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Ellen Ann Willmott - a true genius of the place

Article Index

  1. Ellen Ann Willmott - a true genius of the place
  2. Early life
  3. Warley Place
  4. A family of gardeners
  5. The Alpine Garden
  6. Gardening in France
  7. Bulb breeding
  8. An Italian garden
  9. Plant collecting
  10. Publications
  11. Critical acclaim
  12. Financial worries
  13. A disagreement with E.A. Bowles
  14. World War One
  15. Warley under threat
  16. The post-war years
  17. An eccentric old lady
  18. Lasting reputation
  19. Endnotes
  20. All Pages

Ellen Ann Willmott, described by her contemporary Gertrude Jekyll as being ‘the greatest of living women-gardeners’, is today known mostly for her Genus Rosa as well as for the clandestine efforts she undertook in introducing the sea holly, ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ into the gardens she visited. Dr Susan Gordon investigates the remarkable life of this Victorian genius of the place.

Early life

Ellen Ann Willmott Memorial Plaque, Brentwood, Cemetery

Miss Willmott's memorial plaqueEllen Ann Willmott, accomplished botanist, gardener, horticulturalist, musician and photographer, was active in England, France and Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For many years she held a leading place among women in horticulture. From her earliest days, she was closely associated with gardens.

Miss Willmott was born on 19 August 1858 in Spring Grove, Heston, Middlesex, England, at one time the home of Sir Joseph Banks.  Her father, Frederick Willmott (1825-1892) was a solicitor and financier of Southwark, London. Her mother, Ellen (1826-1898) was a third-generation gardener and the only child of Mr James Fell, a wealthy Catholic merchant, of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. [1]

Ellen Ann was the eldest of three daughters and spent the early years of her childhood living with her younger sister Rose (later Berkeley) (1861-1922) and her youngest sister Ada Mary (1864-1872) at her parents’ home. [2]

The Willmott family's first home, Vernon House, at 52 Spring Grove in Heston, Middlesex was a three-storey double-fronted suburban villa with its own built-in coach house and private three-quarter acre formal garden, set within a 300-acre landscaped estate. It had been designed and laid out by Mr Henry Daniel Davies in 1852 as part of a speculative housing development for middle class residents. [3]

Willmott was educated, along with her sisters, at Gumley House Convent School in nearby Isleworth. The school (which opened in 1841) aimed to give girls in England the type of Roman Catholic education which, up until then, had generally only been obtainable abroad. [4] All three Willmott girls were enrolled as day students.

From around the age of 7, Ellen began receiving a £1,000 cheque for her birthday from her godmother, Helen Ann (later Countess) Tasker (died 1888), of Middleton Hall, Brentwood, Essex.  

Miss Tasker, the childless cousin of Ellen Ann's mother, was a painter and a wealthy philanthropist [5]. She had helped establish convents, hospitals, Catholic churches and schools in the UK and was in 1870 given the title ‘Countess in the Holy Roman or Pontifical States' by Pope Pius IX [6]. Tasker's yearly gift to Willmott equates to roughly £15,000 in today's terms [7].

In 1872, when Ellen was 13, tragedy struck. Her youngest sister, Ada Mary, then aged only 7, died having suffered from diphtheria.

In 1875, the Willmotts bought a new home, Warley Place, in Essex.  It was here that Ellen Ann Willmott was able to practice fully her gardening and horticultural skills and develop the botanical knowledge for which she would later become 'world-renowned'.


Warley Place

'Warley Place', Brentwood, EssexWarley Place, Brentwood, EssexThe Willmotts' second family home, Warley Place, near Brentwood in Essex, was very unlike Vernon House. It was an 'old-fashioned' country house set on a private estate of over 30 acres. Red-brick, pedimented, and built on high ground, within 20 miles commuting distance from the City which it overlooked, it was ‘in every character suitable for the occupation of a family of the highest respectability'. [8]

It was here that Mr, Mrs, and the Misses Willmott - as they were known collectively - began to lay the ground work for what would later become referred to as ‘the gardens which Miss Willmott's devoted skill made famous throughout the world'. [9]

Warley Place was already famous before the arrival of the Willmotts. It had long been associated with the great English diarist and arborealist, Sir John Evelyn (1620-1706) who had bought the lease to the manor of Warley Magna on 12 May 1649 and had, it was believed, laid out and planted the grounds toward the end of the 17th century. [10]

Spanish chesnuts at Warley Place, Brentwood, EssexThe Spanish chestnuts, said to have been planted by John EvelynAt the time the Willmotts came to live at Warley in the summer of 1876, the grounds were said to have still been very much as ‘John Evelyn - who lived there for a time and wrote much of his Silva there - had left it'. It was richly furnished with ‘fine specimen trees', including a row of Spanish chestnuts, rumoured to have been planted by John Evelyn himself, as well as ‘meadows of Crocus vernus, which had been there since Evelyn's times'. [11]


Crocus vernusCrocus vernus

Although unsubstantiated, these were connections Ellen Ann herself was all too happy to promote. Upon her arrival at Warley, she became especially interested in continuing the tradition of cultivating crocus for which the garden had been earlier famous and even referred to Evelyn in some of her later correspondences. [12]

To these earlier features, she would later add great quantities of daffodils and other bulbs to the fields, banks and sheltered spots at Warley. She also created a rock garden and, lastly, a water garden. The skill and care in gardening she showed in doing so, would earn the high praise of her male and female contemporaries. [13]

willmott_caucasian_wingnut_tree_a_350pxNaturalised bulbs at WarleyOver the course of the next 30 years, and at one point with the assistance of up to 104 gardeners, Ellen Ann Willmott, and the plant hunters she supported, would make Warley, in the eyes of many, ‘not only one of the most beautiful, but also one of the most interesting of English gardens'. [14]


A family of gardeners

Ellen Ann Willmott was the fourth generation of 'amateur gardeners of distinction' in her family [15]. Her uncle, Charles Willmott, is said by her to have been both ‘a fair botanist and very good horticulturalist and greatly interested in plants' and her mother to have been ‘growing several New Zealand plants and shrubs [raised from seed sent by him]... long before their general introduction' [16]. She is said herself to have had ‘an innate love of flowers' and by the age of 18 ‘a mind already attuned to the renaissance of hardy plant gardening then occurring' [17].

Willmott's work at Warley was highly influenced by her friend, the enthusiastic horticultural reformer William Robinson (1838-1935), a Quaker, who had himself only recently initiated a rebirth of hardy plant gardening and use of alpines in English gardens with the publication of his two books The Wild Garden and  Alpine Flowers for Gardens in 1870. The latter had gone into its second edition (1875) by the time Ellen and her family had come to Warley.

Warley Place thus proved to be a great opportunity for the young Miss Willmott, offering her ‘an ideal foundation on which to build' [18]. She had plenty of time to devote to helping her family revive and replant Warley. By the time she was living there, with her parents and sister Rose, she had already left school [19].

img_1137r_a_250pxRemains of a cold store at WarleyWhen not playing music, lawn tennis or badminton, visiting flower shows, other people's gardens or the theatre, attending garden parties, balls or cricket games, practising skating, painting or photography, or touring British and European health spas with her family, Ellen Ann would be found hard at work in the meadow, orchard, kitchen and formal gardens, vineries, greenhouses and cold pits at Warley.

willmott_sj_dsc00096_a_350pxHerbaceous border at Warley Place, 1909

Ellen Ann Willmott shared her ‘inherited' interests in gardening with her sister Rose, who, with her so-called ‘rare taste in grouping' seems to have first mostly limited her work at Warley to the herbaceous borders. Her mother, ‘a most energetic and enterprising gardener',  whom modern writers often describe as having ‘held strongly contrary views on the Victorian practices of carpet bedding and ribbon borders', appears to have started a rose collection from seed there, and to have involved both girls in an early plant hunting exercise, looking around the county for plants, with an Essex origin, for use in the formal garden [20] . 

The Alpine Garden

In 1879 at the age of 21, after assisting her mother with the development of the formal garden at Warley, Ellen Ann Willmott is said to have asked permission from her recently retired father to cash in some of the birthday money she had been accumulating from her godmother, over the past 15 years, and to put it towards the development of a new Alpine Garden at Warley [21].

Construction for the alpine garden began in the early 1880s and was carried out by the Quaker firm of landscape gardeners James Backhouse and Sons  Ltd. of York, who were specialists in the Alpine and in the creation of exquisite rock gardens.

willmott_img_1349r_a_350pxAlpine garden, Warley PlaceMiss Willmott's rock garden, built by the Backhouses, was one of the first in the country to be constructed on a grand scale. It was located just below the bowling green, to the south west of the main drive, still within sight of the house, and took the form of a mountainous gorge of rocky slopes and gullies.

