This post was inspired by an information board in the Alpine Garden area of Wisley. But unless you’re an alpine plant aficionado or a fan of gardening columns in long-defunct magazines, you probably haven’t heard of the person mentioned on it: Clarence Elliott. He was a founder member of the Alpine Garden Society and began the popularisation of sink and trough gardens. If you hadn’t heard of him you may well have heard of the nursery he founded, and in particular one or two of the plants he introduced to cultivation.
But Clarence Elliott wasn’t just a gardener but a naturalist and plant hunter too. He collected for both Kew and Edinburgh botanic gardens.
And after he ‘retired’ he began contributing a weekly column to Illustrated London News which he continued to write until well into his 80s.
Read on to find out more about this influential and far-sighted horticulturist ….
Clarence Elliott was born in 1881 and went to Giggleswick School in West Yorkshire, where he later admitted to Gardeners Chronicle that he “preferred rambles to studies”. Luckily for him the science master recognized and encouraged his interest in botany, and so it was no surprise that on leaving school he went to work at Thomas Rivers nursery in Sawbridgeworth. From there he moved to James Backhouse’s nursery in York. It was presumably here that he met W.A. Clarke, a garden designer and writer, whose book on Alpine Plants published in 1901, was based on plants in the York nursery and illustrated with photos by the young Clarence.
Shortly afterwards Elliott decided to try his hand at fruit growing in South Africa. He was away for three years but on his return to Britain was somehow being invited to edit a new edition of a Victorian botanic classic the Rev. Charles Johns’ Flowers of the Field.
Unfortunately for Clarence another edition- actually a complete rewrite – was in process so his, which stuck to the original structure, appeared antiquated and as a result was comprehensively slated by reviewers.
Luckily the awful reviews didn’t put him off writing for long.
While Elliott was editing the book he must have thought about job prospects and longer-term possibilities, and eventually decided to branch out on his own. In 1906 he opened his own nursery, Six Hills, near Stevenage, which specialised in alpine plants although to make it commercial he grew a wide range of other garden plants as well.
Within a short space of time Clarence was exhibiting at RHS shows. The earliest I can trace was at the Temple [a forerunner of Chelsea] in May 1909 for which he won a silver Banksian medal. He then began taking a stand at almost every RHS show in London as well as many provincial shows, displaying such things as “pans of alpines and a small rock garden”, “a neat rockery laid out upon a bench and planted with suitable species”, or even “alpines of a showy character, many of them rare in gardens”. At the same time he also was winning medals for displays of other plants including, in October 1909, “Michaelmas daisies, having good bunches of most of the finer varieties.” [The number of RHS shows then compared with today is staggering!]
Elsewhere Elliott was contributing to William Robinson’s magazine The Garden. At first it was just a few photographs and letters, then sending in plants for a feature known as ‘the editor’s table’ but soon it turned into much more regular articles on alpines and then wider horticultural matters. He always took a practical approach, based on his own experience and experimental work. For example in 1917 he was extolling the virtues of naturalizing herbaceous perennials alongside bulbs in rough grass [The Garden 7th July 1917] and then encouraging gardeners not to cut down borders and ‘tidy up’ in the autumn. The Garden 8th December 1917] “Nothing will replace the lovely haze of autumn colour … it is a haze not a blaze…. it only needs a little propaganda work by some of our best garden painters to kill this wretched garden habit.” Ahead of his time or what!
As time went by Elliott’s show displays became more artistic. In 1911 he exhibited a rock garden with “miniature ravines” comprised of unusual varieties of saxifrage while a few weeks later he “arranged [one] that was a perfect model..built of grey limestone and planted with alpine gems, some in large sheets of colour.” The same year Six Hills nursery was the subject of a very complimentary half page article in Gardeners Chronicle by H.Stuart Thompson, a leading Alpinist and garden writer, which concentrated on the rarity and range of the stock, and listing things Elliott had bought back from plant huntings trips he had taken Corsica in 1908, and the Falklands in 1909. Other expeditions were to follow, to the Dolomites and Pyrenees and the Alps, including one with Reginald Farrer.
For more on the Farrer trip see: http://www.marcusbicknell.co.uk/obh/obh12_avery___bicknell_and_farrer.pdf
By mid-1912 Clarence’s reputation as an alpine specialist was so well established that Gardeners Chronicle accepted his first article and this led to more pieces about alpine gardens. Perhaps even more prestigiously the Royal Horticultural Society accepted his offer of sponsoring a silver Trophy for Rock Garden Plants for amateur growers. For more on that see:
The Garden called Elliott’s display at the first Chelsea show in 1913 “the best piece of work we have seen from him.” He continued to exhibit consistently there right up until his retirement.
He joined the Floral Committee of the RHS from 1917, and was exhibiting alpines in more and more shows including “the novel course..of miniature-growing alpines grouped in variety in shallow pans, styling them ‘Rock Gardens for the Table’… [which] a great deal of attention.”
By the time he was featured in Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1922, plants he had introduced had earned 15 Awards of Garden Merit.
He and Reginald Farrer seemed to have remained on good terms, despite Farrer’s renowned difficult temperament, and also despite their public disagreements about the best way to grow certain plants played out in the correspondence column of The Garden. When Farrer died Elliott wrote his obituary for Gardener’s Chronicle, and he was given some of Farrer’s plants by his mother.
