Horticultural legend and botanist Ellen Ann Willmott was a remarkable woman: a trailblazer of her age and the creator of the once-famous Edwardian gardens at Warley Place, now Essex Wildlife Trust’s Warley Place Nature Reserve.

Writer and journalist Sandra Lawrence tells her story, a mix of genius, caprice, excess and sadness, in her fascinating biography, Miss Willmott’s Ghosts.

When did you first hear about Warley Place?

I first visited Warley Place as a child when the volunteers clearing the jungle started opening it for occasional open days. I instantly
fell in love. It felt like something out of The Secret Garden, and I was convinced there was treasure buried there. Of course, there was – just not diamonds and jewels…

And the book? How did that come about?

I began serious research in 2016 and spent 18 months tracking Ellen down from every lead I could find across the world. I was then lucky enough to be a part of the recovery of a large collection of trunks containing her rotting papers.

I am still doing it now, two days a month, clad in boiler suit, gloves and masks (the spores!).

Who are Ellen’s ghosts?

They are the fleeting shadows of names famous in their day, reduced to whispers in other people’s stories; people who influenced Ellen’s life, for good or bad. They are the sleeping remains of her ruined home and her shattered garden, the horrors that haunted her nightmares.

More practically, Miss Willmott’s Ghost is a sea holly – Eryngium giganteum – seeds some claim she secretly sprinkled in other people’s gardens.

How confident are you that you have captured the ‘real’ Miss Willmott?

Finally capturing someone is an unattainable goal for any biographer. But I am now pretty confident of Ellen’s movements across 60-odd years, and I have read so much of her correspondence, seen so much of her work/home/belongings/gardens that the genuine shocks have diminished to a small but exciting trickle.

It is a great responsibility to declare yourself finished, but there comes a point when you have to say, ‘that’s enough for now.’ Miss Willmott will never leave me; I continue her story in blogs, magazine articles, social media and talks – the closest a biographer can ever hope to get to their subject.

Warley Place Conservatory – photo by Sandra Lawrence

Sandra Lawrence appeared at Hylands House and Gardens on June 18 as part of The Pleasure Garden event at Essex Book Festival 2023. This article first appeared in Essex Life magazine in April 2023.