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Ellen Ann Willmott: a Woman of Horticultural Destiny

Today's blog comes from our gardener Annamaria Vass and is published in recognition of the 160th birthday of the Trust's first female gardener, Ellen Ann Willmott, a splendid horticulturalist who shaped the gardens at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Annamaria Vass
Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Anne Hathaway's Cottage (1885)

I never met Ellen Willmott personally – I wish I could - but from my research her character shines through. I consider her an innovator, who changed the way we think about women in our society today.

Not long after the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust purchased Anne Hathaway's Cottage and the surrounding lands, the Committee meeting minutes for October 1911 state that the garden was in a terrible condition. They entrusted the honourable Mrs Hodgson to superintend the redesign of the garden. She selected plants for the restoration, which was ordered by the Trust's secretary, and made good progress with the work. In the meantime Miss Willmott became friends with one of the Trustees: Ernest Law, whose work is connected to the famous Hampton Court garden. Willmott and Law worked together on the restoration at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, designing the knot garden and the wild flower bank.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Anne Hathaway's Cottage (1919)

Later – around the 1920s – Ellen Willmott advised the Trust about the new layout of the garden at Anne Hathaway's Cottage. We are currently restoring the perennial mixed beds around the house with her designs.

I find it hard to summarise the life’s work of Ellen Willmott, who was such a dedicated horticulturalist. It’s fair to say, she was mad about plants!

Her independent character helped her to be recognised in professional circles. She was one of the founders of the Narcissus Society, recipient of many medals and awards for her horticultural work. She created many new plant varieties and cultivars and was a judge on flower shows.

Ceratostigma willmottianum
Ceratostigma willmottianum – one of the plants in our gardens named after her

She lived in an era when plant hunters often sent new varieties back to England and in many cases she was the only person who successfully propagated them. She offered them to other nurseries and to Kew Gardens to grow them too. 

Why was she unique?

In a male orientated society she single-handedly managed three estates in 3 countries, more than 100 gardeners, and organised plant and seed deliveries connecting botanical gardens and people from all backgrounds all around the word.

Her skill in selecting the right growing conditions for plants was ground-breaking.  I am referring to the time before the “right plant – right place” theory was born and I am sure every gardener knows what I am talking about.

Although we have found only a few documents in our Trust archives about Ellen Willmott – you can see her legacy when you visit our New Place or Anne Hathaway`s Cottage Gardens.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
The redesigned romantic, old English cottage garden (circa 1930)

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