The Garden at Caerhays


CH Williams Profile Picture
CHW 2015-

FJ Williams Profile Picture
FJW 1955-2007

C Williams Profile Picture
CW 1940-1955

JC Williams Profile Picture
JCW 1897-1939

In 1897 my great grandfather, J C Williams, started writing comments in his garden diary. The leather bound book entitled ‘The Garden’ has a page for each day of the year. It initially records JC’s work in daffodil hybridisation and, after 1902, it records the arrival of vast numbers of new plants from China which were totally unknown in Western Europe. These were collected by the great plant hunters, Ernest Wilson and George Forrest, whom JC had sponsored and paid for on their various Chinese expeditions up to 1932.


Garden Diary
Garden Diary

JC had no interest atall in publicising his garden or his considerable work hybridising the new Chinese species of rhododendrons and camellias which were arriving as seed to Werrington and Caerhays in such numbers. As such his diary was an entirely private and personal record of the development of the garden with all its successes and failures.
The Garden diary was maintained after 1939 by my great uncle Charles Williams until his death in 1955. Thereafter my father continued to fill the pages until Alzheimer’s took hold in around 2007.

‘The Garden’ book is now full so I have decided to carry it all on in a rather more public manner by creating a similar daily log of first flowerings of new plants, the demise of old ones interspersed with more irreverent comments about the day to day running of the now very public garden here.

The addition of pictures featuring plants and events should make it perhaps more relevant and interesting to those who know the 140 acre woodland garden at Caerhays or who simply enjoy magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons.

The Garden Diary in the Library
The Garden Diary in the Library

We have now transcribed the entries in the diary in reverse date order back to 1897 so that garden historians and enthusiasts can trace back in time, day by day, what was noteworthy in the garden over the generations. As the attached photographs show my forbears were not blessed with handwriting that is easy to read and decipher. Plant names have changed over the last century as botanists reclassify specie and genus names time and again but we have attempted to make this understandable.

However, what is now revealed, is a unique history of the development of one of the country’s leading plant collections and woodland gardens. We will now progressively be adding other photographs and other archive material back over the decades to give the Garden Diary more relevance and historical interest. This will take considerable time to achieve.

If I concentrate too much on magnolias in season this is because we all have a mission here to continue to manage one of the National Collection of Magnolias and can now delight in enjoying them with you.

C H Williams

April 2016

30 thoughts on “The Garden at Caerhays

  1. As a lover of Magnolia, Rhododendron and Camellia I am always interested to learn more about the history of them, how they arrived in this country, the Hybridization of Species etc.. It is so important that this information can be passed on for future generations to learn from. Well done for taking this essential task on board. Geoff Milnes

  2. consent to Wolfgang Keidel to 22. April ’21
    I also believe that this it not a Cephalotaxus but Torreya jackii. Cephalotaxus leaves are less tappering and not so pointed. For most Torreyas, they are too long exept T. californica, but even for this species unnormal.
    So the most probable ist T. jackii, which is rare in culture but we had an potted exemplare. For a picture look at the website: who provided the plants.
    From Arboretum Günterstal near Freiburg, Baden

  3. Dear Mr Williams
    RBGE recently published my biography of Will Purdom, who was, as I’m sure you know, active in China as a plant-hunter between 1909 and 1916 (and, in his spare time, between 1916 and 1921, the year of his untimely death). Your great-grandfather almost certainly bought some of the plants Will sent back to James Veitch & Sons between 1909 and 1912. Many of Will’s plants, sadly, were never properly identified and were auctioned off at the 1913 Veitch closing-down sales as “new chinese plants” but JCW would, at a minimum, have known who Will was and where he was or had been collecting.
    It’s the longest of long shots, but I wonder whether Will and your great-grandfather might have corresponded between 1919 and 1921, when Will was reaching out to botanists in Britain and the US and sent small quantities of plant material from China to Boston, Cumbria, and London? Nearly all the personal archives of his correspondents, and most of Will’s papers, have vanished, but I wonder whether there’s any trace of Will in your family archive? I confess that it would be a welcome surprise if the answer was “yes” but I shall look for “his” plants this Spring when I hope to visit Caerhays and I shall be astonished if I don’t find a fair few.
    yours sincerely
    Francois Gordon

    1. Dear Francois
      I have never seen anything in our family archives relating to correspondence between JCW and Will Purdom. Sadly, I simply do not have time to go digging for you at present but will now keep a weather eye out for anything which might be relevant that emerges in the future.
      Kind regards

  4. Love the gardens and the work you are doing, and have a collection of thriving plants from Caerhays and Burncoose. Have been enjoying
    some extraordinary flowering of a mature Daphne Bhuloa ‘Jacqueline Postil’, only to read in your care notes that this is probably its last hurrah! Fortunately infant daughters are growing in its shadow.

