Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Miss Willmott’s Ghost

By Judith M. Taylor

“Miss Willmott’s Ghost” is the vernacular name of Eryngium giganteum, a large prickly ornamental thistle but by now I am afraid Miss Willmott herself has become something of a ghost too. Born the eldest of three sisters into a wealthy family she managed to spend her entire fortune on her gardens and ended up in grave financial difficulties. Not only did she inherit the family estate but her godmother left her a lot of money at her death.  Ellen Willmott, 1858- 1934, had no internal governor or compass, otherwise known as “common sense”, nor did she employ an external one such as a financial adviser. If she did she ignored whatever advice she received.

Portrait of Ellen Ann Willmott
(Rosina Mantovani)

Already the possessor of two estates with stellar gardens, one in England and one in France, in 1905 she insisted on buying a third in Italy, making the total number of gardeners she employed more than one hundred. Even Rockefeller might have thought twice about that. All her gardeners were men. She had nothing but contempt for women gardeners. The men were frightened of her as she was both autocratic and arbitrary. In old age this behavior hardened into eccentricity. For the last few years of her life she carried a revolver everywhere with her.

While still young she learned a great deal about plants and began to import new and exotic ones from all over the world. She herself never went on such expeditions but contributed to syndicates which did. Horticulture was her life and her world. This single-minded focus earned her a lot of respect in the garden community. She was the first woman to receive the Victoria Medal of Honour at the Royal Horticultural Society in the same year as Gertrude Jekyll, 1897. That was the first year the medal was awarded, an even greater honour. More than sixty plants are named for her personally or for Warley, her estate.

Warley Place

Ellen Willmott was particularly expert in roses, writing a well received monograph, “The Genus Rosa”, which is still useful today. The book was published in two volumes between 1910 and 1914 and dedicated to Queen Alexandra. Miss Willmott commissioned Alfred Parsons, a well known watercolorist, to illustrate her book and she later got him to paint many of her plants. The book came at a later phase of her life.

When she was younger narcissus fascinated her. Warley Place had thirty three acres, an expanse which allowed her to experiment with dozens of species of narcissus on a very grand scale. Ancient drifts of Narcissus pseudonarcissus had covered the hillsides. At first Miss Willmott added more and more species narcissus to the land offering varying hues of gold, yellow and white to occupy the eye at different times: N.incomparabilis, N. pallidoflorus and N. campernelii among many others. The gardeners loaded the bulbs on to wheel barrows and let their gleeful children toss handfuls of them all over the grounds. It was licensed pandemonium. The bulbs grew where they fell and then multiplied every year. She followed a similar course with crocus.

Ellen Willmott kept very careful notes, following each bed and site to see how the bulbs grew in different months. She crossed some species and once she found a hybrid she thought worthy she handed it off to commercial nurserymen to test further. Eventually they bulked it up and offered it for sale. This skill and expertise was the reason the royal Horticultural Society elected her a fellow in 1894. She served on their bulb committee for many years. Her complete mastery of the subject impressed the members of the society.

A Plan of Miss Willmott's House & Garden at Great Warley, 1904

In 1903 Miss Willmott played a big role in persuading Sir Thomas Hanbury to donate sixty acres of his property in Wisley, Surrey to the society to found an experimental site outside London.  The grounds at Chiswick had become too small. RHS Wisley now flourishes in its own right and recently built new science and visitors’ centres and other essential structures. All the trials of new flowers and vegetables are carried out in their grounds. Every year they make a very brave show.

Ellen’s father, Frederick Willmott, came from a very respectable family of pharmacists but he decided to become a solicitor. Although always very genteel in his behaviour he knew exactly where he was going and what he wanted. He married a woman slightly above him in the social scale, Ellen Fell. Both families were English Catholics. His three daughters were  brought up in the church, going to convent schools and spending much time in the company of religious women. The girls’ godmother Helen Tasker was very wealthy and each year presented the children with a thousand pounds each for their birthdays. At her death they inherited most of her money. The youngest daughter, Ada, died of diphtheria as a child leaving only Ellen and her younger sister Rose. It took the family a long time to recover from the shock of her death.

When Frederick began to make serious money he bought a fine estate in Essex, Warley Place. At the time it was quite far into the country side, though on the train line but now it is subsumed into Brentwood and the property is a public nature reserve. Mrs Willmott took the neglected garden in hand and made it handsome. She did not care for carpet bedding and used a more naturalistic style.

