Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Miller, Philip

MILLER, PHILIP (1691–1771), gardener, was born either at Deptford or Greenwich in 1691. His father was a Scotchman, who, after serving for some time as gardener to a gentleman at Bromley, Kent, commenced business as a market gardener near Deptford. Philip on leaving school assisted his father for a short time, but at an early age began business on his own account as a florist on a piece of ground in St. George's Fields, afterwards the site of the King's Bench prison. Here he soon attracted the attention of Sir Hans Sloane and others, and, induced by them to give up his florist's business, he devoted himself to assisting other gardeners, including Ellis, then foreman of the Chelsea Garden. In 1722, the year in which Sloane made his final grant of the Chelsea Garden to the Apothecaries' Company, Ellis was dismissed, and Miller, on Sloane's recommendation, was appointed. The ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in announcing his death (xli. 571), Sir J. E. Smith, in Rees's ‘Cyclopædia,’ and Pulteney, all erroneously state that he succeeded his father. In 1724 he published his first work, a first sketch of the chief work of his life, as ‘The Gardener's and Florist's Dictionary, or a Complete System of Horticulture,’ in two vols. 8vo, dedicated to the Apothecaries' Company; and by 1728 he had evinced his skill as a cultivator by a paper communicated to the Royal Society (Philosophical Transactions, xxxv. 485) on ‘A Method of Raising some Exotic Seeds which have been judged almost impossible to be raised in England,’ by first germinating them on a bed of tan. Two years later he for the first time described (ib. xxxvii. 81) the method, now so well known, of flowering bulbous plants in bottles filled with water. About this time he acted as secretary to a society of a few experienced gardeners who met weekly ‘until, a serious difference arising among the members respecting the publishing of some portion of their proceedings and information, they broke up rather abruptly. The opponents of the publication demanded their papers from Miller, who immediately gave them up, having, however, with his usual foresight, taken a copy of each’ (John Rogers, The Vegetable Cultivator, 1839). In 1730 he published a thin folio, with twenty-one coloured plates after Van Huysum, entitled ‘Catalogus Plantarum … quæ in hortis haud procul a Londino … propagantur,’ which does not bear his name, but has a preface signed by the members of this society.

Of his skill as a gardener Loudon says (Arboretum Britannicum, p. 81): ‘Miller during his long career had no considerable competitor until he approached the end of it.’ He was, however, looked upon with jealousy, as of Scottish birth, and also, it appears (Gent. Mag. liii. 332), as employing none but Scotsmen. Though Switzer bears testimony to his ‘usual generosity, openness, and freedom,’ he is believed to refer to Miller in his ‘Gardener's Recreation’ as one of the ‘northern lads who have invaded the southern provinces.’ In 1731 appeared the first volume of his ‘magnum opus’ (‘The Gardener's Dictionary’), of which Linnæus said, ‘Non erit lexicon hortulanorum, sed botanicorum.’ On 1 April of that year he presented a copy to the Royal Society, ‘who returned him their unanimous thanks for that excellent useful work’ (Gent. Mag. i. 171). The work went through eight editions during his lifetime, and it is said of it that, while before its appearance not more than a thousand species of plants were in cultivation, at Miller's death there were more than five thousand. Trained in the school of Tournefort and Ray, ‘it was not without reluctance that he was brought to adopt the system of Linnæus; but he was convinced at length by the arguments of Sir William Watson and Mr. [William] Hudson’ (1730–1793) [q. v.] (Pulteney, ii. 242). He became a correspondent of Linnæus, who several times visited the Chelsea Garden when in England in 1736, and records in his diary for that year that Miller permitted him ‘to collect many plants in the garden, and gave [him] several dried specimens collected in South America.’ It was not, however, until the seventh edition of the ‘Dictionary,’ published in 1759, and containing twice as many plants as the first edition, that the Linnean nomenclature was adopted. In the following year he added to the twelfth edition of his ‘Gardener's Kalendar’ ‘a short introduction to the science of botany,’ with five plates illustrating the Linnean system. In 1750 the committee of the Apothecaries' Company reported their satisfaction at the ‘large number of rare plants, many of them nondescripts,’ then in the garden owing to Miller's ‘diligence in foreign correspondence’ (Field and Semple, Memoirs of the Botanic Garden, Chelsea, pp. 71–2). In 1751 Miller seems to have conducted some experiments on fertilisation, which are specially interesting as the first notice of the aid of insects in pollination (Sachs, History of Botany, English translation, p. 392). As a result of visits paid to Holland between 1723 and 1730, Miller issued in 1758 ‘The Method of Cultivating Madder, as it is practised by the Dutch in Zealand,’ his object being to introduce this industry into England. His numerous correspondents in Siberia, at the Cape, and in North America, and especially Dr. William Houston's collections from the West Indies, led him to plan a series of illustrations of all known genera. This resulted in the issue in numbers between 1755 and 1760 of two volumes containing together three hundred folio plates, drawn from plants in the Chelsea Garden.

