In March 1907, Frances Hodgson Burnett received this note and an accompanying gift.

Trevor Millum

Trevor Millum

‘We one and all are taking the liberty to wish you health wealth and every happiness and a very pleasant voyage. We all hope to have the pleasure of serving you again at dear old Maytham. Will you do us the favour to accept this small present. From your Faithfull Servants’

It’s signed by George Millum, Harry Millum and six others. Frances was once again packing her many trunks and leaving for America.

Frances was born in Manchester but the family had emigrated to America when she was in her teens. A writer from an early age, she was earning money for her stories by the age of 18. As her literary fame grew, she crossed the Atlantic many times. Her first visit was in 1897 when she came to England with her two sons for the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Later, the success of her plays in London caused her to rent accommodation in London until, tired of the noise and the expense of the city, she moved to Maytham Hall, in the village of Rolvenden, Kent.

Frances lived in many houses in her lifetime but she said, ‘I have seen a great many places that interested me, but Maytham I love.’

The real secret garden?

And Maytham, together with the nearby village, loved Frances. She was popular both with the staff of the large house and with the local people. She was an enthusiastic and generous, throwing herself into country life and local activities. She was especially fond of the garden, where she used to write and where she was entertained, she claimed, by a friendly robin. It was there that she discovered an overgrown section of the walled garden which sparked an idea for another story.

This bricked up entrance to a walled garden at Maytham Hall is believed to be the original entrance to Frances’ own secret garden that inspired the famous children’s novel.

It would have surprised Frances that the story, The Secret Garden, rather than her many other books and plays, would become the one she would be remembered for.

The real secret gardener?

A garden, of course, has to have a gardener and that is where George Millum comes in – though in the book he is renamed more romantically as Ben Weatherstaff and the garden is transported from the gentle hills of Kent to the rough moors of Yorkshire.

My grandfather managed the garden at Maytham Hall during Frances Hodgson Burnett’s time there and it was in the head gardener’s house (which is still occupied) that my father was born. Family talk has it that Frances actually provided a pram for the young George and that it sported her initials!

Somewhat gruff and grumpy, my grandfather was an ideal model for Ben Weatherstaff. He was also a very good gardener as the many winning tickets from the local horticultural shows attest – e.g. ‘First Prize – Peas, 12 pods. Gardener: G Millum; Gardener to: Mrs Hodgson Burnett.’

He and the other staff were dismayed when she decided once again to set off for America. In spite of the earnest wishes expressed in the note, she never returned to ‘dear old Maytham’ and she sailed away out of their lives.

However, Frances took more than her luggage with her. She took the inspiration and ideas for her new book. The Secret Garden was finally published in 1911, first in New York and then in London. It received good reviews but was consistently outsold by the more famous Little Lord Fauntleroy. Over the years, this would change until it became one of the best-known children’s books of all time.

The full realisation that my grandfather was indeed the ‘secret gardener’ came to me as I worked on my father’s garden diaries and other papers that he couldn’t bear to throw away – thank goodness. Not only did I have evidence of my grandfather’s life at Maytham, I had wonderfully detailed records of the day to day working life of a gardener employed in the large gardens of the big country houses.

I painstakingly transcribed two of these, from 1935 and 1949, and included them in the book that tells the story of both George Millums: Son of the Secret Gardener.

Trevor Millum is the author of Son of the Secret Gardener – which tells the true story of his gardening grandfather and father.

As well as telling the story of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s head gardener, this charming book contains fascinating old gardening diaries from the 1930s & 1940s.

A perfect gift for all garden lovers, Son of the Secret Gardener is published on 4th April 2022 by Quadrant Books (paperback, RRP £11.50) and available through books shops and internet booksellers.