Many people would be surprised to learn that there is a small part of West London, not far from the Albert Bridge, where you can stroll through gardens that have changed little during the past three centuries. Here you can see a grade II* listed rockery, the oldest in Europe, and the UK’s largest olive tree.
The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 on a four acre plot of land in the privately owned Manor of Chelsea. It was leased from Buckinghamshire MP, Charles Cheyne, by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries so that they could plant a garden where students could learn to identify the medicinal plants that they would one day prepare for their customers. Additionally, it would provide somewhere they could build a boathouse for their official barge.
Since its completion there have been many Curators of the Physic Garden. One of the earliest was John Watts, and it was he who instigated the plant and seed exchange programme in 1682. This scheme, which still continues today, allows botanical gardens around the world to increase the diversity of their flora by sending out specimens to other gardens and receiving new plants in return.
In 1712 Charles Cheyne sold his estate to Dr Hans Sloane, the noted physician and collector whose extensive assortment of curiosities would one day be left to the nation as the basis of the British Museum. Sloane, himself, had studied at the Physic Garden in his youth, and became concerned when he saw the Apothecaries’ difficulties in maintaining their tenure. In 1722 he guaranteed them a permanent lease for the fixed amount of five pounds per year, an arrangement which is still ongoing.
That same year he appointed acclaimed botanist Philip Miller as Gardener (Curator). It was under this gifted individual’s stewardship that the botanical garden rose in prestige to become a world famous site. The seed exchange thrived, not least because Miller was extraordinarily successful in cultivating plants never before grown in Britain. He was generous too in passing on his knowledge to the young men who came to study.
One young student was Joseph Banks, later to achieve fame for his scientific voyages around the world. He contributed many plant specimens collected during his travels, and made a significant contribution the rock garden that was opened in 1773 in the form of lava brought back from a trip to Iceland.
After the medical reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century, botany was removed from the medical curriculum. The Physic Garden lost its importance as an educational resource, although it was still used for scientific research. In 1901 trusteeship passed from the Apothecaries to the City Parochial Foundation: a charitable institution. It retained control until 1983 when the Chelsea Physic Garden became a registered charity and opened its doors to the public for the very first time.
The British have always had a special relationship with nature, to the extent that we appreciate it wherever it may spring up. Such is the case with the Chelsea Physic Garden which has now become a popular London attraction.
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