A Novel Club for Country Loving Girls

I had to stifle laughter in the hallowed silence of the Rare Books Reading Room at the British Library when I first began leafing through the magazine that inspired this post. I was searching for an interview with the Victorian painter E.A.Rowe for last week’s post  in, of all places, The Girl’s Realm for 1907.

The 4 thick volumes were unindexed so I had to turn thousands of pages and in the process was both intrigued and amused by the wealth of other stuff thought suitable for teenage girls in the Edwardian era. Some  I would have expected: serial stories, celebrity interviews and profiles, cookery, pets, travel, arts and crafts but there were also some unexpected articles  which might have widened vision  such as pieces on girls caving and mountaineering.. and who could resist looking at “What a girl does with breadcrumb” – [the answer might surprise you so since its really not connected with garden history  I’ve added it at the very end of this post.]  There were also outlines of the careers of women in all fields – swimming, singing, writing, science, farming…. and even horticulture.

from The Girl’s Realm 1909

So I started to investigate a bit further and discovered Victoria Woodhull Martin  and the story behind The Novel Club for Country Loving Girls …

Busy with the Peach Tree,  from The Girl’s Realm 1909

“Work of an agricultural nature has become so usual for women that employments like gardening, [poultry-keeping, bee-keeping etc are amongst those most attractively presenting themselves to girls considering the planning of their lives. They hold out so many advantages with their healthy open-air work and their manifold interests.”  That sounded pretty positive but as I read on I began to have my doubts “yet there is a serious drawback, for the girl brought up in the mentally alert atmosphere of a cultured home and a good school, in a career connected with work solely in the country which too often leads to the dwarfing of her intellectual side.”   Did you realise that “workers on the land are out of touch with the eager mental life of the town”? or that they “come in of evenings too tired to read or use their brains”?  Worse still did you know that apart from the fact that there were few good books, good pictures or good music etc, “their neighbours were quite uninterested in culture of any mental kind.”?

Ah BUT it wasn’t all bad because “although this was a very real evil” the “clear-sighted girl will hail gladly an attempt being made to remedy it.” Phew!

The back of the Manor House, from The Girl’s Realm 1909

The attempt, or rather the experiment, for that was what Girls Realm thought it was based in an Elizabethan manor house set in 100 acres, at Bredon’s Norton near Tewkesbury,  once the home of Thomas Copley who sailed with Raleigh to Virginia.   “If it succeeds… it will be a centre for intellectual and social life for a community of women-workers.”  It was the home of The Women’s International Agricultural Club or more popularly The Manor House Club founded by “Miss Woodhull, daughter of a well-known American lady with the object of providing the country woman-worker with the means of culture and social intercourse.”

There was a reason for the coy “well known American lady” , because she was  Victoria Woodhull Martin – an extraordinary character in every sense. She had a remarkable, often scandalous early career in the USA that took her into the courtroom and not once but twice from rags to riches. Married twice with 2 children, she was a radical feminist a century before her times, the co-founder of first all-female stock-broking firm and even campaigned in 1872 to be the first woman president of the USA. She ran as the Equal Rights Party, candidate supporting women’s suffrage 50 years before American women had the right to vote.

Driven abroad by scandal over her promotion of “free love” she moved to  London in 1877  where she met John Biddulph Martin, a partner in Martins Bank who fell for her in a big way, and despite huge opposition from the rest of his family, married her.   He died in 1897 just 3 days after inheriting the Bredon’s Norton estate, and half of the rest of his father’s wealth.  This also included a London townhouse at Hyde Park Gate, £147,000 [estimated at £8million today] and the biggest single shareholding in the bank.  All this passed to Victoria.

In 1901 she transferred ownership of the Bredon’s Norton estate  to her daughter Zula Maud Woodhull and they both moved into Norton Park, a neo-Tudor heap, built as  the replacement for the old Manor House by John Martin’s aunts in 1839.

Victoria and Zula at Norton Park in 1902  from Country Life Images

The two women worked in partnership on a programme of improvement to turn Bredon’s Norton into a model village by upgrading housing, building a school, opening a reading room, installing street lights and even some telephones.  Their horticultural interest was shown even this early by small things such as providing the new curate with greenhouses and a freshly planted rose garden,  and by clearing the overgrown churchyard and planting it with trees, shrubs and roses  as well providing new seats and paths.