It contained, amongst several other features, both shattered and half buried stones, huge boulders, curved steps, ponds, an alpine stream, stone bridge and a glassed roofed cave, called the Filmy Fern Grotto, which housed, along its walls and on its floor, groupings of filmy ferns from New Zealand and the British Isles. 

alpineFrontispiece from William Robinson's Alpine Flowers for GardensIt was a major undertaking, necessary in order to allow Willmott to grow alpine plants in an environment approaching their native habitat. The terrain excavated by the Backhouses was deep enough to protect the plants from the winds and harsh weather and there was enough soil, water, and variously sized and variously exposed Millstone grit stones supplied by them from Yorkshire to allow her to successfully cluster small as well as bushy plants on and around them, many of which were rare and reputedly difficult. 

In February 1880, Ellen Ann's father notes in his diary:  ‘Ellie began the erection of her Gypsy Hut near the Pond' and on 1 April 1882: 'Ellie began her new Alpine garden.' [22]

Ellen Ann Willmott's work at Warley was very bold and imaginative and carried out with zest at a time when Ellen Ann's mother was mostly confined to a Bath chair, so was doing very little active gardening herself. 

For her work on making a sunken garden for Alpine plants at Warley, Miss Willmott was deemed a pioneer. Several contemporary authors, both in the UK and abroad, were full of enthusiastic admiration for her and for her new gardens which were seen as a much welcomed break from the ‘dreadful "rockwork" of mid-Victorian times' as well as ‘a source of pleasure and inspiration to many who have seen it.' [23]

willmott_sj_dsc00093_a_350pxThe Alpine garden, 1909Illustrations of Warley Place, as well as photographs Miss Willmott had herself sent in of various Alpine flowers, later appeared in parts one and two of Robinson's The English Flower Garden, first published in 1883. Miss Willmott presented a copy of this in 1884 to what must have been her - by then - very proud mother on her birthday. [24]

Gardening in France

By the time Ellen Ann Willmott was 30, the accumulated birthday money she had spent on creating the new Alpine Garden at Warley, was recouped with the passing of the Countess Tasker, her benevolent godmother. Tasker died on 3 January 1888 leaving Willmott approximately £140,000 - the equivalent of roughly £5 million in today's terms [25].

Thereafter followed years of extravagant spending by Willmott, including the purchase of a chateau at Tresserve, near Aix-les-Bains, in France in 1890, and the establishment there of a second garden in which to further indulge her love of flowers and exotic Alpines. 

Ellen Ann bought the chateau for 50,000 francs (£2,000) after embarking upon a year-long grand tour of Europe with her family from the summer of 1888 to summer 1889 [26]. She also bought further pieces of land to increase its size. Her gardener at Tresserve was Claude Meunier.

Enormous quantities of plants were purchased from Henri Correvon's Jardin Alpin d'Acclimatation at Geneva in the early years of the 1890s. Correvon (1854-1939)  a renowned Alpine specialist, who founded the Jardin in 1884, was also director of La Linnea Gardens at Bourg St. Pierre (founded in 1889), and a frequent visitor to Warley.

The chateau itself was stocked with Louis XVth and XVIth furniture and rare books [27]. Ellen Ann also used her money to engage in her other passions: music and craft. She amassed a fine collection of musical and mechanical instruments, including a rather expensive - even though second-hand - Holtzapffel lathe (No. 2287) for turning wood and ivory, on which she used to make rings and ivory boxes in her own private workroom at Warley; four Amati instruments, including two violins, a viola and a cello, purchased from W.E. Hill and Sons; a Crossley Brothers (No. 36857) ‘Otto' silent gas engine-powered organ; a Cowper's parlour printing press, and a Holtzapffel's monotype printing press on which, it is said, she used to enjoy setting up the type for some of the first seed lists produced at Warley [28].

Numerous plants from Correvon were also purchased for Warley at this time and the house and gardens there were prepared for her sister's wedding to Robert Berkeley of Spetchley Park, which took place in the summer of 1891 [29]. During the years 1890 to 1900, Ellen's yearly bill with Russell Nursery was quite often in the region of £21,500 [30].

Ellen Ann Willmott's father passed away in 1892 leaving her with a further inheritance [31]. In 1894, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and was appointed a life fellow.

That same year, she acquired the services of 19-year-old Jacob Maurer, one of Correvon's Swiss gardeners, whom she persuaded to move to Warley to oversee and make improvements to the Alpine Garden, promising him a house and £1-a-week pension. Maurer moved into South Lodge with his wife in 1905.  A circular Alpine propagating house was installed behind the lodge to supply the garden.

willmott_daffodil_clump_a_350pxDaffodils at Warley PlaceWith Maurer now entrenched in the Alpine garden, Willmott's attention turned towards the cultivation and hybridisation of daffodils. She bought the stock of daffodil breeder the Reverend George Herbert Engleheart of Appleshaw, Andover and began hybridising at Warley from the mid-1890s.

In 1895 Correvon offered the Alpine Garden at Warley high praise in his book, Les Plantes Alpines et de Rocailles [32]. Two years later, when the Victoria Medal of Honour was first instituted by the RHS in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year, Miss Willmott was one of only two women among the first 60 recipients of the award. The other was Gertrude Jekyll, who accepted Willmott's award on her behalf.  

That same year, Willmott was elected to the RHS Narcissus Committee, her sister Rose moved with her husband and daughter to Spetchley Park after the death of her father in law, and Ellen Ann purchased the Jordan collection of sempervivum from the French botanist Claude Thomas Alexis Jordan (1814-1897) of Lyon.

In March 1897, Narcissus ‘Ellen Willmott', raised and shown by the Reverend Engleheart, won an RHS first class certificate. In July, Miss Willmott exhibited a group of verbena, for which she was accorded a silver Banksian medal. Verbena ‘Tresserve', shown by J.T. Bennett-Pope, received a RHS Award of Merit later in August.

Also in 1897, with her independent income still sufficient enough to enable it, Ellen Ann Willmott began to subsidise the plant hunting expeditions, in Persia, Armenia and Turkestan, of two collectors for Mr John Hoog of van Tubergens Zwanenburg nurseries in Haarlem, Kronenburg and Sintenis. [33] She became especially interested in the iris and tulip bulbs they were discovering.

In 1898, Lilium x marhan ‘Ellen Willmott', was shown by van Tubergen, and awarded a first class certificate.

The same year her mother died, leaving Miss Willmott the enterprise at Warley and a further £70,000 inheritance. By the time she was 40, Ellen Ann Willmott was in charge of the gardens at Warley Place.

Miss Willmott worked among her gardeners [35]. Surviving contemporary accounts describe her as being always dressed in black, ‘slim, rather beady-eyed, with gingerish tendrils of hair escaping from under her hat, always in a hurry' [36]. 

She had a reputation for knowing the location of every bulb in her garden and for being a hard taskmaster who would not allow a weed or plant to be out of place without someone losing their job .‘No one ever quite knew where she was going to appear next. So the safest thing, if you wanted to keep your job, was to put in a good day's work and mostly they did.' [37]

In 1899, Tulipa willmottiae was collected in the eastern mountains by van Tubergen's collector Kronenburg. Iris willmottiana was also collected from east Turkestan for van Tubergen.

That same year, Willmott began experimenting with Primula viscosa hybrids at Warley [38]. In July, Campanula ‘Warley' won a RHS Award of Merit. In November, Nerine ‘Miss Willmott', shown by Mr H.J. Elwes of Colesbourne, Gloucestershire, and Nerine ‘Miss Berkeley', were both accorded RHS Awards of Merit.


Bulb breeding

img_0742r_a_250pxNaturalised daffodils, Warley PlaceAt the beginning of the 20th century, Miss Willmott's success in breeding and cultivating daffodils earned her several prizes and Awards of Merit from the RHS for the new varieties and hybrids she had introduced, many of which she named after her friends and relatives: for example, ‘Mrs. Berkeley' and ‘Little Lost Ada' [39].

She had a collection of more than 600 different species and hybrid daffodils in her walled gardens at Warley and, as far back as the turn of the century, is reputed to have made the head of the gardens fix  trip wires around the daffodils in the fields, which would set off air guns to frighten anyone hoping secretly to pick some [40].

Miss Willmot also had collections of tulips and irises from all over the world and had worked on irises with the botanist Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907), Professor of Physiology at Cambridge [41].

In 1901, Iris warleyensis was collected in Bokhara by van Tubergen's collector, Kronenburg. Willmott was the first cultivator to bring it into flower in England. Iris willmottiana won a RHS Award of Merit in April that year.

In 1902, in her book Roses for English Gardens, Gertrude Jekyll gratefully acknowledged Willmott's valuable help in compiling the list of rose species as garden plants and for providing the text with a considerable number of her own photographs.

In March 1902, Iris warleyensis received a RHS first class certificate. While Narcissus ‘Warley Magna', an Engleheart seedling shown by Willmott, won a RHS Award of Merit a month later.

The following year, Willmott became one of the first three trustees of the RHS garden at Wisley in Surrey. Her friend Sir Thomas Hanbury had given over the 60-acre site to the RHS and the Society moved its garden there from Chiswick. Willmott appears to have been instrumental in both persuading the RHS to buy the site and Hanbury to present it [42].

