The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 4: British Gardens (1100-1830)

History of Kew Botanic Garden

Previous - Next

637. The botanic garden at Kew is generally considered the richest in England. Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon it the immense collections of plants and seeds obtained in his voyages; and since his time his example has been followed by most travellers. The garden has been lately greatly improved by Sir William Jackson Hooker, who was appointed director in the spring of 1841; and from that gentleman's description of the garden, published in 1847, the following short account is abridged. 'About the middle of the seventeenth century the spot that now forms the Royal Gardens of Kew, together with a residence called Kew House, belonged to R. Bennett, Esq., whose daughter and heiress married Lord Capel.' This nobleman appears to have been very fond of his garden; and among other things he planted two lentisks or mastic trees, for which he paid forty pounds, and four white-striped and variegated hollies, which cost him five pounds each tree. Kew House and grounds afterwards passed into the hands of Mr. Molyneux, secretary to George II. when Prince of Wales, and who married Lady Elizabeth Capel. The Prince of Wales, son to George II. and father of George III., admiring the situation of Kew House, took a long lease of it from the Capel family about the year 1730, and began to lay out the pleasure-grounds, consisting nearly of 170 acres. These grounds were completed after the death of the prince by his widow, the Princess Dowager of Wales, who; assisted by the Earl of Bute, first established the botanic garden. In 1759 Mr. William Aiton was placed in charge of the botanic garden, which from that period increased rapidly. About the year 1789, his majesty George III. purchased the property, and, pulling down the house, annexed the grounds to a small red-brick dwelling which had been purchased some years previously for Queen Charlotte, and which has been since known by the name of Kew Palace. The grounds at Kew remained as a private garden belonging to the royal family till the year 1840, when they were relinquished by her present majesty Queen Victoria, 'and placed under the control of the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Woods and Forests, with the view of rendering them available for the general good.' The great or old stove was erected in these gardens, as early as 1760, by Sir William Chambers. 'It still exists, and must have been a remarkable structure for that time, being 114 feet long.' In 1761 an orangery was erected, also, by Sir William Chambers. It is 145 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 25 feet high. 'In 1788, a greenhouse was built for Cape plants, 110 feet long (which still remains); and another for the vegetable productions of New Holland, nearly the same size, was added in 1792.' A catalogue of the plants in this garden was first published by Dr. Hill, in 1768, but it was afterwards succeeded by a much more elaborate work, entitled the Hortus Kewensis, which was published by Mr. Aiton, in 1789, and of which many editions have appeared. Various stoves, greenhouses, and pits were erected during the early part of the reign of George III.; but during the latter part of his reign, and during the whole of that of his successor, George IV., Kew Gardens were comparatively neglected; but in the reign of William IV. a large conservatory was removed from Buckingham Palace to Kew, and erected there in 1836. In 1840 these gardens were very much neglected, and at so low an ebb, that it was stated in the papers of the day, that the Earl of Surrey, then Lord Treasurer of Her Majesty's household, made an offer, on the part of the government, to the council of the Horticultural Society, to sell the whole collection of plants in the Kew Gardens, there being an intention of employing the ground for raising culinary vegetables, and the houses for forcing. Happily this design was given up; and the gardens, under the care of Sir W. Jackson Hooker, have risen to a degree of eminence that they never before attained. In 1842 was begun an immense palm-house (fig. 203.) which occupies an area 362 feet in length. The centre is 100 feet wide, and 66 feet high to the summit of the lantern. The wings are 50 feet wide and 30 feet high. This house was finished in 1848. The extent of glass required for covering this vast building is 360,000 square feet. This immense building was finished, and the plants removed into it, in the autumn of 1848. It is impossible for any garden to be more improved in a short time than that of Kew, since it has been under the care of Sir W. J. Hooker. Not only have the plants in the open air been carefully re-arranged; but the plants in the greenhouses and stoves have been thrown into natural groups, so that the principles of classification may now be studied in the plant-houses as well as in the open air.