Paradise Row, south side: The Physic Garden

Pages 15-22

Survey of London: Volume 2, Chelsea, Pt I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1909.

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(Formerly the Botanic Garden of the Apothecaries' Company.)

The story of this famous Physic Garden at Chelsea has been told, at length, by many writers, but it is worth the re-telling, in however brief a form. And even if it had lacked the historic interest which it possesses, the garden would have demanded a place in our survey, by virtue of its present interest and beauty. Bowack was perhaps a little imaginative when he wrote of Chelsea in 1705:—"This happy spot is likewise blest by Nature with a peculiar kind of soil which produceth nine or ten rare physical plants not found elsewhere in England, and the Apothecaries' Garden here lying upon the Thames side is a clear instance of the opinion the learned Botanists of their Society had of the aptitude of the soil for the nourishment of the most curious plants." Aided by careful cultivation and constant renewal, the soil in this little plot of land has been able to produce—during the 236 years which have seen it in cultivation—a vast quantity of plants, each the subject of curious inquiry and study, and the means of adding greatly to the increase in the knowledge of botany throughout that period.

The annals of the garden have been faithfully transcribed by H. Field in his "Memoirs of the Botanic Gardens at Chelsea" (1820), and have been revised and continued by R.H. Semple (1878). The interesting material thus gathered together has been told afresh by Mr. Reginald Blunt in his charming book, Paradise Row, and it is to these authors that we must direct our readers, not forgetting the pages of the Rev. A. G. L'Estrange in his Village of Palaces. The following notes touch lightly on this absorbing subject.

Under the date of June 10, 1658, John Evelyn has the following note in his diary:—"I went to see the medical garden at Westminster, well stored with plants under Morgan, a skilful botanist." This is supposed to have been an earlier Physic Garden belonging to the Society of Apothecaries, for in 1676 the Court of Assistants agreed to take the lease over from the tenant, Mrs. Gape, in order to remove the plants to their newly-established garden at Chelsea. Two well-known botanic gardens existed before this, that of John Gerard in Holborn in the latter part of the 16th century, and that of John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I., in South Lambeth, established c. 1630. Even before this, Dr. William Turner had the care of a botanic garden, early in the 16th century, for the Duke of Somerset at Syon House, and when he became Dean of Wells he established one at his Deanery. He wrote his illustrated Herbal in 1551. At Oxford, in 1622, the Earl of Danby founded the "Physic Garden for the improvement of the faculty of medicine."

The Society of Apothecaries desired, in 1673, to obtain a suitable site for their barge house, and no better could be found than that of the present garden at Chelsea. Accordingly, in the same year, they obtained a lease of the land from Charles Cheyne, lord of the manor, at the annual rent of £5. In the following year a subscription was raised among 14 members of the Company to build a wall round the garden, and two years later the resolution above referred to was taken regarding the transfer of plants from Westminster to Chelsea.

The first gardener, whose name was Piggott, left in 1677, and Richard Pratt was appointed in his place, being given lodging and a salary of £30 a year. The garden was already producing herbs for the laboratory, and fruit trees were then planted. In 1680, John Watts, a member of the Company, became Curator, and in 1682 an exchange of plants was made with Dr. Herman, Professor of Botany at Leyden. Soon afterwards, the four cedar trees were planted which were to give the garden so much distinction and beauty. They were at first 3 feet high, and on measuring the two that remained in 1793, Sir Joseph Banks found the larger one to possess a girth of close upon 13 feet.

On August 7th, 1685, Evelyn writes as follows:—"I went to see Mr. Watts, keeper of the Apothecaries' garden of Simples at Chelsea, where there is a collection of innumerable varieties of that sort; particularly, besides many rare annuals, the tree bearing Jesuits' bark, which has done such wonders in quartan agues. What was very ingenious was the subterraneous heat, conveyed by a stove under the conservatory, all vaulted with brick, so as he has the doores and windowes open in the hardest frosts, secluding only the snow." There is preserved in the 12th volume of Archæologia a description of the garden in 1691, copied from an original MS. in the possession of the Rev. Dr. Hamilton, vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, in which allusion is made to "the perennial green hedges and rows of different coloured herbs," and to "the banks set with shades of herbs in the Irish stitch-way."

Mr. Samuel Doody, a member of the Company, became curator in 1693. His name occurs in the rate-books as the representative of the Apothecaries, until the year of his death in 1706. He was a well-known naturalist and earned the praise of Ray in his "Synopsis." He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1695. About this time there was much searching of heart among the members of the Society of Apothecaries as to whether they could really afford the heavy annual charge which the garden laid upon them. They had made great sacrifices in a public cause, and their public spirit has been rightly praised. There were, however, many periods of doubt and perplexity. A committee was formed on which James Petiver served as their leading member, but the deliberations of this body did not produce any definite results. Petiver died in 1718, six years after the purchase of the manor by Sir Hans Sloane. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and had made a large collection of natural specimens, which was bought by Sloane after his death. Ray refers to him as "non postremæ notæ botanicus, mei amicissimus."