Little Gardeners in the Making, from the brochure for the school.                                                             [image taken from Owen Stinchcombe, American Lady of the Manor]

The tenancy on the old Manor House was due to run out in 1906 and they decided to restore the house and turn it into a women’s club, twinned with one in London to offer the best of country and town living – for the newly fashionable motoring weekend away – but soon circumstances changed that.

from the Cheltenham Examiner, 11th July 1906

Both mother and daughter were interested in scientific agriculture and horticultural practice, especially the ideas suggested by Edith Bradley in Woman’s Agricultural Times which had been founded and edited  by Daisy, Countess of Warwick.  Chief amongst these was her plan to establish a settlement where women could live a mix of  independent lives on small-holdings, but also share many things communally.  Bradley was also Warden of the  Women’s College for Agriculture and Horticulture at Studley Castle,  also founded by Daisy Warwick, one of the small number of  private horticultural training establishments for women that were beginning to spring up in the late 19th/early 20thc.  However after Lady Warwick criticized her management Bradley resigned  in 1905, followed by the six other staff. As soon as Victoria and Zula heard this they offered Edith and any of her colleagues who wanted to join her, space at  Bredon’s Norton.

[For more info on Lady Warwick’s College etc see Anne Meredith, “Horticultural Education in England 1900-1940:Middle Class Women and Private Gardening Schools” in Garden History Vol.31 [1] [2003] pp.67-79]

from The Daily Mirror, 18th July 1907


Providence House, where Bradley’s settlement was based

Bradley was there like a shot, and she soon outlined her scheme for what she called the Mercia Agricuktural Settlement in the Woman’s Ahricultural Times, which she had taken over.  It was illustrated wth photos of the cottages that might be available.   At the same time she attempted to raise capital to buy a farm on the estate, intending to open about 15 smallholdings.

First Cottage, Bredon’s Norton

Another of those who took up Victoria’s  offer was May Crooke. She was given the estate’s walled garden and the nearby range of greenhouses as well as one of the lodges to run as a  gardening school where, according to The Girl’s Realm  “a thorough practical training is given in the club grounds. The fees are lower that those of Horticultural Colleges and the teaching is perhaps more individual.”  She even entered into  an arrangement with Cheltenham Ladies College so her students could attend classes in botany and the sciences  there in exchange for some practical gardening training for their senior girls at Bredon’s Norton.


Edith Bradley had already written a handbook on The Lighter Branches of Agriculture for the Women’s Library and now she and May Crooke wrote The Book of Fruit Bottling which was full of detailed instructions, diagrams and photographs and came with a forward by the Rev. William Wilks, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Unfortunately by early 1907 it was clear Edith had  failed to raise enough money to uy the farm and she soon took off for pastures new near Maidstone. There, with a colleague, Miss Baillie Hamilton, she  “acquired Greenway Court, for the development of a model small holding, the intention being to demonstrate what can be done by women in the lighter branches of agriculture” (Times, 19 July 1909). It soon worked “its way into prominence as a centre of experimentation and proficiency in practices suitable to holdings of restricted area, these including dairying, fruit growing, fruit preserving, market gardening, pig keeping, poultry keeping, and bee keeping” (Times, 25 July 1910). Edith later moved to Sussex  and  edited the journal Farming. She died aged 84 in 1943 and a small archive about her exists in America.

The Manor House [image taken from Owen Stinchcombe, American Lady of the Manor]

Bradley’s failure had an unexpected consequence. The Americans stepped in. They had finished restoring the manor house  and several village cottages around the same time and The Women’s International Agricultural Club was born just in time for them to be interviewed about it by The Girl’s Realm.

The Manor House – from 2017 sales particulars

The Manor House  had 16 bedrooms when it opened with plans for twice that number more. There was a library stocked with “all the most useful books on agricultural subjects”, and a  music room for concerts and dramatic performances. It was near enough to Cheltenham and Tewkesbury to take advantage of their social and cultural opportunities too.  The idea was that, if the club succeeded, it would expand  as the houses in the village became vacant for any reason they would be acquired  to create “a unique gathering of women-workers, with perhaps, some resemblance to the fine old Guilds of the Middle Ages.”