Also in 1903, Miss Willmott received an RHS first class certificate for Tulipa praestans, one of the Reverend Engleheart's seedlings, and her wild and Alpine gardens were endorsed by William Robinson.

In the third edition of Alpine Flowers for Gardens, Robinson included several illustrations of the gardens at Warley (based on Miss Willmott's own photographs) and a dedication to the memory of the late James Backhouse of York (1825-1890) ‘mountain-lover, naturalist, and rock gardener'. In his 1903 foreword, Robinson wrote:

‘Much improvement, both in design and cultivation of rock-gardens and rock plants, has taken place within the past twenty years, or so, and some effects on these rock gardens are now seen that were impossible on the old form of "rock-work", with its dust-dry pockets and hopeless ugliness. At Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, South Lodge, Leonardslee, Warley Place, Batsford, and many other places we may see not only the rarest Alpine plants admirably grown, but effects and colour not unworthy of the Alpine fields.' [43]

Warley may not have had its own Matterhorn, but it did have. to the north west of the Alpine garden, the hut - complete with mountain furniture and herdsman's gear - in which Napoleon is said to have spent the night while crossing the Alps into Italy in May 1800 [44].

‘I have never seen anything more beautiful in nature or in gardens than grassy banks planted with the smaller and rarer Narcissi in the gardens at Warley Place,' Robinson continues in his main text. [45]

A year later, in 1904, Miss Willmott was accorded the honour of becoming one of the very first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society [46]. She was also, that year, reputedly approached by Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer (1843-1928), then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to help with printing a supplement to Georg August Pritzel's Iconum Botanicum [47].

Between 1904 and 1907, Miss Willmott won the RHS gold medal for various groups of rare daffodils and was supplying the trade with bulbs. Narcissus ‘Great Warley', an Engleheart seedling that she showed, won an RHS first class certificate in April 1904.

Ellen Ann Willmott was formally admitted as a life fellow of the Linnean Society on 19 January 1905. In February that year, Crocus chrysanthus ‘Warley' received a RHS Award of Merit as did Dianthus ‘Miss Wilmott', shown by nurseryman Mr J. Douglas later in July and Tulipa fosteriana. 


An Italian garden

willmott_terrace_a_350pxThe terrace at Warley under restorationIn 1905, with her independent income still intact, and further replenished with inheritances from both her parents, Ellen Ann Willmott purchased a third garden, La Boccanegra, near Ventimiglia on the Ligurian coast of the Italian Riviera, near her friend Thomas Hanbury's La Mortola, which she often visited. Soon afterwards, she began laying out the gardens there and ordering plants on a large scale [48].

Visiting both her French Alpine and Italian Mediterranean gardens for no more than a month at a time, twice a year, Miss Willmott kept in constant contact with the head gardeners at all three gardens through the clever use of a series of pre-printed addressed postcards which were left with the gardeners so that ‘they may instantly communicate' with her when needed [49].  

In addition to plants, Willmott also spent a lot of her money on antiques, chain-driven cars, clothes, food, jewellery, rare botanical and madrigal books, silverware and subscriptions and donations to various national, regional and local societies [50]. In the spring of 1906, she spent over £1,100 on a redecoration of the interiors of Warley house [51]. 

But it was gardening that was still her main and most passionate love interest. That same year, Willmott wrote to Professor Charles Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA, USA: you know, my plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them.  [52]  

This was to be the start of a six year correspondence between the two.

Narcissus ‘Warleyensis', raised and shown by Miss Willmott, won a RHS Award of Merit in April 1906.

To augment and keep up to date her near-comprehensive collection of hardy trees and shrubs at all three of her gardens, Willmott helped finance Ernest Henry Wilson's third plant hunting trip to China.

Ernest Henry Wilson (1896-1930) first went to China in 1899. This was followed by a second trip in 1903. Both trips were on behalf of the Chelsea, London-based nurserymen James Veitch & Sons. In 1906, a third trip was suggested, this time on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, USA [53].

The trip was organised by Professor Sargent, but it was Ellen Ann Willmott who reputedly convinced Wilson - a recently married new father - to go, providing him with the much-needed encouragement and some of the cash necessary for the two-year expedition. She apparently also offered him advice on photography [54].

So great was the amount of money Miss Willmott spent on her three gardens and her hobbies that, by the following spring, her personal fortune had dwindled to the point that she was forced to borrow money.

‘I have always been greatly impressed by your expenditure and thought that only a millionaire could afford it...the way to get into trouble is to have several homes,' William Robinson wrote to her in August 1910 [55].

In March 1907, using much of Warley as collateral, Willmott borrowed £15,000 from John James Stokes, a senior partner in her father's old law firm and J.G. Tasker, a presumed cousin of the Countess Tasker [56].

A month later, in April, Narcissus ‘Miss Willmott', raised by van Tubergen and shown by Messrs Walter T. Ware of Inglescombe, Bath, won a RHS Award of Merit. Also in that year, Willmott joined the Essex Field Club for which she led an annual summer tour of Warley's gardens.

By late 1907, Wilson had sent Willmott numerous seeds of herbaceous plants and she also received hundreds of packets of seeds of shrubs and trees via the Arnold Arboretum.

Unfortunately, an accidental fire at Tresserve in the autumn of 1907 destroyed the house and most of the contents. The restoration cost her dearly. In December, she borrowed a further £3,000 from Stokes and Tasker [57].

The December 1907 issue of The Garden, however, must have given her some comfort. It contained a copy of her portrait in pastel, attributed to Signora Gutti, and a dedication praising her for ‘her great knowledge so freely given and her enthusiasm in promoting a love of flowers and their ways in this and other countries'.

Another dedication to Miss Willmott appeared in the Botanical Magazine. It reproduced a portrait of her in oil and read:

 ‘to Miss Ellen Ann Willmott, FLS, VHM, of Warley Place, Essex, whose skill in gardening is only surpassed by the generosity in which she dispenses the treasures of her gardens and accords to others the benefits of her experience this volume is gratefully dedicated.' [58]


Plant collecting

img_0615r_a_250pxMeliosma veitchiorum at Warley, introduced by Ernest WilsonBetween 1907 and 1911, Wilson continued to send Willmott numerous seeds as well as bulbs, shrubs and herbaceous plants, from China. Many of these through her intelligent experiment, patience and care were successfully raised and brought into a flourishing condition at her gardens, whereas at the Arnold Arboretum, Kew and other places that had received the same shipments, they failed to prosper.

Willmott, for her success with these plant imports, soon gained the reputation of being able to bring the rarest and most precious plants to the point at which they could be shown more quickly and better than anyone else in the country [60].  She was, for example, the only gardener to have successfully raised certain varieties of Wilson's Helwingia and Sabia [61].

Willmott raised a Himalayan plumbago, Ceratostigma willmottanum, from seeds obtained on Wilson's third trip. Only two seeds germinated, one at Warley and the other at Spetchley.  Corylopsis willmottiae and Rosa willmottiae were both discovered by Wilson in 1908 in western Szechuan on his Chinese plant-hunting expeditions.

In addition to Asia, Miss Willmott also supported collectors in South Africa. ‘I have a man collecting Pelargonium for me out on the Cape,' she wrote in 1902 [62]. This was Gerald Davidson who sent rare pelargoniums to her hothouses.

For many years, Willmott was in frequent communication not just with her American, South African and Eastern contacts, but also with botanic gardens and gardeners in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, paying them visits and exchanging plants, seeking their aid in keeping her collections correctly named.

 ‘I am quite alone with nothing to think about but plants and gardening,' she wrote from Tresserve to Professor Sargent in 1908 [63].

In 1908, after trials at Wisley, Dahlia ‘Miss Willmott', sent by Codsall nurserymen Messrs Bakers, was highly commended. 

Also in 1908, Reginald Farrer, an expert alpine grower and plant hunter, gave his - mostly positive - opinion of the Alpine garden at Warley. In his book My Rock Garden, he comments:

 ‘At Warley, again, there is the Gorge-design to be studied - to my own personal taste, a trifle too violent to be altogether pleasant, but still a noble example of definite purpose definitely carried out.' [64]  

Around 1904 to 1909, the daffodils Ellen Ann Willmott had been showing in the early 1900s entered into the trade (Messrs. Walter T. Ware of Inglescombe, Bath was her agent 1908-1911) [65]. Miss Willmott gradually ceased daffodil hybridisation activities and turned her attention to the bulbs and seeds Wilson had been sending her from China [66]. In early 1909, a large shipment of rhododendron and rose seeds arrived. Willmott sold her share of the rhododendrons to Gauntletts' nursery in Chiddingfold and gave Primula viscosa and primrose hybrid sets she had been experimenting with to Kew, Edinburgh and Dublin [67].



Up to this point, in terms of her publications, Willmott had merely contributed information and photographs to other people's texts, such as Gertrude Jekyll's Roses for English Gardens (1902) and Children and Gardens (1908), the Reverend Charles Casey's Riviera Nature Notes (1903) and William Robinson's Alpine Flowers for Gardens (1903).

