To many people Ellen Willmott is best known as a wealthy but cantankerous miser who used to maliciously sow thistle seeds into people’s flower beds from a secret stash in her handbag. As these seeds took root later, they became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghosts.
Rose lovers may associate her name with the pretty species rose R. willmottiae, discovered by planthunter Ernest Henry ‘Chinese’ Wilson on his first trip to Szechuan in 1899 – a trip she helped finance.
Or perhaps for her book, ‘The Genus Rosa’, published at great personal expense in four volumes between 1910 and 1914. It is seen by some as a 20thcentury equivalent of Redouté’s ‘Les Roses’. This exploration of the rose family includes 132 beautiful portraits of roses from Willmott’s own gardens by the great botanical artist Alfred Parsons. (The original watercolours lie today in the Lindley Library in London.)
Willmott was a charismatic figure – plantswoman, gardener, botanist, landscape architect. In 1897, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, the Royal Horticultural Society awarded 60 inaugural Victoria Medals of Honour to the great and good of gardening. Ellen Willmott and Gertrude Jeckyll were the only two female recipients. Willmott failed to turn up to the ceremony, to the disgust of the President, who scathingly addressed the “lady and gentlemen”.
And yet around 200 plants have been named after her. So why such a bad reputation – and is gardening’s “bad girl” epithet really warranted?
Writer Sandra Lawrence has tried to answer both questions using material never seen. In 2019 she was given access to hundreds of newly discovered letters, notebooks, lists and receipts found in a damp basement by descendants of Ellen’s sister. This book is as much the story of Lawrence’s exploration of this material – much of it mouse-chewed and decayed – as it is of Wilmott.
Together with archivist Karen Davidson, Lawrence painfully recovered everything possible, creating complex spreadsheets to log the findings and cross reference with other known material to give as detailed a picture as possible of the Willmott story. And what a story. A tale of squandered inheritance, forbidden love, drive and ambition, prodigious creativity and trailblazing talent.
A ‘rocky’ start
Ellen Willmott was born in 1858. Money was something she learned to take for granted. As a teenager, she would receive a £1,000 cheque each birthday from her godmother – a rich countess. In today’s money the gift was worth over £125,000.
Ellen’s father was a wealthy lawyer, and she seemed able to persuade him to finance her various projects, too. These included creating a rockery in their garden, which turned out to be a spectacular three-acre Alpine scene, featuring a 65-metre-long ravine.
As an adult she became recognised as one of the country’s greatest horticulturalists, with three spectacular homes and gardens — Warley Place in England, Tresserve near Aix-les-Bains in France and Villa Boccanegra in Italy. At one point she was said to employ over 140 gardeners.
Her garden at Tresserve, which no longer survives, was where she focused her passion for French roses. By 1904 she had one of the finest collections in the world – more than 12,000 roses of over 900 varieties. She would visit each May and June to enjoy them.
She befriended plant breeders, funded planthunting trips and was more successful than anyone in nurturing the seeds and cuttings brought back. Her knowledge of plants and gardening was unrivalled.
But by 1907 she had blithely worked her way through inheritances worth tens of millions. Her money was running out and her behaviour becoming more eccentric. As her gardens were sold or disintegrated around her, and unable to admit her situation, her reputation for meanness grew. Certainly, she seemed little blessed with the gift for empathy. She could be rude and downright cruel to loyal staff and friends – “complex, brilliant and confrontational,” Lawrence concludes.
Whether this book rehabilitates her reputation and helps us understand her much better is difficult to say. We are given a possible reason for her absence from the RHS medal ceremony that so shocked the Victorian gardening press. But she still leaves the reader exasperated and confused – full of admiration for her energy and gifts, infuriated by much of her behaviour. I suspect Lawrence feels the same way.
Miss Willmott’s Ghosts – by Sandra Lawrence. Blink Publishing £25.00