The National Collection of Magnolias at Caerhays
By the Rt Rev J W Hunkin, Bishop of Truro
J C Williams was a very private man and the following article was written as an obituary by the Rt Rev J W Hunkin who was an entusiastic amateur gardener and friend.
John Charles Williams was born at Caerhays Castle on September 30th 1861. The Castle had been bought in 1854 with all the land in the parish, excepting the glebe, by his grandfather, MICHAEL WILLIAMS, Sheriff of Glamorganshire 1839, MP for West Cornwall 1853 - 1858, chairman of the Cornwall railway, who renovated the building and developed its grounds. During a period of unemployment he engaged a large number of Cornish miners to remove the top of a hill which obstructed the view from the Castle towards the sea. His son, JOHN MICHAEL WILLIAMS, the father of JOHN CHARLES was a very busy man; he was Sheriff of Cornwall 1865, and took a leading part in finance and banking in the county. In 1852 he married ELIZABETH MARIA, elder daughter of STEPHEN DAVEY of Bochym, near the Lizard. The garden was one of his great interests but he had little time to give it. JOHN CHARLES, his second son was sent to Rugby school. From the first independent in mind, he did not take very kindly to school life. His sister, Mrs. POWYS ROGERS, remembers that for three terms running he was set to draw an Ivy leaf! He left Rugby without regret and went for a tour of the Continent with a tutor, though in point of fact, as things turned out, JOHN CHARLES looked after him.
JOHN CHARLES’S great interest at the time was Mineralogy, and in Caerhays Castle there used to be no less than three considerable collections of minerals. On his return from the Continent he went up to Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1881 as a member of Trinity Hall. The entry in the Tutors Book reads as follows:
“6 Sept 1881. Williams – John Charles, age twenty, brother of Michael Williams Esq., Gnaton Hall, Yealmpton, Plympton, S. Devon.”
As the form of the entry suggests, his father had died in 1880. JOHN CHARLES only resided at Cambridge for about a year; he then went travelling with a cousin and stayed a few days with the sister who had married Mr. POWYS ROGERS and was living in Queensland.
His mother went on living in Caerhays Castle until her death, and JOHN CHARLES bought himself a place at Werrington, near Launceston. His mother died in 1884, and in the same year he married MARY CHRISTIAN, second daughter of Sir FREDERICK MARTIN WILLIAMS Bart., M.P., of Goonvera, Perran-ar-Worthal. They lived partly at Caerhays and partly at Werrington. The first of their children were born at Werrington Park.
By this time Mr. WILLIAMS had begun to take up horticulture as a serious pursuit, one of his first interests being Orchids, of which he grew a number at Werrington. At the age of twenty –eight, in 1889, he was elected to the County Council, and was one of that Council’s original members. The year previously he had been appointed High Sheriff of Cornwall; from 1918 to 1936 he was Lord Lieutenant.
Mr. WILLIAMS was very conscientious in carrying out his duties as a County Councillor. He was among the small number who would sit through long, tedious meetings to the end; he seldom spoke, but he was always listened too with the greatest attention. He was a distinguished speaker, always clear and to the point, with a telling word or epigram to throw in just at the right moment. In a turbulent political meeting he could always get a hearing and when heckled he was at his best.
For some years Mr WILLIAMS was Chairman of the County Highways Committee. At this, as at most Committees, the members have from time to time to put up with a good deal of nonsense. On one occasion, when some perversely opposing a reasonable scheme of widening a certain road, Mr WILLIAMS, tired of the bickering, ironically proposed that the road should be narrowed. He was also at one time Chairman of the Sea Fisheries Committee, and for many years he did outstanding service as a member of the County Education Committee. His own work for education was largely done behind the scenes; no one knows how much education in Cornwall owes to him. He was the leader in the movement to provide playing-fields in the country; and there were literally hundreds of children who received help at some critical period of their lives without knowing from whom it came; the instruments of his generosity were strictly forbidden to disclose its source. The big chiming town clock of Truro city was one of the lesser of his anonymous gifts; a better example of his unobtrusive generosity was the provision of the first instalment of the heating system of the cathedral church. He was a very generous benefactor to the National Trust, to which in 1931 he presented 108 acres in order to preserve the Nare Head for the nation. It is to him more than anyone else that the Royal Institution of Cornwall is indebted for its present convenient premises.
