Lady Charlotte and “the job six times too big”

a pair of Burmese chinthes, mythical lionlike guardian figures, by Rodway Swinhoe

Last week’s post looked at the plant hunting activities of Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe who travelled around Burma between 1897 and 1921. Today’s continues her story.

In 1913 her husband Sir Otway was posted to Maymyo a small hill station 26 miles north east of Mandalay, which was the summer residence of the governor.   Here Charlotte created yet another of her own gardens from scratch, while at the same time playing the leading role  in the foundation of what was to become Burma’s  National Botanic Garden.  I think this must make her unique as I can’t think of another woman ever having been given such responsibility for a national institution.

Please let me know if I’m wrong!

Sunset over the lake in the Botanic Gardens


The quotes in this piece come largely from the annual reports of the Burma Forestry Service or from Charlotte’s letters now in the archive at Glasnevin. Other information and photographs have come from the families of other founders of the garden.

Looking down on the city from Mandalay Hill. The walls of the the huge royal palace enclosure can be sen on the other side of the canal. It had been taken over by the British and renamed Fort Dufferin. Photo by Rodway Swinhoe, a friend of the Cuffes and another founder. Private collection


Some of the royal palace buildings inside the compound. Photo by Rodway Swinhoe

Maymyo was the escape hatch from Mandalay. The old royal capital  might sound romantic, especially if you’ve only seen photos or heard of it because of Kipling’s poem but the reality is very different, especially in the blistering heat and drought of the hot season.  When that began the Governor and his administration took the train up into the hills, and indeed many of the Britons had weekend residences and would decamp there at every opportunity.

Maymyo  had only been founded in 1886  and was described by Reginald Farrer, the plant hunter, as “a little bit of Surrey in the hills.”   In the winter ” it was always refreshing never nipping” while the summer was “always brilliant and never burning…if only Surrey rejoiced in such a climate.”

It  had just a small permanent European population so social life was very limited, especially out of “season.”  It revolved around the Club where life consisted largely of gossip and such respectable activities as tennis, riding and amateur dramatics.


The Wheeler-Cuffes set up home at Bamboo Lodge, a name Charlotte declared hopelessly banal and quickly changed to Upperfold. It was  a detached colonial villa , in  large grounds which is still standing relatively unaltered

Otway’s work took him to the furthest reaches of northern Burma where it borders China, to supervise the construction of  a network of roads and bridges to help deal with threats of a Chinese invasion. The area is mountainous and heavily forested and almost completely unknown to Europeans, so for once Charlotte was not permitted to accompany him. Instead she had to remain in Maymyo, where of course she turned her attention to the garden.

I couldnt find any images of the garden at Upperfold but have tracked down some of neighbouring gardens like this one, Park View the home of her friends Annie and Rodway Swinhoe




She wrote home that “there was not much of a garden so far. Wait till I get my teeth into it.”  Very soon the garden was full of orchids: “I had such a lovely show of Vanda cerulia now about 40 sprays in baskets, on trees or logs hung up & the whole house is frilled a round with Achimines just the same colour as the orchids… there is a lovely bed of shaded red phlox drumonddi round the sundial from palest salmon to deep velvety cardinal. The giant bamboo is throwing up enormous new sprouts -like asparagus the size of a man’s leg – one can literally see them grow.”

Sketch of the garden at Upperfold from Shadow among Splendours [full reference at the end]

She was later to write that she got “more pleasure from a rupees worth of orchids” than “I should out of many new frocks!”  Nevertheless it quickly became an English garden with heliotrope, violets, hollyhocks, plumbago, delphiniums, gladiolus, sunflowers, dahlias and roses amongst many other European plants.



Gardens come and go of course, but one element of her work at Upperfold remains evident to this day: the bulbs. Charlotte wrote: “I am planting with thousands of bulbs in the grass – hybrid amaryllis, lilium sulphureum, tuberoses, gladiolus, crinums etc grouped in masses according to colour it is like painting a picture with live things instead of paper and paint. The amaryllis are all seedlings of my own hybridizing.”

The frontage of  a house close to Upperfold with amaryllis in flower everywhere.                                                       Photo courtesy of Cherry Htun Swe


Bertie Rogers c late 1890s. Private Colelctuon

Luckily there were people in Maymyo that she found congenial and who shared her interests. Amongst them, apart from the Swinhoes,  were Bertie Rogers, the head of the Burma Forestry Service, and his wife Lydia, both keen gardeners, who had an established garden that they allowed  her to  “loot” freely.

Alec Rodger, 1924. Private collection

His love of gardening may have been one of the reasons why in 1913 Rogers and Alec Rodger, a forestry officer, [who was to go on and head the Indian Forestry Service and serve on the Forestry Commission in Britain], persuaded the authorities to  acquire  “A piece of land 30 acres in extent … at Maymyo as a Botanical Garden.”

There was a long tradition of founding botanic gardens in British colonies.  These tended to be Kew-inspired and part of an imperial project to maximise the economic value of plants, such as tea, coffee, quinine and rubber, moving them around the empire  to benefit not only the new colonial economy but the economy of the motherland as well. But the new garden at Maymyo was not really  in that category.

