Xmera / Garden History / Gardeners: Henry Thomas Ellacombe

Henry Thomas Ellacombe (1790-1885) and the creation of the Bitton vicarage garden.

Henry Thomas Ellacombe was the initial creator of the plantsman’s garden at Bitton, which was to become celebrated through the publication of In a Gloucestershire Garden (1895) and In My Vicarage Garden (1902) by his son Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822-1916). The survival of important archival resources in the papers deposited at Kew by Henry Nicholson Ellacombe provide us with a unique record of a middle-class plantsman’s garden at the beginning of the reign of William IV and of the sources of the plants that filled it.

Among the written tributes to Ellacombe after his death was an obituary by the Irish horticulturalist and doyen of wild gardening William Robinson in his journal The Garden. Ellacombe had been a regular contributor to the journal and two years previously Robinson had dedicated its twenty-third volume to him. The obituary described Ellacombe as the patriarch of the hardy gardening fraternity, of which Robinson was also an enthusiastic adherent. In an earlier description of the garden at Bitton, following a visit in the spring of 1873, Robinson had described its collection of plants as one of the most interesting in Britain. The foundations of the collection were laid by Ellacombe, although it was subsequently developed and made well-known by his son.

One of the most intractable questions for a garden historian to answer is what plants ordinary people in the past actually grew. The catalogues of plants from botanic gardens and lists of those supplied to aristocratic households inform us what was grown in great gardens, while nursery catalogues and newspaper advertisements tell us what the trade hoped to supply, but not whether that was what people actually bought. The records of Ellacombe’s collection at Bitton, however, are unusual in that they relate to a middle-class gardener, albeit one who was a dedicated and determined plantsman. These records include two lists, one of around 750 trees and shrubs that were growing in his one-and-a-half acre garden in December 1830 and another of around 2,000 herbaceous plants, orchids, ferns and aquatics made the following year. These were published in The Garden half a century later and are available on this website. The earlier list included almost 250 varieties of rose – large, single-flowering shrub roses, not the neat hybrid teas of the modern rose garden. This was a garden full of plants, the outdoor equivalent of the late-Victorian drawing-room stuffed with furniture and knick-knacks. Yet there was also enough lawn to accommodate the Sunday School children and their sports. The lists of plants are supplemented by a collection of letters received by Ellacombe from a range of nurseries, botanic gardens and horticulturalists between 1827 and 1840. These were deposited at Kew by Henry Nicholson Ellacombe after his father’s death and allow us to see how a Gloucestershire curate was able to develop such an extensive collection.

It is clear from the correspondence at Kew that by 1827 Ellacombe already had a significant collection of unusual plants. His interest in gardening developed in his youth. In 1875 he described his experience as extending over sixty years and recalled that even as a child he had his collection of plants. Ellacombe grew up in Alphington on the outskirts of Exeter, where his father was rector. This was an excellent place for the nurture of a future horticulturalist. The mild climate of the south-west was favourable to the new plants from the Americas and the Cape, which began to arrive in England in the late eighteenth century. This encouraged local gentlemen to develop collections of exotic plants and the packet boat captains landing at Falmouth knew there was a ready market for imported seeds and plants. Within a mile of the rectory was William Luccombe’s nursery, which was celebrated for supplying camellias, heaths and other imported exotics. Less than five miles away was Haldon House, bought around 1770 by Charlotte Ellacombe’s great-uncle Sir Robert Palk, who had removed the formal garden and replaced it with a fashionable landscape garden planted with thousands of new trees. Some ten miles away was Killerton, where the native trees raised by John Veitch for Sir Thomas Acland’s park led to the development of a commercial nursery. In the next generation the Veitch nursery became famous for the introduction and promotion of exotic species and, even after the premises were moved closer to Exeter in the 1830s, its close relationship to the Aclands and Killerton was reflected in the development of the parkland.

In his approach to gardening Ellacombe adopted a practical, methodical and thorough approach that reflected his training as an engineer. He was interested in individual plants rather than the design of the garden as a whole and he wanted plants that would thrive in his garden without molly-coddling. Like the majority of gardeners, he could not afford to shelter tender plants in a stovehouse during the winter. This was an era when hundreds of new plants were flooding into England each year from collectors all over the world and Ellacombe was particularly interested in discovering which of these plants would prove hardy in Gloucestershire. Some he was able to obtain from local nurseries in Bristol, where Australian plants could be obtained from John Miller and William Maule specialised in American bog plants. Ellacombe also bought plants from a number of nurseries in and around London and imported bulbs directly from Dutch specialists. Further field the Bartram Botanic Garden in Philadelphia operated a commercial nursery, which exported boxes of plants to English enthusiasts. Ellacombe purchased a box of 38 American plants from them for twelve dollars in 1833.

Keen plantsmen could also extend their collections by exchange. In 1825 William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany at Glasgow, advocated this in the preface to a printed catalogue of plants in the Glasgow botanic garden:

By means of it Botanists and Horticulturists may have the opportunity, as they see a list of what we possess, of ascertaining what we still want, and will be able likewise to form some idea of what it may be in our power to offer in return: for, where we possess duplicates, we have ever held it to be amongst our greatest pleasures to distribute to those who take an interest in the same pursuits with ourselves.

By the following year Ellacombe was compiling catalogues of his plants and sending them out along with lists of plants and seeds he hoped to obtain by exchange. This is the origin of the lists, which were later printed in The Garden. Some of these plants were well-established in gardens and available from local nurserymen (60% of his trees and shrubs appeared in the 1826 catalogue of John Miller’s Bristol nursery). Others represent the products of his successful exchange of plants with other collectors.

