The Glory of Miss Willmott

A twenty-first birthday is a right of passage, in the industrial town I grew up turning twenty-one meant you were a true adult. As if the last three years were an apprenticeship to becoming a grown up. It is probably the last time for many of us that we get a big birthday present from our parents, it could be a watch or in some cases, a car, or in the case of one lad I knew, a house, which his parents moved him into before charging him rent. Some acts of revenge are truly served cold as they would turn up at his house each Sunday and eat everything in his fridge and poke around in his cupboards. However, Miss Ellen Willmott (19 August 1858 – 27 September 1934) built a gorge when she was twenty-one. How many twenty-one year old's can say that? Therefore, on the day of her birth, we want to celebrate this genius of a gardener, who against all odds created a glorious garden in an age when horticulture was dominated by men. A woman who was born wealthy and spent it all on plants.

A twenty-first birthday present creation.

In 1875, Miss Ellen Willmott moved to her lifelong home at Warley Place. It would be Ellen who would transform these gardens into one of the most celebrated gardens in the country. Miss Willmott was one of only two women, alongside Gertrude Jekyll, to receive the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897 (only held by 60 gardeners at a time). She would go on to be the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. She received the grande médaille Geoffroi St Hilaire from the Société d’acclimatation de France in 1912, and the Dean Hole medal from the National Rose Society in 1914. She published two books, Warley Garden in Spring and Summer in 1909 and The Genus Rosa in two volumes (1910-1914). Both of which are now out of print.

Miss Ellen Willmott

Ellen Willmott was a demanding, focused and precise gardener. She was reputed to sack any gardener who allowed a weed to grow in her borders. In her lifetime she cultivated more than 100,000 species of plants. Here at Pig Row we grow Miss Willmott's sweet pea, and it is a scent like no other, in this one flower you can see her attention to detail, her command of horticulture and her love of plants. It was the latter that would eventually see her sink into debt and paranoia. However, we will not dwell on this dark chapter but celebrate how in her early career she took grand tours, in an age where an unaccompanied woman was seen as a social faux pas, Willmott struck out. At the age of thirty she undertook one grand tour that lasted four years. She purchased Le Chateau de Tresserve, near Aix-les-Bains in France, here she took the gardens in her stride creating a sumptuous garden. Miss Willmott never went anywhere without buying plants, often she would send them back to Warley Place at exorbitant costs. She went on to buy an estate in Ventimiglia, Italy.

In 1894, she strode into the world of horticulture and became a prominent member of the RHS. Without Willmott, the RHS would not have had the important garden and research station at Wisley. She convinced her neighbour at Ventimiglia, Sir Thomas Hanbury, to purchase Wisley and donate it to the RHS. She was appointed a trustee of RHS Gardens in 1903 and Gertrude Jekyll said of Miss Willmott that she was "the greatest of all living women gardeners".

Miss Willmott died in 1934 at the age of 76, and though her horticultural light has faded in the twenty-first century, she left behind a house (which was subsequently demolished in 1939) and gardens which are now being restored as part of a nature reserve. Today, many of us have her plants in our gardens; the gardening world would have been so much the poorer without her. She is forgotten gardening heroine; there was a time when people spoke of Jekyll but they yelled infectiously about Miss Willmott.

Miss Willmott's sweet pea