The thing about London is that you never know what kind of history you’ll stumble upon next. And this is particularly true of the central part of the city, where the land has been inhabited since time immemorial. Space has been reused and repurposed since well before records began. And in the trendy and chic district of Marylebone, the Paddington Street Gardens are quite the testament to London’s unique story.
For the park is situated on the site of a former cemetery… And the green space you see today was designed by London’s first female professional landscape gardener, Fanny Wilkinson! Nowadays, wander through the gardens and you can expect to find plenty of park benches, as well as open-air cinema screenings during the summer months.
A brief history of the Paddington Street Gardens
Not far from the pretty Edwardian bookstore that now houses Daunt Books and the impressive French artworks that comprise of the Wallace Collection, the Paddington Gardens are much smaller than many of the green spaces London has to offer. As the name would suggest, this park is actually comprised of two gardens, located on either side of the road.
The Southside Gardens are the larger of the two and were once used as the site of an infirmary, as well as a workhouse. From 1731-1857, the gardens were then used as a cemetery. And during this time, it’s thought that some 80,000 burials took place. Traces of the ground’s graveyard past can be found in the massive mausoleum in the heart of the park, as well as in the remaining few gravestones scattered around the edges of Paddington Gardens. The space remains consecrated ground to this day.
Learning About England’s First Female Professional Landscape Gardener at Paddington Street Gardens, A Former Cemetery in Marylebone
Once in the gardens, there are plenty of benches on which to sit in the summer months when the flowers are in bloom and the trees are full of greenery. But of course, the most intriguing part of Paddington Street Gardens is the fact that they were designed by Fanny Rollo Wilkinson, England’s first professional landscape gardener.
Born in 1855 in Medlock, Manchester, Wilkinson moved to Bloomsbury in central London during the early months of 1885. Little is known of her earlier education, though it is said to have been ‘abroad’ and ‘private’ During the early 1880s, she had taken a course in professional landscape gardening at the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture.
Although Fanny was the first woman to ever apply for the course, she completed it within eighteen months and was soon looking for employment within her chosen field! Wilkinson quickly embarked on several projects throughout London, including the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association.
It was around this time that Fanny Wilkinson also struck up a friendship with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a feminist and tireless campaigner for women’s rights. Fawcett is best-known for her work towards women’s suffrage (i.e. the right to vote for women) and as the founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the first English universities created for women.
Millicent Garrett Fawcett
Fanny Rollo Wilkinson Continues to Make Waves as a Professional Landscape Gardener
Following her earlier successes, she was appointed to oversee the new gardens at Vauxhall, a project which was to become her largest so far as a horticulturist. Though she had at first been given an ‘honorary’ position, she soon demanded the same rates and pay as a man would, thus paving the way for women’s rights in the gardening, landscaping, and architectural world.
In fact, when asked if she thought part of her success was down to the fact that she charged less for a service than a man would her reply was a curt: “I certainly do not let myself be underpaid as many women do. There are people who write to me because I am a woman, and think I will ask less than a man. That I will never do. I know my profession and charge accordingly, as all women should do.” (source)
Fanny had a long career before finally retiring to Suffolk where she spent her time breeding goats. She’d enjoyed a successful work life and even was instrumental during WWI in recruiting women to work on farms. Ms Wilkinson died ages ninety-five in 1951.
It’s thought that during her time as a landscape gardener, she created or oversaw the transformation of over seventy-five sites of disused land into public parks, a huge feat for anyone- male or female.