Category Archives: London Parks and Gardens

Russell Square And Librairie Internationale

For this week’s post, I am in Russell Square in Bloomsbury, just north of Holborn Station. At 73 Russell Square was the Librairie Internationale and my father took three photos of this location in 1953. I suspect this may have been to capture people walking past and entering the shop. The three photos are shown below:

Russell Square

Russell Square

Russell Square

The location is easy to find and is on the corner of Russell Square and Guildford Street. A new building is on the site and rather than the Librairie Internationale, the site is now occupied by a Pret. The buildings on the left in Guildford Street remain unchanged.

Russell Square

It has been a challenge to find out more about the Librairie Internationale and any information would be greatly appreciated.

From what references I can find, the Librairie Internationale appears to have been somewhat of a Communist / Anarchist bookshop perhaps associated with the anarchist bookshops of the same name in France in the 19th Century (again, this is very sketchy information, so any corrections or further information would be appreciated).

I have found references to the Librairie Internationale selling copies of Karl Marx publications in the 1920s and in the 1930s as one of the bookshops in London where you could purchase pamphlets such as those produced by the London Freedom Group, whose paper “Freedom – A Journal of Libertarian Thought, Work And Literature” included the address of the Librairie Internationale in Russell Square as one of the London bookshops and newsagents where Freedom could be purchased.

Freedom makes interesting reading. It was published by the London Freedom Group and had an editorial address at 163 Jubilee Street, Mile End.

Despite being something of an anarchist publication, Freedom has a very polite tone. The issue of January 1931 contains an obituary of a Mrs Dryhurst and reads:

“Mrs N.F. Dryhurst’s smiling, charming face was, since the late 80’s, noticeable at all meetings of the Anarchist cause, speaking, debating, handing out bills, or going round with the collection plate; nothing was too much or too little for her to do.

In ‘Freedom’ she occupied a most important position: often editing while Mrs. Wilson was away; writing up notes and comments on contemporary events; corresponding with comrades all over the country; getting them to send up reports of propaganda; putting ship-shape all their notices and reports.

With her command of foreign languages she was able to render great service to ‘Freedom’ in translating and reviewing works; while her inborn Irish humour added charm to all her writing.

I cannot but recall with feelings of deep gratitude how Mrs. Dryhurst, during those years, would in spite of her middle-class education and upbringing, cordially interest herself in and render help to every comrade of the most down-trodden class who was fortunate enough to come in contact with her.”

In the correspondence section there is a letter from the Polish Anarchist Committee which reads:

“The Committee of Polish Anarchists abroad wish to inform all those comrades who desire to get into contact with us that our new address for correspondence and money is Madam Andree Peche, 15 Rue du Faubourg, Saint-Denis, Paris.”

I have ready many books and documents in researching articles for my blog and I am often struck by words that have been written many decades ago which you could also find being written today.

Take the following paragraphs from an article in Freedom of January 1931, 86 years ago this month.

“It has been pointed out that just as the old individualist capitalist is passing away, becoming, in the face of International Capitalism, merely a kind of rudimentary organ in a newer and world-wide industrial system, so national governments become more and more helpless to remedy unemployment. They belong to a passing era.

Still, in spite of the impotence of governments, the present slump, like previous ones, will liquidate itself largely  at the expense of the workers, and be followed by a boom period, in which the lessons of the present will be largely forgotten unless we are able to increase our propaganda and keep them alive. As soon as the boom appears, financial operations in industry – now passing more and more into the hands of the big banks and international financiers – will be busy transforming industrial undertakings wherever they are ripe for it, into international concerns.”

Echoes today of the way that international concerns treat taxation and the inability of individual governments to exercise control.

Probably unfair to base a view of the Librairie Internationale on the contents of one publication that could be purchased at the shop in 1931 – however I have been able to find very little information about this book shop.

When my father took these photos in 1953, global politics were entering a very new era compared to the 1930s and I wonder if the Librairie Internationale was still selling the types of publication available pre-war. Looking at the detail in my father’s photos it looks very much like a normal bookshop / newsagent.

