International Women’s Day

After writing these notes in 1998, I persuaded the women employees at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, to celebrate their invaluable contribution. Photo: Jaime Plaza.
After writing these notes in 1998, I persuaded the women employees at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, to celebrate their invaluable contribution. Photo: Jaime Plaza.

Despite the amount of gardening and botanical research carried out by women, their roles and influences in horticulture are not shared in recorded history as equally or as well as the efforts of men.

This fundamental inequality is partly due to exclusion, and also because the contribution of women wasn’t recorded.

In Scotland, the official history of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, from 1670 to 1970, the only recorded contributions by women are a temporary job, an artist, and a visit by the Queen.

In England it was not until 1891 that the first women were accepted into horticultural colleges. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, started employing women gardeners in 1898. But there was a caveat:  women gardeners had to wear breeches, and on the way to and from work they had to wear overcoats as well to thoroughly disguise their sexual identity.

In Australia, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, owes its procurement and the laying out of Mrs Macquaries Road to Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of the Governor. Australia owes to her influence the foundation of its oldest scientific organisation, its first street trees and, until recently, the Wishing Tree, its most famous tree.

Mt Tomah Botanic Garden (NSW) owes its initiation, in 1970, to Mrs Effie Brunet, who transferred her land to the Government for $1.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney’s first recorded customer, Mrs Emily Morriset, requested plants to grow on Norfolk Island (ca 1828-31). The earliest book I could find in their botanic library that had been written by a woman is ‘A Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand’ by Mrs Rowan, published in 1898. Unusually for the time, Mrs Rowan travelled alone. Perhaps her husband was better left at home.

Miss Sarah Hynes started work as second in charge of the National Herbarium of NSW in 1900, but on being found guilty of insubordination in 1910, she was fined and transferred to another Department. The evil Miss Hynes had apparently thrown away a basketful of labels.

In 1901 Miss Margaret Flockton, appointed as an artist at $1.20 a day (ten shillings), also collected plants. In her spare time, (the working week was six days), she tutored the Director’s daughter, Mary Maiden. Miss Flockton appears to have the most detailed record for any of Sydney Gardens’  women employees up to the Second World War.

Other women stand out further still. Appointed as an Assistant Botanist in 1936, Miss Joyce Vickery MSc, became the first woman ever to be appointed to a professional position in the NSW Public Service. The first recorded women trade staff were cleaners, Mrs Miller, Mrs Cole and Mrs Kain of 1906.

But it was not until 1975 that Ruth Murray became the first ever woman horticultural apprentice, ending an embarrassing 74 year head- start by scientific staff at Sydney Gardens.

International Women’s Day is celebrated on Friday 8th March 2013. International Men’s Day starts on 9th March 2013, and ends 364 days later on 7th March 2014.

First written in 1998 when I was the ‘head gardener’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. It was published in the Garden’s newsletter.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
8th March 2013


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