Fanny Wilkinson: The Suffragist Gardener

The story of the first woman professional landscape gardener in England

By Metropolitan Public Gardens Association

Fanny Rollo Wilkinson

Fanny Rollo Wilkinson (1855 - 1951) was the first woman Professional Landscape Gardener in England and paved the way for women to enter the profession, which until then had been a strictly male preserve.


Fanny was born in Manchester in 1855. After her father’s death, the family moved to Middlethorpe Hall, a Yorkshire estate with extensive gardens, where she enjoyed the practical side of gardening. This led her to apply in 1882 to the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening 

Red Lion Square, LB Camden (2020-05-01) by MPGAMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Working for the MPGA

In 1884, after training, she secured the position of Honorary Landscape Gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), which at this time was the leading gardening charity in the country. She soon realised her worth and within two years had persuaded the Charity, under Chairman Lord Meath, that she should be properly remunerated and her employment put on a formal basis – a ground-breaking achievement!

Red Lion Square, LB Camden (2020-05-02) by MPGAMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Creating 75 Public Gardens

Her career was certainly unique for the time. Over the next twenty years, she created more than 75 public gardens throughout London, from large parks to small churchyards, often supervising sizeable groups of previously unemployed men. 

St Luke's Gardens, Chelsea by Metropolitan Gardens AssociationMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

London Landmarks

Her biggest project was Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell - other major sites being Meath Gardens in Tower Hamlets and Vauxhall Park in Lambeth. She was also responsible for the conversion of many churchyards into gardens, including St Anne’s Limehouse,  St Luke's Chelsea, St George's Bloomsbury and St Mary’s Bow. In addition, she designed several squares, including Red Lion, Wilmington and Northampton Square.

Myatts FieldsMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Visiting Fanny's Gardens

Many of the gardens designed by Fanny still have vestiges of her original design. Vauxhall Park & Myatt's Fields Park in Camberwell are 2 good examples to visit. Myatt's Fields is a good and unusual example of a smaller scale Victorian urban park. It retains many of its original

Paddington Street GardensMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Visit to America

We know that Fanny spent several months in America in 1901, where she met with Olmstrad and other leading garden designers.

De Beauvoir Square, LB Hackney by MPGAMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Glasgow & Chicago

Fanny's output was impressive by any standard. As well designing 75 London gardens, she exhibited at the Glasgow Exhibition in 1888, and the Chicago Exhibition in 1893, but unfortunately no plans of the gardens featured in the Exhibitions survive. 

Vauxhall ParkMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Breaking New Ground

Not surprisingly, in 1899 Fanny become a founder member of the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural Union. This organisation was instrumental in founding, during World War One, what became the Women's Land Army.

Albion SquareMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Recognition

She certainly was recognised in her time as she was interviewed in 1890 by the  the Women's Penny Post, which gave an insight into her working life. The pamphlet she published in 1899 on planting and maintenance of trees in public thoroughfares, was also greatly valued by all London local authorities.

Millicent Fawcett (1913)Original Source: LSE Library

Fighting for Justice

 In December 1888, it seems that Fanny was part of the Central Committee of Women’s Suffrage, led by her relative, friend and neighbour, the pioneering Millicent Fawcett. Her work and personal experience made her aware of the lack of opportunities for women and motivated her to campaign for women to enter the professions and earn equal pay and respect. 

Meath GardensMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Well Done Fanny!

All in all, she was an outstanding individual - the first woman Professional  Landscape Gardener in England - whose career is a ground-breaking story!

Myatts Fields ParkMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Fanny's Legacy

Looking at our history which stretches back almost 140 years, it is heartening to remember that our Victorian founders had the foresight to employ Fanny Wilkinson, who was a pioneer Landscape Gardener and an early advocate of women's rights.

St Luke's Gardens, Chelsea by Metropolitan Public Gardens AssociationMetropolitan Public Gardens Association

Swanley Horticultural College

After leaving the MPGA, in 1904 Fanny became the first woman principal of Swanley Horticultural College, founded in 1880.  Here she was involved in the training of a number of female garden designers, who went on to have successful careers.

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