As gardeners we constantly come across plants bearing the name of Ellen Willmott or her garden, Warley Place. She was one of the leading gardeners of the Edwardian age. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic, she supported plant expeditions in distant lands and her ability to make things grow was legendary. Her garden was famous. Along with Gertrude Jekyll, she was one of the first women to win the Royal Horticultural Society’s coveted Victoria Medal. At one time there were plans to include her garden as part of Kew. In its heyday, there were 104 gardeners and over 100,000 species of plants. Today, the house and garden lie in ruins.
There is a great biography of Ellen Willmott written in 1980 by Audrey le Lievre. It is called Miss Willmott of Warley Place. Her Life and her Gardens.
If you are passionate about gardening you will be fascinated to read about someone whose obsession was on such a truly epic scale.
Ellen moved into Warley Place, a Queen Ann mansion, with her parents and sister when she was 17. Her Mother was a keen gardener and she and her sister soon became very much involved too. Her father came from quite a modest background but he had managed to do very well with his investments. Ellen was lucky enough to have a godmother who gave her the lavish sum of £1000 for each birthday, so she learnt the habit of incredibly, extravagant self-indulgence from a young age.
Reading this book, I wondered whether Ellen suffered from a kind of high functioning Autism or Asperger’s. She was highly intelligent and was totally obsessive about her interests. She was clearly not very good at personal relationships and reading other peoples’ responses. She never married and in fact, when walking round her garden with a friend, she stopped at a rose and said: ‘This is Cupid: I knew him not.’ As she got older she became decidedly eccentric. She booby-trapped her daffodils to stop people stealing them and carried a gun in her bag.
When her sister, Rose, had married and her parents had both died she dedicated her life and her fortune to her garden. Already at 24, with her father’s permission, she had built a rock garden to top all rock gardens in the garden. She employed a company from Yorkshire to come and construct a huge garden using massive rocks and creating a gorge with a stream which ran into a pond. There was a special grotto for ferns.
In her thirties she bought a property in Aix -les -Bains, France and one in Ventimigla, Italy, both of which she furnished with great extravagance. She spent a fortune on the two gardens. She helped to finance the expedition to China of E.F. Wilson and was furious when his young wife objected to him going away on a hazardous 2 year trip. She called her ‘a tiresome, ignorant woman’. She got her way and was rewarded with many rare seeds, lily bulbs and plants.
In the garden there were hothouses, a palm house and an orchid house and heated frames. There were summer houses and gazebos and a beautiful conservatory on the side of the house, Everyone who came was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and the rare plants growing in abundance. Everything was grown to perfection. Perhaps visitors were impressed by the army of gardeners in their smart uniforms. Life was hard for these gardeners with such a demanding employer. They had to wear green ties, navy blue aprons and boaters and I can’t imagine how they kept them on. They started work at 6 a.m . and went on until 6 p.m. Ellen who started work at dawn was constantly checking up on them. She was very harsh with any of them who did not come up to scratch.
It is a pity that Ellen did not write about her garden like Gertrude Jekyll did. It would be wonderful to have a written record of it. She did publish a book of black and white photographs of the garden called: ‘Warley Garden in Spring and Summer.‘ There is a copy of it available on Amazon for £125. I am afraid I shall have to give it a miss. The other book she wrote was a two volume, very erudite study, called ‘The Genus Rosa’. It was beautifully illustrated and took years to complete. It also entailed endless arguments with her poor publishers who must have regretted the day they ever took it on.
It is sad that having spent a vast fortune on her beautiful garden she ended her life very hard up and presumably rather lonely, given her habit of manufacturing quarrels with everybody. She died in very straitened circumstances, in 1934 and sadly in 1939 her house was demolished. The war came and people had not time to worry about beautiful gardens. If it had been 20 years later the National Trust could have stepped in to preserve the most important garden of the age. A property developer, Mr Carter bought it in 1938 for £14.000, but Brentwood District Council refused planning permission for the houses he wanted to build. Eventually it was designated green belt and so no one could build on it. The garden was a wilderness but in 1978 it was leased to Essex Wildlife Trust. They have done an enormous amount of clearance and made paths through it so that the public can now enjoy its peace and wild beauty.
Yesterday I visited Warley Place and so in my next post I will show you what this once famous garden looks like today.