I was relieved not to have bought into the phone call I had this morning from the ‘Potato Foundation’ wanting to name a spud after me. Ironically, I would have completely fallen for the April Fool if ‘Desiree Edwards’ had told me she wanted to name a potato for Ellen Willmott.

A well-known Willmott legend tells that she once grew every variety of potato to find out which was the best.

We know almost nothing (so far…) about Ellen’s productive gardens. When the Willmotts first moved to Warley, they used the walled garden for veg, but later the entire outfit – and, of course a dedicated team – were moved to Headley Common. Here it is on the Walker Map:

It’s clearly a whopper, but as yet I have never seen a photograph of it. I live in hope, and there are still many documents to uncover, but so far it’s a mystery.

Also a mystery is the origin of that potato story. Audrey tells us:

“Experiment fascinated her above all else and in one year, for example, every known variety of potato was cultivated in the vegetable garden, to find out which was best suited to the Warley soil”

but this is one of the (thankfully few) statements I have been entirely unable to back up elsewhere. We simply don’t know where she got it from.

So I looked elsewhere.

On my shelves, I have a 1902 copy of Vol IV of The Gardener’s Assistant, a series by Robert Thompson that remained in continuous publication for 54 years between 1859 and 1913. Vol IV happens to be a practical guide to veg, so I turned to it to see what I could glean.

The potato section is considerable, including practical knowledge on growing and harvesting spuds, from chitting…

…to dibbing…

…to flowers…

…to fruit…

…via spraying with Bordeaux Mixture to avoid blight:

and finally to the spuds themselves:

I was interested that Mr Thompson, the editor, frequently quoted M. Vilmorin of France – a frequent correspondent (and occasional pain-in-the-side) of Ellen’s, so maybe she talked potatoes with the company. I also note that one of the experts who wrote Thompsons is none other than Mr Bean.

The book recommends 55 varieties of potato, so even if Ellen only grew recommended ones, that’s 55 rows of spuds. Who knows which extra varieties and new cultivars from friends she also grew…

The worst bit of all? We may have the legend of all those taters – but after all that effort Willmott folklore can’t even stretch to telling us which potato was actually her favourite. Bah.

Incidentally I don’t know of any fruit or vegetable that was ever named for Ellen but I live to be corrected.


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