Around the door are copies of American magazines including Life and Colliers Magazine and in the shop there are large maps on display along with signs advertising Easter Cards, Book Tokens and a sign to “Scatter Sunshine With Greeting Cards”, along with pictures of Queen Elizabeth II.

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In the entrance to the shop, it is just possible to make out lettering on the pavement.

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The same sign (or perhaps a later reproduction) remains to this day at the entrance to Pret. The Turkish Baths that the sign is pointing to were a short distance away from the Librairie Internationale, in the original Imperial Hotel.

Russell Square

There is still an Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, although the existing building replaces the original which was demolished in 1966 and was the home of the Turkish Baths Arcade. View of the current Imperial Hotel from opposite Pret.

Russell Square

The full view of the Imperial Hotel.

Russell Square

The original Imperial Hotel was design by Charles Fitzroy Doll and built between 1905 and 1911. View of the Imperial Hotel in the 1960s before demolition:

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Hermione Hobhouse in her book Lost London from 1971 writes the following about the Imperial Hotel:

“The Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1966, partly because of its lack of bathrooms, and partly because, in the words of the G.L.C., ‘the whole frame….was so structurally unsound that there was no possibility of saving it if a preservation order had been placed on the building.’ It may have been a victim, too, of the time-lag in official taste – it is interesting to see that in 1970-1 the owners of the Russell Hotel, a similar but less extravagant terracotta building designed by Doll in 1898, now on the statutory list of historic buildings, are spending £1 million on restoration, rather than just demolishing and rebuilding.”

The Russell Hotel (now called The Principal London) is still on Russell Square but when I visited the Square the majority of the building was covered in scaffolding and plastic sheeting so very little of the building was visible.

Having found the location of the Librairie Internationale I took a walk around Russell Square in the gradually fading light of a sunny December afternoon.

The Square, and Bloomsbury in general, needs a far more detailed description of this fascinating area, however here is an introduction.

Russell Square is the large square in the upper section of the map below, and Bloomsbury Square is in the lower right. Originally Bedford House looked onto Bloomsbury Square and the house and gardens covered the area now occupied by the land in between Russell and Bloomsbury Square and part of Russell Square.

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Bedford House was the London home of the Dukes of Bedford and in 1800, the 5th Duke, Sir Francis Russell ordered the demolition of Bedord House and arranged for the land of northern Bloomsbury to be developed with the architect James Burton responsible for much of the design. Russell Square was the centre piece of this development and the garden was designed by the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton.

Repton published Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening in 1803 which covered both his ideas on landscape gardening, but also how landscape and architecture should be seamlessly integrated. The book is fascinating and shows the level of detail that went into designing gardens in the 8th and 19th Centuries. The following illustration from the book shows how spectators at different points in a landscape would see a different view:

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John Rocque’s map of 1746 shows Bedford House and gardens north of Bloomsbury Square. The exact location of Russell Square can be identified by comparing with the location of Bloomsbury Square and, on the right, Queen’s Square.

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The following print (©Trustees of the British Museum) was published in 1822 (from an original drawing purchased at the sale in Bedford House) and shows Bedford House. the text reads:

“This Mansion which for more than a Century was the Town residence of the noble Family of Russel Earls and Dukes of BEDFORD: was built under the direction of the celebrated  Architect Inigo Jones on the site of an ancient Mansion called Southampton House belonging in 1667 to Lady Rachel Vaughan, who married Wm. Lord Russell and by this Union conveyed the Estate, including the ground on which Montague House, now the British Museum was built to the Russell Family. In the year 1800 Bedford House was taken down, and upon the site of the Mansion House and Gardens a number of large Houses called Bedford Place and Montague Street were erected by Francis the late Duke of Bedford.”

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Walking up Bedford Place from Bloomsbury Square (which takes you through where the house and gardens once stood) you arrive at Russell Square with the statue of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, standing at the edge of the gardens looking down to where his house once stood.