A former Director of the County Education, Mr F R PASCOE, describes how, many years ago, he once took Mr WILLIAMS with “Q” (Sir ARTHUR QUILLER-COUCH) to visit a remote country school without notice. They found the place very untidy, and on leaving Mr WILLIAMS remarked :” Well, I’ve had all the disadvantages of a public school education, but I must say I don’t think the masters top boots ought to be in the wash basin.
Mr WILLIAMS was a keen student of European politics and of European history. On one occasion he was seen at the County Hall between Committee meetings in earnest conversation with his cousin Mr H H Williams, of Pencalenick. Someone asked, “What are you two plotting now?” But the actual question on which the two cousins were so intently engaged was whether or not NAPOLEON used eye-glasses or not!
From 1892 – 1895 Mr J C WILLIAMS sat in Parliament as Member for the Truro-Helston Division, but he did not seek re-election. He frankly disliked London and he held very strongly that his children should not be brought up there and also that he should be with them as they grew up. Moreover, he thought he could do as good work in Cornwall as at Westminster. These were his serious reasons. Among his friends more frivolous ones passed round. Some said that he could not bear sitting up late; others that in London he could not see his Water-lilies opening. And that may bring this brief narrative back to the great garden at Caerhays.
The entrance to the garden is through the lodge gate at the top of the drive which leads gently down to the Castle. It is an amazing half mile, through a spacious planting of Cherries, Magnolias, Maples beds of Azaleas, mountain Rhododendrons with Lilies among them, and great clumps of blue Hydrangeas further up the hillside where the natural wood mounts guard against attacking wind. Then, when the visitor’s attention is wrested from the planting to turn a corner in the drive, it is riveted upon the beautiful little sandy beach at the bottom of the gully beyond the Castle, framed in a setting where man has not tried to outdo nature but to pay tribute to it. At length the visitor approaches the house. As he passes through the archway he glances through the door of the holy of holies, where so many creations were initiated, and finally comes up to the front door itself, outside the porch, and finds Mr WILLIAMS awaiting him, always with one of the long bamboo sticks which he himself had cut and bound round with string at the handle end. Here, opposite the front door, he grew the Fuchsias which were one of his specialities in later years.
The Caerhays Garden Book begins on January 1 1897, and contains entries on over 1650 days in Mr WILLIAMS’S own handwriting. Through the great kindness of Mr Charles Williams, MP, who succeeded his father at Caerhays in 1939, I have been able to make a close study of the most interesting document. It consists of three hundred and sixty-five pages for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, with over twenty extra pages crowded with records of plantings for each year from 1895 to 1934 inclusive.
Mr WILLIAMS interests extended to birds, wild flowers and ferns as well as a large variety of cultivated plants. The Garden Book contains many notes of observations of very varied kinds from those on weather conditions to those recording the first sight of a swallow. A few examples must suffice:”We had lately had a terrific easterly gale, it cut the boughs of the yew as if a man had worked with his clippers for hours” (Feb.1 1971): “Saw the blackthorn open” (Feb.8, 1931); “Great storm of hail and wind to beat down all the daffodils did its work well” (Mar.3,1897); “Bob saw the first martins” (Mar.22,1907); “On the day before yesterday May saw three whales in our bay” (Mar. 29, 1935); “I saw the first swallow” (Mar.31, 1897); “Cherries much injured by birds and bad shooting” (April 3, 1934); “I saw the first goldfinch yesterday” (April 18, 1918); “We saw may out near St Blazey a fortnight since” (May 1, 1913), “Rain and slugs are the main crop this season” (Nov.14, 1924).