  5. If you ever publish the Garden Diary I would love to purchase a copy. I already have some books about plant hunters from Joseph Banks , George Forrest to James H Veitch and many others, I enjoy reading about the development and classification of magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and other plants.

  6. Is there a plant nursery in u k that can purchase fruit trees from canary island n then resale to Bermuda who will be responable for all paper works n make sure the plants are clear of all bugs.

  7. Hello, I am visiting Caerhays on 3–4-2018. I will be intrigued to see the gardens and house. My great great grandfather worked in both until he left in 1892 to join the railways, aged 22. I was wondering if there any archive records available to see? I have his reference given when he left your employ. Thank you. Julie.

    1. Dear Julie

      I would be very interested to see a copy of the reference given to your great great grandfather when you call here on Tuesday 3rd April.

      I am afraid that our archives are not on public display during the house tours but I will try to see if I can find anything to show you during your visit. However, I am not terribly hopeful of finding anything particular relevant.


  8. good morning, I read all the letters from people… very interesting.

    I am bringing a group of people down to look first at the Lizard, and then back up towards Devon, and wondered if we could come and look at your gardens etc., we are 35 in number, mainly over 60’s but 2 or 3 a little younger.! and your gardens and castle sound very interesting indeed, so now how much is it for a group of people to come and visit. and are you open on a Saturday.? am thinking about the last sat.of May. and are they able to buy a cup of tea here also? Carmel

    1. Dear Carmel

      Thank you very much for your enquiry. I have asked Sophie from the estate office to contact you on the email you provided. Sophie deals with all group bookings and will be able to help you.

      Should you have any queries in the meantime please don’t hesitate to contact the estate office on 01872 501 310.

      Best wishes

      PA to Charles Williams

  9. Hello. That sounds really exciting. I am George Forrest’s great-great niece and have written an educational project on him for county and have been bringing children to Caerhays for a few years. Although I know a fair amount about George Forrest, I am not green-fingered myself but with some guidance from a good friend, I am about to create a garden in honour of Forrest! I bought a Camellia X Williamsii yesterday at Caerhays.
    I am looking forward to reading about the development of the gardens at Caerhays over the years!

    1. There are so many plants which honour George Forrest in their name that you could fill several gardens! Delighted to try to help with your plant selection. Please do let me know when you next visit. Kind regards, C H Williams

  10. Fantastic to hear that the diary will be an inspiration to future generations.
    As a magnolia enthusiast and collector myself, I very much hope that I too will have the opportunity to read it.

  11. I am a member of Falmouth NADFAS and we are considering researching the plants and seed that came to the UK via the Port of Falmouth – did they arrive to order, by accident, as ballast etc and where did they go. Any help that you could give us on this fascinating subject would be very welcome.

    Kind regards


    1. Dear John

      Most, if not all, the seeds from new and then unknown plant genera in Western Europe came from China via Portsmouth and London. Sadly not Falmouth. You clearly already know the Dicksonia antarctica ballast story.

      Sorry not to have been of more help. I suggest you talk to the Fox family gardens whose South American plant introductions did come from plant explorers and sea captains operating from Falmouth.


      Charles Williams

  12. A wonderful project; I look forward to reading your observations and to the wry entries.Kind regards,Alayne,

  13. Excellent idea – and what an interesting historical resource to have in your family. Make sure you also keep hard-copy of your entries for future historians!

  14. I would like to receive the diary entries and am trying to get access in future. As a member of the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group I am particularly interested to get access to the diary. I hope you can facilitate this.

    1. Certainly but it will take quite a few months to sort out all the copytyping and transcriptions.

  15. Now that the PC world of the BBC reigns again with the demise of Clarkson and Co, perhaps Williams and Co offer a continuation of the former?

  16. well done charlie fantastic thing to do history is so important for our heirs love jamie

  17. great idea, real time information and comparison to past experiences is very value, reminds me in many respects to the historical card reference system kept by Milo Talbot de Malahide and his outstanding garden at Malahide Castle which is in safe hands of Fingal County Council

  18. I am amused to see that on April 9th 1965 David fell into the pond!
    I nice idea to continue with the diaries.

  19. Caerhays was an inspiration for us to add to our magnolia collection by populating our wild garden / North Somerset Woods with magnolias . We are beginning to enjoy them in flower now. It will be fascinating to read your diary. All the plants we have ever bought at Burncoose have been outstandingly healthy and strong – thank you. Ginny

  20. Great idea–if a lot of work for you. Anyway I look forward to hearing blooming dates of Magnolias if only to compare with my few here in Bath.

    Good to briefly see you last week, I was able to buy Purple Sensation and Cylindrica from Burncoose

  21. Really looking forward to reading the journal. Love magnolias, in the process of buying as many different varieties as I can.

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