History of the WFGA

The WFGA is a horticultural educational charity, helping anybody interested in horticulture to increase their skills and experience. Formally registered as the Women’s Farm and Garden Association, the working name of the charity was recently changed to the Working for Gardeners Association. The WFGA is the administrator of the WRAG Scheme since it’s inception in 1993.
The WFGA started as a Union, formed an Army, and an Employment Bureau, became Ladies Outfitters and now organises horticultural education, workshops & skills days, the WRAGS scheme, tours and seminars for a membership.

Around the turn of the century a change of attitudes became apparent among women, particularly those of the privileged classes. Women, who were becoming aware of the social constrictions and injustices of their times, were channeling their energies, wealth and influence to improve opportunities and conditions for themselves and other less fortunate women. In 1899 an ‘International Congress of Women Workers’ was held in London and in October of the same year, 22 women who had attended and enjoyed the conference, agreed to form a society and the Women’s Farm and Garden Union as it is then called, was formed. The founder members were mainly of the employer class but specialists in their own field – farmers, land and estate owners, an agricultural journalist and a landscape architect. Early members included many of the movers and shakers of the day – Katherine Courtauld, Fanny Wilkinson, Louisa Wilkins, Gertrude Jeykll, Gertrude Denman, Meriel Talbot, Caroline Grosvenor, Madeline Agar to name but a few.

From the outset the Society offered its members the services of an Employment Department – a bold and innovative step, at a time when it was considered a daring experiment to employ a woman gardener. By 1910 an education committee had been established and practical examinations in gardening and poultry management were conducted and certificates awarded.

The Impact of War: In anticipation of the threat to a trading nation’s food supply and the loss of agricultural workers to the Services, all the resources of this young Association were utilized into forming a Women’s National Land Service Corps, a concept which was meet with much opposition. By 1917 it had become too large to handle by a small voluntary organisation and the Board of Agriculture took over to form the Women’s Land Army.

This was the first in a long history of pioneering, on a small scale, valuable
schemes or reforms which were then taken up a few years later, usually with no acknowledgement, and developed by government depts or organisations with more financial resources. In 1920 the Association purchased 98 acres of land in Lingfield, Surrey and divided it into small holdings which members could rent, to gain practical experience of commercial growing. This was another example of opportunities provided for women, well in advance of the later Government scheme, the Land Settlement Association, (which was just as well) as women did not qualify. Throughout the 20’s, staff within the Employment Service worked hard at raising the profile of women gardeners, giving advice on wages, ensuring standards remained high and with Colleges discouraged the practice of employers engaging gardeners to perform other tasks.

In 1921 the Association started up an Outfit Department, purchasing wholesale from the Golden Anchor Clothing Company in Gloucester, boots, shoes, brown denim coats, overalls and breeches to sell to a membership of women who could not purchase suitable clothing in smaller sizes elsewhere.

A Garden Apprenticeship Scheme was introduced in 1940, which gave school leavers six months practical training in approved gardens. This was later reconstituted to become a pre-college training scheme, a prerequisite for a College placement. The Association recognised the changes in society after the impact of two wars. Within the organisation, these changes were reflected in the management structure. Younger professional women were replacing older women who had held office over many years and came from the employer classes. The charity targeted conditions of pay and work, providing prospects for smallholders and employment opportunities in public parks and botanical gardens. Regional groups were introduced for members. With the labour shortages in the 50’s and mass immigration, many small voluntary organisations folded at this time.

During the 60’s the industry lost outstanding practical and academic teaching standards, built up over 70 years with the unfortunate closure of colleges like Studley, Swanley and Waterperry. The Association concentrated its efforts on education and a booklet ‘Careers in Agriculture and Horticulture’ was published for school leavers.

The Association, with many others, campaigned and worked over many years for parity for women and success came in 1975 when the long awaited and fought for principle of equal pay and opportunity was implemented.
Now in the 21st century, our commitment to education is as solid as ever, with the launch of the ‘Women Returners to Amenity Gardening Scheme’ in 1993, now rebranded as ‘Work & Retrain as a Gardener Scheme’, providing training in practical horticulture within private gardens, recognising the changes in trainee’s lifestyles and commitments. Now firmly established as one of the leading training opportunities available in practical horticulture, the Scheme boasts 100 training gardens in all counties of England, Wales and Scotland has now been set up, with over 80 trainees in placements. All gardens must be working environments with horticultural variety, a good range of equipment and experienced tuition to enable the trainee to cover as many skills as possible during their training year. In support of the training the Association designs an annual programme of specialist workshops and workdays on key horticultural subjects along with garden tours.
Trainees come from a wide variety of previous careers. Our gardens range from large estates or public gardens, with a head gardener and gardening team to small private gardens with an experienced gardener as tutor. All gardens must be working environments, offering horticultural variety, a good range of equipment and experienced tuition to enable the trainee to cover as many skills as possible during their training year.