By this time Sir Hans Sloane had become well acquainted with the position of affairs at the Chelsea garden, and in 1722 he generously conveyed the land to the Society of Apothecaries, in the form of a perpetual lease at the yearly rental of £5, as long as they preserved it to its original purpose as a botanic garden, and on the further condition of presenting to the Royal Society 2,000 specimens at the rate of 50 a year. The lease ordained that the garden should be "for the manifestation of the power, wisdom, and glory of God in the works of creation." It further provided, in the event of the failure of the Apothecaries in this trust, that the garden could be taken by the Royal Society, or, on their refusal, by the College of Physicians, on the same terms.

In this year (1722) Philip Miller, the well-known botanist and horticulturalist, was appointed gardener here, on the nomination of Sir Hans Sloane, and began his long term of office, which did not end until his retirement in 1770. We have already noticed his house in Swan Walk. He drew up in 1730 the first official catalogue of the plants in the Chelsea garden, written in English and Latin, classified according to the system devised by Ray. Three years before this, Sir Hans Sloane had become president of the Royal Society, in succession to Sir Isaac Newton, whose name is also to be found in the Chelsea rate-books for the year 1709, when he lived in the house built on the site of the old "Ship," which faced Burton's Court at the East end of Paradise Row, and is now occupied by Durham House. In 1732 Sir Hans Sloane laid the foundation stone of the new garden buildings, which included a greenhouse and two hothouses, and cost little short of £2,000. A plan of the garden showing the buildings, and drawn by the architect, Edward Oakley, is given on Plate 12. Whether the garden was ever laid out in this manner we do not know. The architect has evidently desired to arrange the beds parallel with his buildings, but the cedar trees, which were planted in a line with the river, traverse the symmetry of the plan, and must have had an odd effect. In this year the Society of Apothecaries arranged to send a representative to Georgia periodically to collect specimens. In 1733 was passed the resolution which gave the garden its marble statue of Sir Hans Sloane, placed originally in front of the greenhouse. Michael Rysbrach was the sculptor and the work was set up in 1737.

In 1736 the garden was visited by Linnæus. In his diary is the note: "Miller of Chelsea permitted me to collect many plants in the garden, and gave me several dried specimens collected in South America." The year 1739 saw the publication of the Index Compendiarius of the plants at Chelsea, by Isaac Rand, F.R.S., who held the office of "Horti præfectus" and demonstrator of botany, his duties being to inspect the garden and to give lectures on botany to students. Somewhat jealous of his position Mr. Rand had hastened to prepare his Index, written only in Latin, as a rival publication to Miller's Catalogue, the preparation of which he considered was a usurpation of the privilege of the demonstrator.

Both Mr. Rand and Mr. Miller assisted Mrs. Elizabeth Blackwell at this time in the preparation of her Curious Herbal, a somewhat celebrated book, which cost her four or five years' hard work in the Physic Garden. In consequence of her husband's misfortunes she had contrived this means of supporting herself, and when the book was published with its 500 illustrations of the most valuable plants in the garden, coloured by her own hand, it met with a deserved success. We have seen that the name of her husband, Alexander Blackwell, occurs in the rate-books, apparently for No. 4 Swan Walk, from 1736 to 1739. His strange career as physician, printer, bankrupt, and his tragic fate in 1747 in Sweden, where he was beheaded for supposed connivance in some revolutionary plot, have been told by all Chelsea historians. He and his wife resided in Swan Walk during the preparation of the Herbal, but Elizabeth Blackwell's success did not save him from the misfortunes which he seemed almost to seek. She died in 1758 and was buried in the churchyard of the Old Church.

In 1748 the buildings of the garden were put into a thorough state of repair. Dr. John Wilmer was appointed Demonstrator of Botany in the place of Joseph Miller, who had succeeded Isaac Rand in 1743. We shall see that Dr. Wilmer occupied Sir Francis Windham's house in Paradise Row(No. 3A) from 1758 to 1765. It was to his instruction that Faulkner attributes the early interest in botany acquired by John Martyn, Professor in this subject at the University of Cambridge. Martyn was a versatile and voluminous writer, and lived in Chelsea for many years, where he married Eulalia, youngest daughter of the rector, Dr. John King.

