The National Collection of Magnolias at Caerhays
By F. J. Williams
[Presidential Address to Royal Institute of Cornwall, November 1998]
This talk will inevitably cover too much in a superficial way, but it is primarily an attempt to assess the contribution made by Caerhays and J C Williams to the development of modern gardening, especially in the spheres of daffodils, rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias. The central theme will be the life and interests of ‘J C’, one of a long line of Cornish gardeners who made great and similar contributions, and to try to put his own particular enthusiasms into perspective in the context of plant exploration and hybridization. The main thrust of this talk will cover the period 1895 – 1914.
J C Williams: the background
John Charles Williams or ‘J C’, as he was always known, was born in 1861. He was the second son of John Michael Williams, industrialist and banker, and Elizabeth Maria Davey of Bochym. He was educated at Rugby and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. At John Michael's death in 1880 his elder son, Michael, inherited most of the family’s business interests, while J C inherited a large capital sum and the expectations of his father’s landed estate, Caerhays in Cornwall, which was left to John Michael’s widow for her lifetime. Records of this part of J C’s life are sparse on the extreme. He purchased Werrington Park which then straddled the Devon- Cornwall border, it is said partly for the rabbit shooting, partly because it ensured his immediate independence. In 1884 his mother died and he inherited Caerhays. In the same year he married his cousin, Mary Christian Williams, daughter of Sir Fredrick Martin Williams of Tregullow. Werrington Park was retained and both it and Caerhays were extensively refurbished. It was soon after this that J C Began his long association with the Scottish Highlands where he rented Strathvaich in Ross and Cromarty which he subsequently purchased in the 1930s. His interests here were deer stalking and fishing, but it would later become the place where he could collect his thoughts and try to catalogue the plants that by the early 1920’s had begun to flood into Caerhays and Werrington from China. He led a very active public life, both locally and nationally. In 1888 at the young age of twenty seven, he was made High Sheriff of the county. In 1889 he became a member of the first County Council and remained an elected member (never and Alderman) until 1931. 1892 saw him enter Parliament as Liberal-Unionist member for the Truro-Helston Division. He was a loyal follower of Joseph Chamberlin and later of his son Austen, both keen gardeners, their buttonholes of orchids being one of their trademarks. The Liberal-Unionist were a definite force in their own right, being particularly strong in Birmingham and in Devon and Cornwall. The Parliament of 1892 was Gladstone’s last and came to an end in 1895 when Lord Rosebury’s ministry was overthrown. J C left Parliament with some relief: he hated the stuffiness of London life, and was a countryman through and through. He remained active, however, in the Liberal-Unionist interest in the county. In 1918 he became Lord Lieutenant one of the first commoners to receive that honour.
His interests were varied: he was much involved in the County Playing Field movement which came into being after the Great War. He was keen to see that those who had survived the war and wished to run their own farms could have a chance to do so. He was concerned about the effects of tourism on the environment and was instrumental in raising money for a survey of Cornwall, ‘its Coasts, Moors and Valleys, with suggestions for the Preservation of Amenities’. The survey was carried out by a Mr Harding Thompson for the Cornwall branch of the CPRE, and was published in 1930. It was financed entirely by public subscription: the list of subscribers has a very familiar ring to it, as it contains many of the names of Cornish families which had also over a very long period supported the Royal Institution of Cornwall. JC was the first chairman of the Cornwall Music festival, the brainchild of Lady Violet Trefusis, which started in 1910 and is still going strong and receiving support from all parts of the county. There was an irony about this particular involvement: JC was tone-deaf and the only tune he could recognize was Albert Whelan’s ‘The Whistler and His Dog’. But his interests, and his activities, were varied, and he worked hard for his county. His personal and abiding interest, however, was in his garden, in the collection and development of plants.
As one tries to trace the development of JC’s gardening interests one is infuriated by so little direct evidence. He was a good letter-writer, but the earliest sequence of his surviving correspondence begins in 1911. He wrote to his eldest son at least twice a week from 1913 onwards and to my father once or twice a week in the First War and into the 1920’s. The letters are concise – terse, even – with very few words wasted, and very well written.
