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The thorny tale of gardening's grandest rebel

56784245 0 Ellen Willmott in 1907 a 103 1650369155402

She trapped her prized plants and sabotaged the gardens of her rivals. Yet, says Kate Thompson, horticulture’s original bad girl was tragically misunderstood

Ellen Willmott in 1907.

Ellen Willmott in 1907.

Miss Willmott, doyenne of the horticultural world, takes a critical look at the garden. She glances about to check that no one is watching before surreptitiously scattering particularly invasive thistle seeds around the rose bushes. Her landscaper rival won’t know she’s been seed bombarded for a few months. Eryngium giganteum (now commonly referred to as Miss Willmott’s Ghost) will bloom in late summer, its spiky spines acting as the perfect metaphor for the woman who would later be dubbed “the gardening bad girl.”

Born in 1858, Ellen Ann Willmott was a remarkable woman whose achievements in horticulture should have made her one of the design pioneers of her day. His 30-acre garden, Warley Place near Brentwood in Essex, was once one of the finest in England. She has grown more than 10,000 different species of trees, shrubs and plants there, many of which have won prestigious honors from the Royal Horticultural Society. Its three-acre alpine ravine of gushing streams and dramatic valleys is a legend.

Yet his gardening genius has been overshadowed by tales of his eccentricity and wickedness. Details such as trapping his daffodils by setting a tripwire on certain airguns to scare off light bulb thieves became his legacy.

The beginnings of Ellen’s fall from grace can be traced back to her conspicuous absence from what should have been the pinnacle of her career. Aged 39, in October 1897, she was to receive the first RHS Victoria Medal of Honor. Her unexplained non-show at the ceremony was universally interpreted as the grossest of snubs – but no one ever questioned why Ellen wasn’t there.

Ellen judges a gardening contest in the 1920s

Ellen judges a gardening contest in the 1920s

Until, more than a century later, when writer Sandra Lawrence began investigating a woman who she believed had been unjustly slandered by history. Sandra became fascinated with Ellen when, as a child, she roamed the ruins of Ellen’s former home. “Warley was my secret garden,” she explains. “As I got older, I started to wonder who created this shattered fantasy. The volunteers caring for what was left shrugged: she was a grumpy old lady who had been famous in her day but “wasn’t very nice.”

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Sandra, however, thought Ellen Willmott must be more than her reputation and managed to gain access to her remaining assets – planning to write a book. When Ellen died, her nephew moved Ellen’s belongings to his home at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It was here, in the cellars, that Sandra found trunks filled with personal letters, dried seeds, photos, diaries, notebooks and receipts. By carefully sifting through these moldy ephemera, she was able to piece together an altogether truer picture of a horticultural maverick.

What set Ellen’s story on its extraordinary trajectory, Sandra discovered, was the fabulous wealth of her godmother, Countess Helen Tasker. “From the age of seven, Ellen would come down every year for breakfast on her birthday to find a check for £1,000 from the Countess. In 1865 it was an almost unimaginable fortune. Ellen never learned the value of that money.

When the Willmott family, consisting of Frederick Willmott, his wife, also called Ellen, and daughters Ellen Ann and Rose, moved from Isleworth to grand Warley Place in 1876, 18-year-old Ellen was fascinated by the 33 acres of the estate. Trips to great European gardens fueled her passion for horticulture, and trips to the Alps inspired Ellen to recreate a mountain ravine in her new home. She built a stunning design with a rushing waterfall, a bridge and a grotto filled with ferns, all dotted with thousands of alpine flowers.

Ellen's English Estate, Warley Place in Essex, 1890

Ellen’s English Estate, Warley Place in Essex, 1890

In 1888, Ellen was hit hard by the death of her beloved godmother, but her bank balance was less so. She inherited £143,000, equivalent to more than £19million today. She and Rose were drawn to the French Alps, and the sisters bought a lovely villa in the village of Tresserve. With no money, they set out to transform his hillside garden into a paradise teeming with vines, trailing roses and arches, smothered in clematis and wisteria.