It was a local initaitive, although Alec Rodger did set up an economic timber research centre to evaluate the contribution Burmese forest timber might make to the colonies coffers, and there was also an area set aside to evaluate non-indigenous crops that could be grown.  This is still there.

But the project  was local and inspired at least as much by a  few European gardening enthusiasts who were not all in government service.   There are few surviving records but it’s impossible to imagine that Charlotte Cuffe was not one of them, as she was friends with those names do appear in the official records.

Map showing Maymyo and the site of the Botanic Garden c1925. From the Cuffe collection at Glasnevin

Work started in 1914. It was hardly an auspicious time and things moved very slowly because most of the small group of individuals behind the idea were heavily involved in the war effort.  Luckily the project continued to receive  the backing of the Lt-Governor of Burma, Sir Harcourt Butler and in 1917 work began seriously on creating the new garden’s central feature, a 70 acre lake, which was later named in his honour.

Otway wrote home: “Here at Maymyo the construction of a large and beautiful lake is the chief topic of conversation. The Lt-Gov has ordered it to be done with convict labour & 500 convicts are to arrive when accommodation for them has been built meanwhile the …dam … is rapidly being built by free labour ie by contract and of course costing a great deal. Public opinion is very hot on the subject just now when money is so much wanted for other things. However our present L.G is determined to spend money on what he wants – war or no war.”

Convicts in Mandalay, photo by Rodway Swinhoe

The convicts were supervised by a detachment of The Queen’s Own Burma Sappers who were normally based in Mandalay.  Charlotte was already involved because she had helped persuade the colony’s commanding officer  that instead, of “building unnecessary bridges and blasting needless holes in Mandalay Hill”   his soldiers could “learn just as well quarrying stone and building bridges”  at the new garden for her.

Kandawgyi Bridge across the lake, 1926

View in the garden by Charlotte Cuffe, 1921 from Shadow among Splendours


from Shadow among spe

With the dam being built and the lake slowly filling from the stream that ran through the valley, planning of the rest of the garden could start in earnest. But of course because of the war there were no staff to oversee what was happening, and this meant that Charlotte had the opportunity of a lifetime.  She stepped in, volunteering to oversee the clearance of the scrub  by a “government coolie gang.”   “I spent all yesterday chasing them to see that they did not demolish any of my little treasures. I got rid of a lot of rubbishy shrubs and had good shrubs to put in their place.” And  then she carried on with laying out and planting new areas.

Finally in November 1917 she was formally asked  to take charge of everything on  site to which she responded that she was “only too delighted, as I cannot  imagine anything more fascinating.”

Of course her reign was only intended to be temporary. The long term plan, post-war, was  “to get a trained botanist and horticulturalist from home…but meantime I am to be turned loose with a gang of labourers to work my wicked will. I am fearfully excited over it all and dream of masses of lovely plants & rock and water garden and all sorts of delectable plans and schemes.”

A pair of chinthes guarding some steps in the garden. I suspect that might by Lady Charlotte on the bench. Photo from Shadow among Splendours [full ref at the end]

She embarked on a campaign to acquire new and interesting plants, buying seeds from Suttons, getting in touch with  other gardens across India and South East Asia, and asking anyone and everyone she knew to help out. This included friends and acquaintances serving in the Indian Army in the Middle eastern campaigns, and the officials and traders who travelled upcountry. Everyone seems to have responded generously if they could.  She even got regular consignments of seeds and Wardian cases  sent over from Glasnevin.

Frank Kingdon Ward

She also asked the growing band of plant hunters exploring northern Burma: “There are a lot of botanical collectors on the frontier this year – Mr Kingdon Ward and a Mr Farrer.  It is rather funny they are so jealous of each other!” But “I have got 5 big basketfuls of things for the botanical gardens.”

The garden flourished and as  the next Forestry Department report noted :: “Lady Cuffe …devoted herself to the work, and has achieved splendid results.

Some of the garden staff

One of things that really impressed me about Charlotte Cuffe is that she did not have any sense of the superiority of British culture, at least as far as gardening was concerned.”  She recruited a Burmese deputy and foremen, and they in turn recruited around 50 local labourers, and “an army of girls and old women as weeders.”

She valued her team very highly. They “constantly bring me in plants from the jungle, tell me their local names and properties” and they “know the indigenous plants and wild flowers as no Indian mali ever could.”   She did not see the new Botanic garden as the preserve just of the small European population but was determined to make it accessible to everyone, insisting, for example, on labels being written not just in English, and anglicised Burmese, but in Burmese script as well.

by Rodway Swinhoe

Of course there were setbacks. Vandalism, leopards, wild boar and the even the plague caused problems, but none quite as severe as a move to build a tarmaced “motor road” right around the new lake. It must have taken all her powers of persuasion to convince the new Lt Gov  to reject it.  She also persuaded him to allow the garden to be greatly expanded in size- to 150 acres before it was anywhere near completed.