In 1909, following her previous success in this area, she published her own book of photographs, which she dedicated to her sister Rose, entitled Warley Gardens in Spring and Summer, published by Quaritch. In it, Miss Willmott demonstrated her knowledge of both gardening and photography.

A year later, she published the first part of a monograph on the rose, a genus of which she was considered to be, by many at the time, an authoritative figure. The nurseryman Correvon judged her collection one of the best in Britain and she grew them at La Boccanegra as well.   

Miss Willmott began to prepare the book around 1901, which involved several years of prolonged, careful study and detailed, patient observation. Much of the work was based on her practical experience of crossing roses as well as the extensive knowledge she gained through reading the theoretical, practical, modern and historical botanical and horticultural works she had been collecting [68]. 

‘I have worked upon roses all my life and the difficulties are insurmountable. I have over and over again felt I was nearing some satisfactory classification and then fresh material has set me astray again,' she wrote [69].  

Willmott spent years bringing about 140 different species of her roses into flower, producing material for the book at her own expenditure.

‘I should be only too glad if I could get some help, but as I wish nothing spared which can contribute to the perfection of the book I must do it myself,' she wrote [70].  

Willmott's book, The Genus Rosa, was issued in 25 parts and in two volumes.  The first parts of volume one were published in September 1910. Its debut was, however, a tremendous disappointment for Willmott and John Murray the publishers, as only 260 of the 1,000 copies produced were sold [71].

The suggestion for the book seems to have come from Canon Ellacombe, whom Willmott thanks in her preface along with Colonel David Prain, the director of Kew [72]. The book was dedicated to Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother [73].

It contained geographical, historical and horticultural notes, written by Willmott herself, set alongside coloured plates drawn by the landscape painter and botanical illustrator Alfred Parsons, RA and purely botanical text written by John Gilbert Baker from Kew.

The multi-coloured lithographed illustrations, based on drawing by Parsons, alone cost more than the profits from the book's sale.


Critical acclaim

In 1911, Correvon, who had earlier praised Willmott's garden at Warley Place, published his approval of her European gardens and recent gardening activities. 

‘I have described elsewhere the splendid gardens at Warley Place. In them a true artist displays her accurate and deep knowledge of plants- I except none- united to astonishing experience of practical gardening. Miss Willmott is unquestionably the amateur, who in England (and consequently in all the world) has the best knowledge of bulbs and hardy plants. She has inherited the traditions of the Rev. Wolley Dod and Sir Michael Foster, whose unique collection of Iris and bulbs, the most beautiful and complete in existence, was given to her by the owner. The cause of gardening claims all her ability, erudition, fortune and talents, and, like Queen Anne, the only title Miss Willmott cares to claim is that of gardener. Than the collections of hardy plants at Warley and at Tresserve, on the shore of Lake Bourget, nothing more comprehensive is to be found. The manor-house of Warley lies in one of the sunniest and driest parts of England. The grounds were laid out and planted toward the end of the seventeenth century by the celebrated writer Evelyn. Here in surroundings naturally diversified a valley has been excavated by the chatelaine, and in this artificial valley an excellent rock-garden built, traversed by a mimic Alpine stream. The whole is planted with an exhaustive and world-wide collection of mountain flora, well worthy of the cosmopolitan reputation which it has so quickly won.' [74]

Wilson, who visited Willmott at Warley, in 1911 reported back to the Arnold Arboretum in August that year that Willmott had been wonderfully successful with seeds and plants which no one else had managed to raise. Before he left, he also wrote to Ellen Ann informing her himself that ‘I accepted the work on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum was due more largely to your influence than possibly you and others are aware of.' [75]

Also in 1911, Willmott presented Kew with a herbarium she had bought from Alexis Jordan. In April, Narcissus ‘Miss Willmott', raised by van Tubergen and shown by Messrs Walter T. Ware of Inglecombe, Bath, won a first class certificate.

More awards followed in 1912 after she let go head gardener James Preece, whose work was taken over by Fielder [76]. These were all for plants introduced by Wilson from China. Corylopsis warleyensis, discovered in 1908, was accorded a RHS Award of Merit in March. Primula warleyensis received an RHS Award of Merit in April. Deutzia longfolia and Lilium warleyensis received first class certificates in July. Willmott gained a botanical certificate for Deinanthe caerulea and an RHS Award of Merit for Patrina palmate. Later in 1912, Fielder left to go work for the RHS full time. Around this time, Chandler left Warley for a job at Medmenham.

It was at this stage, that Ellen Ann Willmott starting singing in the Bach choir, having been introduced to them first in 1911 and having attended their meetings. So great was her love of this activity, that she is reported to have slept on benches in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in order to save a night's lodging on the way to Oxford, and to have spent the night in a police lock-up (voluntarily) having been found asleep on the top step of the Judges' Lodgings at Oxford, after a concert [77].

In 1912, naturalist J.C. Shenstone described the garden at Warley in detail, informing readers that it was open once a year to the public for a charge collected at the entrance gate, the profits for which were given to a local charity.

According to her own letters, Willmott was by that year still supplying the trade with daffodils and attending narcissi committee meetings.

Also in 1912, following the publication of the early parts of The Genus Rosa, the Society Nationale D'Acclimatation de France bestowed upon her the honour of the Grande Medaille d'Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire [78].

Other awards followed including, in 1913, a RHS Award of Merit for ‘Warley Hybrid' and others. Lysionotus warleyensis, collected by Wilson in China, was given a RHS Award of Merit in August 1913. There were a number of awards of merit in 1914, including one for the Warley rose [79].

However, Primula spectabilis ‘Warley Variety', shown in April 1913, failed to impress the judges, as did Primula capiata ‘Warley Variety' when shown in November 1913.


Financial worries

By this time it was no longer possible for Miss Willmott to set aside her money problems. In 1913 she was threatened with bankruptcy and forced to begin selling her possessions and even to let a number of staff, including gardeners, go. She sold one of her Amati violins, together with a Stradivarius, and, though unsuccessful, in March tried to let some of the unoccupied properties at Warley and La Boccanegra [80]. 

Despite her financial troubles, Willmott continued to keep in touch with a variety of botanical gardeners [81], including those at the Botanic Gardens at Dublin (1915) and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh (1900-1930). She also exchanged plants with a California nurseryman, Carl Purdy, in 1912 [82].

In 1913, Miss Willmott was invited to a reception to mark the bicentennial of the Imperial Gardens in St. Petersburg, Russia and was in correspondence with the palace gardener at Sofia. Lievre, in her 1980 biography of Willmott, also tells the story 'with no date and no details attached to it, but yet bearing the ring of truth that Ellen Willmott was asked by the emperor of Japan to go and lay out a garden for him - a matter of enormous interest, and extremely lucrative - but that she turned it down because she had too much to do in Europe.' [83] 

img_0756r_a_250pxRemains of the conservatory at Warley PlaceIn March 1914, the final part of volume two of Ellen Ann Willmott's The Genus Rosa was published [84]. The set became the standard work on the subject and further perpetuated Willmott's name in the annals of botany and horticulture.

In April, Willmott's Anemone pulsatilla, shown at the RHS, did not impress the judges. Neither did her Rhododendron warleyense or R. willmottiae, nor her Veronica prostrate, also shown at Chelsea that year. Her Verbascum ‘Warley Rose', however received a RHS Award of Merit.

The same month, Arthur Forster, of Frere Cholmeley's, persuaded Lord Lilford to take over Willmott's £18,000 mortgage [85]. This was a stroke of luck for her as the following June her father's old law firm, with whose partners part of her original mortgage was held, went bankrupt [86]. However it was soon realised that Tresserve would have to be sold to repay Lord Lilford. 


A disagreement with E.A. Bowles

That same year, E.A. Bowles, of Myddelton House, near Enfield, published the first of his trilogy, My Garden in Spring. The preface, written by his friend, Reginald Farrer, ridiculed show-off rock gardens:

‘This is a mosaic, this is a gambol in purple and gold; but it is not a rock garden, though tin chamois peer never so frequent from its cliffs upon the passer-by, bewildered with such a glare of expensive magnificence.' [87]

Ellen Ann Willmott and Frank Crisp, the owner of Friar Park and senior member of the London based law firm Ashurst, Morris, Crisp & Co., to whom some of the comments were felt to be directed, took tremendous offence. Instead of blaming Farrer, though, they took it out on Bowles, Crisp quickly publishing a pamphlet, entitled Mr E.A. Bowles and his garden, a New Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and Miss Willmott distributing it from a bookmaker's leather bag at the Chelsea Flower Show that year. [88]

Such was the - at times - tempestuous relationship between Bowles and Willmott, that Farrer is reported to have that year written to Bowles that he (Bowles) should:  ‘marry the cankered Ellen at once and save further trouble.' [89]

The pamphlet was later reproduced in Gardening Illustrated, and Bowles responded with a letter to William Robinson, then editor.  By March the row had blown over, with Bowles inviting Willmott to his garden to help herself to some of his plants [90].