Russell Square

The following print (©Trustees of the British Museum) from 1830 shows the statue of the Duke of Bedford in Russell Square with a group of people gathered to watch a puppet show on the road in front of the statue.

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The gardens were restored in 2002 to Repton’s original design.

Russell Square

Russell Square House on the northern side of the square.Russell Square

This building is on the site of a terrace of houses in one of which lived Sir George Williams, founder for the YMCA which is now recorded by a blue plaque on the front of the building.

Russell Square

Terrace of buildings on the northwest corner of Russell Square. I like the symmetry of the terrace above the ground floor (with the exception of one window on the roof). Not sure why this symmetry did not extend to the ground floor.

Russell Square

On the far right of the above terrace there is the plaque shown in the photo below commemorating Sir Samuel Romilly as a one time resident. Romilly had a distinguished career in the legal profession and was also the MP for Queensborough, but was mainly known for his reforming work by abolishing many of the penalties which were still considered a capital offence.

Russell Square

On the north-western side of the square is a run of relatively modern buildings in a neo-Georgian style.  These are on the site of a terrace of Georgian buildings built soon after 1800 and designed by James Burton. The new buildings were built in this style after so much of Georgian Bloomsbury had been destroyed by the University of London.

Russell Square

The Senate House building of London University seen between a gap in the buildings along the western edge of Russell Square.

Russell Square

Original Georgian Terrace on the south-west corner of Russell Square:

Russell Square

Terrace on the south-west corner adjacent to the junction with Montague Street:

Russell Square

At the corner of Bedford Place with Russell Square is this relatively modern building.

Russell Square

Above the entrance to this building is a plaque which was on the original house on the site from the time of the development of Russell Square, recording that Lord Denman, the Lord Chief Justice of England lived in the original house on the site between 1816 and 1834. The plaque on the left records that the original house had stood on the site from 1800 to 1962.

Russell Square

By the time I had walked around the square, the sun was getting very low and casting the whole of the square into a late winters afternoon shadow, however the sun was now picking out details at roof level which included a number of superb chimney pots including the ones in the following photo.

Russell Square

I am pleased I have found the location of the Librairie Internationale, although I am still unsure of the history of the shop and I have been unable to find any reference to when it opened or closed.  Any information on the Librairie Internationale would be really appreciated.

It was fascinating researching Russell Square as it illustrates the problem I have with writing a weekly post. One photo opened up anarchist organisations in London, the development of Bloomsbury and landscape gardening, a rather interesting mix in just one of London’s many squares.

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Autumn In The City

Whilst the majority of my father’s photos came to me as negatives, a number were printed, and of these some had the location written on the back. As well as the location, a few are also specific about the time of year as the photo reflects how London appears as the seasons change.

For this week’s post, I bring you two photos on which my father had written the simple title “Autumn in Finsbury Circus”.

Both were taken early in the morning and show autumnal light shining through the trees, with the first autumn leaves on the path. There are two photos, one showing a woman pushing what looks like a pram, whilst the second shows a man starting to sweep the fallen leaves.

City in Autumn 2

I suspect that he had taken these photos either for exhibition or competition at the St. Brides Institute Photographic Society as they have a more composed quality rather than the straight forward recording of London’s buildings and streets.

City in Autumn 1

To try and find the location of these photos, a day off from work last Friday provided the opportunity for an autumn walk around London.

Finsbury Circus is much the same today, with one significant exception being that it is a major construction site for Crossrail with the centre of the gardens in the middle of the square being used for access to Crossrail and sections of the path that runs round the perimeter of the gardens also being closed.

If I correctly located the buildings in the background, they were behind part of the closed off path, however parts that remain open provided the opportunity to show that not too much has changed (if you ignore the major construction site to your left).

City in Autumn 3

The layout of Finsbury Circus was established in the early 19th Century, with the office buildings we see today being built over the following century, with some redevelopment continuing today.