The Garden House in the palace enclosure, photo by Rodway Swinhoe

Her success in managing the Botanic Garden project also  impressed both Sir Henry Keary, the head of the army in Burma, who asked her to advise on his garden, and Sir John Marshall, the  Director-General of Archaeology in India.  When in 1918 it was decided to restore the buildings and grounds of Fort Dufferin, the former royal palace in Mandalay, and now the seat of the government and military, she was asked to advise on the gardens there too.

In the royal gardens, photo by Rodway Swinhoe



by Rodway Swinhoe

When the war ended in 1918 everything was looking rosy. Reginald Farrer arrived in Maymyo in December 1919 at the end of a year-long plant-hunting trip to the very furthest reaches of northern Burma accompanied by  Euan Cox, a young Scotsman and founder of Glendoick.  Farrer wrote in Gardeners Chronicle [Jan 29th 1921] that  “in a few more seasons Maymyo will have a botanic garden that will rank with Buitenzorg and Peradeniya as an object of pilgrimage.”  Cox later wrote an article praising  the attempts to “beautify the shores of the lake and make pleasure grounds for the residents of Maymyo”, and for the efforts to “supply flowers and plants such as are grown at home, and which give the English atmosphere for which Maymyo is famous.”   

There was just one criticism: “it is strange that, with the exception of orchids, only an occasional native of Burma is grown.”

These days the garden has large swathes of European bedding plants – here pansies

Charlotte’s attempts to grow mainly indigenous plants had clearly failed because Cox concluded that  “Gardens in Cornwall can show a greater selection of Burmese plants than any garden in Burma.” [ from A Note on the Government Botanic Garden Maymyo, 1928]  In fact they are still  full of “English” garden plants which, since Burma was effectively in isolation from 1940 until quite recently, are almost certainly  the descendants of things planted by Europeans in these early days.

…and here salvias and antirrhinums


Roland Edgar Cooper with his son, Rangoon 1925, [EdinburghBotanic Gardens]

These positive impressions turned out to be deceptive. Once the war was over the officials who had begun the project either retired or moved on to other things. This included Otway who, in 1921, retired as Chief Superintending Engineer for Burma and honorary ADC to the Viceroy of India.  Luckily the trained professional gardener who had been promised finally arrived in the shape of Roland Edgar Cooper, later Curator of the Royal Botanic gardens in Edinburgh,  and Charlotte handed over “her beloved garden to him with great confidence.”  

She carried on working in the Botanic gardens until  the day before she left  even transferring prized plants there from her own garden “which the public owed her a great debt.”   One of them was a white cluster-flowered climbing  rose from the northern Shan states which Cooper thought might be “new” but was certainly “beautiful and curious”.  He sent seeds  to Glasnevin and Edinburgh who thought it a naturally occurring hybrid between Rosa gigantea and Rosa laevigata.  It is listed in the RHS plant finder as Rosa Cooperi ( Cooper’s Burma rose) although it would probably have been fairer to have called it Rosa Cuffei. 

Leaving Maymyo was, according to Charlotte,  “a great regret” but this “ignorant amateur” as she described herself “with a job six times too big for her” had enjoyed “the happiest days of her life” in the garden and left hoping that Maymyo “will take high rank among the beauty spots of the world.” She was showered with official praise: “Although hers has been a  labour of love the work has been very arduous and it solely due to her untiring zeal that so much has been accomplished… which it is impossible to exaggerate… Of her work may it truly be said – si monumentam requiris cicrcumspice

The Wheeler-Cuffes returned permanently to Lyrath, Sir Otway’s home in Kilkenny where local newspapers show they threw themselves into local life,  supporting charities and winning prizes at the local flower show. They  inherited an 1863  Nesfield designed [or inspired] parterre, which appears still to be at least partially intact. [See Charles Nelson’s article in Garden History Vol.13, no.2,1985 ].

The parterre at Lyrath 1929/30 from Garden History 1985

It’s hard to imagine Charlotte not attempting to create something botanically and horticulturally interesting elsewhere in the grounds, although I have been unable to find much further information. There was a tongue-in-cheek comment in a letter from Otway written in 1917 while the lake was being created at Maymyo when he was obviously thinking about what they might do: “I wonder if we shall be able to make the Lake at Lyrath, I fear the convict labour will not be forthcoming to do it on the  cheap. Perhaps we might get a  few Huns to do it for us.”


Sir Otway died in 1934 while Charlotte lived on for another 33 years, dying at Lyrath on 8 March 1967, just 11 weeks before her one hundredth birthday. Lyrath was sold in 1993 and is now a 5* luxury hotel.

If you want to know more about Charlotte the best place to start  is a beautifully produced and illustrated book by Charles Nelson who worked at Glasnevin. Shadow among splendours: the adventures of Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe among the flowers of Burma 1897–1921 was published by the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland  in 2014 and is illustrated with examples of Lady Cuffe’s paintings and lengthy extract from her correspondence.

If you want to know more about the Botanic Garden and the story behind its foundation then check out my article in Garden History 2015 which you can access via JSTOR, although you’ll need to open a free account first.


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