World War One

Up until 1914, Ellen Ann Willmott had been very fortunate in having been able to indulge her horticultural energies, as well as her other scientific and artistic delights, to the full. Just prior to World War One, she still had enough gardeners to keep the grounds at Warley in a good state, and is said to have grown over 100,000 different species and cultivars of flowering plants, shrubs and trees there.

As her bank debts mounted, Miss Willmott's sister, Rose was hospitalised and diagnosed with cancer in July 1914. This was followed, a month or so later, by the outbreak of war. The appearance of The Genus Rosa, just before the war, drastically reduced its sales. In October 1914, a glowing review of it by Jekyll appeared, perhaps to try to help boost its popularity.

Several of Willmott's gardeners left Warley to fight in the war. So tight was money becoming for her, that she was forced to break her promise to the wife of Gooch the gardener to be able to live rent-free on the estate while Gooch himself fought in the Great War [91]. Regular postcards were received from Clodoveo to keep her up to date with what was happening at Boccanegra.

By May 1915, Willmott's financial troubles had come to a head. She had no income. She consulted Frank Crisp, who lent her money against the security of her Italian property and tried to round up other friends, including William Robinson, to contribute to the running costs of Warley, which stood at approximately £253 a week [92].

‘It is these next few weeks. I am in a pretty bad hole for the moment,' she wrote to Frank Crisp [93].

In June Campanula pusills ‘Miss Willmott', shown by Stevenage nurseryman, Mr Clarence Elliot, won a RHS Award of Merit. Plagianthus lyalli ‘Warley Variety', however, failed to impress the judges in July.

It was around this time that the army took over Warley Lea and Shenfield Lodge and Willmott started, sadly, to find that much of her beautiful planting was being destroyed at the houses on the estate she had leased [94].

The same year, to try to raise some capital, Willmott contemplated starting a gardening school. Since the early 1900s, she had been a patroness of Lady Wolseley's Gylde School of Gardening (founded in 1901-2). She consulted her friend Cecile Gradwell over the matter and started putting her plans into action with a Mrs Scott. [95]

In 1916, at the same time she was given a super-tax form to fill out, the banks began to demand payment of outstanding loans. Around May, Barclays Bank sent Miss Willmott a letter stating their intention to repossess her belongings and to take over Warley.

‘When that awful letter came I went out weeding, as the only way to bring me a little relief.  Being RC the two ways that are often chosen, making away with oneself, or drowning misery in drink, are not allowed to us and indeed neither way appeals to me...I have not said a word to a soul nor shall I do so just wait until the awful thing comes and then go through with all the horrors and not let anyone know that I mind...' she wrote to Miss Gilpin. [96]

The last of her bonds in the Argentine Railway were sold in May to clear her debts to other banks, the London Joint Company and Midland [97]. In the same month, more of her gardeners, including Austin, left Warley for military service [98].


Warley under threat

In June, Arthur Forster presented Willmott with an ultimatum. Unless she could start her school, or find a paying guest who could contribute £1,000 a year, she would have to pack up and leave Warley. [99]

Forster informed her of the options available to her: either sell Warley by auction or sell the contents to partially pay the mortgage and gain some income. Lord Lilford gave her two to three weeks to arrange a lease for the garden and farm, find paying guests or shut the house and seek a buyer.

In a last effort to save Warley for Willmott, Forster told Rose Berkeley - by then very ill - of her older sister's financial predicaments. Rose suggested Willmott rent out everything, besides the mansion lodges and red house, and sell a few things here and there, as well as the produce of the garden, to add income. She offered to contribute a small income herself to help Ellen Ann with her expenses.

The matter was left to Forster, Lilford and Rose to sell what ‘things' Willmott could part with ‘here and there' and the war was offered up as a public excuse for Willmott's reduced state of living.

‘I am sure you won't like my advice but surely it is worth making a supreme effort now to straighten matters, and you can well put it down to the War,' Rose wrote to her sister [100].

A rumour soon spread afterward that much of Willmott's inherited wealth had been invested in Germany before the war, and thus was lost. However, with her sister's help, the sale of Warley Place, and its contents, was thankfully averted.

Throughout the war period, the garden was staffed by Jacob Maurer and a few others. His work in the Alpine garden, Chinese garden, Japanese garden and fern cave at Warley was visited by Kew, by learned societies, and by botanist's royals.

Seed lists were still being produced at Warley, and consignments sent out, despite the shortage of labour.

‘I have been talking to my only man left.. everything is so difficult in war time and I am at my wits' end sometimes how to manage' Miss Willmott wrote to A.W. Hill in 1918 [101].

During the war, there had been female gardeners at Warley, but not after [102]. Although she trained some female gardeners (Lievre notes a Yella Bullion, who later laid out a garden for Hitler at Berchtesgaden, and a Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, who went on to raise plants in Greece), Miss Willmott seems to have had a low opinion of women gardeners.  In a letter to her friend, Miss Beatrix Havergal, founder and Principal of the Waterperry Horticultural Training School for Women (1932), Miss Willmott aired her view that young lady gardeners were both ‘utterly hopeless and unsafe in the borders'. [103]

Most of Willmott’s societies continued their meetings during the war years, and between 1914 and 1924, Ellen Ann continued to judge the York shows.

In 1916, Salvia warleyensis received an Award of Merit, although Verbascum ‘Warley Pearl' was passed over by the Committee in June that year.

In June 1917, Syringa ‘Miss Ellen Willmott', shown by Mr C. Turner and Mr G. Paul won an Award of Merit. In September 1917, Ceratogstigma willmottianum, raised by Willmott from seed collected by Wilson in western China and sent from the Arnold Arboretum, won her a RHS Award of Merit.

By 1917 debts at Tresserve, however, had mounted to 15,000 francs. [104]


The post-war years

In August 1918 Violet Douglas-Pennant, who had a few months earlier been appointed commandant of the Women's Royal Air Force, was dismissed without ample reason being given. The event caused much publicity and public sympathy.

The case of her dismissal was debated in both houses of Parliament and, between 1919 and 1929, sparked a pamphlet war, judicial enquiry and several libel suits.

Miss Willmott herself felt that what had happened to Pennant was an injustice, an injury to a woman because she was a woman. She thus often went to London to attend meetings of a committee dedicated to restoring Pennant's good name, and they became great friends [105].

Towards the end of the war, in 1918 Willmott had indeed found paying guests - Sir Francis and Lady Younghusband - although they left shortly after the war ended. However she still had army tenants at the Glen and the Croft. After the war, some of Miss Willmott's surviving gardeners returned to Warley.

In 1919, Willmott again put her own hand to writing, contributing two chapters to A. W. Hill's Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, A Memoir (1919): an account of Robert Lucas de Pearsall, the musician, and the Ellacombes, and Canon Ellacombe and his Plants [106].

In May 1919, Paeonia willmottiae, collected by Wilson in Hupeh in 1900 and raised at Warley was awarded a RHS First Class Certificate.

In addition to other people's publications, Ellen Ann Willmott sometimes also advised others on their gardens' design and planting.

In June 1919, Miss Willmott, ‘Gold Medallist of the Royal Horticultural Society' was appointed a member of the Committee to consider the alterations to Hampton Court Palace Gardens which consisted also of: Sir Aston Webb, President of the Royal Academy, Chairman, Colonel F. R. S. Balfour, nominated by the Royal Horticultural Society, Mr. W. Watson, Curator of Kew Gardens, nominated by the Director, Mr. Robert Wallace, landscape gardener, and Mr Ernest Law, the Historian of Hampton Court. [107]

In January 1920, Lady Menzies, who had since 1913 rented La Boccanegra periodically, asked Willmott for a 15-year lease and purchase price for the property. The gardens by this stage were in a dreadful state, with dying and dead plants. Lady Menzies did not get the property and the house and gardens were sold to Tremaynes [108].

Earlier that year, Willmott was offered 40,000 francs for the chateau at Tresserve. However, Lord Berkeley stepped in to offer her more for it and to help her finances further [109].

Despite these changes in fortune, and the selling off of her continental properties in the early 1920s, Hamptons tried to let Warley Place. Luckily for Miss Willmott, they were unsuccessful [110]. Although they advertised the upcoming sale by auction of Warley in 11 lots in June 1920, in May a postponement was issued [111].

Miss Willmott averted the sale of Warley by heeding her younger sister Rose's advice. In May, Apple Tree Cottage was advertised for rent, and in July, Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge auctioned off some of Willmott's music and art collections. Her engravings and drawings were auctioned on Tuesday 20 July. The harpsichord she had received as a 16th birthday present from her father (earlier a present from Queen Charlotte to Princess Amelia), a number of Chippendale chairs and panels of Oudenarde tapestry, plus other items, went on sale on Friday 12 November [112].

In the early 1920s, Miss Willmott advised Ernest Law and the trustees at Shakespeare's Gardens, New Place, Stratford upon Avon on the planting of the wilderness bank in the Great Garden there and in 1924-5 on the improvement of the orchard hedges in Anne Hathaway's Cottage garden, also at Stratford.

During the mid 1920s, she also continued her experiments with primula and roses and resumed judging at rose shows, often accompanying Queen Alexandra.

