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Monty Don on Gardeners' World © BBC Studios

Monty Don's fascinating family history: from long-standing feud to tragic drowning

The Gardeners' World star's ancestor invented marmalade

Nicky Morris
TV and film writer
May 3, 2024
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Monty Don is a household name across the nation thanks to his role on the beloved BBC show Gardeners' World. The green-fingered presenter has been on our screens for decades, sharing his top gardening hints and tricks with viewers since 2003. 

While Monty has been very open about his personal life over the years, including his health struggles, did you know that he has a fascinating family history? From longstanding feuds to his family's connection to the marmalade dynasty, find out all about Monty's past here…

WATCH: Look back at Monty Don's life and career

Monty Don's links to the invention of marmalade

Back in 2010, Monty took part in the popular BBC documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, where he discovered that his Scottish ancestors invented marmalade. 

The horticulturist's great great great great grandmother Janet Keiller created the orange preserve at the end of the 18th century. 

Monty Don's Spanish Gardens© Derry Moore
Monty Don has a fascinating family history

While marmalade had already existed in a jellied form, Janet's inclusion of the rind and the pulp created the preserve that we consume today. Her invention sparked a vast business empire based in Dundee. 

She eventually passed the business over to her son, James, and it became known as James Keiller & Sons – an iconic brand in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Monty's heartbreaking family tragedy 

During his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Monty also discovered that his great-great-grandfather Charles Hodge, who was a vicar in Clarborough, Nottinghamshire, was a passenger on the Royal Charter, which went down off the coast of Moelfre, Wales in 1859. 

British television presenter and gardener Monty Don, with his wife Sarah© Colin McPherson
Monty with his wife Sarah

Charles, who was a father of nine children, was one of more than 400 people who drowned in the tragedy. He had been returning to England after joining his estranged wife Ann in New Zealand. Ann had emigrated halfway across the world a few years before, leaving behind her children to become one of the country's early settlers. 

At the time, Monty said of Charles' drowning: "There's a poignancy about it for me, that he died so close to home.

"But I don't know what to make of him. I don't think I like him and I'm not proud of him."

Monty Don on Gardeners' World© BBC Studios
Monty is known as a presenter of Gardeners' World

Monty's family's 170-year-old feud

Given Monty's longstanding career in horticulture and frequent appearances at the Chelsea Flower Show, his family's 170-year feud with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) may come as a surprise to fans. 

The feud began when Monty's great-great-great-great grandfather George Don, who was the RHS's first plant hunter, revealed his rare discoveries in a rival scientific journal.

Monty Don at Chelsea Flower Show, London, United Kingdom - 21 May 2018© Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Monty at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2018

George had been travelling around the world, including to the Canary Islands, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Brazil and New York, in search of new and rare plants to grow and showcase for the RHS back in the UK. 

While travelling, George fell seriously ill with a fever, with two of the marines he was travelling with dying from the illness.

It's thought that he became angry that his salary matched that of a horticulturist working safely in the UK. 

Monty Don smiling in a suit in front of a floral wall© Oliver Dixon/Shutterstock
Monty's ancestor had a long-standing feud with the RHS

Tensions began to arise between George and the RHS when he gave a newly discovered pine tree specimen to the employer of his brother, rather than to the gardening charity. He then published his findings in a Sierra Leone journal, prompting the RHS to cut ties with him and take out an injunction which stopped him from publishing his work in England. 

Speaking about the rift at Gardeners' World Live in 2019, Monty said: "George Don then fell out with the RHS and his name was mud.

"He spoke out about his plant hunting and broke an embargo and they cut all ties with him."

He went on to explain that the relationship has since been repaired. "Now, the RHS invited me back to look at their plant library. So they have forgiven the Don family now - it only took 170 years."

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