Gardening out-of- doors in the 1880s was characterized by formal gardens, those of Versailles being particularly admired. Garden designers and experts dictated to their clients the formalities and fashions of the day. Indoor plant collections would have centered round the conservatories and glasshouses of the wealthy where the orchid reigned supreme. Orchid hunters pillaged the Equatorial regions of the world for new species to amaze those at home, almost certainly to the exclusion of all other plants. These were generally commercial undertakings with money-making a major objective. Werrington certainly had a giant conservatory, which I think I may well have been built by the former owners of the house, the Dukes of Northumberland. As well as being a great political family (they sent four candidates of their choice to serve as members of Parliament for Newport and Launceston) they were also keen gardeners. They delighted in experimenting with new exotic plants coming in from abroad. The Werrington conservatory has a good selection of contemporary books on orchids. The conservatory was considerably reduced in size by 1920s, but Werrington grew orchids for the Covent Garden market from 1922 until 1955. There was also an orchid house at Caerhays but no one living can ever recall seeing an orchid in it.
By 1893 while still a Member of Parliament JC Williams had joined the Royal Horticultural Society. At this time the Society was expanding its interests and those of its members. Among these interests was the daffodil, and one suspects it was at this time that JC’s first gardening passion took root.
One of the spheres which really interested him was that of hybridization. In the late nineteenth century the independent and amateur approach was generally frowned on by the professional experts, but in the sphere of daffodils amateur hybridisers had already started to experiment. It is perhaps worth mentioning that with daffodils, as with roses, the new outlook was fostered by Anglican clergymen. The original amateur hybridizer seems to have been William Herbert (1778-1847) who was the first in a long line of amateurs. Until his time the main source s of new plant varieties had been nurserymen and florists.
William Herbert was an extraordinary man. He was the third son of the first Earl of Caernarvon, whose seat lay at Highclere in Hampshire. He was educated at Eton, was a Member of Parliament in 1806-07 and in 1811-12. In 1814 he took Holy Orders and was appointed to the parish of Spofforth in Yorkshire, a family living. In 1840 he became dean of Manchester. While at Spofforth he started to study botany and to hybridise daffodils. His analysis of Amaryllidacea appeared in an early Botanical Magazine1 . He wrote extensively in the gardening press of his time, and went out of his way to encourage his readers to produce new varieties and to experiment with the varieties that they already knew. He was the first amateur to hybridise camellias and to describe the parentage of his new varieties. One sees his hand in one of the first new rhododendron hybrids Rhododendron altaclarense (‘Highclere’). The Botanical Magazine, usually very scornful of hybrids, did illustrate this new rhododendron in 18352.Dean Herbert seems to have been interested in most areas of gardening and an his death in 1847 he was described as ‘one of the most learned and accomplished persons of his age’3.
Nearly fifty years later a kinsman of the Dean’s the Rev’d George Engleheart (1851 -1936), a Hampshire parson, began experimenting with the hybridization of daffodils. One of his first appearances in print comes in a letter to The Garden magazine enquiring what had happened to the daffodils that Herbert had left behind at Spofforth4. The immediate catalyst for the renewal of interest in daffodils was the Daffodil Conference and Exhibition held by the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick in April 1890. A great many varieties were on display and many papers were read, including one by George Engleheart. The Proceedings of The conference, together with another lecture delivered by Engleheart in 1894, were bound together by J C Williams in a slim volume which looks as though it provided the basis for his future programme as he took up his first consuming garden interest. He had joined the Royal Horticultural Society before 1893, the year after Engleheart’s revolutionary new daffodil, Golden Bell, had had received the Society’s highest award of First Class Certificate. In 1893 the bloom was shown in colour in The Garden and created a sensation5. In 1895 J C purchased the first of his garden diaries, and the early entries show the high importance that he attached to daffodils. By 1897 he had enclosed a large area of one of the Caerhays fields and this was to be where new varieties would be produced until the death of his eldest son Charles in 1955.
The purpose of experimentation was to produce new varieties which would appeal to the public and which would have strong constitutions. He 1880s and 1890s saw the launch of commercial daffodil growing for the flower markets of London and the Midlands. The man responsible for this was Algernon Dorrien Smith of Scilly who toured the Channel Islands, Belgium and Holland to see if there was a niche in the market for new suppliers. He found the Channel Islands were concentrating on fruit and vegetables and that the daffodils produced in Belgium and Holland for the London market were a month later than those produced on Scilly6. An added advantage for the Scillonians was the arrival of the railway at Penzance which meant speedy and reliable access to the metropolitan markets f the mainland. Exports of daffodils from Scilly rose from 68 tons in 1855 to 197 tons in 1889. It was evident that west Cornwall farmers might also benefit from the trade.