Of the major botanic gardens approached by Ellacombe, both Oxford and Kew had been neglected for some years. William Baxter, the long-serving gardener at Oxford, sadly reported that they had few of the hardy plants Ellacombe sought and that his collection of various genera was better than their own. In November 1827 Baxter’s selection of the plants he would like from Ellacombe’s list was almost three times the number of plants he was sending to Bitton. Similarly a consignment of plants for Bitton sent from Kew included a list of more than twice as many that they would like in return, although Ellacombe appears to have achieved a more equal exchange with William Anderson, curator of Chelsea Physic Garden.

In addition to the long-established botanic gardens, there were also new foundations often funded by subscription. In 1826 a piece in The Gardener’s Magazine described the botanic garden at Bury St Edmunds, founded six years before, noting that its curator was allowed to dispose of superfluous plants to subscribers only and that a lower rate of subscription was available for those living more than ten miles from the garden. Ellacombe promptly paid his guinea and began another fruitful exchange. He also contributed plants from his collection to the Birmingham botanical garden, which opened in 1832. Contacts with botanic gardens also brought indirect access to plant hunters. In 1831 Thomas Drummond set out to explore America with support from the Glasgow botanic garden, partly funded by enthusiasts like Ellacombe who subscribed ten guineas in return for seeds. Communication between Bitton and Glasgow was facilitated by the steam packet service that operated from Bristol via Liverpool. Steamboats also sailed from Bristol to Dublin, enabling Ellacombe to exchange plants with the gardens established by the Royal Dublin Society at Glasnevin and Trinity College at Ballsbridge. In his search for plants Ellacombe did not limit his correspondence to the British Isles, having by 1831 established contact with botanic gardens in Paris and Berlin. Three years later he was exchanging letters with the director of the imperial garden in St Petersburg.

In 1829 a horticultural society was established in Bristol with the nurseryman John Miller as its first secretary. Ellacombe became an active member, entering his plants into their regular competitions and providing baskets of flowers to decorate the hall. Bath gained its own horticultural society two years later and regular shows were held in Sydney Gardens. In 1833 separate discussions about establishing botanic gardens were on-going in Bristol and Bath. It was suggested that a single garden situated between the two might be a practical solution to finding sufficient subscribers to proceed. The location suggested was Bitton:

where there is an extremely rich soil of warm dry alluvial gravel, a favourable southern aspect, a warm climate, and the important advantage that a gentleman resides there who already possesses on the spot as rich and numerous a collection of plants as, perhaps, any individual can boast of, whose zeal and activity in horticultural and botanical pursuits are indefatigable, who has an extensive correspondence with foreign botanists, and who probably could be induced, upon adequate terms, to impart not only his numerous plants, but his invaluable aid and superintendence as the curator of the intended garden.

From this it is clear that the extent of Ellacombe’s horticultural activity was well-known locally. The idea of establishing the proposed garden at Bitton was never likely to obtain majority support in either city and was quietly dropped. Instead sufficient subscribers were obtained in Bristol by combining horticulture with animals to form the Zoological Gardens, while in Bath a short-lived botanic garden was established in Victoria Park.

One of the main proponents of the Bath botanic garden was William Kent, with whom Ellacombe regularly exchanged plants. Kent was a member of the London Horticultural Society and had developed an extensive collection at Clapton, specialising in aquatic plants, before retiring to Bath. Ellacombe also grew a range of aquatic plants, presumably in containers as he did later at Clyst St George, as there appears to have been no pond at Bitton. William Kent became well-known as a collector through his provision of specimens for botanical illustrations and contributions to the gardening press. By 1832 Ellacombe was also writing letters to the gardening journals and his status as a plantsman was enhanced by the acknowledgement of his provision of plants for illustration in works such as Robert Sweet’s The British Flower Garden and Benjamin Maund’s The Botanic Garden. The following year he was a subscriber to Hortus woburnensis, a catalogue of the plants grown at Woburn Abbey. As he became known as a plantsman, the network of fellow enthusiasts with whom Ellacombe corresponded and exchanged plants stretched across England and into Scotland.

Ellacombe remained a keen gardener and plantsman after his move to Devon. Situated four miles south-east of Exeter, Clyst St George was in close proximity to the Veitch nursery at Exeter, which had begun to send its own collectors to acquire exotic new plants from around the world. However, although the climate in south Devon was benign, the soil in the rectory garden was wretched. Having left the majority of his plants for his son at Bitton, Ellacombe lacked the energy and enthusiasm as he entered his seventh decade to create a second monumental collection in his new garden. Despite this, while his interests were less wide-ranging than before, he still had interesting plants of which seeds and cuttings were sent to his son at Bitton. He demonstrated his continuing interest in the new and exotic in 1863, when it came to the choice of a tree for the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury to plant in the churchyard at Clyst St George. He chose a Wellingtonia, the first seeds of which had been brought back to England by the Veitch collector William Lobb just a decade before. Throughout the remainder of his life Ellacombe remained willing to share his experience, expertise and plants with others. He made various contributions to The Garden, describing himself as ‘the old gardener’. He had always been keen on growing yuccas, having 11 varieties at Bitton in 1831 and in 1870 Yucca Ellacombei was named in his honour by the botanist John Gilbert Baker. Having built his collection through the generosity of others, Ellacombe was equally open-handed with the products of his own garden. In 1883 he published in The Garden a short note concerning Lathyrus sibthorpei, which he had received from William Baxter of the Oxford Botanic Garden more than 50 years before and offered seeds freely to anyone who wrote to him for them.

The garden at Bitton became a horticultural Mecca, particularly once descriptions of it appeared in Henry Nicholson Ellacombe's column for The Guardian and his subsequent books, and like his father he was known for his generosity with plants. Henry Nicholson Ellacombe died in 1916. The vicarage still stands at Bitton, but was sold as a private house in 1951 and apart from a few trees and shrubs the ephemeral collection of plants has been lost.