In early 1921, Willmott's mortgage was transferred from Lord Lilford to Lord Berkeley. It had been reduced from the sales of Tresserve and Boccanegra and the profits from this may have been used to pay off her Barclay's bank loans [114].

Pyracantha yunnanese ‘Warley Variety' won RHS Award of Merit in January.

Also in 1921, in the 13th edition of his English Flower Garden, William Robinson wrote of the garden Miss Willmott, her parents and sister had helped to create:

‘I think I have had more pleasure from the little square garden at Warley, full of hardy flowers, both in beds and borders, than ever I had in any garden.' [115]

By 1921, Willmott presented to Kew her 15,000-sheet ‘herbarium warleyense', collected and purchased by her from various - mostly European - sources.  She wrote to Alice de Rothschild that she intended never to go abroad again.

On 21 August 1922, however, Ellen Ann's sister Rose died, two days after Willmott's 64th birthday.

‘ there is no one to send the first snow drops to.' Ellen Ann wrote to the Rusells. [116]

In 1923, she appears to have found that someone in Norah Lindsay, whom she visited at her gardens in Sutton Courtenay, where they shared ideas. Miss Willmott encouraged Lindsay to study the habitat needs of each plant closely and to plant the ‘right plant in the right place' for ensured success. She also left behind her trademark Eryngium giganteum seeds and promised to dispatch a small selection of plants from Warley as she had done for Spetchley [117].

A year later, in 1924, Ellen Ann became the first woman to hold the Royal National Rose Society Dean Hole Medal. Her book of photographs, Warley Gardens in Spring and Summer, dedicated to Rose, went into a second edition [118].

In May 1924, after trials at Wisley, her Cheiranthus ‘Ellen Willmott', sent by Messrs Watkins and Simpson, was highly commended.

She dined in London with Ernest Law in early 1924 and later took on his cook as her housekeeper.

In August 1925, Campanula ‘Warley Alba', shown by Hampshire nurserymen Messrs Prichard, won a RHS Award of Merit. Iris ‘Miss Willmott' received no award, however, at its 1925-7 trial at Wisley.


An eccentric old lady

Ellen Ann Willmott appears to have become more eccentric as she got older. In the late 1920s, she is noted to have fitted alarm bells to all the window shutters at Warley and alarmed the strong room where the gold and silver medals she had won at shows were kept.

When she went to London during these years she wore a diamond brooch on her hat and several rings and carried a revolver in her handbag to protect both them and herself from thieves [117]. Where once she would have had the King and Queen for tea with bottles of wine from Tresserve on the table for dinner, now she entertained Peter Coats with only a jug of Bovril between them [120].

On one of the late February mornings in 1928, when Willmott usually went to London to help add her voice of support to the case of Violet Douglas- Pennant, she nipped into a store to pick up a few things: one of the rare occasions she went in to buy rather than sell accessories.

Upon leaving the store, Galeries Lafayette at 190 Regent Street, Willmott was followed by a store detective. Having lost the receipt for her purchases, she was arrested, charged with theft and subsequently jailed for one night. When brought up at Marlborough Street police court, she was defended by Sir Henry Curtis Bennet and had character witnesses in Lord Stamfordham, the Lord Lieutenant and Chief Constable of Essex - the one phone call she was allowed having been made to the Queen. Her case was swiftly acquitted, after which, it is said, she ‘delivered an impassioned speech on women’s rights.’ [121]

Not content with acquital and wanting instead public acknowledgement of the falsity of the charges, Willmott sued the store for damages and false imprisonment. She won her civil case, defended by Lord Erligh, and later received a full apology from her accusers in open court, together with out-of-pocket expenses.

The settlement for the civil action lawsuit brought against the Galeries Lafayette, for their mistaken charge of shoplifting and alleged false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, was announced in the papers in 1929 [122]. After the trial, however, her finances again took a turn for the worse and on her trips to London she sold various pieces of  jewellery to try to make ends meet [123].

During the late 1920s, the orchid house at Warley had to be abandoned and the packing and posting of plants gradually came to an end, though seed lists were still sent out.

Miss Willmott was pursued by Romford Council for payment of rates, but this problem was solved after an intervention by Lord Lambourne, Lord Lieutenant of Essex. William Robinson also persevered in trying to sort out Miss Willmott's financial affairs.

In May 1928, Willmott won a RHS Award of Merit for ‘Warley Rose'. In 1928, the same award was also given to her for Ceratostigma willmottianum, raised from seed collected by Wilson sent from the Arnold Arboretum.

In the 1930s, Willmott remained still active in conferences, meetings and events, though no longer competing for awards. She was elected to the RHS Floral Committee (group B) in 1930 and both she and Robinson attended the Chelsea Flower Show together in 1931.

Willmott continued to attend RHS shows, often with plant specimens in her button holes, for people to try to identify.  

 ‘...we were all glad to see Miss Willmott back again: she was wearing Pentapterigonum rugosum with striated flowers like Roman glass' reported Sir William Lawrence at the RHS autumn show in 1932.  [124]

In 1932, Miss Willmott gave her lathe and a number of tools to the Lewis Evans collection at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford [125]. She also joined the Alpine Society.

When Gertrude Jekyll died in December 1932, Willmott attended the funeral with William Robinson. That month, Sir William Lawrence, ‘Resolutions and Wishes', in Garden Illustrated, 31 December sent her the following New Year's wishes:

‘To Miss Willmott...and to all the ladies who demonstrate that you can be at once a good gardener and a charming woman, a Happy New Year.'  [126]

The following year, 1933, Ellen Ann Willmott was elected to the RHS  Lily Committee and attended the Lily conference that year.  She was 75. In the same year she presented her prized Holtzapffel lathe to the University of Oxford, which had earlier been on view at the old Ashmolean building near her collection of craftsmen tools (earlier for several years on public exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum). She apparently, however, removed a part of the lathe to make it unusable for others [127].

During the 1930s, the gardens at Warley and its rarities, such as the ‘headache tree' Umbellularia californica, was still drawing visitors, the Alpine garden remained unchanged and the lawns were still kept beautiful. The Essex Field Club was still visiting annually, and being led around the gardens by Miss Willmott up to three months before her death.

That year she wrote her last letter to Kew asking if a particular species of Sorbus, which Kew had never seen in flower, if not in the herbarium, might bear her name or Warley's. In the end Kew named it Sorbus sargentiana var. warleyens, as it was held to be identical to Wilson's no. 3492 (Veitch) [128].

In 1934, Miss Willmott sang her last song in the Bach choir.  She died suddenly of an atheroma and embolus of the coronary artery a few months later on 27 September 1934 at Warley. Her body was taken to the church of Holy Cross and All Saints on Warley Hill where Requiem mass was sung. Her coffin was covered with flowers from the Warley garden and was taken to Brentwood churchyard.

img_4165_a_250pxMiss Willmott's grave, Brentwood, EssexEllen Ann Willmott was laid to rest on 1 October in her father's grave, which was lined with evergreens and laurels gathered from the grounds by Jacob Maurer [129]. To her father's memorial the words were added: ‘pray for the repose of the soul of Ellen Ann Willmott of Warley Place died 27 September 1934' [130].

A memorial service was held on 2 October in Farm Street Roman Catholic Church. Probate was granted to Robert Berkeley on 4 December [131].

In 1935, Rosa ‘Ellen Willmott', raised by Mr W. E. B. Archer, was given a Certificate of Merit from the National Rose society.


Lasting reputation

Ellen Ann Willmott's name is perpetuated in the annals of botany and horticulture not only by her ambitious and sumptuous work The Genus Rosa, but by the lists of garden plants that have been permanently enriched by her introduction of many fine species. Her memory is enshrined in the willmottiae and warleyensis hybrids of narcissus, primula, roses, shrubs and tulips that fill our gardens today and in the tall, elegant, silvery blue thistly-headed form of sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, known colloquially as ‘Miss Willmott's Ghost.'

Many plants are named after her and her gardens: Lilium ‘Ellen Willmott', Rosa gymnocarpa var willmottiae, Pontentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott', Syringa vulgaris ‘Miss Ellen Willmott', Erysimum ‘Ellen Willmott', Iris willmottiana, Iris willmottiana ‘alba', Iris warleyensis, Aethionema ‘Warley rose', Ceratostigma willmottianum and Corylopsis willmottiae, to name but a few.

‘Surely there can be no other woman horticulturalist with such a long and impressive list of plants named for her or for her home,' commented Ken Lemmon [132].

She is described by her contemporaries as a woman of great physical stamina, even in her later years. She is said, when visiting friends' gardens, to have walked back and forth from the station ‘as often as not with a knapsack of plants on her shoulders' and to have been a visitor worth having [133].  She would walk for considerable distances to get to other people's gardens, and was likely to carry off in her knapsack as much as she could of the soil in which the plants she took were found [134].  In these gardens, as at Sutton, she is also known to have scattered seeds to later remind her garden hosts of her visit.