This would have given to J C Williams extra encouragement and purpose. He and a few enthusiasts formed a committee to put on a daffodil display in Truro for the public to see the range of varieties available at that time. In 1897 the first Daffodil Spring Flower Show was held. J C Williams was its President, Algernon Dorrien Smith was Vice-President, and, most important of all, its secretary was the Honourable John Boscawen of Tregye, who remained secretary and organiser of an ever-growing show until the arrival of the First World War brought such activities to a halt. Among the judges at that first show was the Rev’d George Engleheart. It is highly likely that it was the first occasion at which J C met Engleheart: it was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
J C’s great friend and ally was his cousin Percival Williams (‘P.D.’) of Lanarth in St Keverne who shared JC’s enthusiasm. Within three weeks of the first show the two cousins had visited Engleheart’s garden at Appleshaw in Hampshire and purchased a great many of the Engleheart daffodils which in turn were to become the basis of the new varieties produced by the cousins over the next thirty years or so. The central feature of the Spring Flower Show, and one of the reasons for its continuing success, was the developing rivalry between the cousins in the main classes. And the Show did succeed in its aim. Small farmers in west, central and south-east Cornwall were given the opportunity to grow a new crop which was of great value and provided extra employment during the 1930’s and the years of agricultural depression.
Mention has already been made of the family’s political support of Joseph Chamberlain and the shared interest in gardening. The Midlands were also seen as an area where the daffodil would flower and flourish. In 1898 the first Midlands Daffodil Show was held in Birmingham: Joseph Chamberlain was President, J C Williams a vice-President. He sent up material for a daffodil stand at that first show, while P D Williams was for many years a major figure in the Midlands Society. Again the desired result was obtained and the Midlands farmer found that they had a new choice of crop.
Over the years JC produced about forty new varieties of daffodil which were named by others. He was a very private man and did not like publicity. Up to 1914 he showed his new varieties at the Truro Show, always under numbers. He sold them to a few people who subsequently named them. He was not interested in making a profit: rather, one suspects, he used the proceeds to obtain further varieties. Of his forty named blooms in the 1998 Daffodil Register ten had received awards from the RHS. The earliest was Narcissus croesus, which received a First Class Certificate in 1912; the latest was Bartley, which received an Award of Merit as recently as 1981.
There is no doubt that he was an extremely successful hybridist. Alex Wilson, another bulb breeder of the time, states that he bought the stock of eight daffodils of Croesus (named by Wilson) from JC for £100, ‘getting my money back in the next two years. Croesus was a good friend to me’, he wrote, ‘for I sold over £2,000 worth of it before I gave up growing it’. In a highly ephemeral environment JC’s influence can still be seen. The production of new varieties continued with Mr E Martin of Comprigney in Truro, whose father was head gardener at Caerhays and who produced Silver Chimes, one of the best dwarf daffodils of the time. Dr Favell of St Buryan, F A Secrett of Kenwyn Valley, George Johnstone of Trewithen and Lord Rendlesham of Mawnan all made further progress and today new varieties are being produced by Dan du Plessis of Landulph and Ron Scamp of Falmouth.
Around the time that JC was taking in new ground for his daffodils, he started to expand the garden at Caerhays in other directions. Reaction to formal gardening was at hand with the arrival of the great protagonist of the wild garden, William Robinson, a self-made man with strong views and a wide and forceful vocabulary. His aim was to jolt the middle classes out of their devotion to formality and persuade them to ‘go wild’. This was opportune, as the scene for the development of Asiatic temperate plants had already been set with the introductions which arrived in the United Kingdom as a result of Sir Joseph Hooker’s 1848-51 expedition to Nepal. Tree rhododendrons had already arrived but Hooker gave a new impetus to change in gardening practice. The previous influx of Himalayan plants had taken a long time to percolate through the gardening world. The fault might lie with the greatest plant hunter there has ever been, now largely forgotten, namely William Griffith (1810- 1845). He arrived in India in September 1832 as a surgeon. In the next thirteen years he botanised in the Khasia Hillas, Asam, the Malacca, Simla, Afganistan, Bhutan and the Hindu Kush, Southern India and Burma. He also spent two years in charge of the Calcutta Botanical Garden. The number of plants he discovered was prodigious and the scope of his plant collecting was amazing. Transport must have caused great problems, but there were other circumstances which prevented his discoveries from being more widely known.
