Fanny Wilkinson (1855-1951)
Plaque erected in 2022 by English Heritage at 239–241 Shaftesbury Avenue, Bloomsbury, London, WC1A 1BL, London Borough of Camden
Landscape gardener and designer of many open spaces in London
Applied Arts, Gardening
FANNY WILKINSON 1855–1951 Landscape gardener and designer of many open spaces in London lived and worked here 1885–1896
Fanny Rollo Wilkinson (1855–1951) is commemorated with a blue plaque at 239–241 Shaftesbury Avenue, Bloomsbury, where she lived from 1885 to 1896. As landscape gardener to two of the leading organisations for the preservation of London open spaces, she designed public gardens found across the city today.
Fanny Wilkinson, Britain’s first professional female landscape gardener, was born in the Manchester suburb of Greenheys on 6 June 1855. She was the eldest of six children of Dr Matthew Wilkinson, a Manchester doctor who became President of the British Medical Association, and his second wife, Louisa Letitia (née Walker), an American woman of Yorkshire descent.
By Fanny’s own account, her childhood was ‘uneventful but happy’, and the siblings spent the greater part of their time in the field attached to their garden. After her father’s sudden death, the family moved to Middlethorpe Hall, located on one of the York estates inherited from Matthew’s first wife. It was here, in about 1880, that Fanny began to devote herself to gardening.
Soon after, Wilkinson managed to persuade the new School of Gardening at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham to take her on as their first female pupil. By July 1881, due to numerous applications, ‘special arrangements’ were made to admit ‘lady students’.
In 1883 Wilkinson was appointed to the Council of the Kyrle Society, founded in 1877 to bring ‘beauty to the people’, and in 1884 was elected as honorary landscape gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), formed in 1882 to give ‘to the people gardens, and to the children playgrounds’. These included public parks to create green ‘lungs’ in poor districts, among the largest being Myatt’s Fields Park in Camberwell, and Meath Gardens in Bethnal Green, both designed by Wilkinson. From 1885 she began to charge five per cent on all her MPGA payments, and dropped the ‘honorary’ title, thus becoming an early professional female landscape gardener.
Wilkinson entered into a life of activism which encompassed sanitary and political reform, the open spaces movement and campaigns for women’s education and political rights. Her principal legacy is arguably to be found not just in the larger parks and many disused churchyards, which she also laid out, but in the multitude of smaller open spaces that were to be found throughout London. Their protection as accessible spaces for rest and recreation maintained by the local authority was made possible by successive legislation passed from the 1870s, as a result of sustained campaigns by reformers, including Wilkinson and the organisations she represented.
As landscape gardener to the Kyrle Society and the MPGA, Fanny Wilkinson was responsible for the design of scores of grounds across the capital. The historian Elizabeth Crawford calculates that she laid out more than 75 public gardens for the MPGA alone. Wilkinson was active in the movement to professionalise work for women and in her private practice and her teaching encouraged other women in the field of landscape gardening.
In 1902, shortly before she stopped working for the MPGA, Wilkinson became the first female principal of Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. After her retirement she settled in Suffolk, where she bred prize-winning goats. She died at home on 22 January 1951 at the age of 95.
From early 1885 until about April 1896, Wilkinson lived and worked in a flat within newly built commercial premises on a corner site that now bears the address 239–241 Shaftesbury Avenue. The property had room for Wilkinson’s sisters, Louisa, Gladys and Jean, and their cook and housemaid, who probably all moved in after the death of their mother in Bedford Park in 1889.
The blue plaque looks out onto the triangular open space that was laid out to her designs over 130 years ago. Visiting the spot shortly before she moved in, she recommended that ‘if some trees were planted, or seats placed on it, it would be a great boon to this crowded neighbourhood’.