The woman who was instrumental in the Royal Horticultural Society acquiring land that became RHS Garden Wisley has been recognised by the opening of a summerhouse in her honour.

In the first formal acknowledgement of the influence of Ellen Willmott, the Oakwood Summerhouse was officially opened earlier this month.

In telling the story of Willmott’s efforts, the explanation of the secret heartbreak behind an event that strained her relationship with the RHS can now be revealed.

She was born in 1858 to a family of keen gardeners and became a significant figure in horticulture, joining the RHS in 1894 and becoming a prominent member, elected to various committees.

Willmott was a friend of George Fergusson Wilson, a businessman, scientist, inventor, keen gardener and RHS treasurer, who owned a 13-acre “experimental garden” in Surrey which had embraced the “wild garden” movement, in contrast to the more formal gardening styles of the time.

Ellen Willmott
Ellen Willmott persuaded a wealthy friend to buy a 13-acre wild garden in Surrey and gift it to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)

When Wilson died in 1902, she persuaded her wealthy friend Sir Thomas Hanbury to purchase the land and gift it to the RHS.

Willmott was integral to the early development of Wisley, donating numerous plants to the rock garden and acting as the first garden trustee.

Her contribution to Wisley might have gone some way to healing a rift with RHS after she failed to appear at the inauguration ceremony of the Victoria Medal of Honour, having been one of only two women, alongside  Gertrude Jekyll, to have been awarded the prize among 60 recipients.

Recent research suggests that Willmott was too heartbroken to attend because she was in love with Georgiana ‘Gian’ Tufnell, who married Lord George Mount Stephens the day after the prize-giving. She was unable to admit the reason at the time and her unexplained absence was poorly regarded by the RHS.

News of Willmott's role in developing Wisley only emerged through research by Sandra Lawrence, author of Miss Willmott's Ghosts: The Extraordinary Life and Gardens of a Forgotten Genius.

Matthew Pottage, the Wisley curator, heard the story on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners' Question Time recorded at Warley Place, Willmott’s home and garden in Essex, soon after the book’s release.

​Willmott was a fan of summer houses, with 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 Wisley that Willmott would have remembered.

​Funded by RHS Fellow Patricia 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. The boards also highlight the work of Gertrude Jekyll.

Mr Pottage 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.

​“Enormous thanks must go to Sandra Lawrence for bringing this evidence to the attention of the RHS, and of course, Patricia Smith for making this beautiful new summerhouse possible.”