William Robinson: papers

Scope and Content

The archive consists of two volumes relating to work carried out at Gravetye Manor, 227 letters written to William Robinson and his nurse, Mary Gilpin, and a small number of papers collected by William Robinson. The letters reflect Robinson's wide network of friends and acquaintances, and topics represent many aspects of 19th- and early 20th-century society. His correspondents include fellow horticulturalists (E.A. Bowles, Gertrude Jekyll, Frank Crisp, Mrs C.W. Earle, Frances Wolseley, Arthur Bulley, Samuel Reynolds Hole, Robert Marnock, Ellen Willmott, Augustine Henry), botanists (J.D. Hooker, Reginald Farrer, Frederick Hanbury, Arthur Hill, J.T. Boswell, George Maw, Henry Vilmorin), scientists (Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, Oliver Lodge), social reformers (Edwin Chadwick, John Hanham), figures from the art world (Edward Burne-Jones, Frank Miles, John Ruskin, Carolus-Duran, Alfred Parsons), writers and poets (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis Newman, Henry Avray Tipping, E.V. Lucas, Alfred Austin, Charles Reade) and other well-known individuals such as Joseph Chamberlain, Viscount Esher, Lord Ronald Gower, Lady Constance Lytton, Heinrich Schliemann, Émile Faguet, William Tegetmeier and Vernon Lushington. While much of the correspondence focuses on gardening and horticultural matters, the letters also reflect Robinson's interest in the promotion of cremation, his protests against new taxes and the Government of the day, and include descriptions of individuals' experiences during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, and visits to Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, where Robinson lived from 1883.

Correspondence relating to Robinson's life was added as an associated archive (WRO/Z1) in 2018. These papers were found with the original archive in 2013 but were not catalogued at the same time. The provenance of the papers is unknown.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Robinson (1838-1935) was born on 5 Jul 1838 in Ireland, the son of William and Catherine Robinson. He began his career as a garden boy at the Marquess of Waterford's estate at Curraghmore, County Waterford, and subsequently worked at Sir Hunt Johnson-Walsh's estate at Ballykilcavan as foreman gardener. He left in 1861 under circumstances that are disputed, and made his way back to the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. With the encouragement of David Moore, the curator, he went to London, and in 1862 took a letter of introduction from Moore to Robert Marnock, who ran the Royal Botanic Society's garden in Regent's Park, where he spent four years. He rapidly became foreman of the educational and herbaceous departments, and began travelling to other gardens and nurseries in the United Kingdom, in an attempt to increase the number and range of plants at Regent's Park. By 1864 plants were coming in from many sources, and Robinson, now 'the Society's gardener' (head gardener), had embarked on an ambitious programme of improvements to the garden. He started contributing articles to 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', describing his tours around the country and the different gardens he visited, and in 1866, having recently been elected Fellow of the Linnean Society, he resigned his post at Regent's Park in order to devote himself to studying horticulture full-time. With commissions from various gardening journals he was able to travel extensively in Europe, travels that provided copy for numerous articles and two books.

From 1868 Robinson lived in a house in Kensington, which he used as a base from which to write and travel, including to the United States. He published further books in the early 1870s including 'The Wild Garden' and in 1871 he founded 'The Garden', an illustrated weekly publication which he was to edit for 28 years, and own for nearly 50. He launched a number of other journals on specialised aspects of horticulture, mostly relatively shortlived, but including 'Gardening' (later 'Gardening Illustrated'). In 1883 Robinson published his most important book, 'The English Flower Garden'. He was vehemently opposed to the Victorian taste for garishly coloured flowers in garden displays, and through his advocacy of a more natural way of gardening is credited with having invented the English cottage garden style of planting.

Robinson's opinions on wider issues are reflected in his correspondence. He was an advocate of cremation, and actively protested against what he regarded as unfair taxes imposed by the Government of the day. In 1885 he bought and moved to Gravetye Manor, in Sussex, an Elizabethan manor house with extensive grounds. Robinson altered the house and redesigned the garden according to his own taste, writing about the work in a series of books about Gravetye. Though paralysed after an accident in 1909, he remained as active as his wheelchair existence permitted, assisted by his staff, in particular his nurse, Mary Gilpin. In 1917 he wrote his last book 'My Wood Fires and Their Story', and only in 1919 aged 81 finally gave up his interests in 'The Garden' and 'Gardening Illustrated'. He died at Gravetye Manor on 12 May 1935.

Sources: biographical notes based on the entry for William Robinson in the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography', 'William Robinson: The Wild Gardener' by Richard Bisgrove, and 'William Robinson 1838-1935: Father of the English Flower Garden' by Mea Allan.


The letters were received in 20 packets, and although some alphabetical ordering was recognisable in places, it was unlikely to have been Robinson's own order as it was in part based on incorrect reading of signatures. Many of the original letters are undated, and although it has been possible to supply estimated dates for a good number, around 20 items remain without a satisfactory date. The letters have therefore been arranged alphabetically by correspondent, according to the naming rules of the National Council on Archives, and within that alphabetical arrangement multiple letters from the same correspondent have been arranged chronologically.

Summary of contents:

WRO/1 Tree and garden books, Gravetye Manor

WRO/2 Letters to William Robinson and Nurse Mary Gilpin

WRO/3 Collected papers of William Robinson

WRO/Z1 Correspondence between Mary Taylor and Ruth Duthie relating to William Robinson

Access Information


Open for consultation at the Lindley Library London. It is essential to check opening hours and make an appointment. Readers are asked to take care due to the fragile nature of the original material.

Acquisition Information

The volumes were bequeathed to the RHS by William Robinson. The letters and papers were donated in Mar 1976 by the family of Mary Gilpin (William Robinson's nurse). At the family's request, the collection of letters is known as the Jane Mary Gilpin bequest.

Other Finding Aids

The Lindley Library descriptive catalogue, available on-line via the Archives Hub, and as a paper copy in the research room.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Liz Taylor, RHS archivist, in February 2014 and updated in June 2018 and May 2021. Research and other assistance given by Jennian Geddes and Ann Thornham, RHS Lindley Libraries volunteers and packaging was carried out by Annie Johns, RHS Lindley Library volunteer.

Custodial History

The letters appear to have passed into the possession of Mary Gilpin, William Robinson's nurse, after his death. Mary Gilpin passed the letters to her sister-in-law, whose son, B. Gilpin, arranged for their donation to the RHS, with his mother's agreement.

Related Material

For letters from William Robinson to E.A. Bowles, 1906-1923, see the archive of E.A. Bowles at the RHS Lindley Library, London; letters from William Robinson to Louisa and Frances Wolseley, 1890-1932, are held at Hove Library; for correspondence and papers relating to William Robinson, 1933-1935 and undated, see West Sussex Record Office AddMss 20179-20185; further letters to William Robinson, dates unknown, are held by the Merseyside Naturalists' Association