In 1922 Clarence is supposed to have visited the garden of Mrs Saunders of Wennington Hall in Lancashire who had apparently been experimenting with growing plants in old stone troughs. (The Garden, 22 April 1922: 193). He first exhibited trough gardens at Chelsea in 1923, and by the mid-1930s other firms were following his example.
Brent Elliott of the Lindley Library [no relation as far as I’m aware] thinks “The spread of the fashion can be indicated by the gradual diminution of the supply of sinks” since by 1924 Elliott confidently told his readers that “sinks are to be had very reasonably. They are constantly being taken out of old houses and replaced by glazed earthen ones”. Now of course they cost an arm and a leg even supposing you can find one.
Elliott made a further expedition in 1927-8 to the Andes and Chile with Dr William Balfour Gourlay which yielded fragrant Glory of the Sun (Leucocoryne ixioides) as well as Alstroemeria. Another South American trip followed in 1929-30 when as well as plants, Elliott returned with an ‘arkload’ of animals for the London Zoo which including a Galapagos turtle he had saved from being eaten,
a pair of pygmy deer, various birds and giant edible frogs. There were also three Araucana hens from Patagonia which laid blue eggs. These were given to scientists at Cambridge University who used them for crossbreeding and their descendents now produce pastel coloured eggs.
Very little seems to have been written about Six Hills Nursery but its seems to have been a training ground for several famous horticulturists including Graham Stuart Thomas, Will Ingwerson and EK Balls. Elliott introduced from there a range of new plants, probably the most famous of which was Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant,’ which is still a stalwart of many a planting scheme.
Others included Penstemon Six Hills, Dianthus Six Hills, and the well-known hardy Fuchsia, Mrs Popple which he found in a neighbour’s garden. Because of its large flowers he assumed it was unlikely to be hardy but discovered that the plant was at least 20 years old in the ground and not overwintered from cuttings. After propagating it from cuttings himself he exhibited it in 1934 at an RHS show where it immediately won an award and of course has gone on to be a garden stalwart. However in his opinion his best plant introduction was Saxifraga var. primuloides ‘Elliott’s Variety’, a dwarf London Pride with sprays of pink flowers. He describes collecting this in the Pyrenees in 1911, after evading a very cross bull!
He also contributed to the war effort by converting most of the nursery to plants for food, particularly perpetual Welsh onions, and by introducing The Jamberberry [Physalis ixiocarpa] as a suitable fruit for jam.
In theory Elliott retired in 1946, and went to live near his son Joe who ran a nursery in the Cotswolds. Six Hills was taken over by its manager Frank Barker but finally closed on Barker’s death in 1954.
Clarence Elliott also designed gardens, with his most famous being at the rock garden at Exbury in Hampshire for Lionel Rothschild. This was finished in 1930, and at two and a half acres, is probably the largest rock garden in Europe. Sadly the Exbury website has no mention of Elliott and hardly any mentions of the rock garden.
More surprisingly perhaps he designed the gardens at Highpoint for the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin but as Dominic Cole writing on the London Gardens On-line website “The actual gardens, in total contrast, are resolutely old-fashioned and contain features that would have been found in any large suburban garden up and down the country – a pergola with roses, stepped rockeries in brown sandstone and planted borders….The garden layout at Highpoint is competent but it is as though a line was drawn between the garden and buildings – neither acknowledging the other.”
Soon after giving up Six Hills Elliott went back to writing. He had first written for Illustrated London News in 1930 after his trip to Chile but now he was offered a weekly gardening page. This ran between 1949 and 1964. The first of these regular pieces was about ‘Growing Lilies from seed’ – which was based on his own experience, and like all his articles was intensely practical. He ranged far and wide in subject matter: Children’s gardens to parlour plants, Forsythia to Fuchsias, but all were accompanied by high quality photos.
At Christmas 1953 the magazine ran a spread on its various contributors which said that although “dating only from Sept 1949 it has already attained a very great popularity. Its contributor, Mr Clarence Elliott VMH., is known to all gardeners as collector, explorer, nurseryman and plantsman; and to all who have read his articles as the wisest, wittiest – and sometimes wickedest – of all writers on plants and gardens.”
And finally Clarence invented Vita Sackville-West’s favourite gadget. She wrote about it in Country Notes: “Above all, there is the widger, the neatest, slimmest, and cheapest of all gadgets to carry in the pocket. Officially the widger is Patent No. 828795, but it owes (I believe) its more personal name to the ingenuity of Mr. Clarence Elliott, whose racy gardening style ought to be more widely appreciated. He invented the widger, its name, and the verb to widge, which, although not exactly onomatopoeic, suggests very successfully the action of prising up—you widge up a weed, or widge up a caked bit of soil for the purpose of aerating it—all very necessary operations which before the arrival of the widger were sometimes awkward to perform.
This small sleek object, four inches long, slides into the pocket, no more cumbersome than a pencil, and may be put to many uses. Screwdriver, toothpick, letter-opener, widger, it fulfils all functions throughout the day. Its creator, Mr. Elliot, I observe, spells it sometimes with a ‘y’: wydger, no doubt on the analogy of Blake’s Tyger, just to make it seem more unusual. Whatever the spelling, it is the perfect gadget.”
There are now two gadgets marketed under this name and I dont know which was his invention but either way it is clearly a useful item for every gardeners pocket!