Research Focus on Helen Colt

Maria Precedo, a volunteer with the LGT Research Group, launches our new research feature with an exploration of the work of the London-based ‘suffragette gardener’, Helen Colt.

By the close of the nineteenth century, as the movement for women’s suffrage was gaining ever-greater support and urgency, the role of women in salaried gardening had become a topic of debate in horticultural circles. Women had started edging their way into paid gardening via horticultural colleges such as Swanley, and the directors of the botanical gardens at Kew and Edinburgh were persuaded to employ women gardeners, as an experiment.

With apprenticeships available to boys from the age of 14, however, even college-trained women gardeners lacked experienced and found it difficult to compete for positions. Helen Colt, having attended the Practical Gardening School for Ladies at Regent’s Park and attained the Diploma of the Royal Botanic Society, felt that jobbing gardening was a good way for newly trained women gardeners to consolidate knowledge and build experience – and, more importantly, to showcase their technical skill. Men engaged as jobbers tended to be untrained, perhaps running gardening alongside other work, or were nursery workers who lacked finesse; in a 1910 article, Colt wrote that “the best male workers are hardly to be found in this line”. As a result, town and suburban gardens were too often unimaginative and ‘cheerless’; there was a need for qualified gardeners in domestic situations. Colt wrote: “Here, surely, the woman gardener may find her field.”

Find her field Colt certainly did. Between 1909 and 1910, she advertised in the Women’s Employment magazine as a ‘Practical Gardener’ who would take on gardens within 30 minutes of Baker Street station. From 1911 to 1914, her advertisements appeared in the Suffragette newspaper Votes for Women, in which she described herself as a ‘Specialist in town and suburban gardening’, and later as a ‘Practical, Scientific & Artistic Gardener’. This evolution of job title suggests an increased confidence; in all cases Colt stated her diploma, indicating a desire to be taken seriously. Votes for Women also ran an advertisement on Colt’s behalf, suggesting that garden owners who wanted more creativity than was offered by the typical jobber would appreciate the skills of a qualified woman, such as ‘Miss Colt’. They urged, “Suffragists who are keen on both their garden and their cause would do well to communicate with her.”

Colt was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a breakaway group from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WFL decided that their militancy would not take violent forms, unlike the WSPU’s arson and bombing campaign, which did not spare the horticultural sphere: in 1913, the Orchid house at Kew was attacked and the Tea Pavilion burned down; the year after, two bombs were planted in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – one was diffused but the other exploded and caused damage to the Kibble Palace conservatory.

To help promote her own work, and to encourage other women into urban horticulture, Colt penned articles for numerous magazines and newspapers such as Women’s Employment and London Daily News, In 1912, she held displays at the Royal International and Horticultural Exhibition and at the Englishwoman Exhibition of Arts and Handcrafts, showcasing plans and models for urban and suburban gardens. She was also active in the women’s professional networking organisation the Lyceum Club, and was a key figure in establishing their Agricultural and Horticultural Section.

Colt began to teach at London University’s Bedford College when women started taking horticultural degrees; with the onset of the First World War, she delivered lecture- demonstrations at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regents Park, and later at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute, encouraging the public to grow vegetables in the war effort. For the profession itself, she acknowledged the opportunities that the war had opened up for women, but felt that it was a mixed blessing. Out of necessity, the training courses for the land girls were short, and Colt bemoaned the ‘bugbear’ of the Short Course. The departure of men to fight at the Front meant that an increasing number of gardening posts needed to be filled, and Colt felt that the jumble of experienced women gardeners with rapidly trained workers undermined both the profession and those female gardeners who had endeavoured to be taken seriously for years.

The war further altered Colt’s trajectory when she travelled to France with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, linked with the Imperial War Graves Commission. Then, in 1918, she joined the American unit attached to the Sixth French Army, aiding the rehabilitation of gardens in the war-ravaged land. She was based at Villers-Cotterets near Aisne, but the work came to an abrupt end when the Allies were forced into retreat and their restorative efforts were undone by the Germans.

Colt persevered, and, after the war, formed The Garden League for Devastated France; as part of their work, the organisation raised funds in Britain to reconstruct “communal plantations of fruit, vegetables and flowers”, including school gardens. By 1923, they had procured over 1,200 garden implements, huge quantities of vegetable seeds and more than 1,000 fruit trees, and were given patronage by the Duke and Duchess of York. Colt pursued this work until her death just prior to the outbreak of another world war in 1939.

From striving for women’s emancipation to healing the scarred countryside of France, Helen Colt’s energy and dedication to horticulture is evident in her varied work. Though she was described by one newspaper as “one of the pioneers of professional gardening for women”, her story has been largely forgotten; it is time to redress this.