The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 12 Historical Gardens

Chelsea Physic Garden and the Apothecaries Company

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The most important of Chelsea gardens, and one of the most interesting in England, is the Physic Garden, which lies between the Embankment and Queen's Road, now called Royal Hospital Road. The Garden, both horticulturally, botanically, and historically, has claims on every Londoner. England was much behind the rest of Europe in starting botanic gardens. That of Padua, begun in 1545, was the first on the Continent, and it was nearly a hundred years later before any were attempted in this country. Oxford led the way in 1632, and the Chelsea one followed in 1673. Its formation was due to the Apothecaries' Company, and its first object the study of medicinal herbs. In those days botany and medicine were closely entwined. Every botanical and horticultural work was occupied with the virtues and properties of plants, far more than their structural peculiarities, or their beauties of form or growth, Gerard, Johnson, and less well-known botanists, were herbalists and apothecaries, so it was only natural that the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries should be the founders of a garden. It was not the first of its kind in London, but it ranks now as the second oldest in England, as its predecessors in London, such as Gerard's Garden in Holborn, and the Tradescants in Lambeth, have long since passed away. It probably, moreover, embodies the earlier one at Westminster, which was under the care of Hugh Morgan, said by his contemporaries to be a very skilful botanist. The Westminster Garden seems to have been still flourishing when the Apothecaries started theirs in Chelsea, but three years later it was bought by them, one of the conditions of sale being that the plants might be moved to Chelsea. The land in Chelsea was leased from Lord Cheyne. By the time the lease had expired, Sir Hans Sloane was owner of the property, having purchased it from Lord Cheyne in 1712. He granted the land to the Apothecaries' Company on a yearly rent of �5, on condition that it should always be maintained as a Physic Garden, and certain other conditions, such as supplying a number of specimens to the Royal Society. The deed of gift further provided that should the Apothecaries not continue to fulfil their obligation, the Garden should be held in trust by the Royal Society, and should they not wish to take it over, by the College of Physicians. It was acting in conformity with these wishes, that, when the Apothecaries ceased to desire to maintain it, the Charity Commissioners, in 1898, established a scheme for the management of the Garden: �800 towards its maintenance was provided by the London Parochial Charities, who became trustees of the Garden, and �150 by the Treasury. A committee was appointed to manage the Garden, and see that it fulfilled the founder's intentions. The original societies mentioned by Sir Hans Sloane, the Treasury, the London County Council, and other modern bodies each nominate one representative on the board of management, and the trustees appoint nine. It has been worked under this scheme since May 1899. The buildings and green-houses, which were tumbling down, have been rebuilt, and now include up-to-date conveniences for growing and rearing plants, and a well-fitted laboratory and lecture room. The Garden is certainly now fulfilling the purposes for which it was founded. It has proved to be of the greatest use to the students of the Royal College of Science, and members of schools and polytechnics. Cut specimens, for demonstration at lectures, are sent out in quantities during the summer, often as many as 750 in a day. Students and teachers have admission to the Garden, and the numbers who come (nearly 3000 is the average annual attendance) show it is appreciated. Lectures on advanced botany have been attended by an average of seventy students, and research experiments are carried on in the laboratory. Seeds are exchanged with botanical gardens all over the world, to the extent of over a thousand packets in a year. In this it is carrying on a very early tradition, as seeds were exchanged with the University of Leyden in 1682, after Dr. Herman, from that city, had visited Chelsea.