Miss Willmott’s Ghosts

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts

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.


Miss Willmott’s Ghosts – by Sandra Lawrence
Blink Publishing £25.00

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.

In her garden at Tresserve, which no longer survives, 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.

Gardening can be murder

Gardening can be murder

This is a book for gardeners who love reading, and in particular for gardeners who like a good murder mystery.


Gardening can be murder – by Marta McDowell
Published by Timber Press 205pp

It started out as an article green-fingered New York writer Marta McDowell contributed in 2002 to the quarterly gardening journal, Hortus (a fantastic publication if you like good garden writing), under the title: Malus aforethought. Great headline!

McDowell flags up a whole host of mysteries that feature gardens, gardeners or detectives who are garden lovers. Many are written by authors who themselves are passionate gardeners, as we discover towards the end.

She starts with one of the first professional crime fighters – Sergeant Cuff – in the Wilkie Collins novel, The Moonstone (written in 1868 – 19 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in print).

I’ve probably seen a TV adaptation of this at some point but have subsequently been enjoying the audio book on Audible, principally because clever Sgt Cuff (we never learn his first name) is a rose lover. He arrives on the scene distracted by the gravel paths between the rose beds, insisting they should be grass, and regularly singing under his breath – The Last Rose of Summer.

McDowell flags up how his passion for roses was in keeping with the time – this was only 10 years after the first national rose show, at a time when the plant’s popularity was in the ascendancy.

The book is beautifully illustrated and an easy read. But it is frustrating in two respects. The first is that many of the authors are American and the books are not so easy to find over here. The second is… well, I’ve already got a huge pile of books I want to read. Now it’s got bigger. A lot bigger!

Read this book with a pencil, to highlight all the various books you will want to check out. Oxfam online, Amazon Kindle, Abe books, World of Books, Audible, your local library… you’ll find yourself trying to track down cheap copies everywhere.

My list now includes books by authors whose books I should have read sooner (Dorothy L. Sayers’, Rex Stout, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh). There are some I know but want to read more of (Ellis Peters’ Cadfael and a couple of Agatha Christie Poirots). Finally, there are some modern American authors – I’m particularly intrigued by Cynthia Riggs’s 92-year-old sleuth, Victoria Trumbull.

And then there are the plants I want, just for the stories they tell of fictional characters who end up pushing up the daisies from their use. Foxglove (digitalis) already makes an appearance in my garden each year. I wasn’t aware of the murderous potential of rhubarb (leaves, not stalks, in case you’re worried). And aconite is one I’m toying with.

McDowell offers some useful lists at the end of the book. A good accompaniment to this is A is for Arsenic, by Kathryn Harkup, a British chemist who has analysed all the Agatha Christie texts to check out the poisons she used.

English garden eccentrics

English garden eccentrics

The English do eccentricity well, so it should be no surprise that garden historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has been able to unearth so many “characters” to grace this engaging 300-year overview of horticultural eccentricity and excess. My favourite has to be Mabel Barltrop. 

Joanna Southcott (1750 to 1814) – a self-described prophetess from Devon who believed the messiah would return to England.

Barltrop (1866-1934) – a mother of four and the widow of a Church of England curate – believed herself to be Octavia, the Divine Daughter of God, whose appearance had been foretold by the 18th century English prophetess, Joanna Southcott.

Southcott had predicted the second coming of Christ in England. Her prophesies were kept in a sealed box, which she instructed must only be opened in time of need by a gathering of all the Church of England’s bishops (there were then 24) – and only after they had spent some time studying her texts.

Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), who called herself “Octavia”

Barltrop eagerly awaited this second coming, believing Christ would visit her red-brick Victorian semi in Bedford. She claimed that this was the site of the original Garden of Eden and destined to be “the Centre of the world’s work”. Remarkably, she managed to gather round her a community that believed this, too – the Panacea Society. 

It was 1919 and in the wake of the First World War a collapse in faith saw people turning away from the conventional church and embracing unorthodox theology. 

12 Albany Street (now Albany Road) in Bedford – home of the Panacea Society in the 1920s.

As the Society grew it expanded beyond Mabel’s semi-detached house at 12 Albany Street, with its bay windows and suburban privet hedge. Mabel’s own garden was filled with a large shed, converted in 1920, into a chapel large enough to welcome 50 worshippers. Neighbouring properties were bought – garden walls knocked down and gardens joined together – to create “The Estate of Jerusalem”.

Surviving photographs offer us only glimpses of this Eden. Most of it is given over to lawn for events, including the society’s annual summer garden parties, seen as dress rehearsals for the second coming. 

One striking picture shows women in white dresses and mop caps, men in white rustic smocks and straw hats – holding hands and performing a country dance around a large weeping ash tree. Another shows Octavia’s right-hand man, Peter Rasmussen, burning members’ confessions (a key part of the society’s rituals) on a makeshift altar of bricks alongside a toy lamb (symbolising Christ). 

By the mid-1920s the Panaceans decided the Garden of Eden extended beyond their little estate – for a 12-mile radius around their church, “The Royal Domain”. And they were no longer waiting for the second coming. Barltrop had decided her late husband had been Jesus and so now they were anticipating the third coming of Christ. 

Barltrop’s is just one of 21 stories told in Longstaffe-Gowan’s book, which treats its subjects with academic respect, often perhaps affection, and cannot help but surprise and entertain. Other gardens feature mountains in miniature, gnomes, aviaries, caves and burrowings and – at Elvaston Castle in neighbouring Derbyshire – spectacular topiary.

Sadly, none survive in their original form. They are fleeting expressions of the singular character of their makers, but perhaps – though on a much smaller scale – these traces of eccentricity can still be found in thousands of English gardens today. You only have to see a garden full of gnomes to know the spirit lives on. 

And how does Barltrop’s story end? By the time she died, in October 1934, the society had 50 members living in and around Albany Road and another 2,000 elsewhere, across the world. 

For three days her followers kept her body warm, expecting her to rise from the dead. When this did not happen, she was finally placed in a coffin and buried in Bedford’s Foster Hill Road Cemetery, where over a hundred of her supporters also found their final resting place. 

Remarkably, the community continued to grow, peaking just before WWII. It was not until 2012 that the last member died and the Panacea Society’s name was changed to the Panacea Charitable Trust. 

Today the Trust funds and supports academic research into the study of apocalyptic and millenarian movements like Barltrop’s. It operates a museum on the site of the former community and makes grants for the relief of poverty and sickness and to advance education generally, primarily in Bedford and the surrounding area. Its accounts show it has over £40m in assets.

Barltrop’s Garden of Eden may not be what it was in the 1920s, but just a glimpse of its remnants surely makes a visit to Bedford enticing.

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Paul Mellon Centre, 392pp