Griffith had an unfortunate temper which involved him in continual argument with his brother officers, and must have occupied much of his time. Certainly he did not before his death complete the arrangement and tabulation of his herbaria specimens, which were left in a chaotic state. He had in fact discovered many plants which later eager plant hunters in the following century had thought to be new when they in their turn had discovered his plants. Rhododendron griffithianum is a good example of the problems which his collecting raised. In 1848 John Hooker, son of the Director of Kew, was sent to India by the government (the minister responsible, and his biggest supporter, was Lord Auckland, former Governor-General of India). Hooker collected many new rhododendrons in the mountainous territory of Sikkim where he had an adventurous time. He found a variety which excited him very much and which he called Rhododendron aucklandii. He then discovered that Griffith had already found it, though his specimen was a poor one. Hooker’s introduction flowered for the first time in 1858 and is illustrated in the Botanical Magazine in that year, though it seems that the picture gave little idea as to the plant’ full beauty, and consequently attracted hardly any interest8.
In 1881, however, a coloured plate appeared in The Garden, accompanied by an article by one of the first great amateur rhododendron enthusiasts, W H Mangles9. Over the years Mangles wrote frequently about rhododendrons and their virtues. These articles were collected together by J C Williams who studied them with great assiduity. When in 1916 JC, together with Charles Eley, formed the Rhododendron Society, one of its rules was that all members should contribute an article to the Society’s annual publication. The second issue consisted entirely of articles on rhododendrons written by Mangles thirty years or so before.
J C had retired from Parliament in 1897 and was beginning to expand his garden: the newly-heralded ‘wild-gardening’ clearly had its attractions though the material at his disposal was not spectacular: there were to hand bamboos, ferns and a few hydrangeas. About the time the Treseder family began to send tree ferns from Victoria State in Australia, where they had nursery interests. While the Caerhays garden in the 1890’s was on the dull side, JC had already spotted the potential of the rhododendron and was seeking large quantities of Rhododendron arboretum which he wished to grow in mass. A bog garden was being made around the lake and up the valley a wood was being cleared.
In 1899 William Robinson came to Caerhays. He wished to describe in his magazine the development of the garden in the same way in which he had treated other new gardens. JC hated publicity and the struggle must have been a fierce one, but an article duly appeared in the pages of The Garden on 18th November 1899. It was signed ’V’: one is tempted to suspect that the ‘V’ stood for ‘Victory’. No other journalist so far as I know wrote an article on Caerhays during JC’s lifetime. ‘V’ does rather labour the point that the proprietor of the garden was ‘nameless and faceless’. I do not think he was actually shown much. While Rhododendron falconerii and thompsonii must have been well established by this time he did not see Rhododendron aucklandii which flowered at Caerhays for the first time in 1898. He was however surprised to see the Japanese banana growing with great vigor, azaleas and hydrangeas in mass, and tree ferns and New Zealand flax flourishing. Certainly the aucklandii garden was to be a major feature of Caerhays for the next seventy years until a cold spell killed the lot; the banana bed has long since gone and I have never seen a plant growing in the open; but the tree ferns, azaleas and hydrangeas which Robinson saw still survive a hundred years later.
Around this time Sir Harry Veitch, head of Veitch’s nursery at Coombe Wood in Surrey and a great figure in the gardening world, decided to send a plant hunter to Western China to see if it was possible to bring back seed and plant material. It was here that the four great rivers of Asia, the Yangtze, The Mekong, The Salwin and the Irrawaddy come very close to connecting with each other. The county was very wild and the borders of Burma, India and Tibet were close by. For fifty years French missionaries, mostly Jesuits, had been exploring and botanizing and had found a wealth of amazing new plants. The findings had been sent home to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but the seeds had produced disappointing results except for two rhododendrons, Rhododendron rubiginosum and Rhododendron yunnanense. Both were in 1898 depicted in the Curtis Botanical Magazine, the oldest botanical journal of the time, and whose editor sought out and illustrated the newly imported plants.
