Last autumn, I wanted some new/different narcissi for my pots. (Tulips were already organised via the annual terrifying over-spend at Chelsea: many thanks, Mr Blom, they are looking wonderful!) So I went off to the local garden centre, where I found very few bulbs indeed – a general shortage resulting from the dry spring and summer last year? But they did have bags of N. ‘W.P. Milner’, so I got one.
He (I am assuming that the eponym is a man) has not disappointed, with delightful pale lemony flowers and the nodding habit of the native N. pseudonarcissus. Avon Bulbs’s website describes it rather well: ‘Narcissus W.P. Milner has flowers that are pale straw at first, but quickly change to milky white, with swept-forward petals, beyond which peeps the shy trumpet.’
Googling around, I found claims that the hybrid predates 1869, and that it was first bred by Henry Backhouse (1849–1936). I supposed that both statements might be true, assuming that Henry Backhouse – from the remarkable Darlington Quaker family of bankers and botanists (see more here) – might have been a precocious breeder, but it’s also possible that another of the Backhouses was responsible. The RHS ‘Daffodil Register’ agees that it was registered before 1869, but states that the breeder was ‘W. Backhouse’ (presumably William II (1807–69)). However, another hopefully reliable source – in the JRHS in 1965 – says that it was first registered in 1890, so Henry may be entitled to the credit after all.
Mrs R.O. Backhouse (née Sarah Elizabeth Dodgson, 1857–1921) was a breeder in her own right, with N. ‘Moonbeam’ an especially famous hybrid which now may or may not exist.
But who was W.P. Milner? After diligent research in the BHL, I have found several references to a white carnation of that name offered by the Veitch nurseries in the 1880s and 1890s (no pictures, alas), but no narcissus. In fact, the only other W.P. Milner I have come up with so far is in the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, Volume 22 (1837), where Lieutenant W.P. Milner, of the 31st Native Infantry Regiment is given temporary leave to go to the Presidency (i.e. Kolkata) ‘preparatory to applying for furlough [a term very much in vogue at the moment: from the Dutch verlof, leave of absence, who knew?] to Europe’; his place as quartermaster and interpreter to the regiment was taken by Ensign R. Hill of the 4th Regiment. I wondered if it was too much of a stretch to think that the lieutenant, on retiring to England, took up gardening and knew both the Backhouses and the Veitches – but alas, a later record shows that Captain William Peel Milner died in Barrackpore on Christmas Day 1840, aged 40 – did he ever get his furlough?
Alternatively, might ‘my’ W.P. be a relative of the Milner gardening family – father and son – of whom the father, Edward (1819–84), was brought up at Chatsworth, where his father worked on the estate, and was apprenticed to Joseph Paxton (later, of course, of Crystal Palace fame), with whom he maintained a close association throughout his working life as a landscape gardener?
His son Henry Ernest (1845–1906) worked as a builder and civil engineer in Russia and Canada before returning to England and joining his father’s practice. He accepted commissions not only in Great Britain but all over Europe, and in 1890 published The Art and Practice of Landscape Gardening, based on his father’s projects.
There is also a Richard Milner, gardener at Penrice Castle, near Swansea, who appears frequently in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, often as a weather reporter, and whose obituary in 1931 states that he ‘was for twenty years head gardener to Miss Talbot at Margam Castle, Port Talbot, previous to which he held a similar position to the same lady at Penrice Castle, Gower, Swansea’ (see this potted history of the two estates) – but again, no specific connection to a W.P.
However, just to demonstrate yet again that everything is connected to everything else, Penrice Castle actually gets a mention in Adolf Michaelis’s 1882 Ancient Marbles in Great Britain (see below). Was the gardener who gave Michaelis this information Richard Milner himself?
While unsuccessfully delving for the eponym of my narcissus, I did find several others from the nineteenth century whose names strike a chord. There is N. ‘Warleyensis’, bred by the great gardener Miss Ellen Willmott (whose enthusiasm sadly bankrupted her), and named for her own garden (now a nature reserve); and N. ‘Ellen Willmott’, which was hybridised by the doyen of amateur (only in the sense that it wasn’t supposed to be his day job) daffodil breeders, the Revd George Herbert Engleheart.
Born in 1851 in Guernsey, Engleheart was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, married Mary, a Quaker who later converted to Catholicism, and in 1880 accepted the living of Chute Forest on the Hampshire–Wiltshire border. He followed with enthusiasm two interests, in gardening and archaeology (he was a distant relative of of William Herbert, dean of Manchester and bulb man, which may be significant).
A frequent contributor to William Robinson’s The Garden and the Gardeners’ Chronicle, and a sought-after judge at flower shows, Engleheart searched for old varieties of daffodil all over Britain and Ireland (where he found a great many previously unrecorded white forms). Apparently an ancestor of his (might this had been Herbert???) had made a cross which modern horticulturalists had said was impossible, and he wanted to prove them wrong. He did so in spectacular style: he showed six plants of his ‘Will Scarlett’ at Birmingham in 1898, and sold three of the bulbs for £100 (a record price: £13,095.40 today, according to the Bank of England), keeping the others to propagate himself.
In 1901 he bought a derelict house, Little Clarendon, dating from the 1400s, and with 27 acres of land, at Dinton near Salisbury. He and his wife ‘did it up’ internally and externally (camping in the house while the work went on), and building greenhouses and digging long beds for the daffodils.
It seems that by this stage George Engleheart had stood back from his clerical duties, and was completely involved in the business of breeding and selling daffodils. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre holds his family papers, with alluring contents like ‘Notes of daffodil bulb sales from Dinton stock and draft catalogue’ (to say nothing of ‘Letters between Mary Engleheart, née Evans, and her husband and Cardinal Newman, other priests and to her godfather John Shorthouse about her conversion to Roman Catholicism’ and a letter written from Sir Thomas Hanbury’s La Mortola describing Queen Victoria’s visit to the gardens there in 1882).
There is a sad aftermath to all this. In 1933 a friend wrote: ‘In 1923 his bulbs were badly attacked by eel-worm and fly, so he decided to part with his whole stock; he was over 70, and felt entitled to rest after a long and strenuous life. He now gave more time to archaeology and was closely connected with the investigation and excavation of Stonehenge.’ (See more here.)
Engleheart must have know Peter Barr (1826–1909), the doyen of professional daffodil breeders (who had bought up William II Backhouse’s daffodil collection on his death). Barr sold Engleheart’s hybrids, and Engleheart was the first recipient (in 1912) of the Peter Barr Cup, awarded by the RHS ‘annually on the recommendation of the Daffodil and Tulip Committee … to someone who, in the committee’s opinion, has done good work of some kind in connection with daffodils’. (The winner in 1913 was Mr P.R. Barr (1862–1944) his son; in 1916 Mr R.O. Backhouse; in 1918 Miss Ellen Willmott; and in 1928 The Brodie of Brodie, who clearly needs further investigation.)
More about Peter Barr can be found in this blog on the Garden Trust’s website. I first came across him in the Cory Library @CUBotanicGarden, which has a very long run of his bulb catalogues, wonderful for browsing in. I am currently barred from that particular Paradise, but it’s possible to find individual examples online, like this one from 1931, which lists varieties from Abelard to Zanzibar, and includes C.J. Backhouse, Christina Rossetti, Ellen Terry, Fantin Latour, Henry Irving, John Evelyn, Miss Willmott, Mrs Langtry, Ruskin, and (not last, but not least either), W.P. Milner.