Healthy Exercise from The Girl’s Realm 1909

By the time the Realm article was written there were already a handful of resident members “each of whom has her own way of adding to her little income. Some grow fruit, flowers or vegetables, another keeps poultry, another bees” and another “fancy dogs”. “One or two of the members devoted themselves entirely to tomato growing”, but it could easily have been cucumbers, roses, violets or mushrooms …”anything to help them lead full happy lives.”

When their training was over the club aimed to help women find work, and even to rent them small plots at  a nominal rent so they could start-up on their own as market gardeners  and afford to stay on in the local community. It all added up to “an attempt to combine outdoor work with opportunities of mental culture.”

In the Herbaceous Border from The Girl’s Realm 1909



May Crooke’s gardening school was the most successful part of the whole scheme and she ran it for about two years. The link with Cheltenham Ladies College seems to have been succesful and the principal Miss LM Faithfull visited as did her sister who had taken over as Warden of Studley Castle from Edith Bradley. However Crooke seems to have fallen out with Victoria and Zula over the way the School and the Club were linked. She had apparently been using the walled garden free of charge and although she offered to pay rent she wanted it to be a separate institution independent from the rest of Bredon’s Norton. She left and soon afterwards started another garden school this time at Ivybridge in Devon which ran until 1917.

There is more about it at the Ivybridge Heritage website

Victroia and Zula at Norton Court, 1902 from Country Life Images,

May Crooke  was replaced  by a Mr AE Pickford who was named “estate manager” and “instructor”. He only lasted a year. A Club secretary was also appointed but she only lasted 2 months before being paid off and leaving as well.  Both these jobs were now given to Thomas Boldron who in 1910 became “Manager and Principal” of the “The International Agricultural Club and School of Intensive Petite Culture”, and he was also described as Editor of Petite Culture [which despite sounding like a specialised porn magazine was actually a French style of gardening, although I can find no trace of a journal of that name].  He was sacked in 1911 for wrongly evicting one of the trainee gardeners.  All in all the management of the place seems to have been a bit lacking in skill!

A lesson in Floral Decoration from the School of Gardening brochure                                                     [image taken from Owen Stinchcombe, American Lady of the Manor]

Victoria in 1912  [image taken from Owen Stinchcombe, American Lady of the Manor]

Nevertheless the School of Gardening ran successfully until at least 1914 and at its peak there were about 30 women enrolled. It seems to have closed sometime during the First World War.

Victoria and Zula at Norton Park, 1902 from Country Life Images

However, as far as I can see,  the wider International Agricultural Club was a complete failure. By the spring of 1911 Victoria and Zula had reverted to their original plan and converted it into an upmarket country club with advertisements boasting  of it  having 20 bedrooms for lady residents and several cottages for gentlemen in the grounds.  They hired a well-connected and experienced club manager from London, Luther Munday to run the whole show.

Zula Maud Woodhull, from Country Life 8th June 1902

There was a private golf course, boating, croquet, and hunting as well as facilities for studying agriculture and horticulture. By the end of the year Munday had recruited about 300 members including a cousin of George V, the Duke of Beaufort and a string of other titled clients, as well as those in the arts, military and diplomacy. He even persuaded  Queen Victoria’s daughter, Helena formally known as Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein to act as patron.   After he retired membership and visitor numbers gradually declined, until finally in 1955 it was converted back  into a private house.

The experiment had come to an end.

Victoria had died in 1927, leaving all her estate to Zula  who herself died in 1940 leaving everything to another branch of her step-father John Martin’s family in whose hands it still remains.

For more information on Victoria and Zula see: Owen Stinchcombe, American Lady of the Manor [2000] which concentrates on her life in Britain, and Mary Gabriel, Notorious Victoria [1998] which focusses on her life in America.

And finally here are a couple of ideas about what a girl can do with breadcrumb!



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1 Response to A Novel Club for Country Loving Girls

  1. Margie Hoffnung says:

    Well this particular country ‘gel’ now has all sorts if ideas how to fill my hours of spare time modelling exquisite floral masterpieces for the delight of all! Xxxx

    Sent from my iPhone


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