The surname Collett is a common name in Badsey records. Ruby Collett, who is the subject of this article, was not from a Badsey family, having grown up in Huntingdonshire. But, as she spent a number of her working years based in Evesham, she would undoubtedly have visited Badsey, Aldington and Wickhamford in her role as an inspector in the Ministry of Agriculture. Thus, her story is told here of this pioneering woman.
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Over 450 individuals were taken on as probationer gardeners at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh between 1889 and 1939. Only seven of that group (1.5 %) were women. The student probationer scheme was established in 1892 by Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper, to provide free courses of instruction in practical scientific horticulture and forestry over a period of 2½ years. Applicants had to be aged 25 or under with at least three years working experience in gardening or forestry. In return for full time work in the garden, pay was fixed at £1 1 shilling per week, with extra pay for Sunday work. Courses of instruction were provided through evening classes taught by RBGE staff and external specialists, and on-the-job practical work. Ruby Collett was the seventh woman gardener to be accepted as a student probationer.
Ruby Collett’s early career
Ruby’s full name was Ruby Sarah Martha Collett. She was born on a large mixed farm at Abbot’s Ripton, Huntingdonshire, on 15th February 1900. Prior to arriving at RBGE in August 1924 she garnered 5 years’ practical experience working in private and collegiate gardens. From 1919 to early 1922 Ruby worked as a gardener at Reading University and Loughborough College. During this time, she gained the R.H.S. Senior Certificate – 1st Class. At Loughborough she managed the garden and grounds of five student hostels and supervised a team of assistant lady gardeners. J.F. Driver, Works Manager at Loughborough College gave Ruby a recommendation for her application to RBGE.
In 1923, Ruby started as gardener in a private garden at Pampisford, Cambridgeshire, where she worked under glass and outdoors. Her employer was Mrs Annie Hudson, the widow of P R Hudson, a significant brewer in Cambridgeshire. She took up her place at RBGE in the August of 1924 coming from a position at Anstey Hall, Cambridgeshire, where she was working in the glasshouses.
She found her way around Edinburgh on a motorcycle. Ruby excelled academically, never receiving a mark below 75 per cent and in two subjects (Systematic Botany and Meteorology) passing with full marks. When she left RBGE in February 1927, Sir William Wright Smith, Regius Keeper, noted in the certificate he issued that:
‘Her work in the Royal Botanic Garden has been performed carefully, skilfully and intelligently and her conduct has been in every respect satisfactory.’
Horticultural work, based in Evesham
On leaving RBGE, Ruby Collett was the first woman to gain a position with the Ministry of Agriculture as an Assistant Inspector of Horticulture. She worked primarily among the orchards in Worcestershire. She may have made her visits to growers by motorcycle? According to the Electoral Registers of this period, she lived at 14 Princess Road, Evesham in 1929 and 42 Pershore Road, Evesham in 1930/32. (N.B Women aged 21 to 30 first got the vote in 1928). In her role as a Horticultural officer, she would have been a familiar face to growers in Badsey, Aldington and Wickhamford. The Tewkesbury Register, in November 1930, reported on a show organised by the Bourton District Root, Fruit & Grain Society, at which the Ministry of Agriculture had a stand. The exhibit included examples of fruit diseases and pests and Ruby Collett was in charge. Earlier, at the Western Commercial Horticultural Spring Show in March 1929, Ruby Collett ‘of Evesham’ was a judge in the General & Florist Classes and in the Flower Bunching Class. She appeared to have connections in Cornwall, which would lead to her moving there in a few years’ time.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries published a number of booklets, covering the years between 1917 and 1968, which reported on disease incidence in crops in England and Wales. The names of contributors were included and in the two volumes covering the years 1925-1927 and 1928-1932, “Miss R.S.M. Collett, Evesham, Worcs.” is listed. She was one of only five or six women mentioned in two booklets*, which had about 85 contributors, including individuals and those from Universities, Research Stations and Ministry offices.
Some problems, concerning fruit crops and hops, specifically mentioned in Worcestershire in the two volumes, about which Ruby Collett would have contributed information, were the following:
- A fungal rot was noted on the roots of pear trees in 1927, leaving the young trees dead or dying. They had made poor graft unions and been planted too deeply.
- Scab was reported on Yellow Egg plums in the Bromsgrove area in September 1927.
- Peach leaf curl occurred in Worcestershire and neighbouring counties in 1927.