Veitch’s nursery had in 1894 supplied Kew with plants, and the article mentioned the quantity of new rhododendrons which were beginning to appear. This and similar articles could not have escaped JC’s notice: he was a keen reader of the magazine.
Some British plant hunters had visited China but not many had gone far into the interior. Veitch had been disappointed by the visit in 1879 of their collector, Charles Marties. In Hortus Veitchii he is described as ‘possessing enthusiasm but lacking in staying power’, though he did penetrate eight hundred miles up the Yangtze before he turned for home. It must be said that the Chinese were hostile to foreigners and there was a great deal of unrest. It is perhaps worth noting that the first two travelers sent by Veitch were the Cornish brothers William and Thomas Lobb, and that the most interesting discoveries of their last great collector, Birmingham-born E H Wilson, were to receive their first trials at Caerhays. The successful culture of the new plants was a matter of great responsibility. The plants would have come from different altitudes and thrived in different locations in the wild. They had to be settled into entirely different conditions. The first group of Chinese rhododendrons was planted out in 1905. There is a list of these plants and they are still there. J C Williams and Mr Martin must have taken extreme care with the new arrivals. The advantage of running the two estates of Werrington and Caerhays soon became apparent. Werrington had a large run of greenhouses but a colder climate, while Caerhays had fewer glass houses but larger spaces and a better climate where new specimens could be planted out. The hardier plants were grown at Werrington, the softer ones at Caerhays.
Wilson’s first area of exploration was the province of Hupei, which he had been advised to visit by the great Mr Augustine Henry. It was he who when in the employ of the Customs service and stationed at Ichang began to explore the country round about. He later served in Taiwan and South Yunnan where he continued to botanise. It is said that he sent to Kew over 150,000 dried specimens during his time in China. Henry was able to guide Wilson to the most promising areas.
Between 1899 and 1902 Wilson collected around the Ichang area and the first rhododendron seeds soon arrived at Veitch’s nursery. The great debate would have been the plants suitability for outdoor growing, and if so, where would be most suitable. Perhaps Mr Robinson’s article in The Garden had been remembered; more probably JC had had met Sir Harry Veitch during his visits to RHS shows. At any rate it was to Caerhays that the first consignment of Wilson plants came. The Caerhays plant diary for 1903 notes ‘bought 25 sorts of Chinese Rhodos from Veitch/: these were planted out in 1905. In 1906 the diary records ‘I have agreed with Veitch for the right to select 15 of Wilson’s second lot of Rhododendrons of which several are yellow’. JC must have purchased over thirty new varieties. Many of the notes record the original numbers allocated by Wilson which amazingly remain unchanged in the 1998 Rhododendron Handbook.
Wilson appears to have been dissatisfied with plant hunting for a nurseryman. Veitch’s nursery at Coombe Wood too was in decline. An offer was made from the Arnold Arboretum (Harvard University) run by the great American botanist and plant collector, Professor Charles Spargus Sargent. By May 1907 Wilson was back in China. The change of employer did not cut the ties between Wilson and Caerhays: rather the reverse. Soon a close relationship developed between Caerhays and the Arnold Arboretum, with a regular correspondence. In return for the dispatch of seeds and plants garden proprietors were expected to record the progress of new species, including growing conditions and altitude. Very scarce plants arrived in 1911: JC’s reaction is recorded in his letter of thanks.
“I feel like a man who has been left sole guardian of a family of fourteen, all under age, when he has a family of his own – but a good parent should not count heads”
In about 1908 Wilson had discovered a new rhododendron in the area of Washan. When the seed had been sent back to Britain and the plants survived, it was decided to name it after JC. Rhododendron williamsianum therefore came into existence.
Wilson was a fine photographer, and a set of his photographs was sent to Caerhays. They show clearly the sort of terrain he was expected to cover and the plants he discovered, in their native habitat. His explorations in the extreme west came to a halt when he suffered a severe fall, damaged his leg badly and had to return to America. While his expeditions into China had produced mainly rhododendrons Wilson also collected roses, rubii, ribes and berberis; after his accident he turned his attention to Japan, Korea and Taiwan, providing the world with magnificent azaleas from each of these countries, which are seen at their best in south Cornwall in the springtime.
