Fanny Wilkinson designed 75 of London’s green spaces, including our very own Meath Gardens. Citizen Journalist Kate Rutland explores her life and work.
If you’ve ever walked through Meath Gardens, which lies on the other side of Regent’s Canal opposite Mile End Park, you may have been delighted in the tranquility of this space that is enclosed by blocks of flats, or enjoyed the crocuses and daffodils that appear in spring.
You may also have noticed the black poplar tree in the middle of the garden, a much-loved veteran tree that is one of only 8000 or so left in the UK and is around 175 years old – possibly much older.
But what you almost certainly wouldn’t be able to tell simply by looking at this beautiful patch of greenery, is that it was designed by the first female professional landscape gardener in Britain, Fanny Rollo Wilkinson.
Wilkinson began her groundbreaking career by taking a very unusual step for a woman at the time. She enrolled in an 18-month training course at the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture, classes that had historically been intended for men only.
The career of professional gardening had long been considered something only a man could do, but for Wilkinson, sexism itself was the only thing stopping her from excelling in her chosen career.
After she completed her training course in 1884, Wilkinson was elected honorary landscape gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association (MPGA). At the time, the MPGA was the leading gardening charity in Britain.
She faced discrimination throughout her career due to her gender, and regularly expressed her anger at this. In particular, at the MPGA she quickly made it clear that she expected to be paid the same rate as a man, and as a result, her honorary position then became professional.
Wilkinson was also a suffragette and a member of the Central Committee of Women’s Suffrage, led by her close friend and neighbour, Millicent Fawcett. She campaigned for women to enter professional work and have equal pay and rent.
In 1890, she wrote in the suffrage publication, The Women’s Penny Paper, that working with male gardeners was sometimes difficult, as ‘[they] occasionally imagine they know better, and they are often stupid and pigheaded.’
In 1885, the MPGA approached the owner of Meath Gardens for permission to lay it out as a public garden. Prior to that, the land was known as Victoria Park Cemetery and closed in 1876 to burials after falling into disrepair.
Wilkinson was tasked with supervising the landscaping of the garden. She worked for over a year with a team of 30 men to landscape the 11-acre cemetery.
Gravestones were moved to the wall; existing trees and the arch entryway were retained. Large open green spaces, children’s play equipment, exercise facilities and garden allotments were introduced.
In 1894, the new gardens were opened and were named Meath Gardens after the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association’s Chairman, the Earl of Meath, and the keys were handed to the Chairman of the London County Council.
The legacy of her design is still visible in the park today. The old cemetery wall and archway remain and the woodland area is listed in the National Forest Inventory of England.
Wilkinson was a pioneering and extraordinary individual of her time.
She was remarkable as the first woman to work as a professional gardener. In her career of over 19 years at the MPGA, she was responsible for supervising the design of over 75 public gardens in London. Her achievements have duly recognised; in June 2022, she was gifted a blue plaque in her memory. The plaque can be seen on her flat building on Shaftesbury Avenue.
It is truly inspiring that she achieved this feat in her career through her determination and skill. Her talent in garden design is clearly on display in the beauty of Meath Gardens.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at the 340-year-old history of Paradise Gardens.
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