Met with “suspicion” – Women at Kew Gardens

In 1944, Lucy Joshua wrote an article for the Journal of the Kew Guild about her experiences as a gardener at Kew during the First World War.

Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, there were women in paid work. However, with large numbers of men leaving their jobs in order to serve in the armed forces, women became a prominent feature of Britain’s work environments; in businesses, factories, public services and in agriculture. In the Borough of Richmond, women took up various vacancies, including positions as gardeners at Kew.

Kew Gardens c. 1900 - No Known Copyright (Image Courtesy of James Morley)

Kew Gardens c. 1900 – No Known Copyright (Image Courtesy of James Morley)

Women were brought in to replace male gardeners from 1915 onwards. Many were drawn from horticultural colleges, and had experience of working in a garden environment. Lucy Joshua had been the Head Gardener at a gardening school in Switzerland, before coming to London in August 1915, where she began working in Kew’s Herbaceous ground.

“It was dull work, trimming edges and helping to push around a heavy motor…but we felt it was war work and kept cheerful.”[1]

There was some opposition to female war work from both the public, and from male colleagues. Lucy found that the mistrusting attitude towards female workers could soon be dissipated:

“At first the women workers were met with suspicion from the men, but when we had shown them that we were prepared to do our full share of the work, the ice was broken and there was real comradeship.”[2]

Throughout her time at Kew, Lucy worked her way through a number of positions at Kew, beginning first by working in the gardens and later going “under glass” – which meant working within the glass houses. She was made sub-forewoman, and even had her notes on ‘Women in Horticulture’ published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle.

Like many women involved in war work, Lucy left her job at Kew after the war ended. Most employers had taken on female staff under the strict instruction that the work would be temporary. It was expected that when the men returned, they would once again take up their jobs.

Though many women found themselves without employment after the First World War, things for women in society had changed – they ‘daringly’ wore trousers, smoked cigarettes, cut their hair short, attended public houses and played organised sport. At Kew, female employment ended in 1922. Though this was soon revived during the Second World War.

Women Gardens at Kew during the Second World War - No Known Copyright

Women Gardeners at Kew during the Second World War from Illustrated Magazine 1942 – No Known Copyright

For more information, follow these links:

Kew What’s On – First World War

Kew Blog – Women Gardeners

Vintage Kew Gardens Photos

[1] Women Gardeners at Kew During the War of 1914-1918, Lucy H. Joshua http://www.kewguild.org.uk/articles/article/1807/

[2] Ibid