Miss Willmott’s Lawnmowers

While Ellen Willmott is most famous for her William Robinson-esque ‘Wild Gardens’ she also owned acres and acres of formal lawns and paths. I was enjoying some rather fuzzy images of her butler James Robinson playing with some of her 13 dogs on the lawn outside Warley Place the other day…

James Robinson with some of Ellen’s dogs, c. 1891 Image: Warley Place Research Group

…and started wondering how she kept that grass so short.

            The question, as always, can only be partly answered. There’s precious little remaining about the boring, day-to-day workings of Ellen’s gardens. She writes plenty about the exotic plants she’s introducing or the fancy plants she’s breeding/ bringing on, but all those yawn-worthy chores such as trimming the verge were supposed to happen seamlessly without her having to put her mind to it.

Some of Ellen’s staff dragging out giant boxes of agave for their summer holiday in the grounds. Beautiful, but back-breaking work. Image (c) Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Trust.

            This was fair enough, of course, in those days. At the peak of her wealth Ellen reputedly employed 104 gardeners; not all of them could be in charge of funky stuff like her cacti collection or her peach house, or her alpines. Somebody had to do the weeding, digging, manuring, pruning and spraying with whichever new-fangled chemicals Ellen had read about in the press that week.

Image (c) The National Archives

            Once again I find myself turning to some well-thumbed auction catalogues, produced in 1935, after her death, when, over ten days, the house, gardens and contents of both were to be sold and Everything Must Go.

            We only know what was worth selling in Ellen’s outhouses at the time of her death. Much of her stuff turned out to be so full of woodworm/ mank/ rust it had to be thrown away. We can’t guess which of her things were in such bad condition they were fit only for the rag and bone cart, but I can certainly imagine a fair few rusty old mowers being hauled onboard as the handbell clanged. It’s also probable that some of the really good kit went to Spetchley Park along with the best plants, for use by Ellen’s nephew Captain Berkeley.

According to the catalogue, Ellen had five hand mowing machines, one ‘small’, two with 12-inch blades, one 14-inch and one 16-inch, by ‘Greens’.

Thomas Green & Son was an engineering firm for whom lawnmowers were only a small part of business: they also made tram engines, road rollers and railway locomotives. Green first started making mowing machines in 1855, fifteen years after the first lawnmower had been patented by E B Budding of Stroud. Green added a rake and got the weight down to something that gardeners could actually wield.

   Green won first prize at the first lawnmower trials at the London Horticultural Gardens, Chiswick, in 1858, the year Ellen was born. Her father, Frederick Willmott, was crazy for the formal look, and the family had just moved into a new home up the road from the competition, in Heston. The company had their premises in Southwark Street, a cough and a spit from where Mr Willmott worked. Is it possible the first Willmott lawnmower was actually bought by non-gardener Fred after a day out to the trial circuit?  

Image: Graces Guide

Greens also made Ellen’s 22-inch Pony Mowing Machine, (to be hauled by horse, rather than mow one). It came with an accompanying cuttings box, and would have cut larger areas, such as the field in front of the house. Greens were one of a handful of firms that dominated the mower market up to the First World War. After that everything changed…

Image: Graces Guide

We are definitely missing at least one mowing machine from our list, as Audrey le Lievre writes of Ellen’s using a motor mower in the early 1920s. There’s really only one candidate for such a machine; Atco, founded just over a century ago, in 1921.

Image: Graces Guide

Atco’s rather strange name comes from the Atlas Chain Company, an anchor-chain making subsidiary of Charles H. Pugh Ltd. C H Pugh would become famous for the Atco mower, the first mass-produced petrol-engine mower and also, slightly bizarrely, a carburettor called the Senspray, which sounds rather more romantic than I suspect it was.

Atco’s first mowers were 22 inches, and there is nothing like that listed in the Warley estate catalogue. It may well have been taken to Spetchley, loaded onto one of the fleet of Pickfords vans by Ellen’s ex-head gardener Jacob Maurer then accompanied to Worcestershire by Albert Anderson, the young apprentice who helped Maurer pack. We know that Albert helped Jacob with the mowing chores.

We haven’t started going through Ellen’s bills and receipts yet, but I’m quietly confident we’ll be able to prove that she spent £75 purchasing one of the 1000 motor mowers produced by Atco in their first year of trading. Wanna see one working? Of course you do…

I particularly like the observation ‘ …a bit difficult to stop’.

It’s possible Ellen controlled herself and held back, only buying one in the following years, 1922 or 23, but I don’t think that the only Atco mower listed in the 1935 auction catalogue – a two-stroke 18” which first sold in 1926 – was Ellen’s first motorised lawnmower, as the incidental documentation just doesn’t fit such a late date.

It may seem strange that Ellen would have spent so much money on the very latest, literally cutting-edge garden technology when she was nigh-on destitute, but frankly it’s bang-on character for her. She could never resist new tech and had no willpower whatsoever, though she may have kidded herself she was economising by buying the smaller of the two models released that year, the other being a whopping 22-inch monster.

She would have used ‘practicality’ as her excuse. Even with the motor mower, it took Jacob Maurer and one other man from his skeleton staff three days to mow and trim Ellen’s lawns and paths every time they needed it. On top of that many parts of the garden were too vertiginous or awkward to mow by anything other than with a hand-mower or shears.

Atco’s tagline was:

Not a luxury but an economy!

Let us prove it by a demonstration on your own grass without obligation.

I wonder how many times Ellen managed to get a free grass-cut before she committed to actually buying an Atco mower…

Atco ad, 1922. image: Creative Commons

I love this advert for the Atco lawnmower. It shows a female gardener, and tells us ‘even a child can operate it…’ Huzzah for child labour…

It’s possible that Ellen did some of her own mowing, though I doubt it. She had been suffering from chronic pain since the late 1880s and although she hitched up her skirts and gardened alongside her staff, I can’t help thinking that mowing would have been left, even in the final years, to one of the younger members of casual staff she was forced to employ from – horrors! – the labour exchange.

Green & Sons went the way of all flesh in 1975, when the firm was sold to Atkinsons of Clitheroe, but Atco are still going strong, one hundred years after their founding, having merged with Qualcast in 1967.

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