Mr. WILLIAMS was mainly interested in plants as beautiful in themselves and as fitting into their surroundings. Often when riding he would ask a roadman to refrain from cutting a Polypody Fern or wild Orchid; and he would frequently stop to look at a single plant in a cottage garden. When in 1906 he had given up hunting for public work he often used to say that he regretted it for one reason only – because it took him into nice places. He hated a motor car because it went too quickly for him to see things in hedges, although for his work he had one of the first in Cornwall.
The chief plantation at Caerhays lies on rising ground situated, as has already been indicated, round the castle from south-east to north-west; the south-east wind sweeps up into it from the cove below. Thus the soil being naturally acid and enriched with leaf mould, the first requisite was to provided shelter, to which Mr. WILLIAMS’S father had contributed when he put in some of the plants grown now to large size. In 1911 (April 2) Sir. E. LODER estimated the height of a big Pinus insignis in the grounds at 105 feet. Mr. WILLIAMS himself set to work systematically to improve shelter conditions. About 1900 a great Laurel hedge was planted all along the side of the hill, though there are gaps here and there; these Laurels are now 25 to 30 feet in height. Laurels are also planted freely elsewhere over the ground to form large numbers of little retreats. To walk through the woodland is to come constantly upon them, and the sights that suddenly meet the eye are unforgettable. The visitor bursts in upon, not one or two, but a whole group of great Rhododendrons, trees rather than bushes, blazing with large trusses of magnificent flowers, white or pink or red. The whole planning has been carried out with masterly and at the same time unobtrusive skill, and the effects are often marvellous..
Another form of shelter is provided by the thick clumps of Bamboos. These were planted as early as 1895 and 1896; especially Bambusa fastuosa, which have grown to a height of 25 feet.
Mr. WILLIAMS ‘S outstanding contributions to horticulture are connected with the Chinese expeditions of E.H. Wilson and G. FORREST (1901 – 1932). WILSON’S expeditions to Japan brought to light the Kurume Azaleas; and of these there was a complete collection at Caerhays sent by WILSON himself.
Some of Mr. WILLIAMS’S other interests may be briefly mentioned. The Garden Book in its first years shows him watching the growth of his Bamboos and Tree Ferns and caring for his Water Lilies, Ferns, Irises, Cyclamen, Anemones, Hamamelis, Lapageria; and first and always the Rhododendrons, Camellias, Magnolias and Daffodils. He did a good deal of work with Daffodils and the first entry in the Garden Book (Jan.1 1897) reads : “Nar. Minimus, Crocus, C. Coum, aconites, snowdrops in flower, most of the daffodils showing above ground.” In 1898 the “new” Daffodil ground in the ‘electric light field’ was made, and there is a note, “Big lot of two year old daffodils from Appleshaw and new varieties 207 to 218.” “Two year olds in new ground 7,000, over 2,000 in lower ground” (July 20, 1989). Earlier we find a note on Jan.30 1898, “I have made my first cross, minor with soleil d’or.” Appleshaw was where lived the Rev. G.H. ENGLEHEART, a great personal friend of Mr. WILLIAMS and his chief guide as to Daffodil growing. He came to Caerhays every spring up to about 1914. Mr. WILLIAMS was in constant touch also with his cousin, Mr. P. D. Williams of Lanarth, St Keverne, near the Lizard, who became perhaps the greatest Daffodil grower of his day. A special interest therefore, attaches to a note in the Lanarth Garden Book on April 5, 1897: “I went with J.C.W. to see Engleheart’s seedlings and was astounded at his great success.”
Mr. WILLIAMS Presidential Address to the Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1900 was on the subject of Gardening. In this he referred to Irises and Rhododendrons , as well as to Daffodils, and pointed out the possibilities of their development for providing flowers for winter and early spring: Irises from November to January, Rhododendrons from December to May, Daffodils from January onwards; and when we come to the middle of May, he said , the garden would take care of itself. He paid a tribute to the work of Mr. SHILSON in producing early flowering Rhododendrons and mentioned the fact that he himself had managed to produce a trumpet Daffodil which flowered before the end of January.
