Violet time

Shelley Tobin, Costume Curator Shelley Tobin Costume Curator
A neckline of violets

As the weather warms up in late Spring we’re enjoying the blossom and blooms all around us on the Killerton estate.

Violets are amongst the most charming and elusive of spring flowers, with a strong connection to Devon. Perfumes and plants grown in the Dawlish area were once shipped all over the country. This popular little scented flower had its heyday between the 1900s and 1930s. During the Second World War land devoted to growing flowers was requisitioned for food crops, and violet growing declined.

The popularity of violets grew at the same time as support of the Women's Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U) flourished.

You may have noticed that the embroidered flowers feature in one of our current exhibitions, Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote.

Dainty purple flowers
A neckline of violets
Dainty purple flowers

Violets decorate the bodice neckline and cuffs of a simple silk and wool day dress made in about 1908. We don’t know if the wearer chose violets because of her allegiance to the purple, white and green of the W.S.P.U.  It might just be coincidence, after all they were a fashionable flower.

" …decidedly new is a peacock-blue hat trimmed with Parma violets."
- Mrs Aria, The World of Dress, 1908

The Killerton collection includes a novelty fan which folds to form a posy of violet-like fabric flowers. There’s also a little 1920s evening bag trimmed with a sweet spray of violets made from soft purple velvet.

Nevertheless, there is a link between the militant suffragettes and the little purple flower which clearly became a suffragette symbol. A cloth worked by Janie Terrero commemorates ‘Mrs Pankhurst’s “Bold Mad Ones” arrested for window smashing in March 1912.  Headed ‘Deeds Not Words’ the embroidered cloth lists those force fed in Holloway prison. Their names are stitched around a wreath of violets tied with a purple bow. (The cloth is in the Museum of London collections).

Supporters of the W.S.P.U. urged to be ‘dainty and precise’ in their dress wore the recommended white or cream for processions, to set off their purple, white and green sashes, belts and badges. These were made for and sold by the W.S.P.U through their own shops.  Manufacturers and other retailers responded quickly to the demand.

" One cannot walk down Bond Street and the neighbourhood without being struck by the fact that our colours are evidently going to be the leading shades in Autumn and Winter fashions. Almost every shop window is showing purple hats and green hats, purple ties and green ties, purple cloth gowns and green cloth gowns in endless variety."
- Votes for Women, 1908

Purple signified dignity, King and country, white purity and green hope. A violet corsage may well have been added to a suffragette’s gown.

Devon was not the only place famous for growing violets.

Votes for Women, the W.S.P.U. newspaper, regularly carried advertisements for the Misses Allen-Brown’s violet nursery at Henfield Common in Sussex. Violets were cultivated here for nearly 50 years until 1953, when the nursery was finally closed. Henfield Violet Nursery attracted distinguished customers including Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, and the Duchesses of Norfolk, Westminster, Marlborough and Wellington. Violet products were exported all over the world.

Popular violets
A newspaper clipping
Popular violets

According to historian Elizabeth Crawford, the royal ladies may not have known that the horticulturalists were both supporters of the W.S.P.U., along with their neighbour actress Elizabeth Robins, a suffrage activist and  member of the Actresses’ Franchise League.

The Misses A. and D. Allen-Brown were in fact not related at all, but a Miss Ada Brown and Miss Decima Allen. Neither were listed in the 1911 census, suggesting that they deliberately boycotted the survey, as did Elizabeth Robins, who wrote on her form ‘The occupier of this house will be ready to give the desired information the moment the government recognises women as respectable citizens.’

A 1907 article about the Miss Allen and Miss Brown’s work in the Graphic headlined ‘A ladies’ violet farm’  explains that the women did most of the skilled labour themselves, apart from hiring male labourers for two weeks of the year to help with digging. Throughout the season women were employed to do most of the work, and were trained in return.

Their ‘Violet Book' published in 1913,  was dedicated to Elizabeth Robins. Here the writers suggest the ideal attire for their gardeners who worked outdoors year round in all weather:

‘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.’

Violet products including  perfume, soap, the mysterious sounding ‘violet foam’ and delightful ‘fairy fan’ were assembled in the workrooms at Lavender Cottage, next door to the nursery and the Misses Allen-Brown’s home, Holmgarth. Miss Brown died in 1915, so was not able to celebrate the day when the vote was granted to women. Miss Allen passed away in 1952.

You can read Elizabeth Crawford’s full article here: