The University of Cambridge: The Botanic Garden

Pages 324-325

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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After several unsuccessful attempts during the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, a University Botanic Garden was finally established at Cambridge between 1760 and 1763. This was not on the site of the present Garden, but in the centre of the town, on about 5 acres of land then occupied by 'The Mansion House' of the old Augustinian friary, and today by the Cavendish Laboratory and other university buildings. (fn. 1) It was Dr. Richard Walker, Vice-Master of Trinity College, who, on the advice of Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden, purchased the property for £1,600, and presented it to the University for use as a Botanic Garden. For some years the Garden was known as the Walkerian Botanic Garden, and there is, at the present Garden, a Walkerian Society named in honour of its founder.

The Walkerian Garden was laid out and developed by the then professor of botany, Thomas Martyn, with the help of the first Curator, Charles Miller, son of Philip Miller of Chelsea. Glasshouses and a lecture room for the professor were built and the teaching of botany in Cambridge, which was then at a low ebb, received, for a time, a considerable stimulus. This improvement, however, did not last for long. Miller left in 1770 and Martyn, after 1798, visited Cambridge only occasionally until his death in 1825. (fn. 2) About 1790 James Donn was appointed Curator and in 1796 he published the first edition of Hortus Cantabrigiensis, a list of the plants in the Garden which reached its 13th edition in 1845, long after Donn's death.

In 1825 J. S. Henslow, Charles Darwin's teacher at Cambridge, succeeded Martyn as professor of botany and soon realized that a larger site, farther from the centre of Cambridge, was desirable for the Botanic Garden. (fn. 3) In 1831 the University purchased the present site of about 40 acres to the south of the town on the Trumpington Road, and in 1846 the first tree was planted. (fn. 4) It had been the intention to lay out the whole 40 acres as a Botanic Garden, but presumably funds were lacking, and in fact only 20 acres were planted, the remainder being let out as allotments.

The planning of the new Garden was carried out by Professor Henslow, assisted by young Charles Babington, who later succeeded Henslow as professor. The land was flat and unpromising as a garden site, but the layout was planned with great skill, utilizing an old gravel pit to construct a lake with a high mound running into it. Trees and shrubs were planted according to their botanical sequence, a range of glasshouses was built in the sixties, and a rock garden, one of the earliest of its kind in the country, was constructed about the same time. The Garden has also long been known for its many fine specimens of rare trees. By the seventies the main features of the Garden had been developed and, under the well-known horticulturist R. Irwin Lynch (Curator 1879–1919), it was ready to play its part in the great expansion of botanical teaching and research that was about to take place at Cambridge. During the early years of the 20th century much of the pioneer work of William Bateson, C. C. Hurst, and E. R. Saunders on plant genetics was carried out at the Garden, and it was later used for researches on plant physiology by F. F. Blackman and G. E. Briggs, and on plant pathology by F. T. Brooks and others. In 1919 F. G. Preston succeeded Lynch as Curator and two years later the University appointed H. Gilbert-Carter as the first scientific Director of the Garden. R. W. Younger and J. S. L. Gilmour succeeded Preston and Gilbert-Carter respectively in 1947 and 1951.

In 1934 occurred an event which has profoundly affected the scope and development of the Garden. In that year Reginald Cory, of Trinity College, who had been a generous benefactor during his lifetime, bequeathed, in his will, the residue of his estate to the Botanic Garden. The sum, at first, was thought not to be a large one, but in 1943, owing to various causes, the value of the benefaction increased to nearly half a million pounds, thus completely transforming the prospects of the Garden.

During the war it was not, of course, possible to carry out any developments with the Cory Fund, but, in 1946, a programme was begun which it is hoped to complete by 1960, the bicentenary of the founding of the original Garden. The main item in this development is the carrying out of the University's original intention to incorporate into the Botanic Garden the whole forty acres purchased in 1831. By 1955 the greater part of the allotments had been cleared and the laying-out of the area as part of the Garden was well in hand. A new entrance, designed by Professor Sir Albert Richardson, is to be constructed at the war memorial roundabout in Hills Road, and other features which are complete or under construction include a garden for plants at their best during the winter, a collection of trees that flourished in Europe before the Ice Age, a new herbaceous border, and an 'ecological area' composed of different types of habitat for growing British plants in their natural settings. In addition, nearly four acres are devoted to the growing of plants for purposes of botanical research, and a laboratory and experimental glasshouses are being built. In the old part of the Garden the Cory Fund has been used to construct a new rock garden by the lake and to acquire an adjacent house for offices and a library. Mr. Cory's generous benefaction has enabled Cambridge to develop one of the finest University Botanic Gardens in the world.

The Botanic Garden ranks as a sub-department of the botany school and its main functions are to provide facilities for botanical teaching and research in the University. More than 40,000 specimens are supplied each year for practical work at the botanical laboratory and the students visit the Garden frequently in connexion with their courses.

The general policy of the Garden is directed by a syndicate, of which the professor of botany is the chairman, and a separate university body, the Cory Managers, established in 1944, administer the Cory Fund. The Garden, therefore, is a purely university institution, but it serves, also, as a 'park' for the city of Cambridge, as it is open to the public free of charge on weekdays, and on Sundays to those who subscribe for a 'Sunday key'. This dual role, as a park and as a scientific establishment, creates, not unnaturally, certain problems of administration, but the public, on the whole, respects the botanical purpose of the Garden and the University is glad to welcome as many as may care to visit it.


  • 1. The following are the main sources used: J. Donn, Hortus Cantabrigiensis (1796); H. Gilbert-Carter, Guide to the University Botanic Garden (1947); R. I. Lynch, 'Trees of the Cambridge Botanic Garden', Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, xli (1915–16); T. Martyn, Catalogus Horti Botanici Cantabrigiensis (1776); F. G. Preston, 'University Botanic Garden, Cambridge', Jnl. of Royal Hort. Soc. lxv (1940); H. P. Stokes and D. H. S. Cranage, 'The Augustinian Friary in Cambridge, and the History of its Site', C.A.S. Comm. xxii (1917–20); Short Account of the late Donation of a Botanic Garden to the University of Cambridge . . . (1763).
  • 2. See above, p. 234; for the old site see plate opposite.
  • 3. See above, p. 249.
  • 4. See above, p. 236.