Mr. WILLIAMS began raising Daffodils in 1893. Many of his varieties have never been registered and have never appeared in commerce, for he particularly desired not to disturb the market for the professional grower, but from the Classified List published by the Royal Horticultural Society the following may be mentioned: ‘Victory’ a bicolour Imcomparabilis, and ‘Fleetwing’ a yellow Imcomparabilis, produced in 1907; ‘Bedouin’ another bicolour Imcomparabilis (awarded the A.M. April 21, 1914), 1908; ’Gadfly’ a bicolour Imcomparabilis, and ‘Charm’, ‘Red Chief’, and ‘White Star,’ all bicolour Barrii 1910; ‘Rubellite,’ a Tazetta, 1912 (A.M. March 19, 1912); ‘Croesus,’ a yellow Imcomparabilis (F.C.C., April 2. 1912, A.M. April 7, 1914), 1912; ‘Midas’ a yellow Barrii, 1913; ‘Dragoon’ and ‘Sealing Wax,’ both bicolour Barrii, 1913; ‘Hospodar’ and ‘Tamerlane,’ both yellow Imcomparabilis, 1914; ‘Syphax,’ a Jonquil hybrid, 1914 (A.M., March 24, 1914); ‘Red Beacon,’ a bicolour Barrii, 1916; ‘Glorious’ a famous Tazetta, 1923 (F.C.C., March 23,1926, and the A.M. three times); ‘Magician’ a bicolour Barrii, 1927; ‘Osprey’ a Leedsii, 1927; ‘Tipperary Tim,’ a yellow Trumpet, 1929; ‘Florinda’ a yellow Imcomparabilis, 1931; ‘Pepper,’ another yellow Imcomparabilis, 1933 (A.M. February 28, 1935); ‘Bartley,’ a Cyclamineus hybrid, 1934; ‘Goldilocks,’ a Jonquil hybrid, 1937.
Mr. WILLIAMS was one of the initiators and chief supporters of the Truro Flower Show, which was first held in 1892 and continued, with a break during the late war, right up to 1939. At first the Show was chiefly for Daffodils, but before long it included flowering trees and shrubs, and one of its principal attractions year by year was the stand of Rhododendrons from Caerhays. The R.H.S. sent deputations to the Show from time to time.
A further word may be added here about Werrington Park. Parts of it were laid out with great skill, especially the ‘Terrace’ or ‘Chinese’ garden across the valley from the house, made to take the early Wilson Rhododendrons and then extended for FORREST’S. Mr.FITT, the head gardener here for a number of years, was a particularly skilful raiser of seedlings. Eventually the Park passed to Mr. WILLIAMS ‘S son ALFRED, who after distinguished service in the Royal Navy in the last war, is again serving oversees in this. Here are to be seen fine hedges of Stranvaesia undulate and Osmanthus Delavayi, and the famous clump of Rhododendron lacteum from which Mr. ALFRED drew the exhibit which was awarded the F.C.C. in March 1926. Here also was produced the fine hybrid ‘May Day’ (haematodes x Griersonianum) which received the Award of Merit in May 1932.
Mr. WILLIAMS started growing Rhododendrons about 1885. He began with Waterer hybrids, ‘Sir J. Whitworth’ among them. He aimed at raising earlier flowering forms by using HOOKERS introductions; ‘Sappho’ (white with a dark blotch) was the only one he always liked and there is a very big group of this at Caerhays. Constant reading of J.H.Mangles had taught him, he tells us (Rhododendron Society’s Notes, 3, p.63), to cross species rather than hybrids.
