Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Gardener with a Gun

Nancy J. Farrier

Painting of Warley Place by Alfred Parsons
Wikimedia Commons

Stories abound about an English gardener who went around at night sewing the seeds of a prickly plant in people’s gardens to disrupt the beauty of their landscape. It is also said she carried a gun with her. So who is this gun-toting, seed-sewing gardener and what was her purpose. 


Ellen Willmott
Wikimedia Commons
Ellen Willmott was born in 1858 in Heston, Middlesex. She was the oldest of three girls but her youngest sister died at a very young age. Her father was a very successful businessman and her mother was not a conventional woman of the times. She made sure her daughters knew what they needed for the day—playing piano, fluent in three languages, etc, but she also taught them about gardening, something that wasn’t encouraged among young ladies in those days.


Ellen was about seventeen when her family moved to Warley Place in Essex. They bought a little over thirty acres and her mother put the girls to work landscaping their property. For Ellen, this would be her lifelong home and she took great joy in the types of plants and landscaping that were incorporated in Warley Place. 


Man-made Gorge
John Winfield
Wikimedia Commons
One of the amazing landscape designs they did was an alpine garden which included a man-made gorge. Ellen designed and made this particular spot for her 21st birthday after her father gave her permission to do so.


After her parents deaths, Ellen inherited Warley Place. She not only continued to develop the gardens but she cultivated plant species. It is said she cultivated more than 100,000 different species. She installed an irrigation system, glass houses in a conservatory, a rock garden, and a boating lake. She also had a glass-covered cave where she raised filmy ferns. She had tens of thousands of bulbs specifically designed to form drifts of blossoms when they were in flower.


An interesting note to me was that she employed over 100 gardeners and all of them were men. She claimed women would be a disaster to employ in the gardens.


Her gardens at Warley Place were so amazing and well-known that royalty came to tour the gardens. A watercolour was made of her garden, painted by Alfred Parsons. That painting is at the top of this post.


Rosa Willmottiae
By Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons
In 1894, Willmott jointed the Royal Horticulture Society. She received the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897, one of only two women to receive the medal. In 1904, she was the first woman to be elected to the Linnean Society of London.


In the 1920’s, she was part of those commissioned to advise on garden planting and design for Anne Hathaway’s (William Shakespeare’s wife) cottage garden. Many of her designs and plant choices are still in place today.


So what about the rumors of her toting a gun and planting seeds in other people’s gardens? In 2019, Ellen’s belongings were uncovered and amidst mouse skeletons and mold, Sandra Lawrence and Karen Davidson rescued her diarys and letters. They debunked the idea that Willmott would have sewed the seeds in people’s gardens. Supposedly, she put seeds of a plant called, Miss Willmott’s Ghost, a silvery, spiky sea holly that glowed in the twilight. It turns out the seeds of this plant are not easy to propagate and would not have just sprung up from being tossed on the ground. The article that made this claim in the 1980’s was proved false.


The story of the gun, however, was true. Because Willmott dealt mostly with men and often in remote locations, she often had the need of protection and thus carried a pistol in her hand bag and knew how to use it. 


Ceratostigma Willmottianum
By Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Commons

Ellen Willmott is a fascinating person and I encourage you to look her up and read further. She wrote two books, Warley Garden in Spring and Summer (1909) and  The Genus Rosa, (1910-1914) which was in two volumes. She also had many species named after her. Two of those species are shown in this post.


Sadly, on her death, Warley Place was sold to pay her debts. The buildings and gardens were destroyed by the new owners so there is no way to view what should have been a legacy. 


Thank you for joining me today. Do you like to visit gardens? I would love to have visited Warley Place. Gardens are so peaceful and I love the variety of plants. What about you?

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning, best-selling author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats and dog, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Thank you for posting today, and Happy New Year! I love to see gardens, and think the loss of this woman's work is a tragedy. The whole property sounds amazingly beautiful.

  2. Connie, thank you for commenting. I agree that the loss of her garden was a tragedy. Happy New Year to you.