Kew Gardens during the First World War

By Lucy Handscomb

Palm House Kew

Every part of the UK was affected by the First World War, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew were no different. Several parts of the gardens were ploughed up and used to grow food, with the beds in front of the Palm House full of onions and the palace lawn producing 27 tonnes of potatoes [1]. A number of gardeners were also given allotments in the gardens where they could grow vegetables, but if anyone was found wasting their produce, it would be confiscated and sent to Richmond Hospital [2].

As the male gardeners were called up to fight, they started to be replaced by female gardeners. Initially these women faced suspicion from some of the men, and bemused looks from visitors to the gardens. But once they had proved their worth, they were given more interesting work and greater responsibilities in the glass houses. One of the women gardeners, Lucy Joshua, recalls that she “was sent to the Tropical Seed Pits and that was the beginning, for me, of three happy and interesting years.” [3]

For many of the women this would have been their first time away from home, but a number of local people showed them kindness and helped them to settle in. Mr and Mrs Coutts entertained the female gardeners at their home on Kew Green, and Mrs Matilda Smith allowed them to use her drawing room for sewing parties on behalf of soldiers and sailors.

Although the women gardeners left Kew after the end of the war, they had shown that women were capable of this kind of work and they opened the door for more women to be employed in the gardens in later years.

Museum House Kew Gardens

[1] “The Gardens at Kew” by Allen Paterson

[2] “Women Gardeners at Kew During the War of 1914-1918” by Lucy H. Joshua. Published in the Kew Guild Journal 1944, http://www.kewguild.org.uk/articles/article/1807/

[3] ibid

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