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date: 07 April 2020

Wilkinson, Fanny Rollofree

(1855–1951)
  • Elizabeth Crawford

Wilkinson, Fanny Rollo (1855–1951), landscape gardener, was born at 19 Gore Street, Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester, on 6 June 1855, the eldest child in the family of four daughters and two sons born to Matthew Alexander Eason Wilkinson (1813–1878) and his second wife, an American, Louisa Letitia, née Walker (c.1826–1889). Matthew Eason Wilkinson was one of Manchester's leading physicians and at the time of his death had just completed a term as president of the British Medical Association. As a result of a brief first marriage he had inherited two evidently prosperous estates, Dringhouses and Middlethorpe, on the southern outskirts of York.

Fanny Wilkinson was educated 'privately and abroad'; no further details are known. However, by the end of 1883 she had taken what was then, for a woman, the very unusual step of completing an eighteen-month course at the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture, whose principal was Edward Milner. She later commented that 'I was always fond of gardening as a child, and I took it up because I felt it suited me, and I wanted to do something … When my father died we went to live at our own place, near York, and there I began to devote myself to gardening in a practical way' (Women's Penny Paper, 8 Nov 1890). The extensive grounds surrounding Middlethorpe Hall, which included, in satisfying juxtaposition, all the classic country-house ingredients, must have stirred her creative imagination at a time when she was pondering a career. In the course of the Women's Penny Paper interview Fanny Wilkinson made it clear that her admittance to the Crystal Palace classes, which were intended only for men, had been fraught with difficulty. Domestic gardening had long been considered a womanly pursuit; running a business that involved design, hard landscaping, dealing with horticultural suppliers, supervising the work of male gardeners, and keeping abreast with the accounts was not.

On 5 February 1884, soon after completing her training course, Fanny Wilkinson was elected honorary landscape gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association. At some point, certainly by 1887, she also became landscape gardener to the Kyrle Society, the organization founded by Miranda Hill to bring beauty to the lives of the poor. In this capacity she was responsible, in 1887, for laying out a new London public park at Vauxhall. This commission owed something to her very close friendship with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, her sisters, and their friends, women who were pioneering the professionalization of work for women. Millicent Fawcett, who had lived in a house on the Vauxhall estate until the death of her husband, Henry Fawcett, in 1884, headed a campaign to save the land from further development. Once the site had been purchased Fanny Wilkinson was commissioned to lay out the eight acres, with help from Mr Holmes, the gardener, and C. Harrison Townsend, the Kyrle Society's surveyor.

The creation of Vauxhall Park is the best-documented and the largest-scale operation undertaken by Fanny Wilkinson for the shadowy Kyrle Society. By way of contrast her work for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association can be clearly traced through the minutes of its monthly committee meetings. For over nineteen years Fanny Wilkinson attended almost every one of these, preparing the plans, obtaining the estimates, and supervising the laying out of over seventy-five public gardens in London. Although at first her position was honorary, after a couple of years matters were put on a more businesslike footing and she received payment for her work, revealing herself a practical professional woman. In reply to a question from the Women's Penny Paper interviewer about the charges she made for her work, Fanny Wilkinson responded smartly that 'I certainly do not let myself be underpaid as many women do. There are people who write to me because I am a woman, and think I will ask less than a man. That I will never do. I know my profession and charge accordingly, as all women should do'.

The gardens designed by Fanny Wilkinson spanned London from Wandsworth to Plaistow and from Camberwell to Haverstock Hill. They varied in size from tiny Goldsmith's Square, Hackney, to the fourteen acres of Myatt's Field, Camberwell, and the eleven acres of Meath Gardens, a still-surprising oasis behind Roman Road, Bethnal Green. Fanny Wilkinson and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association also effected change at the very heart of the capital, laying out, for instance, Red Lion Square Gardens, Holborn, Tower Garden, and the churchyard of St John, Smith Square, Westminster. She was also tangentially associated with the work of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, designing for them the garden of the Ironmongers' Almhouses, Hackney (now the Geffrye Museum).

Fanny Wilkinson clearly enjoyed the work she did for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, but in 1904 resigned to concentrate on her role as first woman principal of Swanley Horticultural College. This college, originally founded in 1880 to train men in the practice of scientific horticulture, had slowly been transformed into a women-only establishment, its graduates later including Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe. Fanny Wilkinson remained as principal until 1916 and then emerged from retirement to take control again during a period of crisis in 1921–2.

In 1899 Fanny Wilkinson was a founder member of the Women's Agricultural and Horticultural International Union and during the First World War helped turn the union into a useful cog in the war machine. Renamed the Women's Farm and Garden Union, it repositioned itself as the body to which the government could turn when the necessity of recruiting women to work on the land became apparent. In 1916 the union launched the Women's National Land Service Corps to train 'educated' women for work on farms.

During a long and active retirement Fanny Wilkinson occupied herself in breeding goats. She lived for many of these years at Snape in Suffolk, close to her sister, Louisa Garrett, who had married a brother of Millicent Fawcett. Fanny Wilkinson died, unmarried, at the age of ninety-five, on 22 January 1951 at Copsewood, King George's Avenue, Leiston, Suffolk, a few days after a fall at home.

Sources

  • E. Crawford, Enterprising women: the Garretts and their circle (2002)
  • Women's Penny Paper (8 Nov 1890)
  • papers, Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, GL
  • papers, Swanley Horticultural College, Hextable Gardens, Kent, Heritage Centre
  • papers, Women's Agricultural and Horticultural International Union, U. Reading, Rural History Centre
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Wealth at Death

£10,875 5s. 3d.: probate, 11 June 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Reading, Rural History Centre
Guildhall Library, London
(1920–)