RHS Wisley pays homage to Ellen Willmott, Sir Thomas Hanbury and George Fergusson Wilson

A new Pavilion in Oakwood was officially opened in the historic heart of RHS Garden Wisley, paying homage to the trio responsible for its establishment.

RHS Wisley Pavilion pays homage to Ellen Willmott

Remembered in the new pavilion is Ellen Willmott (1858–1934), who spearheaded the acquisition of Oakwood by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which would go on to become the RHS Garden Wisley as we know it today. With the new pavilion, the RHS reinstates the forgotten history of horticultural icon Ellen Willmott, who spearheaded the charity’s acquisition of its flagship garden, following what was a sometimes strained relationship.

Willmott had been involved with the RHS for around 40 years until her death in 1934. However, her relationship with the charity, while always being intense, was rarely smooth. In 1897, she became the subject of disapproval for her mysterious no-show at the inauguration ceremony of the Victoria Medal of Honour, having been one of only two women to have been awarded the prize among 60 recipients. The reasons for her absence were previously unknown, and she was long accused of snubbing the prestigious award. However, recent research suggests that Willmott was suffering heartbreak following the ending of an intense relationship with her friend, Gian Tufnell. Willmott appeared to have been genuinely “in love” with Gian, who went on to marry Lord George Mount Stephens in a ceremony taking place the day after the prize-giving, ensuring the horticulturist’s love remained unrequited. While she felt unable to admit the reason at the time, her absence was poorly regarded by the RHS.

The industrial chemist, George Fergusson Wilson (1822 – 1902) is also acknowledged, as it was his garden originally. When Wilson retired he lived at Wisley and devoted himself to gardening on a wide scale. Reportedly, he was particularly successful as a cultivator of lilies. Wilson died in 1902, leaving behind a 13-acre “experimental garden” which had embraced the more modern “wild garden” movement, in contrast to the more formal gardening styles of the period.

By the turn of the 20th century, the RHS was in need of a new garden and a new exhibition hall and unable to afford both. At the behest of Willmott, her friend Sir Thomas Hanbury bought Wisley and donated it to the RHS. Hanbury (1832 – 1907) was a successful businessman, gardener and philanthropist, known for his garden Giardini Botanici Hanbury at Mortola Inferiore in Italy.

News of Willmott’s role in developing RHS Garden Wisley only emerged through research by Sandra Lawrence, author of Miss Willmott’s Ghosts: The Extraordinary Life and Gardens of a Forgotten Genius (Blink, 2022). Willmott was a fan of summer houses, with no less than eight at Warley Place alone, so it was decided that one should be built to recognise her role in Oakwood, the historic, original part of RHS Garden Wisley that Willmott would have remembered. Funded by Smith, the Oakwood Summerhouse has been constructed by Surrey Oak Barns and features interpretation boards describing Willmott’s role and the history of how the area came to become RHS Garden Wisley.

Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Garden Wisley said: “For decades, Ellen Willmott was only known for scattering sea holly seeds in unwanted places and being cantankerous. It is time to properly acknowledge the drive, vision, and abilities of this horticultural heavyweight.”

Willmott was instrumental in the establishment of RHS Garden Wisley as an RHS garden and became one of its first trustees. The new pavilion is the first formal acknowledgement of Willmott’s influence in the RHS’s history and the acquisition of RHS Garden Wisley. The garden will officially open the Oakwood Summerhouse on April 10th.