Sir Hans Sloane's statue was removed to its present position in the centre of the garden in 1751, the date of the engraved plan by John Haynes reproduced on Plate 13. Here we may see the later arrangement of the garden, and the way in which the line of the river, the buildings, and the cedars—now important trees—have been harmonised. The inscriptions on the pedestal of the statue are as follows:—




There does not seem to have been any residence for the gardener in the Physic Garden itself, as late as 1761, when Philip Miller presented a memorial requesting the Society to provide him with a dwelling. Dr. Wilmer and Mr. Joseph Miller were instructed to arrange this, and in 1762, as we have seen, Philip Miller left his house in Swan Walk. His resignation of his position of gardener took place in 1771, after a term of service of just upon 50 years. Miller wrote the Gardener's Dictionary, and in the 7th edition (1759) he adopted the classification of Linnaeus. He was also author of "A Short Introduction to the knowledge of the Science of Botany, explaining the terms of Art made use of in the Linnæan System" (1760). He was a fellow of the Royal Society and wrote other well known-works on botany. He died 18 December 1771. In 1815 the members of the Linnæan and Horticultural Societies raised a monument to his memory in the churchyard of Chelsea Old Church, where he was buried.

Two contemporary references to the Physic Garden of this period are worth quoting as they show the cultivation of the tea-plant, which must then have been rare and evidently attracted considerable notice. Mr. L'Estrange quotes the following from a letter written by Horace Walpole in 1743 to Sir Horace Mann:—"For the tea-trees, it is my brother Edward's fault whom I desired as he was in Chelsea to get some from the Physic Garden; he forgot it, but now that I am in town myself, if possible you shall have some seed." And Count Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravian settlement, which we shall notice in another volume, under Lindsey House, refers to—
The Physick Garden wherein grows
The love-feast Tea for all the house,
in one of the curious hymns published for the Moravians in 1749.

L'Estrange tells us further, that "Mr. Philip Miller received the seeds of mignonette from Dr. Adrian Van Rozen of Leyden and cultivated it here at Chelsea in 1752, whence it was taken into the gardens of the London florists. It had been previously grown in 1742 at Old Windsor."

The satirical literature of the time did not miss the opportunities afforded by the garden for sly hits at a science which does not always appeal to the uninitiated. Dr. William King, in A Journey to London, etc. (1699), revels in a pseudo-botanical nomenclature: "I was at Chelsea," he says, "where I took particular notice of these plants in the greenhouse at the time—as Urtica Maleolens Japonica, the stinking nettle of Japan, Goosberia Sterilis Armeniæ, the Armenian gooseberry bush that bears no fruit—this had been potted 30 years—Cordis quies Persiæ, which the English call heart's-ease or love-inidleness—a very curious plant, Brambelia fructificans Laplandiæ, or the blooming bramble of Lapland, with a hundred other curious plants—as a particular collection of briars and thorns, which were some part of the curse of Creation." John Martyn, whom we have already mentioned, gave a whimsical account in the Grub Street Journal, of a lady bereft of speech, who, guided by a dream, had come to the Physic Garden and had eaten a plant which restored to her the use of her tongue. To which the editor adds, that he has purposely suppressed that part of his correspondent's letter which gives the name and description of so pernicious a plant. And in the Rambler Dr. Johnson tells how Polyphilus, the dilettante and professor of many sciences, journeys to Chelsea to see a new plant in flower.

In 1771 came the beginning of the end of the old Physic Garden as it was in its prime. We read that in this year "the two northern cedar trees were cut down, together with several lime and elm trees, and some others." In spite of the loss in appearance and beauty the work of the garden went on apace and exchanges of plants were effected between Chelsea and the gardens of the Princess Dowager at Kew, of the Duke of Northumberland at Syon, and a dozen more of note.

From 1773 to 1777, William Curtis, the author of that delightful and monumental work, Flora Londinensis, held the office of demonstrator. His book, although unfinished, constitutes a very important contribution to the complete historical survey of London, at which we are ourselves aiming, for it portrays in the most beautiful and precise manner, the flora of the fields and lanes that are now covered with suburban houses. He was also the founder of the Botanical Magazine, which has lasted from 1787 to the present day.

Sir Joseph Banks, who was much associated with Chelsea and the Physic Garden, was the donor of many hundreds of packets of seeds, collected on his voyages, and presented in 1778, 1781 and 1790. Another of the interesting figures connected with the garden was Thomas Wheeler, who was demonstrator in 1778 at the age of 24,and held the position for 42 years. It was the function of the demonstrator or horti præfectus, to lead the "herborisings" or botanical excursions, which were first instituted in 1633, and were the means of much valuable instruction and research. Mr. Wheeler was an enthusiastic leader of these excursions, and he accompanied them until 1834, when they were abandoned. He was then in his 81st year. He was succeeded in his office of demonstrator by his third son James Lowe Wheeler, who published in 1830 his Catalogus Rationalis of the contents of the garden. During this period there were lectures every Wednesday in the summer, and the herborisings were regularly attended, until in 1834 Thomas Wheeler died, and his son resigned his position at Chelsea.

