We’re familiar with the names of Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst and others who stood up to tradition in the 19th and early 20th centuries to show that women weren’t the inferior gender. But you probably won’t know the name of Derek Turner’s grandmother Annie Gulvin, a pioneer in the exclusively male world of professional gardening.
Derek has warm memories of his grandmother, who continued to enjoy gardening and growing vegetables for her grandchildren until her death in 1972, aged 96. “She always used to ply me with food and drink,” he remembers. “In an era of post-war rationing, it was good to supplement the meals that I received at boarding school!”
However, it wasn’t until Derek came into the possession of a memoir written by his father, and talked to a cousin that Annie had raised, that he began piecing together her trailblazing story.
Born Mary Ann Gulvin to modest origins in 1876, it was the serendipitous suggestion of a doctor that a bright but often sick Annie forget about school and her dreams of being a teacher, and instead focus on an outdoor life. This led to her winning a place at the prestigious Swanley Horticultural College, where she became one of the first female students at this previously all-male school.
Here she excelled, going on to be top of the class (the first woman to do so), and in 1896 she followed the natural path of the college’s best and brightest, taking up her post alongside Alice Hutchins at the world-renowned Kew Gardens. They were the first female gardeners Kew ever appointed.
Family legend states that despite her academic success, getting the job at Kew was no formality. After being rejected by the director of the gardens, Annie had a chance meeting on her way out with a carriage containing none other than one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. A chat over tea was apparently all that was needed for a few words in the right direction and the director to change his mind.
“I wish I could find some confirmation or denial of that story, but it is the sort of thing that doesn’t get into a historical record,” explains Derek. “The circumstantial evidence suggests that someone in high places made sure she would be employed. I’m inclined to believe it.”
Annie never saw herself as a feminist, but Derek is keen to underline her strong will and resolve. These were certainly needed to cope with the sexism she encountered. Through researching journals and documents, Derek has uncovered a poem where Annie and Alice were described as “freaks” whose presence turned Kew into “a side-show”, while they were given unattractive uniforms meant to prevent them leading male gardeners astray.
After a year at Kew, Annie set another first when she moved to the mansion of Iscoed in Carmarthenshire. The Journal of the Kew Guild noted: “Miss Gulvin has the distinction of being the first woman to take sole charge of a garden on exactly the same terms as a man.”
However, despite turning around the fortunes of a somewhat neglected five-acre garden, Annie only stayed a year. Iscoed suffered a high staff turnover in general. Derek says that the lady of the manor was notoriously fiery: “Apparently she had a spy hole, and used to spy into the servants’ quarters.”
Annie instead moved to become head gardener in a grand house known as The Cottage in Burstall, Suffolk, in 1899, at which point her pioneering enterprise was clearly having an influence, with more female gardeners being employed at Kew and elsewhere.
However, it didn’t last. Derek says, “It was sad that there was this burst of activity, and then it faded away. Kew returned to its male chauvinist ways, and only took women seriously when they had to during the First World War.”
Anne’s own time as a gardener came to an end when marriage derailed her career. At just 23 she fell in love with a wealthy solicitor who was nearly 20 years her senior. When they married in 1900 she made a giant leap up the social ladder, and left the struggle for horticultural equality behind.
“She was never a suffragette, but she obviously believed that women were just as good as men when it came to certain jobs,” Derek concludes.
“I think she did know everything she had achieved – she was an intelligent lady. I suspect that in this day and age she would like to have carried on with her career.”