As one of the few areas of green space, the gardens were very popular with city workers, with a bandstand and bowling green occupying part of the centre of the gardens. A small, temporary bandstand remains today. The gardens at the centre of Finsbury Circus will be restored after the Crossrail works are complete.

The main entrance to the Crossrail construction site which currently occupies much of the gardens in the centre of Finsbury Circus.

City in Autumn 4

Walking in central London, there are very few indicators of the season of the year. Apart from temperature and the times of the rising and setting of the sun, it could be any time of year. The natural indicators of whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter are few and far between.

Taking inspiration from the title of my father’s photos, I thought it would be interesting to take a walk through the City and look for any other examples of where autumn can be found in amongst such a built environment.

The weather last Friday at least was very autumnal with strong winds and alternating between heavy showers of rain and clear blue sky (although in fairness that could be English weather at any time of year).

There are very few green spaces left in the City, the majority that remain are usually associated with a church, either still remaining or one that was lost in the last war, and it was to one of these that I headed to after Finsbury Circus.

This is the garden that occupies the site of St. Mary Aldermanbury. a church that was heavily damaged in the last war, not rebuilt and the remains shipped to America (see my first post here). Just south of London Wall at the corner of Aldermanbury and Love Lane.

A heavy rain shower as I stood in the garden, and a strong wind blowing the fallen leaves up against the far wall.

City in Autumn 5

The next stop was the garden that occupies the graveyard of the church of St. Anne and St. Agnes at the corner of Noble Street and Gresham Street.

This garden occupies a relatively small space, however some mature trees reach up to the sky in amongst the surrounding buildings, with the leaves starting to turn to their autumn colours.

City in Autumn 6

Walking to the end of Gresham Street, then turning up St. Martin’s Le Grand I came to Postman’s Park. At this time of year, the sun does not reach above the buildings to the south in order to shine on Postman’s Park, so the park spends much of this time of year in shade that appears to be made darker by the sunlight on the surrounding buildings. Many of the trees here had already lost the majority of their leaves.

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Walking out from Postman’s Park into King Edward Street and I was back in the sunshine of an autumn day.

City in Autumn 8

Heading south from Postman’s Park to one of the larger areas of green open space remaining in the City, the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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Here plenty of mature trees can be found around the eastern half of the cathedral and their autumn colours looking spectacular against both the stone of St. Paul’s and the sky.

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From St. Paul’s, it was then a walk down Cannon Street, Eastcheap and Great Tower Street to Trinity Square Gardens. (I did miss out the garden at St. Dunstan in the East as the sky to the east was getting very dark and I wanted to get to Trinity Square before another heavy shower of rain).

This large (for the City) open space also benefits from a lack of tall buildings to the south so the rare combination of a City garden that also gets the sun at this time of year.

The pavements showing the signs of recent rain. Overhung by mature trees, the pavements will soon be covered by leaves.

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The old Port of London Authority building in the background with the new memorial to Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the Falklands Campaign. The mature trees around the edge of the gardens just starting to change to their autumn colours.

City in Autumn 11

My final visit was to the churchyard of St. Olave in Seething Lane. A small churchyard just catching the last glimpse of an autumn sun, with leaves on the trees starting to fall.

City in Autumn 12

It was a fascinating walk through the city on a typical autumn day with extremes of weather from heavy rain showers to clear blue sky. Even with the amount of building there are still places were it is possible to observe the changing of the seasons and retain contact with the natural cycle through the year.

I fear though that with the ever increasing height of buildings in the City, these valuable survivors of the natural world will be spending more and more of their days in the shadow of their surroundings.

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Caledonian Park – History, Murals And A Fire

Caledonian Park in north London in the Borough of Islington is today a green space in a busy part of London, with few reminders of the areas rich history.

I have much to write about Caledonian Park so I will cover in two posts this weekend. Today some historical background to the area, some lost murals and finding the location of one of my father’s photos. Tomorrow, climbing the Victorian Clock Tower at the heart of the park to see some of the most stunning views of London.

