Margery Fish

Margery Fish – The History

“In the development of gardening in the second half of the twentieth century no garden has yet had greater effect.” John Sales, National Trust 1980.

Margery Townsend left secretarial college in 1911 with glowing references, at a time when it was still rare for a middle class girl to either want or have the opportunity to follow a career, Margery entered the world of Fleet Street. She immediately showed great talent and worked diligently and zealously in everything she did and was soon promoted to work for the Editor of the Daily Mail, Tommy Marlowe. Here, for the first time she also found herself working for the newspaper’s founder, Lord Northcliffe, known to his staff as ‘The Chief’. He was a dictator who ruled his staff through fear and friendliness, able to reward one minute and punish the next. However, Margery remained loyal to his memory and indeed, he instilled in her the importance of aiming for the highest standards at whatever she embarked upon. In a world where women had still not been given the vote, Lord Northcliffe, showed Margery that regardless of their sex, it was the ability of his staff to work hard and show talent that would lead to their success.

At the start of World War I, Lord Northcliffe was the most powerful man in Fleet Street, wielding influence at every level. So when in 1917 the prime minister, Lloyd George, asked him to head the British Mission to the USA, Northcliffe immediately requested that Margery be on his staff. It meant crossing the Atlantic under threat of enemy torpedoes, but she accepted without hesitation. The mission spent three years in the USA and Margery was awarded the MBE in recognition of her contribution.

In 1921 Northcliffe wrote:

My dear Miss Townsend,
I am sorry to hear that you are unhappy in Liverpool. I have been there for nearly a week and had I known you were there, I would have seen you. It is difficult to find appointments just now, but yours is an exceptional case. You crossed the Atlantic when the submarines were at their worst and I have always given special treatment to those of my staff who took the risk. I will do my utmost. Meanwhile please come and see me tomorrow, Tuesday morning at 11.30 at No 1 Carlton Gardens.
Yours sincerely

Probably through Northcliffe’s influence, Margery went on to work for the News Editor of the Daily Mail, Walter Fish. He finally became Editor in 1922 and although known as a tyrant, it was his combination of decisiveness and unrestrained zest for life that made him an inspiration to work for. For seven years they worked together in a purely professional manner, but in the Spring of 1930 Margery received a much more personal letter from Walter.

‘ Although we have seen each other for years, it is strange how little time we have ever had to talk. That is why it was so jolly to be able to talk to you the other evening apart from business concerns.’ Two years later, on the 2nd March 1933, they were married.

In 1937, with the threat of war looming, the Fish’s decided to find a house in the country away from the dangers of central London. They finally settled on the 15th century manor house in the quiet, rural Somerset village of East Lambrook. And so, having never shown the slightest interest in gardening and with no prior knowledge, Margery embarked on her second career, finally becoming one of the most important influences on gardening in the 20th century.

Margery Fish developed a style of gardening which was in tune with the times: the Second World War had made labour scarce and expensive and it was no longer a reality to have paid teams of gardeners. Gardens had to change. While the cottage garden style was already apparent at Hidcote and Sissinghurst, these were gardens that still required paid gardeners. What Mrs Fish created at East Lambrook Manor, was a grand cottage garden on a domestic scale, she wrote, “It is pleasant to know each one of your plants intimately because you have chosen and planted every one of them.” For the first time a garden had been created to which anyone could relate. It was an ‘approachable’ garden and through her many books and articles, Margery managed to change gardening from a pastime of the wealthy to a passion for the whole population.

Margery Fish working at her desk at East Lambrook Manor (picture right).She wrote many articles and books, including the timeless classic, ‘We Made A Garden’, which charts the trials and tribulations of her early years in gardening with Walter Fish at East Lambrook Manor.

Photos of Margery Fish with thanks to Valerie Finnis and the RHS Lindley Library

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