Thank God for Tea

Over the past few days I’ve been reminded of Ellen Willmott’s relationship with the Royal family, and especially Queen Alexandra.

Of course I failed to photograph Ellen’s personal invitation to King Edward VII’s funeral, but despite her famous no-show at the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour shindig a decade earlier, there is no way on earth Ellen would have missed taking her place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, 20th May 1910.  

Image: Public Domain

            Ellen’s invitation was sent to her by the Duchess of Wellington, but it would have come from her good friend and Edward’s queen, Alexandra. The women shared a passion for roses, and often rocked up together at the National Rose Society’s shows.  

Queen Alexandra (foreground) with Princess Victoria (left) and Empress Marie of Russia (right) being shown round the National Rose Show by a grumpy looking Ellen Willmott. Unknown source.

Ellen’s dedication to Alexandra in her treatise on the subject Genus Rosa has always been said to be sycophantic. Audrey le Lievre, Ellen’s previous biographer, thinks she mainly dedicated it to the Queen to elevate her own status, but I’m inclined to be more charitable. I think she actually meant those warm words, even if she had to be prompted to add the word ‘humble’ to ‘your devoted servant’. Indeed I rather like that Ellen enjoyed Alexandra’s company but considered her friend to be a friend and, contrary to popular opinion, didn’t plan to kowtow.

The chap who advised Ellen to add the word was Sir Dighton Probyn, Alexandra’s ancient retainer, and by now the epithet was apt.

Sir Dighton was born in 1833. A flamboyant and dashing sort, he’d always known how to cut a jib:

‘Dighton Probyn, 2nd Punjab Cavalry, in Indian dress’, 1857 image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

He became a Royal Equerry in 1872, and quickly rose within the Victorian Royal world, holding honour after honour, including Knight of the Grand Cross, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and Keeper of the Privy Purse where he did a literally sterling job of keeping the notoriously extravagant Prince of Wales in the black until he made King.

Sir Dighton was mainly devoted, however, to his Queen. He adored Alexandra, an affection that was mutual – she famously carried a knife with her with which to cut his collar should he be afflicted with one of his seizures.

It is said that Sir Dighton ‘wooed but never wed’ the Hon. Charlotte Knollys, Alexandra’s Lady of the Bedchamber.

The Hon Charlotte Knollys as portrayed in Everywoman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912

Lady Charlotte was considered plain but was once given a bathroom full of mirrors by Sir Dighton, a charmingly romantic gift. He thought she was lovely, and should consider herself so, too. Sigh…

The pair were very good friends with Ellen Willmott. Indeed, we have far more letters from these two than from the queen herself, though many communications from Alexandra were sent via Charlotte Knollys, from Windsor, Sandringham – wherever she happened to be. Lady Charlotte also often wrote letters for Sir Dighton, which is a good thing, since his handwriting is execrable.

Ever the ladies’ man, Sir Dighton was also very fond of Ellen Willmott. In 1907 he made a garden for Her Majesty at Windsor, gratefully employing Ellen’s advice, ‘material assistance’, and plants and seeds from Warley. Her personal copy of the Norman Tower Garden catalogue, held at the RHS Lindley Library, carries this lovely dedication:

Norman Tower garden, Windsor Castle : catalogue of plants etc. June 1907 : A  catalogue of the contents of my small “allotment” at Windsor Castle, towards the furnishing of which my dear friend Miss Willmott has so materially assisted by her unequalled knowledge and advice, and munificent gifts of seeds and plants from Warley. D.M. Probyn. May 2nd 1907
Image Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of RHS Lindley Library

Sir Dighton has signed this copy with his whole name but his usual signature was just his initials, which appear on the flyleaf of a copy of the catalogue from 1910:

Norman Tower garden, Windsor Castle : catalogue of plants etc.  June 1910
Inscription on front flyleaf: Ellen Willmott. From DP Image Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of RHS Lindley Library

This was invaluable when I was trying to work out who sent Ellen a series of personalised gifts we found in the Spetchley cellars. At first I thought they might have been from her friend Lady Mount Stephen (see Miss Willmott’s Ghosts for details…) but however much I tried to make it fit, that squiggle just wasn’t right.

Like so many things to do with Ellen, it came to me in the middle of the night – I had to get out of bed and check the above image against pictures of the various gifts we’d unearthed, such as this little leather notebook:

Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Over the years Sir Dighton sent all manner of diaries, pens, jotters – that sort of thing – each time signing them with that little squiggle. He didn’t stint on costs – just look at the hallmarks on those silver notebook corners. He and Lady Charlotte (and occasionally the Queen herself) visited Ellen at Warley. Ellen, in turn, visited them at Marlborough House, where the pair had ended up, close – but not too close – to Buckingham Palace.

In his later years, Sir Dighton sported a magnificent beard, which makes him easy to spot in photographs. Here he is with Queen Mary:

Sir Dighton and Lady Charlotte became quite isolated – and poor – as the years went on. The now-dowager Queen Alexandra, hardly in perfect health herself, was still tasked with Royal duties and was forced to rely on younger aides. Her elderly retainers became ever more reliant on Ellen’s letters and invitations. Sir Dighton’s gifts became noticeably less extravagant:

Sir Dighton’s Christmas gift, 1918 – a relatively plain 1919 diary
Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Food rationing during the war did not favour aged equerries and I get the feeling that they, alongside much of the population, went hungry. Ellen sent consignments of her latest discovery – Bovril – which Sir Dighton pronounced to be ‘miracle food’. Lady Charlotte worried that all they could give Ellen in return was plum bread.

Sir Dighton passed away in 1924, Lady Charlotte in 1930. Both remained close friends with Ellen to the end, as did Queen Alexandra who died in 1925. Ellen, of course, attended the funeral.

She and her sister Rose both opened their gardens to the public in memory of the Queen the following year as two of the first gardens opened for the National Gardens Scheme, still going strong today.

In the first decade of the century Ellen often opened her garden for charity – this is one of several posters we’ve found – but by the 1920s it was a rarity.
Opening Warley for Queen Alexandra’s hospital fund was personal, in memory of the Queen herself.
Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

After Alexandra’s funeral a jewelled letter opener, much worn from daily use, arrived at Warley Place, a souvenir for a much loved friend. Alas we have not found it so far, but we’re keeping our eyes peeled.

The only photo I know of Ellen with Sir Dighton AND Queen Alexandra is this one, nearly eaten away with rot. We found it in November 2021, in a particularly infested box o’ grot, proving once again that there’s still treasure to be found in that dust…

image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

We can date it from a few things, mainly Ellen’s dress and typically strange hat, which imply the very early 1910s, perhaps around 1913. I suggest that particular date from something else we found, something rather marvellous:

Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Who wouldn’t want a cuppa made with Ellen Willmott’s tea strainer? This fabulous silver strainer was a gift from Sir Dighton in 1913. We know this because it has been engraved with a message in his own hand:

Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

‘With the best wishes of Dighton Probyn, Xmas 1913’.

It has a little monogram on the handle, possibly added by Ellen herself:

Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

And, most charming of all, an epithet we can all stand by in these sad times:

Image: Sandra Lawrence, courtesy of Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Thank God for Tea.

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