Caledonian Park is a relatively recent name. Taking its name from the nearby Caledonian Road which in turn was named after the Caledonian Asylum which was established nearby in 1815 for the “children of Scottish parents”.

Prior to the considerable expansion of London in the 19th century, the whole area consisted of open fields and went by the name of Copenhagen Fields. There was also a Copenhagen House located within the area of the current park.

The origin of the Copenhagen name is probably down to the use of the house (or possibly the construction of the house) by the Danish Ambassador for use as a rural retreat from the City of London during the Great Plague of 1665.

Copenhagen House became an Inn during the early part of the 18th century and the fields were used for sport, recreation and occasionally as an assembly point for demonstrations, or as Edward Walford described in Old and New London, the fields were “the resort of Cockney lovers, Cockney sportsmen and Cockney agitators”

The following print shows Copenhagen House from the south east in 1783, still a very rural location.

1125319001 ©Trustees of the British Museum

During the last part of the 18th century, Copenhagen Fields was often used as a meeting point for many of the anti-government demonstrations of the time. Old and New London by Walter Thornbury has a description of these meetings:

“In the early days of the French Revolution, when the Tories trembled with fear and rage, the fields near Copenhagen House were the scene of those meetings of the London Corresponding Society, which so alarmed the Government. The most threatening of these was held on October 26, 1795, when Thelwall, and other sympathisers with France and liberty, addressed 40,000, and threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the King would go to the House. The hint was attended to, and on that day the King was shot at, but escaped unhurt.”

The meetings and threats from groups such as the Corresponding Societies led to the Combination Acts of 1799 which legislated against the gathering of men for a common purpose. It was this repression that also contributed to the Cato Street Conspiracy covered in my post which can be found here.

The following is a satirical print from 1795 by James Gillray of a meeting on Copenhagen Fields “summoned by the London Corresponding Society” which was “attended by more than a hundred thousand persons”.

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©Trustees of the British Museum

Copenhagen Fields continued to be used for gatherings. In April 1834 there was a meeting in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who had been sentenced to transportation to Australia for forming a trade union. Walter Thornbury provides the following description: “an immense number of persons of the trades’ unions assembled in the Fields, to form part of a procession of 40,000 men to Whitehall to present an address to his Majesty, signed by 260,000 unionists on behalf of their colleagues who had been convicted at Dorchester for administering illegal oaths”.

The final large meeting to be held in Copenhagen Fields was in 1851 in support of an exiled Hungarian revolutionary leader. The role of this rural location was about to change very dramatically.

Smithfield in the city was originally London’s main cattle market however during the first half of the 19th century the volume of animals passing through the market and the associated activities such as the slaughter houses were getting unmanageable in such a densely populated part of central London.

The City of London Corporation settled on Copenhagen Fields as the appropriate location for London’s main cattle market and purchased Copenhagen House and the surrounding fields in 1852. The site was ideal as it was still mainly open space, close enough to London, and near to a number of the new railway routes into north London.

Copenhagen House was demolished and the construction of the new market, designed by the Corporation of London Architect, James Bunstone Bunning was swiftly underway, opening on the 13th June 1855.

A ground penetrating radar survey of the area commissioned by Islington Council in 2014 identified the location of Copenhagen House as (when viewed from the park to the south of the Clock Tower) just in front and to the left of the Clock Tower.

The sheer scale of the new market was impressive. In total covering seventy five acres and built at a cost of £500,000. There were 13,000 feet of railings to which the larger animals could be tied and 1,800 pens for up to 35,000 sheep.

Market days were Mondays and Thursdays for cattle, sheep and pigs, and Fridays for horses, donkeys and goats. The largest market of the year was held just before Christmas. In the last Christmas market at Smithfield in 1854, the number of animals at the market was 6,100. At the first Christmas market at the new location, numbers had grown to 7,000 and by 1863 had reached 10,300.