The first of E.H.WILSONS’S four journeys to Western China was undertaken for Messers. VIETCH, 1899 – 1902, and Mr. WILLIAMS immediately realised the importance of his discoveries. Thus we find in the Caerhays Garden Book, under the date October 1903: “Bought Chinese rhododendrons, 25 sorts from Veitch,” and a little later in the same year, “Some Chinese plants from Vietch.” WILSON’S second journey was again financed by VIETCH (1903 -1905) and in January 1906 Mr. WILLIAMS writes in his Garden Book, “Have agreed with Vietch for the right to select 15 of Wilson’s second Rhododendrons in which are several yellows”; and then on March 14, “ The second lot of Chinamen arrived and were planted; all were very small.”
It is not too much to say that Mr. WILLIAMS did more for the cultivation of Rhododendron and other Ericaceous and woody plants in the earlier stages of the modern Asiatic plant exploration than anyone else (the Gardeners Chronicle, April 8, 1939. P.223). He was the patron of GEORGE FORREST’S three expeditions to Yunnan and a sharer in others. WILSON and FORREST were among the many visitors to Caerhays. Thus there is an entry in the Garden Book, July 16, 1911: “Wilson here and saw his Buddleias at their best.” Mr. WILLIAMS was particularly fond of FORREST, and it is pleasant to recall the evening of November 16, 1920, when FORREST (who had visited Caerhays in May) gave a fascinating lecture on “Recent Discoveries of Rhododendrons in China” with Mr. WILLIAMS in the chair. Some years later (May 6, 1925) he was taking the chair at a similar gathering to hear an address by Captain KINGDON WARD.
It was at Caerhays that a number of the plants introduced by WILSON first reached their flowering stage in Europe. Rhododendron Fargesii flowered there in 1911; Mr. WILLIAMS describes it as “a lovely shrub but not a wonderful flower.” R.sutchuenense flowered the same year; March is its flowering month at Caerhays. R.auriculatum opened its white sweet-scented flowers at Caerhays in 1912 and probably the finest plants in the country are there. R.calophytum on April 22, 1915, was “very good indeed” at Caerhays. Mr. Williams was the first grower to appreciate R. orbiculare with its round foliage and its symmetrical form; there are several references to it in the Garden Book; on April 28, 1920, for instance “R. orbiculare is the best thing we have.”
The Rhododendron called after him, Williamsianum, with its beautiful flowers curiously large in proportion to the size of the shrub, was introduced by WILSON in 1908. A finely grown specimen was awarded the prize for the best plant exhibited at the first of the Rhododendrons Society Shows (April 27, 1926).
In the first volume of the Rhododendron Society’s Notes (1917), Professor BAYLEY BALFOUR enumerates forty-seven of FORREST’S introductions which had been raised by Mr. WILLIAMS. In the same volume Mr. WILLIAMS himself gives a list of Rhododendron species growing a t Caerhays in July 1917; the total number of species and natural varieties enumerated at that date was 264. It is interesting to note that on March 15, 1917, ten species were recorded in the Garden Book as showing colour; there was a good deal of frost that March; ten species, some of them the same were in flower on March 27. It had been a very cold winter and it was a very late season; Mr. WILLIAMS remarks (April 11) “Nearly all the stuff is or has been frosted.” But by April 26 thirty-four species were open. On May 4 R.oleiolium, which had been in flower on March 27, remained “the best Rhododendron.” On May 16 the Garden Book note reads: “the Aucklandii just about its best and 50 other species more or less in flower. It is very dry for May.” On July 7 Wilson’s Fortunei were at their best. Later, on August 5, Mr. WILLIAMS notes: “Went round the garden with Harrow of Edinburgh, we found some flowers on “– and then he mentions twelve species. Three days later (August 8) he adds, “several kinds of mountain Rhododendrons show flower.” Nine Rhododendrons were showing “bits of flower” on September 1; these had been reduced to six or eight by September 7; twelve were open on September 23. It was still a late season, for there is a note on October 17, “We have corn out now”; and some was still out on the Barton on October 21. The last Rhododendron note for the season occurs on November 5: “Several bits of R. oreotrephes showing flower with perhaps a dozen other species.” The next season 1917 -1918, begins with the record on November 27: “R. mucronulatum starting.” This is followed on December 4 by the observation “R.venustum [nudiflorum] is nice”; and on the following day (December 5): “One plant of R. moupinense open.” The following year 1917 closes with a significant entry (December 31): “We have just put about 200 fine Chinamen in the rockery ... a very cold start for them.”
