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date: 20 August 2019

Williams, John Charlesfree

  • Garry Tregidga

Williams, John Charles (1861–1939), gardener and politician, was born at Caerhayes Castle, Cornwall, on 30 September 1861, the second son of John Michael Williams (1813–1880), mine owner, banker, and landowner, of Caerhayes Castle, and his wife, Elizabeth Maria (d. 1884), elder daughter of Stephen Davey of Bochym, Cornwall. He was a descendant of John Williams (1685–1761), who had moved from Wales to Burncoose, near Truro, in 1715 to establish a mining dynasty that eventually played a prominent role in the industrial revolution in Cornwall.

The family seat of Caerhayes Castle had been acquired by his grandfather Michael Williams (1785–1858), mining entrepreneur and politician, who was the second son of John Williams (1753–1841) and his first wife, Catherine Harvey (1757–1826). He was born at Burncoose House, Truro, on 3 June 1785 and on 5 March 1813 married Elizabeth Eales (d. 1852), daughter of Richard Eales, of Easton House, Devon. Educated at a private school in Devon, he played a pivotal role in consolidating the family's business interests. Initially employed in managing the Williams family's copper mining interests in the parish of Gwennap, near Redruth, in Cornwall, he became the leading partner in Williams, Foster & Co., with business activities in both England and Wales. In 1853 he was widely credited by the region's mining adventurers with saving the Cornish copper industry from total collapse at a time of great economic difficulty. Michael Williams was also active in the wider development of the Cornish economy in the mid-nineteenth century through his chairmanship of the Cornwall Railway Company from 1854 onwards and as a partner in the Cornish Bank, which was principally owned by the family.

Michael Williams's career highlights the growing social status of the Williams family. In 1839 he was appointed sheriff of Glamorgan following the purchase earlier that decade of the Morfa copper smelting works, and he later became deputy warden of the Cornish stannaries. Through his purchase of Caerhayes Castle in 1854 he symbolically moved the family's geographical base away from the mining parishes of west Cornwall to assume a new role as rural landowners in the Roseland area of mid-Cornwall. Yet the cultural significance of this move was not really evident until the time of his grandson, John Charles Williams. In the meantime the family continued to focus on its mining and banking interests alongside a new concern for parliamentary politics. Michael Williams's nonconformist upbringing in a Methodist family meant that it was natural for him to become an active supporter of political reform. Even in the 1830s he used his business and kinship networks to help prevent a tory challenge in the mining districts and from 1853 to 1858 represented the county seat of West Cornwall in the House of Commons as a Liberal. His moderate stance, combined with respect for his achievements as one of Cornwall's leading businessmen, ensured that he was returned unopposed in the two elections that he contested. Michael Williams died at Trevince on 15 June 1858 and was buried six days later in the family vault in Gwennap churchyard.

His grandson, John Charles Williams, or J. C. as he was affectionately known, pursued a different path in life. Educated at Rugby School and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was in residence for only a year, he married, on 15 October 1884, his cousin Mary Christian (1861–1922), the second daughter of Sir Frederick Martin Williams, second baronet, of Tregullow. They had five sons and one daughter. Although he had inherited Caerhayes on the death of his father in 1880, he initially lived at Werrington Park, near Launceston, since his mother continued to occupy the family home until her own death four years later. His own wealth, combined with the fact that his elder brother Michael Williams (1857–1899) took over the responsibility of managing the family's business interests, meant that he was able to devote a considerable amount of time to his passion for collecting. Caerhayes became home to three major mineral collections.

In line with family tradition Williams played a prominent role in political and civic affairs in his native Cornwall. The internal dispute within the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish home rule in 1886 had a particular impact on Cornish politics where a number of leading radical families such as the Bolithos and the St Aubyns abandoned their traditional loyalties in favour of Liberal Unionism. Williams was no exception. Although there are indications that the family was losing its enthusiasm for official Liberalism shortly after the death of Michael Williams in 1858, it appears that the prospect of Irish home rule was the issue that led to his grandson's personal defection and in 1892 he was comfortably elected as Liberal Unionist MP for the Cornish division of Truro. He apparently had a strong dislike of both London and Westminster and in 1895 he decided not to seek re-election at Truro, thereafter restricting his political activities to local government. After becoming a founder member of Cornwall county council in 1889 he served as a respected chairman of both the highways and sea fisheries committees. He was also an influential figure in the campaign to provide school playing fields and continued as a county councillor until his retirement in 1931.

Williams was a leading figure in the provincial establishment in Cornwall. In 1888, aged only twenty-seven, he became high sheriff of Cornwall and from 1918 to 1936 served as lord lieutenant of the county. He was first chairman of the Cornwall music festival when it was established in 1910 and served as president of the Royal Institution of Cornwall in Truro. He was noted for his generosity to local causes, though many of his donations were anonymous (such as that for the town clock in Truro). He was also deeply concerned with the long-term threat to Cornwall's landscape. In 1930 he was a pivotal figure in raising money for a survey by the county branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England on the effects of tourism on the coastal and rural environment. A year later he presented 108 acres of his estate on the Roseland peninsula to the National Trust in order to protect the picturesque Nare Head for the benefit of future generations.

