An Almost Impossible Thing

The lives of six women gardeners, in the years before the First World War, during the fight for women’s rights, are examined in a book by RHS Head of Libraries and Exhibitions, Fiona Davison

Cover of An Almost Impossible Thing

During research for the Old Laboratory into the archives about male gardeners at Wisley, one of the RHS archivists found a bundle of letters from O. Harrisson dated 1898, writing to claim a scholarship at the RHS garden in Chiswick because they had come top in the national exams, and that was prize.

“It was never contemplated that a woman would try”

The RHS director at the time, Reverend Wilks, replied explaining that as a woman she would not be receiving the prize as the RHS did not accept women to train at Chiswick. Olive Harrisson pointed out that there was nothing in the rules about women not being ineligible, to which the Reverend had scribbled on the top of her letter. “It was never contemplated that a woman would try.”

Fiona Davison, RHS Head of Libraries and Exhibitions,  knew that there were some gardening schools for women in the early 20th century, but she didn’t know how far back in history they went, and if Olive Harrisson was one outstanding single person or if there were more. Covid Lockdown in 2020 gave Davison the time to look through the lists of names she had of those who had passed the RHS exams, and the mark they had received. She managed to establish that 630 of the names were women.

Drawings by women gardeners featured in the book
“It was quite hard to do”, says Fiona Davison, “because the RHS started the examination in 1893, but by 1903 it had stopped putting full names. I think that was because it was embarrassed by how many woman were taking the exam. It was not their intention that introducing exams would facilitate women.”

The RHS exam unintentionally provided a window of opportunity for women. Previously the only route into professional gardening were apprenticeships open only to boys, but from 1893 until just before the First World War, women could get a piece of paper which would prove they were a good gardener.

A respectable career for a woman

 Gardening appeared to solve society’s problem about what to do with middle-class women who didn’t marry, but couldn’t go into ‘unrespectable’ occupations, like their working-class counterparts. For a while there was a boom in women gardeners, with over 30 gardening schools opening up, training thousands of women gardeners with several hundred studying for the professional examination.

Of these women, Davison picked six women who represented different aspects of gardening to follow in detail. The book highlights the stories of ordinary women, as opposed to famous pioneers and shows not only the difficulties these women faced, but also how their own prejudices undermined some of the success they had worked so hard to achieve. 

“It’s not just about trailblazers and the people who get plaques” - Fiona Davison

The book’s title is inspired by Sir Joeseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens 1865-1885, who, when asked about careers in horticultural women said, “Gardening as a hobby, when all the hard work is done by a man is a delightful thing for a woman. But as a career, it is an almost impossible thing.”

Listen to Fiona Davison on the RHS Gardening Podcast

Gardening with the RHS

Buy An Almost Impossible Thing £16.95 from Summerfield Books. 


Lindley Library’s autumn schedule

Event at the Lindley Library

The book launch by Fiona Davison is part of RHS Lindley Lates, which, along with Lindley Lives, is held at the Lindley Library in Vincent Square, London, the 200-year-old library at the Edwardian headquarters of the RHS. Anyone can visit the library, and access the extensive digital collection; RHS members can borrow books and conduct research.

A new season of events including exhibitions, book launches, talks and practical demonstrations has been announced for autumn 2023.


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