The following Aerofilms photo from 1931 shows the scale of the market. The clock tower at the centre of the market is also at the centre of the photo with the central market square along with peripheral buildings in the surrounding streets.

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The 1930 edition of Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of London shows the location and size of the market:

Caledonian map 1

As well as the cattle market, the construction included essential infrastructure to support those working and visiting the market. Four large public houses were built, one on each of the corners of the central square. The following Aerofilms photo from 1928, shows three of the pubs at corners of the main square. The two large buildings to the left of the photo are hotels, also constructed as part of the market facilities

The clock tower is located in the middle, at the base of the clock tower are the branch offices of several banks, railway companies, telegraph companies along with a number of shops.

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A 19th century drawing shows the clock tower and the long sheds that covered much of the market:

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By the time of the First World War, the cattle market had started to decline and was finally closed in 1939 at the start of the Second World War, with the site then being used by the army.

After the war, the slaughter houses around the market continued to be used up until 1964, when the London County Council and the Borough of Islington purchased the site ready for redevelopment. The Market Housing Estate was built on much of the site, although by the 1980s the physical condition of the estate had started to decline significantly, and the estate had a growing problem with drugs and prostitution. Housing blocks were built up close to the clock tower and there was limited green space with many concrete paved areas surrounding the housing blocks and the clock tower.

A second redevelopment of the area was planned and planning permission granted in 2005. The last of the Market Estate housing blocks was demolished in 2010 and it this latest development which occupies much of the area today.

In 1982 a number of murals illustrating the history of the market were painted on the ground floor exterior of the main Clock Tower building of the original Market Estate. In 1986 my father took some photos of the murals during a walk round Islington. As far as I know, these murals were lost during the later redevelopment of the area.

The introductory mural providing some history of the market:

Cattle Market Murals 1

A scene showing the opening of the market by Prince Albert in 1855. A lavishly decorated marquee hosted a thousand invited guests to mark the opening of the market.

Cattle Market Murals 2

The central clock tower painted on the Clock Tower building of the housing estate:

Cattle Market Murals 3

Other scenes from around the market:

Cattle Market Murals 4

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As well as the photos of the murals, almost 40 years earlier in 1948 my father had taken a photo of the aftermath of a fire. I was unsure where this was and I published the photo below a few weeks ago in my post on mystery locations.

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One of the messages I had in response to this post (my thanks to Tom Miler), was that the building at the back of the photo looked like one of the pubs at the Caledonian Market.

I took a walk around the periphery of the site trying to work out which of the streets and pubs could be the location of my father’s photo and found the following:

Pub Road 1

This, I am sure, is the location of my father’s photo. The street is Shearling Way running along the eastern edge of Caledonian Park. I probably should have been a bit further back to take the photo, however the rest of the road was closed and full of cars unloading students into the student accommodation that now occupies the southern end of Shearling Way – an indication of how much the area has changed.

The pub is hidden behind the tree, although it is in the same position and the chimneys are clearly the same and in the right position. The old yards and sheds that had burnt down on the right of the original photo have been replaced by housing.

I was really pleased to find the location of this photo, it is one I thought I would not be able to place in modern day London.

This Aerofilms photo from 1948 shows the pub from the above photo at the top left of the main market square with the road running up to the right. Above the road is the area that was the scene of the fire.

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This is another photo of the scene of the fire and the housing in the background can also be seen in the above Aerofilms photo, further confirming the location.

Unknown Locations 17

Walking down the street I took the following photo of the pub, the front of the pub has the same features as on the 1948 photo.

Pub 1

The pub was The Lamb, unfortunately, as with the other pubs on the corners of the old cattle market, it is now closed.

To the left of the first half of the street, adjacent to the park, the original market railings are still in place:

Market Railings 1

A short time after the opening of the Cattle Market, a general or flea market had become established alongside. This market grew considerably and was generally known as the Cally Market, a place where almost anything could be found for sale. By the start of the 20th century, the size of the Cally Market had outgrown the original Cattle Market.

