Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822–1916)
Vicar of St Mary’s Bitton
Henry Nicholson Ellacombe was vicar of St Mary’s from 1850 to 1916. He was a famous gardener, publishing many articles and books on gardening.
He was normally known now as Canon Ellacombe (appointed an honorary canon of Bristol in 1891).
His father was Henry Thomas Ellacombe curate and then vicar of St Mary’s from 1817 to 1850, and published The History of the Parish of Bitton (2 vols. 1881, 1883) and was also an authority on bells as well as a renowned gardener.
Ellacombe was born at the vicarage, Bitton, Gloucestershire, on 18 February 1822, the only son among the six children of Henry Thomas Ellacombe (1790–1885), vicar of Bitton, and his first wife, Ann, née Nicholson (d. 1825). The Ellicombes (the spelling varied among the family and the form Ellacombe was adopted by Henry Thomas Ellacombe) were originally from Devon and for several generations family members had been in holy orders or associated with the church. Ellacombe’s early education seems to have been provided by his father, who ran a small school at the vicarage; he then went to Bath grammar school and followed his father to Oriel College, Oxford, matriculating in June 1840 and graduating BA in 1844.
Ellacombe was ordained deacon and priest in 1847 by the bishop of Lichfield and took the curacy of Sudbury in Derbyshire for a year. Apart from this brief foray, however, his professional life was centred on Bitton, its church, and its vicarage. In 1848 he proceeded MA and then returned there, assisting his father as curate before succeeding him to the living in 1850. On 5 October
The Bitton Snowdrop
One of the delights of Canon Ellacombe’s garden was the snowdrop, named ‘Bitton’ (Galanthus nivalis ‘Bitton’). It is similar to the standard nivalis differing only by its pale olive-green ovary and inner marking. E.A. Bowles, a famous horticulturalist, wrote ‘Canon Ellacombe gave me this Snowdrop and quite half of my garden treasures besides, and it is one of the floral treats of the year to see it in January growing over a foot high under the south wall at Bitton.’ At the RHS Snowdrop Meeting in 1891 it was reported that James Atkins of Painswick had received the snowdrop from a friend in the 1860s and gave it to Canon Ellacombe who widely distributed it.’
The owner of a considerable library of botanical and horticultural works, Ellacombe was a notable author on gardening subjects. In The Plant-Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare (1878), written at the suggestion of Reynolds Hole, he listed, identified, and commented on every plant mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. The extremely successful In a Gloucestershire Garden (1895), modelled on Henry Bright’s A Year in a Lancashire Garden, and In My Vicarage Garden and Elsewhere (1902) both originally appeared as a series of articles in The Guardian, the leading Church of England journal, to which he was a frequent contributor during the editorship of D. C. Lathbury. Ellacombe particularly sought to encourage
country parsons to take an interest in the cultivation of their vicarage gardens. He also contributed to gardening periodicals and rather extensively to the publications of Bath Natural History and Field Club. Nineteen of the plates in the celebrated Botanical Magazine were painted from plants growing at Bitton.
Ellacombe established a daily school at the vicarage where he attempted to provide a broad-based education for the local boys and not simply confine the teaching to reading and writing. Also like his father, he had been much influenced by the Oxford Movement, which had had its origins in Oriel, their old college. His father’s principal legacy, though, was to have developed an interest in gardening and established a fine garden of about one and a half acres at Bitton vicarage, maintaining correspondence with leading horticulturists of the day. Ellacombe followed the same course, extending the planting over its full extent. It was estimated that 3000 varieties of plants were grown there, and it was said there was no garden of its size in England that contained so many varied, rare, and interesting plants.
Bitton was an exceptionally favourable site for a garden, tucked ‘in the trough between the Cotswolds and the Mendip hills’ (The Times, 15 Feb 1916). The soil was deep and rich, its only drawback being its high alkalinity, but unlike many a less practical and less enlightened gardener, Ellacombe shunned the importing of peat and did not try to grow such lime-hating species as rhododendrons. Among the special delights of the vicarage garden were vast drifts of Cyclamen coum and Anemone blanda, a multitude of roses, a huge white wisteria, the tender climber Bignonia grandiflora that flowered in hot summers, and a magnificent Umbellularia or Californian laurel growing against the house. Even plants that were later relatively familiar drew visitors and admiration—Chimonanthus praecox, Fuchsia excorticata, Fremontodendron californicum, and the magnificent yellow Rosa hemisphaerica. His friend Ellen Willmott wrote that to keep in touch with the treasures of Bitton it would be necessary to visit it every week of the year.
It was said that Ellacombe’s favourite doctrine was that a true gardener is known by the pleasure he takes in giving plants to his friends; judged by that standard he was ‘a prince among gardeners’ (D. C. Lathbury in Hill, 137). He not only exchanged specimens with his fellow enthusiasts but also bought from the great botanic gardens in Britain and Europe and extended his father’s links with other experts; he knew the Hookers at Kew and also William Robinson, author of the seminal English Flower Garden. For the last forty years of his life he travelled widely on the continent and in Ireland, collecting plants wherever he went. He was much taken with Switzerland and the Swiss alpine flora.
Death in 1916
Ellacombe died at Bitton following a fall on 7 February 1916 and was buried in Bitton churchyard in a spot of his own choosing on 10 February. Both the director and assistant director of Kew attended his funeral. The latter, A. W. Hill, edited a memoir of Ellacombe, in which another Kew curator, W. J. Bean, wrote of the canon’s love of plants, ‘his intimacy with them and their peculiarities’ (Hill, 133). A deep interest in the natural history of the plants at Bitton was one of Ellacombe’s notable characteristics. He was viewed as a leading representative of the generation of amateur gardeners who had reacted against the formality of massed bedding plants in geometric arrangement, and instead ‘let Nature in at the gate’, cultivating hardy plants and shrubs. He was said to have had little interest in the architectural effect of his garden, and planted new acquisitions in whatever space was available; some found his planting methods rough and ready (Elwes, 107). The result, however, was admired as a ‘good example of trees, shrubs, and plants, forming a picture as satisfying to the eye as it is to the needs of the practical gardener’ (The Times, 15 Feb 1916). Bitton vicarage was sold as a private house in 1951 and, apart from a few old trees, little of the garden as planted by Ellacombe survives, so his reputation endures principally through his books.
Sources: A. W. Hill, Henry Nicholson Ellacombe: a memoir (1919) · The Times (15 Feb 1916); (12 Feb 1964) · H. Ellacombe, In a Gloucestershire garden (1895) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography