Colesbourne Park

About HJ Elwes

Henry John Elwes was born and died at Colesbourne Park, but after the age of 17 spent at least part of every year abroad. He was an all-round naturalist at a time when the world was open to the travelling collector – especially a British one.

Henry John Elwes
Henry John Elwes

Elwes was educated at Eton and then by tutors in Brussels and Dresden before joining the Scots Guards in 1865. He did not take soldiering very seriously, being more interested in ornithology which in those days consisted of collecting specimens and eggs. He resigned his commission in 1869 and from then on lived the life of travelling naturalist and country gentleman. In 1870 he went to the Sikkim Himalaya, crossing the border into then-forbidden Tibet, inspired by reading Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan Journals. He made many further visits to Asia, and these resulted in the major paper ‘On the geographical distribution of Asiatic birds’ read to the Zoological Society in 1873. On the strength of this he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. This was his last major ornithological contribution, as his interest moved onto butterflies and, increasingly, to plants.

The visit to Turkey in 1874 during which he discovered Galanthus elwesii was somewhat fortuitous, as it replaced a trip to Cyprus at short notice. In early April he was in the mountains near Smyrna (modern Izmir) and came across the fine large snowdrop which was named after him, Galanthus elwesii. Before leaving Turkey he arranged for the wide variety of bulbs he had collected to be sent back to England later in the season; the first of the many millions exported ever since.

Elwes’ horticultural interests largely concentrated on bulbs, and he was said to have the finest collection in private hands. In 1880 he published the magnificent folio monograph The Genus Lilium, written with assistance from J.G.Baker at Kew, but he wrote disappointingly little about his gardening experiences. It is from Bowles’ memoir in Elwes’ posthumous biography that we get most information about the Colesbourne garden, but even this is sadly scanty.

H.J. Elwes was a busy man. He combined horticulture with entomology and estate management, raising prize-winning show livestock, and sitting on the District Council. He had considerable presence, being of large stature with a big black beard and booming voice; and not surprisingly, he was noted as having little knowledge of the art of compromise!

The Trees of Great Britain Book Cover

From 1907 to 1913 he undertook his greatest work, The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, in conjunction with the botanist Augustine Henry. Between them, in seven large volumes, they described every species of tree then grown outdoors in the British Isles, and recorded the finest specimens then to be seen. Most of these were visited and recorded personally, in which process Elwes wore out two motor cars. In addition he undertook numerous journeys abroad to study the trees in the wild, even visiting Chile to see monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) in their natural habitat. This work remains an invaluable source of information on trees and arboriculture and has been reprinted as recently as 2019.

Visit Colesbourne Gardens
I have, during my life, taken an active part in most outdoor sports and occupations. I have crossed and recrossed the Himalayas and the Andes, explored Siberia and Formosa, and, as I grow older, I find that there is more companionship, consolation and true pleasure in gardening and in plants than in anything I have tried.