Plantings on a considerable scale were, of course, being undertaken at Caerhays. Some of the first entries in the Garden Book recording the planting of “230 named Waterers” in the spring of 1895, of “120 named Rhododendrons and 160 ditto” in the spring of 1896, and of a large lot of Aucklandii seedlings to form what was known as “the Aucklandii garden” south of the house. No one knows the number of Rhododendron species eventually planted at Caerhays; it must run into many hundreds if not into thousands. Mr. WILLIAMS made very careful notes of them; he had a marvellous power of concentrating on a difficult and complicated subject and becoming a master of it. A slight indication of the labour involved appears in a short article on “Rhododendron Series” contributed by him in October 1923 to the Rhododendron Society Notes, 2, pp.208, 209. “Perhaps some may not care for the labour of doing this” he wrote (i.e. studying the immense number of Rhododendrons which had been discovered and of grouping them in series), “but there is no easy way of learning any difficult thing, except by close contact with it.” He himself was not content until he knew not only the height at which collected plants grew as well as their position, but also the geology of the district. The notes appended to the plates in the Botanical Magazine of plants grown at Caerhays often illustrate Mr.WILLIAMS’S painstaking study of the conditions most suitable for their cultivation, e.g. R.stamineum, t. 8601, R.brachyanthum, t. 8750, R.oreotrephes, t. 8784, R.dichroanthum, t. 8815.
The situation of Werrington Park is some ways a contrast to that of Caerhays. Mr. WILLIAMS would never grow Indian Rhododendrons at Werrington because the climate was not suitable for them and, he said, it was only stupid to put beautiful plants where they could only become stunted and ugly. He was keen on experimenting, but once satisfied that a situation was wrong he took the line that there was always some other plant that would do there and look well. Unfortunately he had many of his most valuable records stolen while he was travelling, a loss which he bore with characteristic stoicism.
Altogether Mr. WILLIAMS contributed sixteen short articles to the privately printed Notes of the Rhododendron Society, which he was largely instrumental in founding; and they are as brilliant as they are brief. There was no better judge of a good plant, and his appraisements are worth recording. Only a few examples can be given here:
R.Edgeworthii. – “The scent has hardly a rival.”
R.moupinense. – “Probably in flower and out of flower this is the most attractive small rhododendron now in cultivation out of all the many rhododendrons Mr. Wilson has given us.”
R.scintillans. – “On the whole, if I had to begin again, and only to have one of these species [the reference is to the Lapponicum Group], I should choose this.”
The Triflorums. – “I believe from what I have seen that amongst the Triflorum, and particularly in the yunnanense branch of the family, we shall get plants of a toughness and a readiness to meet the carelessness of the average man with a garden which, joined to their lovely colours and the freedom with which they will grow from seeds, cuttings or layers, will make them known where other rhododendrons will hardly be seen at all.”
R.Aucklandii. – “As far as my own taste goes, I do think that, in all the discoveries of the last 30 years, there is as yet no sign of a species which will eclipse R.Aucklandii, mature and at its best, but it does not do well in many places, and is not really hardy.” Mr. J.G. MILLIAS, in his great book on Rhododendrons, published in 1917, tells how he saw in the part of Caerhays park known as Forty Acre Wood seven grand specimens of this Rhododendron, all raised from seed in 1887 by the owner, which he regarded as probably the finest group of this Rhododendron in the British Isles. And here is a note form the Garden Book to make the mouth water (May 10, 1928): “Martin and I agreed that we never saw so many Aucklandii in bloom here as two nights ago.” MARTIN was the head gardener at Caerhays for many years; R.Martinianum was called after him.This article is continued on a second page, click here to read more