The family had a very active social life. Ellen played tennis very well and was also an accomplished violinist. Because she had complete access to her own money she began to buy expensive objects very early. She started by purchasing four very valuable string instruments, two violins, a viola and a violoncello, made by old Italian masters. She allowed an eleven year old prodigy, Lionel Tertis, to play the viola. Tertis was the first musician to be a virtuoso on the viola, an instrument so often neglected for the other strings.

Women were discouraged from playing the violin at that time because it brought the bosom into great prominence and was thus unladylike! It says a lot for the wisdom of her parents that they did not intervene but allowed her to study the instrument.

The Willmotts travelled together on the Continent every year and enjoyed all the delights that these journeys offered.  They had favourite haunts and particularly liked the countryside around Aix – en – Provence. Tresserve was a sleepy hamlet which had caught Queen Victoria’s eye. The monarch wanted to buy property there but the negotiations failed leaving Miss Willmott to snap it up in 1899.

Ellen Willmott was too intelligent and uncompromising to attract the sort of man likely to marry her and remained single all her life. Her sister married into the Berkeley family, also Catholic but actual gentry. There were some awkward moments due to snobbery. Rose Willmott Berkeley was also a good gardener and the grounds at Spetchley Park were made  to resemble those at Warley Place.

When Ellen was twenty-one she told her father she was going to build a rock garden in a corner of the Warley Place garden. He was very complacent and paid very little attention to what she was spending. All he asked her to do was to build it nowhere near his study so he was not bothered by the work.

The well known Yorkshire nursery of Backhouse laid down the rocks and planted the new grotto. The excavations led down to a small stream which supplied the necessary water. The plants have died and the stream now runs dry but the rocks remain showing how handsome the garden must have been. Ellen had learned how to do this by careful study in her growing library. She also sought advice from many known experts. It was the opening salvo in her future career. In view of Willmott’s interest in narcissus it is worth noting that Sarah Backhouse, sister in law of the owner, bred one of the signature new narcissi of the epoch, N. ‘Mrs R. O. Backhouse’ . It was an early pink type.

Many of the Warley hybrids were bred to championship levels. Ellen Willmott won a series of awards of merit and first class certificates at the Royal Horticultural Society shows for her narcissus. Perhaps her favourites were the ‘Triandus’ type, with three stamens. She named some of them for her sister and brother in law and one for her dead baby sister, Ada.

In 1923 her sister Rose died of cancer. Although the Willmotts were not demonstrative people Ellen and her sister were always close and it was assumed that she as the elder sister would die first. The loss was very grievous and may have contributed to her psychological unravelling as time went by. Poor management and profligate behaviour led to the dwindling and eventual loss of her fortune. Very reluctantly she was forced to sell first Tresserve and then Boccanegra.

Painting Ellen and Rose Willmott (Spetchley House)

Her almost encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture won her many more awards even from the French and Italian organizations but her personality was to be her downfall. In spite of many individual acts of charity she was prickly, intolerant and always had to be right, no matter how misguided her point of view was. When she absent-mindedly left a shop in London without the receipt for her purchase the store detective called a policeman.

By then she was no longer smartly dressed and was assumed to be a poor thief. Within a very short time some of her highly placed friends rallied around and pointed out the mistake. The shop was ready to apologize and close the incident. Something in her nature made her reject that face saving measure. She insisted on going to jail for the night and being heard in court the next morning to be vindicated. This was to be a Pyrrhic victory. Foolish financial decisions had begun as early as 1907 when she bought more than even she could afford and began to borrow money.

By the mid 1920s she did not have enough money left with which to pay taxes and tried to sell some of her valuable things to scrape by. There was nowhere nearly enough of value for the sums involved. In spite of all her reverses Miss Willmott still attended meetings at the Royal Horticultural Society regularly though she no longer competed in the shows.

She died very abruptly in the night on September 26, 1934, at the age of seventy six. The loyal butler who had stuck with her throughout found her in the morning.

Eryngium giganteum 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'


Le Lievre, Audrey  1980      Miss Willmott of Warley Place
London and Boston         Faber and Faber


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:


  1. Very interesting. Would your Miss Willmott be any relation to the Catherine Willmott who wrote "An Irish Peer on the Continent" -- about her travels with Lord and Lady Mount Cashell during the Peace of Amiens?

    1. EHFA Editor here: Judith is unable to leave comments here at the moment but has asked us to pass on her answer: "I am delighted that Anne has taken the time to leave a comment. My answer is that I very much doubt that it is the same family, although of course have not done the proper genealogical research, but the Willmotts were very small fry back at that time, lowly chemists and unlikely to hobnob with aristocracy."

  2. Very interesting article. Thank you!


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