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date: 14 July 2020

Bulley, Arthur Kilpinfree

  • Brenda McLean

Bulley, Arthur Kilpin (1861–1942), cotton broker and gardener, was born at Montpellier Lodge, Montpellier Crescent, New Brighton, Cheshire, on 10 January 1861, the fourth son and thirteenth of fourteen children of Samuel Marshall Bulley (1811–1880), cotton broker, and his wife, Mary Rachel (1817–1887), daughter of the eminent Liverpool Congregational minister Thomas Raffles. Born into a stimulating, enterprising family, Arthur Bulley had nine elder sisters, three of whom (including Ella Sophia Armitage and Amy Bulley) were educated at the pioneering colleges for women opened in Cambridge in the early 1870s. In 1868, aged seven, Arthur went to Mostyn House School at Parkgate, near Chester. From January 1874 to December 1878 he was at Marlborough College, whence, as also expected of his three elder brothers, he entered the family firm of S. M. Bulley & Son. Cotton imports into Liverpool were increasing, and he prospered at the Liverpool cotton exchange, though he became distinctive there for his unconventional dress, tastes, and outlook; he was 'the sole representative … of the doctrines of Agnosticism and Socialism' (Taylor, 20).

On 21 September 1890 Bulley married Harriet Agnes (1860–1955), daughter of Alexander Whishaw, chaplain of St Mary's School for the Blind, Liverpool; she was a cousin of the Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson. They started their married life in West Kirby and, sharing a love of flowers, joined the Liverpool Naturalists' Field Club, where Bulley demonstrated his botanical prowess by winning prizes for the Latin names of the greatest number of species, and recorded new localities of rare plants for the Flora of Liverpool (1902). Throughout the 1890s Bulley's enthusiasm for growing unusual plants in his garden intensified, and he searched worldwide, writing to botanic gardens and nurserymen, missionaries, consuls, and customs officers for seed of 'new and rare out-of-the-way' alpine and hardy flowers (McLean, Pioneering Plantsman, 29). Augustine Henry, who sent Bulley seeds from Yunnan province in China, referred to him as 'a bit of a Fabian, who wants to introduce beautiful plants to the cottages of the poor' (Pim, 69). Bulley began to exchange seeds and plants with the royal botanic gardens of Kew and Edinburgh; the latter's keeper, Isaac Bayley Balfour, visited Bulley's garden in 1896, and was astonished by his gardening skill.

In 1897–8 Bulley bought 60 acres of hilltop and farmland on which to build a house, Mickwell Brow, and create an ideal garden, Ness Gardens, at Ness, Cheshire. His two children, Lois Agnes (1901–1995), later a prominent political activist, and Alfred Whishaw (1905–1976), were born there. He and his wife were devoted to social concerns and local philanthropic work, and he was a member of the Fabian Society. His gardens were his consuming hobby. The two main gardens, the rock garden and the herbaceous garden, were well stocked by 1900 and, on principle, always open to the public.

In 1904 Bulley started a commercial nursery in his garden. This became the seed and plant firm Bees Ltd (originally named A. Bee & Co from his initials) specializing in alpine and hardy plants, and the main channel through which Bulley hired professional plant collectors and raised, marketed, and sold their seeds. In 1904, on the advice of I. B. Balfour, Bulley sent the Scot George Forrest on his first, three-year expedition to Yunnan, launching Forrest's productive career. In 1905, when Forrest was reported murdered, Bulley feared that Forrest 'lost his life in the endeavour to earn my beastly money' (McLean, Forrest, 67). However, Forrest survived and sent back herbarium specimens and seeds of plants new to science and to horticulture, including gentians, candelabra primulas, and dwarf rhododendrons such as Rhododendron forrestii var. repens. Bees' seed catalogue for 1909 advertised 'New Plants from China', including the award-winning Primula bulleyana and Primula vialii, while Ness Gardens was described by the American government's head of plant introductions as having 'one of the largest collections of Chinese ornamental plants in Great Britain' (Fairchild, 359).

In 1910–11, through the Bees' seed business, Bulley hired Forrest for a second expedition, in which he introduced the autumn flowering Gentiana sino-ornata, but Bees' payments were late and unreliable. Forrest was greatly distressed, Bulley was shocked, and Forrest never worked for Bees again. At the time Bulley was involved in politics, standing unsuccessfully as a women's suffrage candidate at Rossendale in the general election of January 1910 and as a Labour candidate in the municipal elections in Liverpool in November 1910. However, Bees Ltd was expanding to a 1000 acre site at Sealand, near Chester, and, eager for new collectors, Bulley invited Frank Kingdon Ward to go on two expeditions to the eastern Himalayas on behalf of the firm in 1911 and 1913. He sent Roland Edgar Cooper (1890–1962) to collect seed in the central Himalayas, in Sikkim in 1913 and in Bhutan in 1914. In 1915 taxonomists at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, named a new genus Beesia, stating that 'The generic name is formed from the title of the horticultural firm Bees Ltd, whose enterprise in the botanical exploration of China, Burma and the Himalayas is well known' (Balfour, 63–4). Only the First World War brought Bees' sole sponsorship of plant collectors to a premature end.