Professor Thomas Martyn says of Miller: ‘He accumulated no wealth from his respectable connection with the great, or from the numerous editions of his works. He was of a disposition too generous and too careless of money to become rich.’ A curious comment on this is afforded by the papers of the Apothecaries' Company. In 1761 Miller asked that a residence might be built for him in the garden, but his request was apparently not granted. At the end of 1766 he drew up a memorandum showing his salary to have been 50l. a year, in addition to which he had received 31l. as gate-money, while he had to pay 74l. wages to under-gardeners and 15l. freight on plants, leaving him 8l. out of pocket on the year. Shortly afterwards he asked for repayment of 62l. disbursed by him, but apparently only received a special grant of 50l. (Field and Semple). On 28 Dec. 1770 John Ellis wrote to Linnæus: ‘Poor Miller, through his obstinacy and impertinence to the Society of Apothecaries, is turned out of the Botanical Garden of Chelsea. I am sorry for it, as he is now 79 years of age: they will allow his stipend, but have chosen another gardener. His vanity was so raised by his voluminous publications that he considered no man to know anything but himself; though Gordon, Aiton, and Lee have been long infinitely superior to him in the nicer and more delicate part of gardening’ (Correspondence of Linnæus, i. 255). Aiton, and also Forsyth, who succeeded him, were his own pupils, and Forsyth took office with 60l. a year, besides 50l. for under-gardeners and rooms. Miller died near Chelsea churchyard, 18 Dec. 1771, and was buried on the north side of it, the spot being marked by a flat stone. An obelisk (engraved in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1815, pt. i. p. 409) was erected near it in 1815 by members of the Linnean and Horticultural Societies. The engraved portrait by Maillet, prefixed to the French translation of his ‘Dictionary’ (Paris, 8 vols. 4to, 1785), is a fancy sketch. He was commemorated by John Martyn in the genus Milleria among the Compositæ.

Miller married Mary Kennet of Southwark, whose sister was wife of the botanical draughtsman George Dionysius Ehret [q. v.] Of his two sons, Philip, the elder, worked under him for a time, and then went to the East Indies, where he died; Charles, the younger (b. 1739), became in 1762 the first curator of the Cambridge Botanic Garden, went in 1770 to India and Sumatra, returned to England, and dying in London, 6 Oct. 1817, was buried in his father's grave. Miller left a large herbarium, mostly of exotics gathered in the Chelsea Garden, which was purchased by Sir Joseph Banks, and is now in the Natural History Museum.

Pulteney says of Miller: ‘By foreigners he was emphatically stiled “Hortulanorum Princeps.” He was admitted a member of the Botanical Academy of Florence, and of the Royal Society of London, in which he was occasionally honoured by being chosen of the council. Mr. Miller was the only person I ever knew who remembered to have seen Mr. Ray. I shall not easily forget the pleasure that enlightened his countenance, it so strongly expressed the Virgilium tantum vidi, when, in speaking of that revered man, he related to me that incident of his youth’ (Sketches of the Progress of Botany, ii. 243). Another anecdote of Miller is recorded in Monk's ‘Life of Bentley’ (p. 653), and in Elwin and Courthope's ‘Pope’ (iv. 360). Miller, it appears, went to Cambridge to consult Bentley on some classical point, and was hospitably received, but when Miller had made his inquiry the great scholar offered no remark on the subject, but merely bade his questioner drink his wine. Miller persisted in his questioning, and Bentley crying, ‘Walker, my hat,’ left the room. The scene is alluded to in Pope's ‘Dunciad,’ bk. iv. 1. 273. Many reminiscences of Miller are recorded by John Rogers, gardener at Richmond Palace, in the ‘Vegetable Cultivator,’ London, 1839, 8vo. Rogers (d. 1842) met Miller about three years before the latter's death, and was perhaps the last survivor of his acquaintances.

  1. ‘The Gardener's and Florist's Dictionary, or a Complete System of Horticulture,’ 2 vols. London, 8vo, 1724.
  2. ‘Catalogus Plantarum … quæ in Hortis haud procul a Londino … propagantur,’ London, fol., 1730, anonymous.
  3. ‘Catalogus Plantarum Officinalium quæ in Horto Botanico Chelseyano aluntur,’ London, 8vo, 1730.
  4. The botanical part of N. Bailey's ‘Dictionarium Britannicum,’ London, fol., 1730.
  5. ‘The Gardener's Dictionary,’ London, fol., vol. i. 1731, vol. ii. 1739; 2nd ed. 1733, 3rd ed. 1736–7, 8th ed. 1768; corrected by Thomas Martyn [q. v.] as ‘The Gardener's and Botanist's Dictionary,’ vol. i. 1797, vol. ii. 1804; revised in part as ‘Miller's Dictionary of Gardening, Botany, and Agriculture,’ London, 4to, 1834; 9th ed., incomplete, London, 8vo, 1835–6; Dutch translation, Leyden, 1745; German, Nuremberg, 1750–8 and 1769–76; and French, Paris, 1785–90.
  6. ‘The Gardener's Kalendar,’ London, 1732, 8vo; 3rd ed., London, 1734; 2nd ed., Dublin, 1735; 12th ed., ‘to which is added a short introduction to the … science of botany,’ London, 1760, 8vo; 15th ed. 1769, 8vo; in German, Göttingen, 1750; in Dutch, Haarlem, 1772.
  7. ‘The Gardener's Dictionary Abridged,’ 3 vols., London, 8vo, 1735–40; 2nd ed. 1741; 5th ed. 1763, 4to; 6th ed., 1771, 4to; German edition, Frankfurt-on-Maine, 1802–3.
  8. ‘The Method of Cultivating Madder,’ London, 1758, 4to.
  9. ‘Figures of the most beautiful, useful, and uncommon Plants described in the Gardener's Dictionary,’ 2 vols., London, 1755–60, fol.; German edition, Nuremberg, 1768–82.

He also contributed numerous papers to the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ most of which are merely the lists of the fifty dried specimens sent annually to the Royal Society from the Chelsea Garden.

[Pulteney's Sketches of the Progress of Botany, 1790, vol. ii.; Field and Semple's Memoirs of the Botanic Garden, Chelsea, 1878; Rees's Cyclopædia; John Rogers's Vegetable Cultivator, 1839.]

G. S. B.