When Ellen was 33, Rose got married and moved to be with her husband. Ellen was well into bachelor territory for a Victorian woman, but among her possessions, stuffed into these trunks, Sandra discovered a stash of love letters revealing her deep attachment to a Miss Georgiana ‘Gian’ Tufnell, a lady of honor of the Duchess of Teck.

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The romantic desire expressed in them is very mutual. “I love you so much and you should know it the same way I know you love me,” Gian wrote. “No time to tell you more, my dear heart, except that I really want you.

“For three years, their relationship was a serious, possibly sexual relationship, filled with passion, laughter, flirtation, tenderness – and not a few tiffs,” says Sandra. Because lesbian relationships weren’t even understood in Victorian times, the pair’s closeness raised no eyebrows.

But in 1897, as Ellen prepared to receive the Victoria Medal of Honor Award, Gian announced her engagement to George, Lord Mount Stephen, a wealthy man 35 years her senior. The date of the wedding was set the day after Ellen’s big event: the moment was extraordinarily cruel. At the awards, Ellen’s place remained empty. “It’s a good old heartache,” Sandra says. “The woman Ellen loved had to marry a man. For money. Without telling him. Ellen ran away to lick her wounds.

Following this devastating blow, Ellen’s health declined rapidly: she began to suffer from headaches and rheumatism. After her mother died in 1898, she inherited Warley (her father had died in 1892) and threw all her energy – and her money – into her gardens.

A wisteria-covered arch in Tresserve, the house she bought in the French Alps

A wisteria-covered arch in Tresserve, the house she bought in the French Alps

With over 50 different cultivars bearing her name, Ellen has been described as the “greatest of all living gardeners” and was one of three garden trustees of RHS Wisley. But her sanity was failing and she was becoming an increasingly distant and obsessive character. His expenses had gotten out of control, and in September 1907 a fire reduced his French villa to rubble. As the remains smoldered, the devastating truth was that the building had not been properly secured. For Ellen, it was the beginning of the end. Debt engulfed her and she was forced to put her possessions up for sale, including the indignity of trying to sell a rare harpsichord to Gian, now one of the wealthiest women in England.

“She was wading through debt. Reports have now circulated of his legendary wickedness, his enormous wealth while refusing to pay bills, employees and tradesmen,” explains Sandra. “To admit the truth would be to lose face; at least one “eccentric miser” had gravity. Rumors – like that of his thorns strewn across the gardens of his rivals – abounded.

As Europe plunged into war, Ellen struggled with final demands, writs, squabbles, and subpoenas. None of this, however, touched her like the death of her beloved younger sister Rose in 1922. “Now there is no one to send the first snowdrops to,” she reportedly said. .

At the age of 70, and still fending off financial ruin, she was a fierce hatchet living alone in her rambling house in Essex. “Paranoid about burglaries, she kept brass knuckles in her purse and trapped her prized daffodils to deter bulb thieves,” Sandra explains. In September 1934, aged 76, Ellen died in Warley of a heart attack. What remained of his broken estate fell to his nephew, Captain Robert Berkeley.

And what about the fields of shimmering daffodils and this alpine cave? The new owner of the house has left the garden unattended. “Looting, on a monumental scale, has laid bare the garden”, confirms Sandra sadly.

By the time of World War II, the house had been demolished. “Warley fell asleep, snug under an increasingly thick blanket of brambles and underbrush,” Sandra explains. “I wondered what to make of this unwittingly self-destructive woman who burned so hot. Her horticultural accomplishments pale in comparison to her later determination to never give up.

Perhaps the best way to remember Ellen is to visit her former home. Each spring, Warley Place Nature Reserve puts on a dazzling display of flowers that delights thousands of visitors. As the legacies progress, it is priceless.

  • Miss Willmott’s Ghosts by Sandra Lawrence will be published on May 5, 2022 by Bonnier Books, price £20. To order a copy for £17 until May 10, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20


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