The Crocus King and Magician of Myddelton House

The archive of plantsman E.A. Bowles at RHS Lindley Library offers an insight into life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

E A BowlesThe name Edward Augustus Bowles may be familiar to garden and plant lovers. An area of ground beside Weatherhill Cottage at RHS Garden Wisley, called Bowles’ Corner, was created as a memorial to this celebrated plantsman, born in 1865, and his name lives on in plant names such as Anemone hupehensis ‘Bowles’s Pink’ and Crocus sieberi ‘Bowles’s White’.

E.A. Bowles lived at Myddelton House, Enfield, until his death in 1954. His own history was closely entwined with that of the RHS for 57 years: he purchased life membership of the RHS in 1897, and went on to serve on 15 committees, and as a Council member and Vice-president. He was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1916.

Galanthus nivalus subsp. reginae-olgae, watercolour by E. A. Bowles, 1910. Credit RHS Lindley LibraryHe was a self-taught gardener, botanist, botanical artist, and garden writer as well as plant hunter. Despite the loss of sight from his right eye, he was an accomplished artist; his paintings are now held at the Lindley Library and Natural History Museum. Among other publications, he was the author of three hugely popular books about his remarkable garden: My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer (both published in 1914), and My Garden in Autumn and Winter (published in 1915).

E.A. Bowles successfully grew all manner of rare and difficult plants at Myddelton House, the strangest corralled in an area of the garden he affectionately referred to as the lunatic asylum. Visitors to the garden were welcomed and often left with bulbs, a cutting or seeds for their own plot. He helped numerous local boys and young men, whom he befriended through the church, Church Lads Brigade, Forty Hill School and Night School. They became known as 'Bowles boys' and at weekends activities were laid on for them in the garden, including fishing, football, cricket or skating on the pond or New River.

Bowles bequeathed his archive to the Library, some 63 boxes of volumes, papers, photographs and plant specimens. These include papers relating to the development of the garden at Myddelton House, and to Bowles’ lifelong work with plants and plant breeding. They include journals and photographs about his travels and plant-hunting trips with companions such as Reginald Farrer and Susan Garnett-Botfield. The papers document the successful publication of his writings and drawings, and include six decades of correspondence with eminent botanists and horticulturists of the time, reflecting his relationships with Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Ellen Willmott and many others.

Letter from E. A. Bowles to William Robinson, 1919. Credit RHS, Lindley LibraryThe archive is also a rich source of social history. Bowles lived through two world wars, accounts of which pepper the archive. One letter gives a first-hand account of the Dengue fever outbreak in Athens and Piraeus in 1928, in which 400,000 people were infected, and more than 1,000 people died, and another, written in 1937, tells of the strikes, food shortages, steep inflation and farming problems leading up to the third worst recession in 20th century America.

Bowles’ plant-hunting journals provide colourful accounts of travel, mainly in Europe, in the late 19th and early 20th century. During a trip in 1894 to the Pyrenees he wrote: ‘Tumbled out of bed about 7.30 and there were the mountains, such a sight, peak after peak, 60 miles of mountains glittering with snow and dappled with blue shadows. The Pic du Midi right in the midst and the mountains right and left dipping down on either side of this on purpose to make way for their king.’

The archive of E.A. Bowles is now catalogued and available for research. The final catalogue is the result of a partnership between the Library and the E.A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society, which generously provided funding for the re-packaging of the papers and conservation of the most fragile of Bowles’ scrap books. A dedicated team of archive volunteers, including two volunteers from the E.A. Bowles Society, has enabled enhanced cataloguing of photographs and letters, providing detailed access to the papers.

To see the online catalogue please visit the Archives Hub. If you would like to view the archive, please make an appointment at RHS Lindley Library, London by emailing [email protected]. If you have any questions about this or any other archive please contact Liz Taylor at [email protected].

Dried specimens of Anemone collected in Pégomas, mounted with Möet & Chandon labels, 1936. © Murray Hornibrook / Credit RHS Lindley LibraryRead more

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.