The journalist and author H.V. Morton visited the market for his newspaper articles on London and later consolidated in his book “London” (published in 1925) and wrote the following:

“When I walked into this remarkable once a week junk fair I was deeply touched to think that any living person could need many of the things displayed for sale. For all round me, lying on sacking, were the driftwood and wreckage of a thousand lives: door knobs, perambulators in extremis, bicycle wheels, bell wire, bed knobs, old clothes, awful pictures, broken mirrors, unromantic china goods, gaping false teeth, screws, nuts, bolts and vague pieces of rusty iron, whose mission in life, or whose part and portion of a whole, Time had obliterated.”

The Cally Market was also used during both the first and second world wars for major fund raising events. This poster from the first world war:

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 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 10955)

Along with the murals, my father took a photo of the Clock Tower in 1986. The original housing blocks that reached up to the clock tower can be seen on either side. The clock tower is surrounded by concrete paving.

Old Tower View 1

This is the same scene in 2015 from roughly the same point (although I should have been more to the left). The old housing blocks have been demolished and the clock tower is now surrounded by green space.

New Tower View 1

Looking at the above photo, the wooden steps that provide the route up inside the Clock Tower can be seen through the two windows.

Join me for tomorrow’s post as I climb the tower to the viewing gallery at the top for some of the best views across London.

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The Chelsea Physic Garden

Last weekend I was walking in Chelsea, hunting down some of the locations of my father’s photos when I walked past one of the places I have always meant to visit.

If you walk or drive along the Chelsea Embankment, in-between the rows of apartment buildings that face onto the embankment you will see a low brick wall with a slightly ornate entrance gate, with what appears to be gardens behind.

This is the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The main entrance to the Chelsea Physic Garden is on Swan Walk, which when facing the Gardens from the river forms the eastern boundary. A plaque in the brick wall adjacent to the entrance provides an indication of the function and the age of the Gardens:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The main entrance is a relatively small gate in Swan Walk:

Chelsea Physic Garden

Once through the gate and having paid the entrance fee, the Gardens open up. Hard to believe that this is Chelsea and that the traffic on the Chelsea Embankment and the River Thames is just beyond the trees at the far end of the following photo:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries when the land was leased from Charles Cheyne, the Lord of the Manor of Chelsea. It has continued to occupy the same location adjacent to the River Thames, whilst the rest of Chelsea has been developed around the gardens.

The Apothecaries needed an area where medicinal herbs could be grown and apprentices to the Society could be trained in their use. The Society had acquired a Medical Garden at Westminster prior to Chelsea and it was the contents of this garden that were moved to Chelsea.

The location chosen in Chelsea was ideal. It was south-facing, fertile and directly adjacent to the river (the Chelsea Embankment had not yet been built) as the river provided easy and safe access to central London rather than cross the dangerous fields and marshes that extended east at this time.

In London Old and New, Edward Walford writes:

“The Physic Garden to which we now come, was originated by Sir Hans Sloane, the celebrated physician, and was handed over in 1721 by him, by deed of gift, to the Apothecaries Company, who still own and maintain it. The garden, which bears the name of the Royal Botanic, was presented to the above company on condition that it should at all times be continued as a physic-garden, for the manifestation of the power and wisdom, and goodness of God, in creation; and that the apprentices might learn to distinguish good and useful plants from hurtful ones. Various additions have been made to the Physic Garden at different periods in the way of greenhouses and hot-houses; and in the centre of the principal walk was erected a statue of Sir Hans Sloane, by Michael Rysbraeck.”