Williams is chiefly remembered for his contribution to the development of gardening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Caerhayes he set out to create an example of a more informal or ‘wild gardening’ style. His garden book contains entries on over 1650 days from 1897 to 1934, detailing the introductions for which the garden became famous. He had begun planting Sino-Himalayan rhododendrons there in the 1880s, and became a leading patron of gardening expeditions to Asia in search of rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias. The first consignments of plants obtained by E. H. Wilson from plant collecting expeditions to China in 1899 and 1907 were planted on Williams's estates, and many introductions flowered there for the first time in Europe. Wilson, who considered Williams 'the first amateur to appreciate the horticultural value of the Rhododendrons of western China' (Brown, 142), named Rhododendron williamsianum, a rare, scented species found in western Szechwan (Sichuan), for him. By 1917 over 250 species and natural varieties of Rhododendron were growing at Caerhayes. Wilson later sent a complete collection of Kurume azaleas from Japan. In 1912 Williams was one of the principal backers of George Forrest's major expeditions to China. This resulted in a considerable amount of new seed being sent back by Forrest to his patron in Cornwall, and Williams, described by Forrest as 'generous in pay, words, and actions' (McLean, 118), distributed seeds to the botanic gardens of Edinburgh, Dublin, and Kew. In 1916, along with John Guille Millais (1865–1931), Charles Eley (1873–1960), and his cousin Percival Dacres Williams (1865–1935) of St Keverne, Lanarth, he was a founder member of the Rhododendron Society, and was chairman until it was reconstituted as the Rhododendron Association in 1928.

Williams was in an ideal position to play a prominent role in gardening history. The mild climate of Caerhayes on the south Cornwall coast meant that it enjoyed a fine reputation for outdoor planting, with the greenhouses on the family's Werrington estates providing a means of support for more tender specimens. The conservatory at Werrington was also popular in the gardening world and provided orchids for Covent Garden up to 1955. Williams was widely well regarded for the care that he took with his new plants, his experiments in hybridization, and his personal contribution to leading gardening publications including the annual journal of the Rhododendron Society. In the 1920s he raised Camellia x williamsii (japonica x salvensis) which, with many cultivars, became the outstanding garden camellias of the twentieth century.

Williams also took a keen interest in the hybridization of the daffodil, and was apparently responsible for growing forty new varieties of this particular flower, including the popular Narcissus croesus and Bartley. In 1897 he was a co-founder of the Cornish Daffodil and Spring Flowers Society, established to encourage commercial flower production. In 1898 he became a vice-president of the first midland daffodil show at Birmingham.

Two of J. C. Williams's sons were killed in the First World War. Two others continued the family's political transition away from Liberalism, his eldest son, Charles Williams (1886–1955), serving as Conservative MP for Tavistock, 1918–22, and Torquay, 1924–55, while a younger son, Alfred Martyn Williams (1897–1985), was Conservative MP for North Cornwall, 1924–9. Following the death of his wife, who had been in charge of the VAD hospital at Launceston during the First World War, he was looked after by his daughter, May Williams. He died at Caerhayes Castle on 29 March 1939 and was buried at Caerhayes. The garden he created at Caerhayes remains 'probably the most important plantsman's garden in Cornwall' (Pett, 137).


  • GM (Aug 1858), 192–4
  • G. C. Boase, Collectanea Cornubiensia: a collection of biographical and topographical notes relating to the county of Cornwall (1890), 1253
  • J. W. Hunkin, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society (1943), 9–15, 43–8
  • The Times (30 March 1939)
  • E. J. Williams, ‘J. C. Williams: an enthusiast’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, new ser. 2/3 (1999), 9–32
  • E. Gaskell, Leaders of Cornwall: social and political [1909]
  • E. Jaggard, ed., Liberalism in west Cornwall: the 1868 election papers of A. Pendarves Vivian, MP (2000), xiii–liii
  • D. E. Pett, The parks and gardens of Cornwall (1998)
  • J. Brown, Tales of the rose tree (2004)
  • B. McLean, George Forrest, plant hunter (2004)
  • C. Postan, The rhododendron story (1996)


  • Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, corresp. with George Forrest

Wealth at Death

£114,492 14s. 4d.—save and except settled land: probate, 19 June 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£58,102 9s. 2d.—limited to settled land: probate, 3 Aug 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

under £500,000—Michael Williams: probate, 15 July 1858, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, , 4 vols. (1833–8); new edn as , 3 vols. [1843–9] [many later edns]
G. C. Boase & W. P. Courtney, , 3 vols. (1874–82)
Gentleman's Magazine
F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)