Miss Willmott was also remembered as a capable musician and attendant at several scientific meetings. ‘In all fields in which she took an interest she was untiring in her pursuit of knowledge and she will be greatly missed in all those spheres of public and private life which owe so much to her interest and many activities,' the author of her obituary in Kew's Bulletin wrote.[135]

The magazine, Nature said: 'Scientific gardeners are rare in any age, and the good work accomplished by Ellen Willmott in scientific horticulture during her long life will be remembered and appreciated for centuries to come.' [136]

Warley Place, ‘the well-known garden of the late Miss E.A. Willmott' , was put up for sale by auction on 28 May with its ‘William and Mary residence with entrance lodges stabling glasshouses outbuildings garden and parkland of 45 acres Warley place farm of 26 acres.' [137]

The contents of Warley Place, including early English, French, Italian and Spanish furniture, a collection of early musical instruments, valuable oil paintings, a library of interesting books and portfolios, and outdoor effects including motor and hand mowing machines and other garden tools, were sold by a week-long auction that began on 30 May [138.].

Many of Willmott's plants were moved to Spetchley. Robert Berkeley reputedly invited Kew to take what they wanted, but they never came. Afterwards, many plants were plundered.

The house was sold, and permission sought to turn it into a luxury housing estate, but this was not achieved. It was demolished in 1939 and the garden itself reverted to wilderness. It was later leased from the grandson of the 1939 purchaser to the Essex Naturalist Trust (later Essex Wildlife Trust) in 1977, and has since then been transformed into a nature reserve, while retaining as many as possible of the features of Miss Willmott's original garden [139].



The author would like to thank John Cannell of the Essex Wildlife Trust for supplying many of the visual documents used in this article.

1) Frederick and Ellen were married on 15 May 1856 in Hammersmith, London by the Reverend D. O'Keefe. Jackson's Oxford Journal (Oxford, England), Saturday, 24 May 1856, Issue 5378.  They had been wed almost a year when Ellen Ann was born.

2) She was, however, not their first child. Their first child, a son, was conceived a year earlier, yet had died prematurely, still born 10 June 1857. ‘Birth, Death, Marriages and Obituaries', The Morning Chronicle, (London, England), Saturday 13 June 1857.

3) ‘Advertisement', The Times, Monday 14 May 1855, p. 4.

4) For further details, see 'Heston and Isleworth: Schools', in Reynolds, Susan, (editor), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3: Victoria County History, (Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Boydell and Brewer, 1962), pp. 133-137.

5) Miss Helen Tasker showed 582 Flowers from nature as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy in 1840. See Graves, Algernon, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors, vol. 7 (London: Henry Graves and Co. Ltd., 1906), p. 322.  Between 1840 and 1843, she also exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists.

6) ‘Obituary', The Times, Thursday, 8 March 1888, p. 14. She donated money for the building of the Church of Holy Cross and All Saints, Warley Hill, in 1881, the architect of which was Francis William Tasker, a cousin. See 'Great Warley', in Powell, W.R. (editor), A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7 (Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Boydell and Brewer, 1978), pp. 163-174.

7) Lièvre, Audrey le, Miss Willmott of Warley Place:  Her Life and Her Gardens, (London: Faber Finds, 2008), p. 26.

8) ‘Advertisement', The Times, Saturday 25 September 1875, p. 12 and also, The Sporting Gazette (London, England), Saturday, 30 October, 1875, p. 1089. The house was described as being built during the reign of William and Mary (1688-1702). According to Pevsner, it was probably rebuilt by Gandon in 1777. See Pevnser, Nicholas, Buildings of England:  Essex  (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 431 and 'Great Warley', in Powell, W.R. (editor), A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7, Victoria County History, (Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Boydell and Brewer,1978), pp. 163-174. It was greatly enlarged by the Willmotts. For further contemporary descriptions of the house, as well as its possible Queen Anne origins, see the advertisements in The Times, Saturday 13 March 1920 and 18 April 1935, p. 26 as well as comments in The Times, Friday, 16 August 1935, p. 3.

9) ‘Advertisement', The Times, Thursday, 18 April 1935, p. 26.

10) See Correvon, Henry, and Philippe Robert, Alpine Flora, translated E.W. Clayforth (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1911), p. 242, The Times, Thursday 28 February 1935, p. 24 and ‘John Evelyn's Note', The Times, Wednesday 1 May 1935, p. 27. Evelyn sold the property on 17 September 1655 to a Mr. Hurt, the taxes on it ‘during our unnatural war' being, as he puts it, ‘so intolerable that they ate up all the rents, etc.' Evelyn, John, The Diary of John Evelyn, Volume I, ed. by William Bray (London:  M. Walter Dunne Publisher, 1901), pp. 247 and 306.

11)‘Obituary', The Times, Friday 28 September 1934, p.16. See also The Garden: An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Gardens in All Its Branches, volume 68, 1905, p. 76,, ‘Miscellaneous Notes', Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Gardens, Kew), Vol. 1934, No. 9 (1934), pp. 397-408 (398) and  ‘An Essex Property', The Times, Friday, 16 August 1935, p. 3.

12) See Willmott, Ellen, Letter to Colonel Prain at Kew, October, 1914, quoted in Lièvre, Miss Willmott of Warley Place, p. 184 and Cotton, A.D., ‘Obituary', Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London, 1934-5, pp. 195-197 [196].

13) Part of the secret of the entirely natural appearance of these carefully planted slopes was the manner of their planting: the gardeners' children were persuaded to throw handfuls of bulbs from a wheelbarrow over the ground. It was where they fell that they were planted and then there multiplied. In the same way she encouraged the crocus to spread and cover the lawns and fields in front of the house and also laid seed beneath the turf.  Lièvre, p. 72.

14) ‘Miscellaneous Notes', p. 398. In the heyday of Warley there were 104 gardeners working from 6a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, Saturday until 4 p.m. for 18 s a week and 18s 6d for foreman. For a time these gardeners included:  James Preece (head gardener), Jacob Maurer (foreman for Alpines), Thomas Candler (foreman for herbaceous plants), Messrs. Hayes, Gooch and Horton (foremen for vegetables and fruit), Mr. Goodwin (foreman for roses) and Mr. Dyer (foreman for chrysanthemums).   Willmott devised a uniform for them consisting of green banned boaters, green silk ties and navy blue aprons. Lièvre, p. 93.

15) ‘Obituary', The Times, Friday 28 September 1934, p.16.

16) Willmott, Ellen, letter, 1916, quoted in Lièvre, p. 42.

17) ‘Obituary', The Times, Friday 28 September, op. cit.

18) Ibid.

19) Despite universities such as Girton College, Cambridge opening its doors (1869) to women for the first time during this period, Willmott does not appear to have received any university training nor, until well into her early twenties, to have had a governess. See Lièvre, p. 50. 

20) Lièvre, p. 34.

21) Lièvre, p. 47. See also Bisgrove, Richard, William Robinson: The Wild Gardener (London:  Frances Lincoln, 2008), p. 29.

22) Lièvre, ibid.

23) 'Miscellaneous Notes', op. cit. and Obituary', The Times, Friday 28 September 1934, p.16.

24) Robinson, William, English Flower Garden, 13th edition, 1883 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921). See also Lièvre, p. 232.

25) Lièvre, p. 54. See also Thomas, Graham, Recollections of Great Gardeners, (London: Frances Lincoln, 2003), pp. 244-245.

26) Lièvre, p. 57.

27) Lièvre, p. 84.  In 1888 in memory of Tasker a second aisle was added by the Willmotts to the Church of the Holy Cross and All Saints, Warley Hill. The church, known locally as Miss Willmott's, had been built in 1881 with money given by Tasker, designed by the latter's architect cousin, and had a lady's chapel furnished by both Tasker and Ellen Ann who, since 1884, had been the director of its choir. See Lièvre, p. 54.

28) Lièvre, pp. 67 and 80. Willmott was also very interested in science.  She was a life member of the Royal Institution, an attendant at several scientific meetings, had both a telescope and a microscope, and was a keen black and white as well as colour photographer. She had her own darkroom at Warley. This was located close to the locked workroom where her lathe was kept. And, in it, Willmott produced plates and slides for giving magic lantern shows, including one of the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius which she captured with her camera on her grand tour in 1888-9.  See also Lièvre, p. 70 and 150.

29) From 1890, the Willmotts added 22 acres of land to the estate. The orchid house, hot frames, fern house and other greenhouses, to the north east of the house, were also probably all built in the 1890s. The wedding also prompted a head gardener, James Preece, formally of Lutton Hoo to be taken on, as well as a butler, James Robinson, formerly of Alnwick Castle and house keeper, Mrs Cullum. See Lièvre, p.95. For wedding announcement, see John Bull (London, England), Saturday, 27 June 1891, p. 416.

30) Stearn, W.T., "Ellen Ann Willmott Gardener and Botanical Rosarian", The Garden Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, June 1979, vol.104, part 6, pp.241-246, quoted in Lemmon, Ken, ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Garden by Audrey le Lièvre', Garden History, 8:3, pp. 16-19 [18].

