Ellen Willmott. A Book Review.

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.

Warley Place

Warley Place

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.

Ellen and her sister Rose having tea in the gazebo

Ellen and her sister Rose having tea in the gazebo

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.

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44 Responses to Ellen Willmott. A Book Review.

  1. Christina says:

    Fascinating, Liz. I’m afraid I was rather ignorant about her; only knowing her as the person who spread seed from Eryngium gigantium that became known as Miss Willmot’s ghost. I think that could be rather fun, perhaps I will do it with all the seeds of the Eschscholzia.

  2. Chloris says:

    The story of Eryngium ‘Miss Willmott’ s Ghost’ being spread in friends’ gardens by a generous Miss Willmott is a lovely one but probably apocryphal. Graham Stuart Thomas tried to find out where it started and if anyone had first hand knowledge of it but he drew a blank. Given her lack of generosity in sharing her plants it is most unliikely that she went about scattering seeds in other peoples’ gardens.

  3. Interesting story, Chloris. I look forward to the next post.

  4. Kris P says:

    This is an interesting story of obsession but it leaves me feeling sad that someone who clearly understood the life spans of plants and had, at least at one time, the funds to create the gardens of her dreams, didn’t think ahead about how to preserve them. I’m glad to hear that the Essex Wildlife Trust has managed to save and recreate a portion of what she left.

  5. Chloris says:

    Essex Wildlife Trust are doing their best but it is now a nature reserve rather than a garden. Most of her rare plants were taken by her sister’ s family or were plundered over the years.

  6. mattb325 says:

    Very fascinating story! Her fate is what happens to a lot of the great gardens here; without an actively funded National Trust, so many gardens end up being lost/demolished or subdivided. I look forward to seeing the remnants of the garden

    • Chloris says:

      Yes and a garden which was maintained on such a lavish scale would be prohibitively expensive to restore. It is a shame though when a garden as important as this one is lost.

  7. thanks for introducing me to Miss Wilmott and Warley, i had not heard of either. I have to say that I do not like the sound of her too much but perhaps she was misunderstood? Perhaps she suffered a wrong doing which led her to be quite so unforgiving.?

  8. Chloris says:

    Well she was clearly a difficult woman, but on the other hand she was a great and enormously talented plantswoman. Having lots of money is not all it takes; she had total, single-minded dedication and she could grow anything. Over 60 different species of plants bear her name or that of Warley Place.

  9. Anna says:

    Oh I would like to read that biography Chloris. I wonder if it’s still in print or whether it’s a matter of scouring second hand book shops which is of course no hardship 🙂 Off to investigate forthwith.

  10. Chloris says:

    It s available on Amazon although it is more expensive than it was when I bought it a few years ago. it is a really fascinating biography though.She was a larger than life character and there is something intriguing about lost gardens.

  11. Julie says:

    Lovely and very interesting post, I really enjoyed your story. It’s sad the original garden is lost but wonderful the wildlife trust is involved, it’s a fitting circle of life. Looking forward to the report on your visit.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Julie. It is great that the Essex Wildlife Trust have taken it on and they do wonderful work, most of it by volunteers. Still I can’ t help being sad that such a wonderful garden has been lost to us.

  12. pbmgarden says:

    I see from the comments I’m not the only one who hadn’t previously heard of Ellen Willmott. You gave us a wonderful look into her life.

    • Chloris says:

      It is sad that she has been largely forgotten after her great contribution to horticulture. You may notice plants with her name now you know about her, there are so many.

  13. snowbird says:

    She booby-trapped her daffodils to stop people stealing them and carried a gun in her bag……Well…if that doesn’t draw a reader in NOTHING will! Oh WOW….what a post, enthralled I am! It’s all so moody and atmospheric, and I’m so sad to hear the garden is in ruins!!! What an amazing character…..I rather like eccentric people who are driven so and have such vision ….I can’t wait for the next post!

    • Chloris says:

      Yes, booby- trapping your daffodils does seem a tad extreme. After she had been forced to get rid of her coach driver she used to walk the 2 miles home from Brentwood station late at night if she had been up to London. Once she thought she heard footsteps following her so she whipped off her tiara and hid it in the undergrowth. After that she carried a gun in her handbag. As you do.

  14. Annette says:

    What a thorough and interesting review, Liz, thank you! I must admit I don’t know much about her but it definitely seems a good read. Looking forward to seeing the pics of Warley place. I’m sometimes playing Miss Willmot actually…what about you?

  15. Chloris says:

    I promised you ages ago that I would do a book review and as I have just been rereading this I thought it would be of interest to you and other people too. I find it fascinating. Oh yes, there is something of Miss Willmott in me, specially when I am at a really good specialist nursery and the red mist of recklessness and covetousness overcomes me. Then good sense; the constraints of my purse, next week’ s dinners and where to hide the evidence of my extravagance when I get home are forgotten.

  16. Alain says:

    I look forward to your post on what is left of her garden. She must have been a fascinating person (in a Reginal Farrer way) – not one you would want to live with, but one you would like to know.

