Ellen Ann Willmott
The Warley Place Horticulturalist
Today is the birthday of Ellen Ann Willmott, who was an English horticulturalist who lived in Brentwood.
Ellen was the oldest in her family of three daughters. In 1875, her parents moved to Warley Place, which was set on 33 acres of land in Essex. Ellen lived there for the rest of her life.
Now, the entire each member of the Willmott family enjoyed gardening, and they often gardened together as a family.
Ellen once wrote,
“I had a passion for sowing seeds and was very proud when I found out the difference between beads and seeds and gave up sewing the former.”
The Willmott's created an alpine garden complete with a gorge and rockery. They also created a cave for their ferns. This was an activity that Ellen's father had approved to commemorate her 21st birthday.
When her godmother died, Ellen received some pretty significant money. And, when Ellen's father died, Warley Place went to her. With her large inheritance and no love interest save her garden, Ellen planted to her heart's content. It was a good thing that Ellen had so much money because she sure liked to spend it. She had three homes: one in France, Warley Place, and another in Italy. Given the size of Warley Place, it's no wonder that Ellen hired over 100 gardeners to help her tend it.
Now, Ellen was no shrinking violet. She was very demanding and impatient. She had a reputation for firing any gardener who allowed a weed to grow in her beds. And, she only hired men - at least before the war, that is.
There's a famous quote from her that is often cited,
“Women would be a disaster in the border.”
Ellen's gardeners worked very hard - putting in twelve hours a day. And, Ellen made them wear a uniform that included a frog-green silk tie, a hat with a green band, and a blue apron. She could easily spot them as they worked in the garden. Ellen's favorite flower was the narcissus, and she asked her gardeners to let their children scatter them all around the garden.
With such a large staff and maniacal devotion, Ellen's garden at Warley Place was revered, and her guests included Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra, and Princess Victoria.
Ellen delighted in novel plants, and to acquire them, and she also paid for plant hunting expeditions. As the financier of these ventures, the plants that were discovered on these expeditions were often named in her honor. For example, Ellen sponsored the great Ernest Henry Wilson. When he returned, he named three plants after her: blue plumbago (Certostigmata Willmottianum), a yellow Corylopsis (Corylopsis Willmottiae), and a pink rose (Rosa Willmottiae).
When Ellen received the Victoria Medal of Honor in 1897, she was honored alongside Gertrude Jekyll. This was a significant accomplishment for both women during this time.
Yet, at the end of her life, Ellen died penniless and heartbroken. She had spent her entire inheritance on her gardens. After Ellen died, the house at Warley Place was demolished, but Warley Place, along with its grand row of 17th-century chestnut trees, managed to stay protected and became a nature preserve.
And, there's a little story about Ellen that I thought you would enjoy.
Ellen always carried a handbag. Now, in this handbag, She allegedly always carried two items: a revolver and thistle seeds. Obviously, the former was for protection, but the latter was put to far more sinister use. Allegedly, when Ellen would go to other people's gardens, she discreetly scattered thistle seed about the garden during her visit. To this day, the giant prickly thistle has the common name Miss Willmott's ghost.
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