Ellen Willmott: The thorny tale of gardening’s grandest rebel

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

Ellen Willmott
Ellen Willmott in 1907. Image: Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

Miss Willmott, doyenne of the horticultural world, casts a critical eye over the garden. She glances about to check no one is looking before surreptitiously scattering some particularly invasive thistle seeds liberally around the rose bushes. Her landscaping rival won’t know she’s been seed-bombed for some months.

Eryngium giganteum (now commonly known as Miss Willmott’s ghost) will bloom in late summer, its prickly thorns acting as the perfect metaphor for the woman who will later be dubbed as ‘the bad girl of gardening’. Born in 1858, Ellen Ann Willmott was a remarkable woman whose achievements in horticulture should have made her one of the design trailblazers of her age. Her 30-acre garden, Warley Place near Brentwood in Essex, was once one of the most beautiful in England. There she grew more than 10,000 different species of trees, shrubs and plants – many of which won prestigious Royal Horticultural Society accolades. Her three-acre alpine ravine of gushing streams and dramatic valleys is the stuff of legend.

Yet her gardening genius has been overshadowed by tales of her eccentricity and spite. Details such as booby-trapping her daffodils by rigging a tripwire to some airguns to frighten off bulb thieves have become her 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 RHS’s inaugural Victoria Medal of Honour Award. Her unexplained no-show at the ceremony was universally interpreted as the rudest of snubs – but nobody ever questioned why Ellen wasn’t there.

Ellen Willmott judging a gardening competition
Ellen judging a gardening competition in the 1920s. Image: Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

Until, that is, more than a century later when writer Sandra Lawrence began to investigate a woman who she believed had been unfairly maligned by history. Sandra became fascinated by Ellen when, as a child, she roamed the ruins of Ellen’s former home. ‘Warley was my Secret Garden,’ she explains. ‘As I grew older, I began to wonder who made this shattered fantasy. Volunteers tending to what was left of it shrugged: she was a grumpy old woman who had been famous in her day but “wasn’t very nice”.’

Sandra, however, believed there had to be more to Ellen Willmott than her reputation and managed to gain access to her remaining possessions – planning to write a book. On Ellen’s death, her nephew moved Ellen’s things to his home at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It was here in the cellars that Sandra found trunks stuffed with personal letters, desiccated seeds, photos, diaries, notebooks and receipts. By painstakingly sifting through this mildewed ephemera, she was able to piece together an altogether truer picture of a horticultural maverick.

What set Ellen’s story on its extraordinary trajectory, discovered Sandra, was the fabulous wealth of her godmother, Countess Helen Tasker. ‘From the age of seven Ellen came downstairs to breakfast on her birthday every year to find a cheque for £1,000 from the countess. In 1865 this was an almost unimaginable fortune. Ellen was never taught the value of that money.’

When the Willmott family, comprising Frederick Willmott, his wife, also called Ellen, and his daughters Ellen Ann and Rose, moved from Isleworth to the grand Warley Place in 1876, 18-year-old Ellen was entranced by the estate’s 33 acres. Travels to Europe’s grand gardens fuelled her horticultural passion, and trips to the Alps inspired Ellen to re-create a mountain ravine at her new home. She constructed a showstopping design complete with a tumbling waterfall, a bridge and a fern-filled grotto, all studded with thousands of alpine flowers.

wisteria-covered arch in Tresserve
A wisteria-covered arch in Tresserve, the house she bought in the French Alps. Image: Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

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

When Ellen was 33, Rose married and moved home to be with her husband. Ellen was well into spinster territory for a Victorian woman, but among her possessions, stuffed away in those trunks, Sandra uncovered a stash of love letters revealing her deep attachment to a Miss Georgiana ‘Gian’ Tufnell, a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Teck. The romantic longing expressed in them is very much reciprocated. ‘I love you so & you must know it in the same way that I know you love me,’ wrote Gian. ‘No time to tell you more, my dear heart, except that I want you very badly.’

‘For three years theirs was a serious, possibly sexual romantic relationship filled with passion, laughter, flirtation, tenderness – and not a few tiffs,’ says Sandra. Because lesbian relationships weren’t even understood to exist in the Victorian era, the couple’s closeness raised no eyebrows.

But in 1897, just as Ellen was readying herself to receive the Victoria Medal of Honour Award, Gian announced her engagement to George, Lord Mount Stephen, a wealthy man 35 years her senior. The wedding date was set for one day after Ellen’s own big event: the timing extraordinarily cruel. At the awards, Ellen’s place remained empty. ‘This is a case of good old-fashioned heartbreak,’ says Sandra. ‘The woman Ellen loved was to marry a man. For money. Without telling her. Ellen ran away to lick her wounds.’

Ellen Willmott's French villa
Ellen’s French villa Tresserve, which was destroyed by a fire in 1907. Image: Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

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

With over 50 different cultivars named after her, Ellen was described as the ‘greatest of all living woman gardeners’ and was one of the three trustees for the RHS Wisley garden. But her mental health was collapsing and she became an increasingly remote and obsessive character. Her spending had spiralled out of control and in September 1907, a fire reduced her French villa to ruins. As the remains smouldered, the devastating truth was that the building had not been properly insured. For Ellen, it was the beginning of the end. Debt engulfed her and she was forced to put her belongings up for sale, including the indignity of trying to sell a rare harpsichord to Gian, now one of the richest women in England.

‘She was floundering in debt. Reports now circulated of her legendary meanness, of her squirrelling away vast wealth while refusing to pay bills, employees and tradesfolk,’ says Sandra. ‘To admit the truth would be to lose face; at least an “eccentric miser” had gravitas.’ Rumours – such as the one about her scattering thorns in her rivals’ gardens – abounded.

As Europe plunged towards war, Ellen battled with final demands, writs, feuds and court summonses. 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 is reported to have said.

Warley Place
Ellen’s English estate, Warley Place in Essex, 1890. Image: Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

By the age of 70, and still fending off financial ruin, she was a fierce battleaxe living alone in her rambling house in Essex. ‘Paranoid of break-ins, she kept a knuckleduster in her handbag and booby-trapped her prize daffodils to deter bulb thieves,’ says Sandra. In September 1934, aged 76, Ellen died at Warley of a heart attack. What was left of her broken estate fell to her nephew Captain Robert Berkeley.

And what of the fields of shimmering daffodils and that alpine grotto? The new owner of the house left the garden unguarded. ‘Looting, on a monumental scale, stripped the garden naked,’ confirms Sandra sadly.

By the time of the Second World War, the house had been demolished. ‘Warley went to sleep, snug beneath an ever-thickening blanket of brambles and undergrowth,’ says Sandra. ‘I’ve puzzled what to make of this unwittingly self-destructive woman who burned so brightly. Her horticultural achievements pale in comparison with her later determination never to give up.’

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

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