The subsequent history of the garden is a somewhat chequered one. Its very existence seemed threatened more than once, for the soil was becoming exhausted, the atmosphere was no longer pure, and the expenses of upkeep tended to increase. In 1876 the Chelsea Embankment was made, and everyone who knows the beauty of a riverside garden will appreciate the loss which this severance from the water inflicted upon the charming plot of herbs and flowers. In 1875 the third of the giant cedars had to be removed, and in 1903 the last one was cut down.

The Apothecaries were doomed to fight a losing game. They made one or two gallant attempts to rally their forces, and in 1862 the garden was well patronised and was the means of much useful work. In July, 1890, however, it was temporarily closed, and in 1893 the Society applied to the Charity Commissioners to sanction the relinquishment of their trust. This gave rise to a public enquiry into the matter, and a solution of the difficulty was happily found, which has preserved the garden to Chelsea and to the lovers and students of botany for ever. The following is an extract from an account of the proceedings by Mr. W. Hales, the present Curator:—"In 1897 the question of the suitability of the garden for botanical purposes was gone into by a Treasury Committee, consisting of Sir Henry Longley, Sir W.T. Thiselton Dyer, and Mr. Spring Rice. This Committee reported that they were sure that, if properly administered, the garden was capable of being usefully employed for botanical science at the present time, and that there was a large number of students of botany to whom the garden would be an immense advantage, both as a place to see growing plants and from which specimens could be obtained. In the scheme sanctioned by the Charity Commissioners the trustees of the London Parochial Charities are the sole trustees of the garden, the management being vested in a Committee of seventeen members, nine of which are nominated by the London Parochial Charities, one each by the Treasury, the Lord President of the Council, the Technical Education Board of the London County Council, the Royal Society, the Pharmaceutical Society, the University of London, the Society of Apothecaries, and the Royal College of Physicians, in turns."

The work of this new Committee started in 1899. They expended some £6,000 in new buildings, which are partly on the site of those then pulled down, but are set back to admit of the widening of the road. This entailed also the destruction of the old wall that skirted Paradise Row. On the 25th July the garden was re-opened by Lord Cadogan, and since then it has been rapidly gaining a sphere of usefulness, which will compare well with its earlier days.

We have already touched upon the distinguished men most intimately connected with the fortunes of this garden. Mr. Hales reminds us of others:—"James Sherard, brother of the founder of the famous Sherardian Professorship of Botany at Oxford; William Hudson, author of Flora Anglica; William Forsyth, immortalised in the genus Forsythia; Robert Fortune, who went to China and sent home so many beautiful plants for our gardens; Dr. Lindley, the most famous botanist of his day, and Thomas Moore, author of numerous works on Ferns and general horticulture."

Our illustrations include a view of the two cedars that outlived their fellows for many years, a drawing of the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, the presiding genius of the garden, and a photograph of the old lead tank, whose date, however (1670), points to an earlier source than the garden at Chelsea. The old wall in Swan Walk remains to remind us of its past history, and near the Students' entrance here, a stone is still to be seen inscribed with the name of its solicitous guardians for two centuries:—


Bibliographical references.

1685. Evelyn's Diary, Aug. 7, 1685.
1691. Rev. Dr. Hamilton, View of Gardens, &c. Archæologia, Vol. 12.
1705. John Bowack, Antiquities of Middlesex.
1730. A Short Account, &c. (folio sheet), apparently an official account of the garden, mentioned by Faulkner.
1732. Edward Oakley, Architect. Engraved plan of garden.
1739. William Maitland, History of London (p. 601).
1751. J. Haynes. An Accurate Survey, &c. (engraved plan).
1795. Rev. Daniel Lysons, Environs of London. (Extra illustrated copy, Guildhall.) John Martyn, Life of Philip Miller.
1809. Thomas Faulkner, Chelsea and its Environs (2nd edition, 1829).
1820. H. Field, Memoirs of the Botanic Gardens at Chelsea. Revised and continued by R. H. Semple (1878).
1880. Rev. A. G. L'Estrange, The Village of Palaces.
1892. Alfred Beaver, Memorials of Old Chelsea.
1906. Reginald Blunt, Paradise Row.
Also The Chelsea Miscellany, Chelsea Public Library.

In the committee's ms. collection are—

3142. Old wall of garden in Queen's Road West (photograph).
3143. Statue of Sir Hans Sloane (photograph).
3144. (fn. 1) Lead cistern (photograph).


  • 1. Reproduced here.