In support of the training the Association designs an annual membership programme of specialist workshops and workdays on key horticultural subjects along with garden tours.

In 1999 we celebrated our centennial at the Rooftop Gardens in London and a book was published ‘Women Rule the Plot’ which is the story of the 100 year fight to establish women’s place in farm and garden. In 2009 the Christine Ladley Fund was launched supporting members who wish to further their education, learn specialist skills, travel, tackle global warming effects, projects helping schools or communities. Allocations have been awarded to members, covering education, setting up businesses, learning creative skills and academic courses. The WFGA has set up an on-line recruitment service via the website called The Garden Recruitment Network, for Garden Owners to source part-time gardeners.

We are proud that the WRAG Scheme is now firmly established as one of the leading training opportunities available in practical horticulture. Currently we have approx. 100 training gardens in all counties of England, Wales and Scotland. We are recognised by the National Garden Scheme as well as the RHS. With 16 Regional Managers working around the country to search for gardens and placing trainees appropriately. The WRAG Scheme celebrated its 25th anniversary with a member’s party at Waterperry Gardens, back where a lot of our peers started their career path.

Between 2016 and 2020 the WFGA debated internally and with external parties, a possible change to our name. The Charity is very much open to all and it was felt that the time had come to review the name to reflect this. The decision was taken that a working name should be proposed to members, keeping the anacronym WFGA. Hence the name ‘Working for Gardeners Association’ was put to the membership at the AGM Sept 2020. This has now been adopted. The formal name remains the same and is our registered name at the Charity Commission.

Overall, we are confident that the WFGA will continue to grow as a membership organisation and has a place within the industry offering relevant and credible horticultural education and training in the 21st century.

Vanessa Easlea,
Chair WFGA
April 2021

West Horsley Place Welcome Their First WRAGS Trainee

West Horsley Place wrote;

We are delighted to welcome our first WRAGS (Work and Retrain As a Gardener Scheme) trainee, Lizzie Bourke.

The WRAG Scheme, launched in 1993 by charity WFGA (Working For Gardeners Association), provides paid part-time practical horticultural training through carefully sourced garden placements where trainees learn under the instruction of the Head Gardener.

Lizzie will be the first WRAGS trainee at West Horsley Place.  Lizzie will spend one year with us learning from Head Gardener, Nicky Webber, her placement is being supported by a bursary provided by the National Garden Scheme.

The provision of this placement is an important next step for the West Horsley Place Trust in becoming a centre for creativity and learning.  The charity’s vision is that West Horsley Place will be a welcoming space for the community to enjoy with arts, culture, history and nature at its heart.

Head Gardener, Nicky Webber, shares her excitement in having Lizzie join the team,

“We are delighted to welcome Lizzie to West Horsley Place, and are very grateful to Alison Hepworth from WFGA and also to the National Garden Scheme for kindly making this placement possible. As we move forward with the restoration of the walled gardens, we are learning more and more about their fascinating history.  A high point was the discovery earlier this year that our Serpentine Wall may be the oldest surviving example in the country! Understanding the history of the gardens is key to their restoration.  In addition to opening to visitors, the gardens will provide further opportunities for local people to volunteer and learn through our future programme of arts, crafts, history and natural heritage activities.  Over the coming year, we will also be working with the WFGA to deliver skills days at West Horsley Place for other WRAGS trainees.”

We caught up with Lizzie to hear her thoughts on her new adventure,

“I am really looking forward to spending the next year at West Horsley Place, working alongside Nicky and all the wonderful volunteers who bring so much of their own experience to the gardens. I was secretly hoping to land somewhere special, but West Horsley Place goes beyond every expectation. It will be such a privilege to work in the gardens, showing them off to their full potential and planning for the future. It will be an exciting year of creativity, hard work and much learning!”

Director, Ben Pearce,

“Our vision is that West Horsley Place will provide an inclusive place for people from a range of backgrounds to join in, be creative, and flourish, whether they are enjoying the quiet calm of the house or learning a new skill.  From horticulture to crafts, we are committed to creating a new type of historic experience. We are delighted to welcome Lizzie to West Horsley Place and I want to give our collective thanks to WRAGs for this support.”