Beneath a bright sky, scattered with light cloud, groups of young women dressed in a practical uniform of dungarees and short sleeved shirts are hard at work in the summer sunshine. Captured by photographer Cecil Beaton, these scenes of wartime England in the early 1940s show horticultural students from the Women’s Horticultural College, based at Waterperry House in rural Oxfordshire, cultivating vital food crops for the war effort.
Engaged in an array of tasks, women are shown driving tractors, and operating other horticultural machinery such as the Plant Junior Hoe, as well as planting, pruning and harvesting by hand. The gardens are recorded at a busy moment in the growing season, probably in June or July, with crops of lettuce and ripe strawberries ready for market, alongside onions and tomato plants still growing on. New seed drills are in the process of being marked out with twine in the freshly turned soil, in preparation for successional sowings.
Better known for his stylish studio portraits of celebrities and royalty, Cecil Beaton produced these images of Waterperry for the Ministry of Information between 1940 and 1944. He is thought to have made two visits to the site, one of which was in the summer of 1943.
In his role as war photographer, Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) produced over 7,000 images recording the war in the Middle East and East Asia, as well as the effects of the blitz in the UK and the domestic war effort. These photographs were the subject of three books published during the war years and the images were transferred to the Imperial War Museum’s collection in 1948. As well as people, Beaton had a lasting interest in flowers and gardens, including his own at Reddish House in Wiltshire, which featured regularly in his work.
Beaton depicts the young Waterperry horticulturalists bent double thinning rows of vegetables, leaning across cold frames to tend courgette plants inside, or heaving crates of produce into the back of a van, bound for the college shop in Oxford market. As Beaton records the physical demands of gardening, his interest in performance and drama is also apparent, his choice of poses giving the women an emblematic appearance, like heroic figures in a patriotic wartime poster.
The captions accompanying Beaton’s photographs are written in the same style as a wartime news reel commentary, with the brisk delivery and clipped pronunciation typical of the era. If some of the assumptions about women’s roles and capabilities seem dated today, so do the horticultural methods – it’s hard to imagine crop spraying now without any face protection for the gardeners. There is hardly any plastic in evidence, however, with tomatoes tied to their supports with raffia and vegetable crates made out of wood.
The Women’s Horticultural College was founded by Beatrix Havergal (1901 – 1980) in 1927 at Pusey House, Oxfordshire. The college moved to Waterperry in 1932, acquiring the site from Magdelen College, Oxford in 1948. Havergal trained in horticulture at the Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm near Newbury before joining Downe House boarding school as head gardener in the early 1920s. It was here that she met her life-long partner Avice Sanders, the school’s housekeeper. Havergal’s two year courses for women covered both theory and practice in horticulture and secured a high reputation for standards. In failing health in her later years, Havergal eventually sold the site to the School of Philosophy and Economic Science in 1971, who remain the owners.
The formidable looking Beatrix Havergal appears in two of Beaton’s photographs; a portrait shows her in a glasshouse thinning bunches of grapes with a scissors and in another she is with students pruning pear cordons in the walled garden. Head of Fruit Growing, Jo Cockin is shown in another photograph instructing students how to spray trees with noxious sounding Nico dust.
Alpine specialist and photographer Valerie Finnis was, of course, a student and later a tutor at Waterperry, joining the college in 1942. Looking again at the composition of Valerie’s photographs from those early years of her life at Waterperry, it’s likely that Beaton’s wartime images were a significant influence in her portrait work. Garden People (2007), the book about Valerie’s life, contains a striking image of two students balanced on stepladders in the walled garden tying in the shoots of a fan-trained peach tree. Intent on their work and with their backs to the camera, this rather unusual pose, together with the stylised symmetry of the photograph is highly reminiscent of Beaton’s approach.
Waterperry is currently in the process of digitising their archive, which includes glass negatives of some of Beaton’s photographs taken in their gardens for the Ministry of Information. As this work progresses, it’s hoped eventually to be able to attach names to more of the faces in these evocative images, and gain further insights into the lives of those who participated in Beatrix Havergal’s remarkable Horticultural College.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll agree Cecil Beaton has captured something uplifting in the achievement of these women working together as a team to produce much needed food for the nation. Links to the photographs and other sources below:
Cecil Beaton’s WW2 photographs for the Ministry of Information at the Imperial War Museum here
Waterperry Gardens here
Beatrix Havergal on Wikipedia here