by Stephanie Richards
Before WWI, Misses Allen and Brown were considered exceptional as women who ran their own thriving business. From their Henfield Common nursery, they packaged and sold their popular violet products.
In the far off days before the First World War, Miss Ada Brown and Miss Decima Allen went into business together. Two women running a successful business in the early 1900’s was rare, but their products were good and their fame widespread. Their customer list included four Duchesses, a Countess, and Queen Alexandra (wife of Edward VII) who accepted a basket of their goods presented in a Sussex trug.
Their business was the Violet Nurseries on Henfield Common. Here from 1905 until the business closed in 1953, was a true cottage industry. The workrooms were in Lavender Cottage, and the ladies lived next door at Holmgarth. A Miss D Bateman is shown in a photograph c1921 sewing violet sachets in the cottage. Note the range of products for sale on the shelf behind her. The nursery specialised in scented violets, with names like La France and Victoria Regina. An article from the 1900’s went into raptures about what a dainty way this was to earn money.
But the Misses Allen and Brown worked exceptionally hard all year round. Their working clothes were corseted and ankle length with a heavy leather apron on top. The soil needed to be prepared as each season eight or ten thousand cuttings were planted out, weeded and watered. Late summer bought red spiders and caterpillars that needed combatting with the help of their female workforce, assisted by the men who did the digging.
The violets were sent to market from October to April, being conveyed to Henfield Station by pony and trap. The nursery had a mail order catalogue in 1929, offering for sale violet and lavender scented creams, soaps, perfume, shampoo, darning silks in a mauve box with a scented sachet 3/3 (16p) and a 1930’s calendar for 5/9 (26p). Everything used for the packaging was violet, even the string.
During WWI the nursery grew vegetables. Sacks of fresh produce were sold to town dwellers. Costly rail transport nished off this ‘veg box’ enterprise.
Even though it was published in 1913, The Violet Book by A&D Allen-Brown is still listed on violet growers sites. Miss Brown died in 1915, Miss Allen passed away in 1952.
A local pharmacy sold ‘Allen- Brown Violet Preparations‘ until c1970. A few 1929 products were still being sold in 1969, with adjustments to their price. ‘Violet Scented Shampoo’ went up from 3/6 (18p) to 5/6 (27p). A cake of ‘Violet Bath Soap’ went from 2/11 (15p) to 4/9 (23p). One thing didn’t change though. Violets still decorated the packets.