- In May 1927, American Gooseberry Mildew, locally and, nationally, was unusually severe.
- Mildew attacking strawberry crops was widespread in 1927, including Worcestershire.
- During this era, Silver Leaf was rare on pears, but in 1928, an attack was noticed in Worcestershire. The same disease affects plums, but incidence was very low in surveys in the county in 1931 and 1932.
- Witches’ Broom, a disease causing a proliferation of shoot growth at an infected site, was found to be abundant in a plantation of Damascene trees in Worcestershire in 1928.
- In 1928, Blossom Wilt of cherry was reported in the county and in 1931 was more widespread and severe than normal.
- In raspberries, Botrytis grey mould was damaging canes in 1931, and also causing loss of fruit.
- Hop Downy Mildew was much in evidence in April to June 1928, especially in a form attacking the emerging hop spikes.
- A new problem on hops, named as Chlorotic Disease, was first reported from a hop-yard near Tetbury in June 1927 and the disease was still prevalent in other parts of the county in 1931.
Ruby Collett left the Ministry of Agriculture after working in Evesham for seven years. She had an offer of a job with the Ministry in Whitehall, London, couldn’t bear the thought of being indoors, so resigned.
Life after Evesham - Farming in Cornwall
In 1933, she left the Ministry of Agriculture and re-located to Cornwall. She had amassed sufficient capital to purchase a farm of eight small fields covering approximately 12 acres and two cob-walled cottages, to become a producer of good quality flowers and fruit, a long-held ambition of hers. The farm was located at Quenchwell, Perranwell, halfway between Truro and Falmouth. In March 1934, seed of forty-five shrubs and herbaceous plants, including Lilium regale, Ceanothus veitchianus, Spiraea douglasii and Meconopsis wallichii, were sent to Ruby from RBGE. Ruby wrote about her experiences during the first six years of her flower farm in an article published in the August 1939 issue of The Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Before Ruby purchased her farm, she was advised to make sure the farm was saleable in the event of her failing to make good. Undaunted, she set to work, but with a plan that every endeavour had to be made to make both buildings and equipment serve more than one purpose. She also improved her farm by building a cottage for her foreman, improving her own cottage and building additional storage and picking sheds, a garage and water tanks.
As well as working on her farm herself, Ruby employed a small staff of three and took on horticultural students and employed seasonal workers for flower harvesting. One of the first things she tried to assess was whether mechanical or horse power was the best way of powering work on the farm. A rototiller won out over the horses, after some trying experiences. By 1939, the rototiller had more than paid for itself. Ruby continued using the rototiller for four years after which she purchased a tractor for ploughing, rolling and harrowing.
By 1939, the crops cultivated included over an acre of anemones, the same of daffodils and 2 acres of strawberries, with smaller areas of violets, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. In the early years of the farm, the number of strawberry plants sold was between 50,000 to 70,000 per year and the number of viola plants sold was between 20,000 and 50,000. In the 1939 National Register, she was recorded as unmarried and a “Horticultural Farmer (own a/c)”.
Sometime in the late 1940s, Ruby re-located within Cornwall moving to Rosemergy, in the Parish of St. Agnes, in the Wheal Lawrence Valley, a former centre of Cornish copper-mining. Here she established another flower farm from five fields. Ruby’s enthusiasm for plants meant that she was a very hard worker who expected more of her employees than was perhaps the norm. Someone who worked for her for a short period recalled her as a ‘hard taskmaster.’
A keen golfer, Ruby played the game well into her eighties. She created a practice green on part of her land, and tended it with a particular pride, offering sixpence to any child who could discover a dandelion growing on it. Ruby reached the age of 90, but sadly died in her garden, in tragic circumstances, on Boxing Day, 1990. She had been trying to burn rubbish using petrol.
As a woman, Ruby Collett was a pioneer in many ways, with her time in the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, motorcycling around the city in the 1920s, her role in the Ministry of Agriculture and her horticultural business in Cornwall.
Tom Locke, May 2023
- The information on Ruby Collett’s life can to be found in an article by Graham Hardy, May 2016. One of his credited sources is Anne Meredith who looked in more detail at Miss Collett’s experiences in her thesis ‘Middle class women and horticultural education, 1890-1939’ Ph.D. University of Sussex (2001).
- *The two Ministry of Agriculture publications mentioned are – Fungus and Other Diseases of Crops 1928-1932 and Fungus and Allied Diseases of Crops 1925, 1926 and 1927.