James Allen was the first person ever to breed new varieties from wild snowdrops, but he was a self-taught horticulturalist.
In the late 19th century breeding snowdrops became highly fashionable and one of Britain’s top snowdrop hybridisers lived in the Mendip town. James Allen grew all the species and varieties then known and was probably the first person to deliberately cross them and raise hybrids from seed.
He undertook this work at his home here in the heart of Somerset at Highfield House, now part of the Mendip District Council site.
It’s thought there were more than 500 cultivars of these dainty ‘milk flowers’ as the snowdrop’s scientific name Galanthus translates, and Allen is credited with breeding at least 100. Sadly his astonishing work was blighted when a fungal infection of Botrytis followed by an attack of narcissus fly destroyed much of his collection.
However, all was not lost – two of the varieties he bred here in Shepton Mallet still survive to this day; ‘Merlin’ and ‘Magnet’. Merlin’s inner flower segments are completely green, and Magnet has an unusually long stalk, so its flowers wave in the slightest breeze. Magnet is considered to be so beautiful that the Royal Horticultural Society has given it the Award of Garden Merit.
Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society is keen to rekindle James Allen’s enthusiasm and passion for snowdrops in the town, and has adopted the flower as its emblem. We are now encouraging the planting of Magnet and Merlin, as well as a whole host of other snowdrops, in gardens, schools, parks and other public places in and around the town.
Born at Windsor Hill Mill just outside Shepton Mallet James lived there until the 1850′s helping his mother and brother John run the mill to grind corn for bread and animal feed. During the bread riots of 1842 the mill came under attack but John, then aged 18, persuaded the rioters to leave on the written promise that if they returned in the morning they would give flour to those who came from of Shepton Mallet.
After the death of their mother the three brothers, John, James and Joseph moved into Shepton Mallet. They purchased Old Mill in Park Road, John lived in Highfield House next door, and James lived opposite at Park House. James moved into Highfield House in the 1890’s after John’s death.
Botrytis eventually destroyed his snowdrop collection but in an effort to save his plants he sent some to Henry Ewbank (1828-1906) on the Isle of Wight, however there is no evidence that the bulbs survived and therefore the Botrytis probably went with the bulbs.
James suffered ill health from the 1880′s, and died in 1906. He is buried just outside the chapel at Shepton Mallet cemetery with his family. A tall ornate stone obelisk formed part of his grave stone however it was dismantled by Mendip Council in 2002 on the grounds that it was not safe.
James Allen’s correspondence is held at the RHS.
James Allen also bred Anemone nemorosa ‘Allenii’ and Chionoscilla allenii, which are also commercially available.