the children to live at 13 Sidney Road, Bedford, and they then attended Bedford high school.

Trix left school in 1916 and took on local gardening jobs under the auspices of the Women's War Agricultural Committee. Clement Havergal rejoined the family and fortunes improved sufficiently for his daughter to consider some training; she had to choose between an outdoor life and a musical career. She had a strong and beautiful contralto voice and played the cello with a skill that matched the family traditions. Both her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been talented musicians and her great-aunt, Frances Ridley Havergal, was a well-known composer of Anglican hymns.

Trix chose horticulture and went as a student to Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm near Newbury, Berkshire, where women were trained in the art and craft of gardening. She spent three years there and in 1920 she obtained the Royal Horticultural Society's certificate with honours. Her first challenge was to design and make a garden at Cold Ash, near Newbury. Here chance played a part, for her excellent work was noticed by Miss Willis, the founder and headmistress of nearby Downe House boarding-school, who asked her to become the head gardener and to make six grass tennis courts, later known as the Havergal courts.

Inspired by Miss Willis's gift for making learning exciting, Beatrix Havergal longed to teach as well as to do. This strong desire and her outstanding ability to illustrate how each job should be done led to the idea of starting her own school. At Downe House she met Avice Sanders, the school's housekeeper, who was to become her lifelong partner and who made the creation of their school of horticulture possible. Music was not forgotten, however: Beatrix continued to play the cello and to sing with the Newbury choral society and later with the Bach Choir in Oxford. She also joined the Thatcham special police rifle club and became a skilled shot.

In 1927, with the help and encouragement of Miss Willis and with less than £250 capital, Beatrix Havergal and Avice Sanders moved to a cottage at Pusey near Faringdon, rented some land, and took their first students. Money was very short, so cash crops were grown for sale in Swindon market. The partners and students worked together, the course aiming to combine theory and practical expertise with high standards of efficiency and speed. This unique training endowed the students with a good reputation. Beatrix Havergal studied in her spare time and in 1932 obtained the Royal Horticultural Society's national diploma of horticulture (later master of horticulture).

By 1932 larger premises were needed and Havergal and Sanders moved to Waterperry House, near Wheatley, Oxfordshire, a small manor house which they rented from Magdalen College. At the outbreak of war the school was well established, offering a two-year course for fifteen to twenty students; these came from every type of background, from all over the British Isles and abroad. At first all paid their own fees but after 1958, when the school was inspected and officially recognized by the Department of Education, scholarships were granted by some county councils. The syllabus covered all aspects of gardening. The working day began at 7 a.m. and tasks were arranged so that each student became proficient at every job. Crops were sold in Oxford market, where students soon learned if their produce was not up to standard. Each had charge of a section of glasshouse and took turns to stoke the boilers before the introduction of an oil-fired system. Towards the end of their two years students took the Royal Horticultural Society general examination and the Waterperry diploma, which was examined externally and became an accepted qualification. Beatrix fought to have her women's qualifications recognized on an equal footing with those of men, particularly in the public parks department. The Waterperry diploma was accepted by the Institute of Parks Administration in 1960 as one equivalent to the Kew and Edinburgh diplomas for exemption purposes, and in 1962 as an appropriate qualification for associate membership of that institute.

Students and staff at Waterperry worked side by side, shared accommodation, and often spent free time together, boating, fishing, playing tennis, rehearsing plays, or going into Oxford to the cinema or theatre. Although the principals were strict, even stern at times, they were deeply interested in and concerned for their students' welfare and happiness. ‘Miss H.’, as she was known, was always the life and soul of any gathering—even a cinema queue! She held prayers for students and staff each morning in the village church, where she was also church warden and played the harmonium for regular services.

Waterperry Gardens were gradually developed to establish a series of teaching units: fruit, flowers, and vegetables were grown, and new glasshouses were built. Growing fruit was Beatrix's particular joy but she also loved the herbaceous border and took great pride in its design. During the war the two-year course was suspended in favour of short courses for women in the land army, and a further 30 acres were cultivated for food production as part of the war effort; Beatrix herself chaired the horticultural sub-committee of the Oxfordshire agricultural committee. The two partners also wanted to reach a wider audience and from 1943 onwards gardening demonstrations were held for the general public in aid of the Queen's Institute of Nursing. The estate had nearly been sold to the John Innes Institute in 1940 but the sale had fallen through at the last moment and in 1948 Havergal and Sanders were finally able to buy the estate with the help of an anonymous benefactor. In 1963 a further gift allowed day classes to be started.

Beatrix Havergal was appointed MBE in 1960, and was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Veitch memorial medal and Victoria medal of honour in 1966; she was also president of the Horticultural Education Association. She published little, though she took part in various radio programmes, and she took films of the work in the gardens from which a short video was made. She was liked and admired throughout the horticultural world and was well known to a wider public for her exhibits of strawberries at the Chelsea flower show, where she received fifteen gold medals.

Beatrix Havergal was a well-built, handsome woman, nearly 6 feet tall, and a commanding figure in her uniform of green breeches, green overalls, and felt hat. She had a warm personality and infected others with her tremendous zest for life and work. Her generous spirit and obvious enthusiasm created a loyalty in her staff which was vital in developing and maintaining the high standards of workmanship and attention to detail which she demanded, but she did not delegate easily. However, though she was strict and had high moral standards, she was also great fun with a keen sense of humour and a flair for, and constant flow of, anecdotes. Her partner was shy and retiring, but of vital support behind the scenes, running the domestic side of the school with great skill and efficiency. Avice Sanders died in 1970 and was buried at Waterperry.

In 1971, in failing health, Beatrix Havergal sold the estate and retired to live in one of the cottages in the grounds. She died on 8 April 1980 at Tower House, Woolton Hill, near Newbury, when visiting her brother. She was buried in Waterperry churchyard on 14 April 1980.


  • U. Maddy, Waterperry: a dream fulfilled (1990)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)


  • Oxon. RO, Oxfordshire Archives



  • V. Finnis, photograph, 1960–69, Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library [see illus.]
  • C. Hardaker, oils (after a photograph; posthumous), Waterperry Gardens Ltd, Wheatley, Oxford
  • photographs, Oxfordshire Archives, County Hall, Oxford
  • photographs, repro. in Maddy, Waterperry (1990)

Wealth at Death

£31,046: probate, 1 July 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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