One of the businesses that over a number of years advertised very regularly in Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was that of the Violet Nurseries run by ‘The Misses Allen-Brown, F.R.H.S.’ at Henfield in Sussex. I was intrigued by the idea of the intensive farming of violets – that most Edwardian of flowers – and the fact that the women apparently also manufactured violet-scented unguents and perfume and thought I’d do a little delving.
When skimreading through Votes for Women I had just assumed that the ‘Misses Allen-Brown’ were sisters but once I began researching I quickly discovered that they were, separately, a ‘Miss Allen’ and a ‘Miss Brown’.
Ada Eugenie Brown (1856-1915) was born in Liverpool, one of the six children of Aaron (1814-1883) and Lydia Brown. Her father was a ‘provision merchant’ – a ship’s store dealer and ship’s chandler -working from premises in Chapel Street, Liverpool. The family lived in ‘Hartfield’, a large Italianate house in Allerton that still stands, now incorporated into Calderstones School. By 1871 the family was sufficiently prosperous to be tended by at least five servants, including a butler and a footman, and probably also kept a coachman. By the time he died in 1883 Aaron Brown had moved from Allerton to the very smart area of Princes Park. He left over £22,000 but I haven’t investigated his will and don’t know what share of this went to Ada. By 1899 she was living in ‘Holmgarth’ (now known as ‘Providence Cottage’) on Henfield Common North Road in Henfield, Sussex.
Decima Mary Katherine Allen (1869 – 1951) was born at Burnham in Somerset, one of the eleven children born to Elizabeth Allen. When the 1871 census was taken her mother was a recent widow and described herself as ‘a farmer’. As her name would suggest, Decima was the tenth child born of her parent’s marriage. However on her 1911 census form Elizabeth Allen states that she had given birth to eleven children (of whom seven were by then dead). Her 11th child, Sybil, would appear to have been born in London in 1873 and, if so, it seems impossible that her late husband, John Allen, could have been the baby’s father. From birth onwards a cloak of mystery covers much of Sybil’s life. She became a writer, known as Sybil Campbell Lethbridge – you can read about her here. In 1871, when Decima was still the youngest child, the Allen family lived on their farm at Charlinch in Somerset, together with five house servants plus a German governess and a farm bailiff. By 1901 Decima was living with Ada Brown at ‘Holmgarth’ – there is no information as to how they met.
Initially Ada and Decima ran a small general plant nursery but around 1905 sold this and, instead, began farming violets on an acre of land around their house. An April 1907 article in The Graphic headlined ‘A ladies’ violet farm’, reported that: ‘The two ladies who farm the Henfield acre will tell you that no manner of earning a living, or of adding to a slender income, is more delightful than theirs. They work all the year round, planting, transplanting, rearing, tending, weeding, picking, doing all the skilled labour themselves. A little hard digging, only a fortnight’s in the twelvemonth, is done by men…
Here at Henfield are no stream-margins, no banks whereon the violets grow to please themselves. They have to be made to grow to please others. Picking and sending to the English markets goes on from October to April ..All this means the two ladies have to spend long hours in the open air. They are up at five every summer morning, and at seven in the winter. The morning’s harvest is taken to the house for packing and despatch to all parts of the world. You can see violets from Henfield in Egypt and India. The demand for the beautiful long-stemmed Henfield violets is increasing, though all the old blue china pots in England might be filled from there already.’
Other reports make clear that, apart from the short-term hired male labour, Ada Brown and Decima Allen did not do all this work alone but that throughout the year they employed other women to whom they gave a training in horticulture. They even gave some thought as to the best outfit to be worn by these young women while working out-of-doors: ‘We think our students have accomplished the feat of clothing themselves both suitably and picturesquely. A short, straight skirt of some stout material, a green baize or brown leather apron with capacious pocket , a woollen jersey and waterproof Wellington boots; add to this a sou’-wester and a sailor’s mackintosh, and the worst winter weather may be defied.’
Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is no trace of Ada Brown and Decima Allen in the 1911 census. This would suggest that they were willing to support the Women’s Social and Political Union by committing an act of civil disobedience as well as by placing regular advertisements in Votes for Women. The women were friends with the actress and novelist Elizabeth Robins, to whom they dedicated their Violet Book. A prominent WSPU supporter and activist, she lived nearby at Backset (sometimes Backsett) Farm, Henfield. She, too, boycotted the census – it has been possible to track down the census form on which she refused to give information. However I have not yet found a form for ‘Holmgarth’. Elizabeth Robins’ 1923 novel, Time is Whispering features an estate that is devoted to the training of women horticulturalists, a theme that Angela John’s, Elizabeth’s biographer, suggests was inspired by the way of life led by the ‘Misses Allen-Brown’.
That way of life encompassed both visits from royalty, for Ada Brown and Decima Allen prided themselves on their royal patrons such as Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, and from the less exalted – such as Alfred Carpenter who wrote to his brother, Edward, from Henfield on 3 July 1916 that ‘It is interesting to learn that Kate & Lina were here on the Violet-farm working hard – Miss Allen is still going strong & has many happy pupils – many of them are worshippers of yours & hailed my arrival (before they met me!) with joy – Their carnations are certainly a wonder & they seem to have a great demand for them notwithstanding the War.’ It is good to have evidence that the workers amongst the violets and carnations were followers of Edward Carpenter, socialist poet, philosopher, and advocate of sexual freedom.
The violets were packed and soaps and perfumes were manufactured in Lavender Cottage, an ancient building adjacent to Homgarth, although I am no further forward as to how they actually made soap and perfume in these presumably somewhat primitive premises.
After Ada Brown died in 1915 Decima Allen went into partnership with Ellen Rachel Dyce Sharp. The Violet Nurseries expanded and around 1929 the women bought another 3.5 acres which lay a short distance away from the main plot. You can watch a short 1935 Pathé film about the Violet Nurseries here. It looks as though by then they were giving employment to more men.
The nursery was eventually sold to Allwood Brothers of Wivelsfield, a nursery that had long specialised in growing carnations. Ellen Sharp died in 1950 aged 64 and Decima Allen in 1951 aged 81.