Wilson’s departure to America had left only one British plant hunter in western China. This was George Forrest (1873 – 1932), a Scot who learnt his botany when young and whose early resolution to go to the east stayed with him all his life. Between 1904 and 1932 he completed seven expeditions to China, Burma and Tibet and collected 30,000 herbaria specimens. He was the most successful collector of his time and his success lay mainly in the mutual trust he established with the peoples of the districts which he visited. His first employer was A K Bulley of Bee’s Nursery, Cheshire (now the National Trust gardens of Ness) who unfortunately seemed not to have the resources to deal with so much new material. J C Williams also visited Bulley in 1911 and wrote to Wilson that he was ‘quite sad to see stuff so knocked about, thousands of things are dead through sheer ignorance of how to handle them’. Already Forrest was dissatisfied and wanted to work for amateur gardeners, with the support of botanic gardens such as Edinburgh and Kew. Enthusiasm and money were in short supply and it seems that JC came to the rescue as one of the main backers of Forrest’s 1912 -1914 expedition. The two men met for the first time in March 1911: in a letter LC described Forrest as ’a very small compact man with a fine chest on him, built for fatigue. Has done much and can probably do much more’. Forrest came to work for JC, and, as with Wilson, they remained lifelong friends.
In 1914 Professor Sargent came over from America and with the great W J Bean of Kew visited Caerhays, Heligan and Tregrehan. He would have wanted to see how the seeds and plants from Wilson’s expeditions were flourishing. He later told JC that he considered Tregrehan ‘one of the best things of its kind in the world’. Alas the visit took place in July 1914: two weeks later the country was at war. J C Williams’ family sustained great losses, as did most other families in the land, but throughout most of the war George Forrest continued to send large quantities of new seed to Caerhays, Werrington and elsewhere. The new arrivals continued to be handled at the two estates at this time. As the war dragged on garden staff became fewer and fewer, so that it is a near miracle that any of George Forrest’s wartime introductions survived. By 1917 Forrest had returned to China, the expedition being funded by a syndicate which included JC Williams. The results of earlier plantings were by now well grown; in 1916 the Rhododendron Society had been formed, consisting of twenty four amateur gardeners from all over the British Isle. The Society also included representatives of the chief British botanical gardens, with Edinburgh under Professor Issac Bayley Balfour taking special responsibility for rhododendrons. It was a garden that JC visited regularly after the war, for Caerhays was until the mid-1920’s still a recipient of many of the new introductions.
JC’s gardening interests were anything but specialist, and by the time of Forrest’s 1924-26 expedition he was of the opinion that most of the fruitful fields for exploration were nearly exhausted. His interest moved to two new areas.
Despite the fact that Japanese camellias had been known for nearly a century, and had been shown to thrive out-of-doors in Cornish Gardens such as Tregothnan and Scorrier, the popular concept in Britain was that the camellia was a conservatory plant. This view was encouraged by the nurserymen of the day. However, conservatory space was limited, camellias could become large plants, and the current fashion was for orchids.
When JC was beginning to create the garden at Caerhays he had purchased large quantities of camellias to grow out of doors, and had even spotted the rarest and most spectacular camellia of the time, Camellia reticulata Captain Rawes. These pants still survive wand when fully in flower take a good deal of beating despite the fact that in the last fifty years literally thousands of new camellia varieties have appeared and are being grown by enthusiasts in Europe, the United States , Australia and New Zealand. JC could see the potential of the camellia and must have been greatly excited when Forrest began to send home camellia species. From the 1917-19 expedition came Camellia saluenensis, named after the Salwin river. JC crossed this newcomer with the well-established Camellia japonica and produced a very much hardier group of hybrids which successfully brought the camellia out of the greenhouse. Some years after this death in 1939 this new family of hybrids was given the collective name of williamsii. The driving force for this recognition came from Lord Aberconway who for many years was chairman of the RHS, founder of the great garden at Bodnant in North Wales and chairman\president of English China Clay.This article is continued, click here to read more.