Even during the war, in 1916, Bulley personally contributed £600 to Reginald Farrer's expenses for a seed-share from Kansu, China, and after the war, in 1919, he subscribed to syndicates of three expeditions, by Farrer, Forrest, and Kingdon Ward, contributing to a flood of new rhododendrons into Britain. In 1921 he made a surprise offer to the Royal Geographical Society to send £100 in exchange for seed of alpine plants from the reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest. Bulley also experimented with the growth of introduced alpine plants on Snowdon, which was strongly opposed by naturalists concerned to protect the mountain's indigenous flora.

In 1922 Bulley declined the Royal Horticultural Society's highest award, the Victoria medal of honour, 'on the ground that he had a strong objection to decorations of any kind' (RHS minutes, 29.265, 292). Retired from his cotton firm, he was free to travel to the southern hemisphere, leaving his long-serving head gardener, Josiah Hope (1875–1970), in charge at Ness Gardens. For more than a decade he joined other wealthy gardeners to finance expeditions in return for seeds that he would willingly share. In 1925 he was in a syndicate with the Hon. Henry Duncan McLaren, John Charles Williams, and Lionel de Rothschild, sending Harold Comber (1897–1969) to the Andes. In 1926 he engaged Walter Siehe to collect bulbous plants in Asia Minor. In 1929–30 Bulley subscribed to expeditions by Clarence Elliott (1881–1969) in the Andes, and to Forrest's last expedition in China. From 1932 to 1937 Bulley helped fund Edward Kent Balls (1892–1984) in Persia, Morocco, and Greece. In 1934 Bulley gave a BBC North Regional broadcast on 'The fascination of alpines', encouraging listeners to open their gardens 'to people who have simply no beauty at all in their lives' (McLean, Pioneering Plantsman, 162).

Bulley was a shrewd, intelligent, and knowledgeable man, exceptional in devoting so much of his personal wealth to the quest for new flowers and their introduction. He showed idealism, innovation, and enthusiasm in the development of his garden, the founding of Bees Ltd, and the patronage of plant collectors when government money was not available. His friendship with Balfour led to the launching of the careers of Forrest and Kingdon Ward, and the sending of collectors' botanical specimens and seeds to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, which became pre-eminent in the study of primulas and rhododendrons. It has been accounted unlikely that 'there will ever again be an employer of collectors of the scope and capacity of Arthur Kilpin Bulley' (Coats, 122). His collectors advanced knowledge of remote floras, and Bulley, Bees, and his collectors are immortalized in the names of plants. Bees Ltd, advertised as providing 'Seeds that Grow', became a household name, catering for a mass market between the wars, and continuing to do so after his death.

Bulley died at home, Mickwell Brow, Ness, Neston, Cheshire, on 3 May 1942, and was cremated at Landican, Wirral. In 1948, in the spirit of Bulley previously buying land to donate to the National Trust, his daughter Lois presented the Ness land and the family home to the University of Liverpool, with an endowment of £75,000. The gardens are now the University of Liverpool Botanic Gardens.


  • B. McLean, A pioneering plantsman: A. K. Bulley and the great plant hunters (1997)
  • B. McLean, George Forrest, plant hunter (2004)
  • Bees/Bulley archives, U. Lpool L., D 693, D 761
  • J. K. Hulme, Ness Gardens (1983)
  • J. K. Hulme, Ness Gardens: Bulley's beginnings to the present day (1987)
  • I. B. Balfour and A. K. Bulley correspondence, Royal Botanic Garden archives, Edinburgh
  • A. M. Coats, The plant hunters (New York, 1969)
  • S. Pim, The wood and the trees (1984)
  • D. Fairchild, The world was my garden (1943)
  • Bees' catalogues, 1905–14
  • I. B. Balfour, Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 41 (1915), 63–4
  • minutes of council, Royal Horticultural Society, London
  • S. Taylor and J. W. Coop, Bulls and bears: cartoons of members and ring traders of Liverpool cotton exchange (1908)


  • Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, corresp. with I. B. Balfour



  • J. W. Coop, cartoon, repro. in Bulls and Bears (1908), no. 20
  • photograph, repro. in M. Hadfield, R. Harling, and L. Highton, British gardeners: a biographical dictionary (1980), 54
  • photograph, U. Lpool, Ness Botanic Gardens
  • photographs, repro. in McLean, Pioneering plantsman, frontispiece, 21, 48, 114, 117, 130

Wealth at Death

£4769 15s. 2d.: probate, 13 Aug 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Liverpool Library, special collections and archives
University of Liverpool Library