31) In 1893, at the request and cost of Mrs. Willmott, the Sisters of Mercy of Brentwood rented a small house as a convent and ran it as a school.

32) Correvon, H., Les plantes Alpines et de rocailles; description, cultivation, acclimatisation (Paris, 1895), pp. 46-9.

33) Lièvre, p. 106.

34) Lièvre, p. 86.

35) Lièvre, p. 98.

36) Lièvre, p. 46.

37) Lièvre, p. 98.

38) Lièvre, p. 109.

39) See Lièvre, p. 74 and Appendix, for a complete listing.

40) Lièvre, p. 202.

41) Lièvre, p. 53. In 1907, when Sir Michael Foster died he left Willmott a dozen notebooks on the genus iris.

42) Lièvre, p. 100.

43) Robinson, William, Alpine Flowers for Gardens, rev. third edition (London: John Murray, 1903), p. xviii.

44) The hut had been brought from Bourg St Pierre and later had a boat landing stage built for it.  See Lièvre, p. 102.

45) Robinson, William, Alpine Flowers for Gardens, rev. third edition (London: John Murray, 1903), p. 265.

46) Several contemporary accounts credit Willmott with being the first woman to be elected a Linnaean fellow.

47) Lièvre, p. 120.

48) At a cost of 12,950 lire, see Lièvre, pp. 138-9. For her new gardens at Boccanegra, she bought considerable stock from the Hickel Brothers at Beaulieu sur Mer whom she used as landscape gardeners as well. She also bought from local suppliers, buying what flourished in the region, spending £2000 between 1905 and 1909 alone. She also furnished the house, hired a gardener and caretaker, Clodoveo (1909-1920), and usually only stayed there twice a year until the early 1920s.

49) Way, Twiggs, Virgins, Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden, (Sutton Publishing Ltd.: 2006), p. 208 and Lièvre, p. 147.

50) Lièvre, p. 162.

 51) Lièvre, p. 164. The redecoration was carried out by the Chelsea branch of a French firm of designers Amedee Joubert and Sons.

52) Lièvre, p. 121.

53) Lièvre, p. 74.

54) Lièvre, p. 74.

55) Quoted in Lièvre, p. 164.

56) Lièvre, p. 162. The money was borrowed at four percent interest and secured against several of the cottages, Headley garden, Warley Lea, Warley Place Farm and Warley Place itself.

57) Lièvre, p. 165. Shenfield Lodge was taken as further security.

58) Lièvre, p. 157.

59) Lièvre, p. 157.

60) Lièvre, pp. 74- 75.

61) Lièvre, p. 108. See also, 'A Wonderful Japanese Garden in London', The New York Times, 2 June 1912.

62) Ellen Ann Willmott, quoted in Lièvre, p. 105.

63) Lièvre, p. 122.

64) Farrer, Reginald, My Rock-Garden (London: Edward Arnold, 1908), p. 9.

65) Lièvre, p. 75.

66) Lièvre, p. 76.

67) Willmott, Ellen, letter to Professor Sargent, 1909, quoted in Lièvre, p. 109.

68) Lièvre, p. 110.

69) Lièvre, p. 111.

70) Lièvre, p. 113.

71) Parts one to ten were sold by Murray for 21s net for the complete set. The Times, Saturday, 8 July 1911, p. 8.

72) Lièvre, p. 110, ‘but for the first I should never have undertaken the book at all but for the last it might never have reached the stage of publication'.

73) 1910 was the year the Queen's husband, King Edward VII, died.  Queen Alexandra's second daughter, Princess Victoria, and later her daughter in law, Queen Mary, had often visited Warley.  Edward Prince of Wales is recorded in the visitor book, alongside Albert and Mary, on 4 July 1909.

74) Correvon, Henry and Phillippe Robert, The Alpine Flora, translated by E.W. Conforth (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1911), pp. 244-245 in reference also to Les Plantes Alpines et de Rocailles, op. cit., pp. 46-9.

75) Wilson, Ernest, letter to Ellen Ann Willmott, quoted in Lièvre, p. 109.

76) Lièvre, p. 166.

77) She was approached by a policeman at 2:30am who offered to let her sleep in the lock up which she did.  Lièvre, p. 152.

78) Lièvre, p. 158.

79) Lièvre, p. 168.

80) Lièvre, p. 172.

81) Lièvre, p. 54.

82) Lièvre, p.  155.

83) Lièvre, p 158.

84) It was published and sold by Murray for 21s. The Times, Friday, 20 March 1914, p. 6.

85) Lièvre, p. 173.

86) Lièvre, p. 173.

87) Farrer, Reginald, ‘Introduction' in Bowles, E.A., My Garden in Spring (1914).

88) Lièvre,  p.160. According to Ray Desmond, the person responsible for helping to construct the rock gardens at Friar Park was the same person responsible for helping to construct the rock gardens at Warley Place, the rock garden supervisor for James Backhouse, Richard Potter. See Desmond, Ray, Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists: Including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters, and Garden Designers, 2nd revised edition (London: Taylor and Francis, 1994), p. 560.

89) Lièvre, p. 160.

90) Lièvre, p. 161.

91) See ‘An Englishwoman's Home- Essex Lady's Pie Crust Promise to a Soldier', John Bull, 1914.  Lièvre, p. 181.

92) Lièvre, p 176.

93) Lièvre, p. 176.

94) Lièvre, p. 176.

95) Lièvre, p. 177. See, Wolseley, Frances, the Honorable, Gardening for Women (London, 1908), p. 119.

96) Quoted in Lièvre, p. 178.

97) Lièvre, p. 178. These had been earlier purchased for her by her father in 1886.

98) Lièvre, p. 178.

99) Lièvre, p. 178.

100) Quoted in Lièvre, p.179.

101) Quoted in Lièvre, p.187.

102) Lièvre, p. 191.

103) Lièvre, p. 209.

104) Lièvre, p. 175.

105) She was abruptly dismissed from the service by Lord Weir on 28 August 1918 and refused to accept any other government post until her name had been cleared.  See The Aeroplane, 15 January 1919, p. 308,  House of Commons Debates, 16 April 1919 vol. 114 cc. 2894-6 , House of Lords  Debate 20 November 1928 vol. 72 c.203, and ‘Lord Weir's Reason', Time Magazine, 27 July 1931. See also ‘The Douglas-Pennant Case', The Manchester Guardian, 3 July 1931. See also Lièvre, p. 199.

106) See Willmott, Ellen, chapters two and seven in Hill, A.W., ed. Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, A Memoir, 1919.

107) House of Commons Debates 04 June 1919, vol. 116, cc2061-2W.

108) She had asked Alice de Rothschild if she would buy Boccanegra and tried also to borrow from her publisher John Murray.Lièvre, p. 190.

109) Lièvre, p. 190.

110) Warley was advertised as coming up for sale by auction in 11 lots on 13 March 1920 by Humbert and Flint and for sale by auction in 11 lots on Wednesday June 9th. See The Times Saturday 13 March 1920, Saturday 27 March, 17 April and Saturday 8 May.

111) See The Times Monday 31 May 1920.

112) See advert, The Times, Tuesday 2 November, 1920.

113) Lièvre, p. 188.

114) Lièvre, p. 190.

115) Robinson, William, English Flower Garden, 13th edition, 1883 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921), p. 300. See also Lièvre, p. 232.

116) Quoted in Lièvre, p. 193. She wrote an obituary for her sister in the Essex Naturalist.

117) Hayward, Alison,  Norah Lindsay: The Life and Art of a Garden Designer (Frances Lincoln ltd, 2007), p. 81.

118) Willmott, Ellen, Warley Gardens in Spring and Summer (London : Wheldon and Wesley, 1924).

119) Lièvre, p. 203.

120) Lièvre, p. 205.

121) Lièvre, p. 200.

122) See The Times, Tuesday 15 January 1929, p. 5.

123) Lièvre, p. 201.

124) Lièvre, p. 214.

125) Gunther, R..H.,'Miss Willmott', The Times,.Tuesday 2 October 1934, p.19. See also Lièvre, p. 212.

126) Lièvre, p. 215.

127) Lièvre, p. 212.

128) Lièvre, p. 215.

129) Lièvre, p. 216.

130) Lièvre, p. 216.

131) Wealth at death  £12,787 9s.  Probate, 4 December 1934, CGPLA Eng. & Wales . Lièvre, Audrey le, ‘Willmott, Ellen Ann (1858-1934)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004)   [accessed 4 March 2009].

132) Lemmon, Ken, ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Garden by Audrey le Lièvre', Garden History, 8:3, pp. 16-19 [17].

133) 'Obituary', The Times, Friday 28 September 1934, p.16. 

134) Lièvre, p. 105.

135) 'Miscellaneous Notes', op. cit.

136) Nature, 134, 10 November 1934, .pp. 726-726.

137) The Times, Thursday 28 February 1935, p. 24.

138) The Times Friday 10 May 1935, p. 28.

139) Essex Wildlife Trust, 'A Short History of Warley Place' < > [accessed 4 March 2009].
































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