    • Chloris says:

      I agree, she would have been an interesting person to know, she was so knowledgeable. Going round her garden with her would have been a wonderful experience but no one ever came away with lots of goodies. It was well know that if she did give anything away it would be invasive. She never parted with anything precious.

  17. That was interesting. I knew some of the story, but didn’t know about the book. I think you are probably right about the Aspergers.

  18. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable, and interesting, post. And as always the previous comments are most enlightening. xx

  19. Julie says:

    Thank you Chloris for sharing this book with us and introducing us to Miss Willmott – although I think I am rather glad I never met her – until today I had always imagined her as quite a romantic soul.. It is such a shame that she never wrote about her garden – even if the place is lost when the creator leaves a written record we can still enjoy the spirit of the place.

    • Chloris says:

      Warley Place is well worth a visit Julie, specially at daffodil time. Although the garden has gone it is still a special place. It is a shame she never wrote about it but although she was a very good photographer and she could paint well, apparently she didn’ t have any talent for writing.

  20. gardenfancyblog says:

    Thanks for your review of this book, Chloris. I had seen this book before and thought about purchasing it, but I’m a notoriously cheap book buyer. I put it on my Wish List, but it still hasn’t been offered for a price I would spend, so I just requested it through Interlibrary Loan, because now that you’ve reviewed it, I simply MUST read it for myself! Thanks so much for whetting my appetite. -Beth

  21. Chloris says:

    I did check on Amazon and yes it is expensive as it is out of print. It is strange that nobody else seems to have written about Ellen Willmott. . Anyway this biography is very good so I hope you manage to get it from the library. I am sure you will enjoy it.

  22. bittster says:

    I’m looking forward to your next post. I reached the “house and gardens lie in ruins” and of course was distracted for far too long searching photos and reading historical bits. I understand we can’t save everything and new gardens need their own space, but I can’t help wishing a little more of this place remained. At least it’s not all a housing development!

    • Chloris says:

      You have been reading up on her too? I have got a bit obsessed about finding everything I can about her. I think I have become a bit of a Willmott bore. This garden really should have been saved for posterity, it was the most important of the age.

  23. A very fascinating biography and an interesting reflection of the time and place, as well as the gardener. It is a shame she was unable to care for people as she cared for plants. Also a shame that her wonderful garden was not preserved, perhaps that was made more likely by her isolation. I admire her ability to achieve extravagant self-indulgence – I think I have the self-indulgence down, but need to polish up on my extravagance.

    • Chloris says:

      Yes, these days one would feel guilty about exploiting over 100 underpaid men, making them work a 12 hour day and obeying your every whim. I think her garden was already looking neglected in her life time after she had run out of money.
      Proper self- indulgence needs the resources to be truly extravagant that I lack. Still I do my best.

  24. Brian Skeys says:

    I have always been interested in Ellen Willmott ever since I started growing ‘Her Ghost’.
    Her sister Rose married into the Berkeley family that own Spetchley Park, here in Worcestershire.
    I believe she was very influential in the design of the gardens there.
    I posted some info about Spetchley Park in my blog page ‘Worcestershire Gardens’.

    • Chloris says:

      I would love to visit Spetchley Park some day. I imagine her sister’ s family took some of her precious plants there after she died. Is the garden very beautiful? I gather Rose was a very keen gardener too.

  25. an interesting review about a gardener who was unknown to me – thank you for sharing!

  26. Chloris says:

    Maybe now you have heard of her you will notice the plants named after her or Warley Place. She really made her mark on horticulture.

  27. Debra says:

    What an amazing life. I would have liked to have seen the grotto with ferns. What a terrible shame that it all disappeared like some kind of dream — here now and then barely remembered. At least her name achieved a kind of immortality. That’s funny that you’ve been exploring her. I was doing something similar here. I happened to notice the name Berlandier attached to so many native plants and had to wonder: who is this person? I love the irony that so many native Texas plants bear his name since he actually fought against them for the Mexican government.

  28. Chloris says:

    Berlandier was French wasn’ t he? There are so many plants with his name that I can see that it would be fascinating to find out more about him. I am like a terrier when I get on a trail like this. I cannot let it go until I have learnt every detail.

    • Debra says:

      He was French but hired by the Mexican government to explore areas that are now part of Texas. One can say explore but I kind of imagine he was doing what some people call ‘intelligence work.’ He reported back about plants, animals and the native populations of people.

  29. Cathy says:

    ‘Red mist of recklessness and covetousness’…? Just something else to add to the picture I am building up of you…. 😉 As for Miss Wilmott, definitely on the autistic spectrum I would say…

  30. Diana Speller says:

    I discovered Warley Place a few years ago – it’s only 20 minutes by car from where I live. As soon as I entered it I felt like I was entering a Secret Garden. It is full of charm and enchantment and of course lots of history. Ellen Willmott became my passion and I’ve done much research on her and written articles about her. It’s a wonderful place and the Essex Wildlife Trust have done a magnificent job in making the whole estate into a natural wild garden. I read the book by Audrey Le Lievre and thoroughly recommend it. You can order it from your local library and they will get it for you. I think Brentwood Library have some copies. Spring time is magical when carpets of daffs and croci flourish all over. Stunning!

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