Walford gives the impression that Sir Hans Sloane created the Chelsea Physic Garden, however it was already in existence and Sloane had been an apprentice at the Garden. After Sloane had made his fortune (more on this in a later post on Chelsea), he purchased the Manor of Chelsea from Cheyne and granted a perpetual rent of the Garden to the Apothecaries for a peppercorn rent of £5 a year.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden has not always looked as good as it does now. From “London Exhibited in 1851”:

“At the time the garden was formed, it must have stood entirely lying in the country, and had every chance of the plants in it maintaining a healthy state. Now, however, it is completely in the town, and but for its being on the side of the river and lying open on that quarter, it would be altogether surrounded with common streets and houses. As it is, the appearance of the walls, grass, plants and houses is very much that of most London gardens – dingy, smokey, and as regards the plants, impoverished and starved. It is however, interesting for its age, for the few old specimens it contains, for the medical plants, and especially because the houses are being gradually renovated and collections of ornamental plants, as well as those which are useful in medicine, formed and cultivated on the best principles, under the Curatorship of Mr Thomas Moore, one of the editors of the Gardeners Magazine of Botany. In spite of the disadvantages of its situation, here are still grown very many of the drugs which figure in the London Pharmacopoeia.”

From inside the garden we can see the gates that face onto the Chelsea Embankment. These gates and the upgraded enclosure of the gardens was completed in 1877 when Mr Thomas Moore, mentioned in the above quote, was the Curator.  (As evidence of the scientific principles underlying the gardens, the Curator is effectively the Head Gardener, but with the responsibly to curate the collection of plants held by the garden.)

Chelsea Physic Garden

A the top of the gates is the badge of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The following engraving from London Old And New shows the gardens in 1790 with the original wall and gates directly onto the River Thames before the construction of the Thames Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The following map extract from the early 1830s shows the Botanic Gardens between Coal Wharf and the Swan Brewery facing directly onto the river, as did Cheyne Walk prior to the construction of the Chelsea Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The statue to Sir Hans Sloane has pride of place in the centre of the gardens. This in not the original 1733 Michael Rysbrack statue, the original was damaged by pollution and is now in the British Museum. The current statue is a replica of the original.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Visiting the garden now provides an excellent learning experience. The plants are very well labelled with several themed areas to focus on specific geographical sources of plants. There is also currently an art installation by Nici Ruggiero which uses jars in the style of those used by early Apothecaries to explain how different plants were and are used in medicine.

Jars are placed on stakes in the gardens:

Chelsea Physic Garden

As well as a rack of jars against one of the boundary walls:

Chelsea Physic Garden

If you did not know that Lungwort is for diseases of the lungs and for coughs, weezings and the shortness of breath, which it cures both in man and in beast, or that Golden Rod cures conditions of jaundice and provokes urine in abundance, then this is the place to learn.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was also one of the first in Europe to have a glass / hot house, and in 1685 the diarist John Evelyn described a visit to the garden where he met Mr Watts, keeper of the Garden and saw the heated glass house. He wrote in his diary: “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.”

The gardens to this day have a number of heated glass houses that support plants from tropical locations that would not otherwise thrive in a London climate:

Chelsea Physic Garden

And they work well in promoting abundant growth:

Chelsea Physic Garden

At the Chelsea Embankment edge of the gardens, it is still possible to find hidden on the side walls, stones fixed to mark the original division walls:

Chelsea Physic Garden

The gardens experienced mixed fortunes in the later half of the 19th century. The numbers of visiting medical students rose significantly in 1877 from a couple of hundred to 3,500 due mainly to the Society of Apothecaries finally allowing women to the study of medicine, but by the end of the 19th century the study of plants had been dropped from the medical syllabus and the Society of Apothecaries decided that there was no real need to continue with the garden.

The gardens also suffered from the construction of the Chelsea Embankment in 1876, cutting of what had been a riverside garden from the river.

The gardens were taken on by the City Parochial Foundation. From the history of the Foundation by Victor Belcher:

“The first additional long term obligation taken on by the Foundation was the maintenance of the Chelsea Physic Garden. By the 1890s the Company had decided that it could no longer afford the upkeep of the garden and recommended that the site should be sold and the proceeds used to endow scientific research and teaching. Widespread concern was voiced and a departmental committee was appointed by the Treasury to look into the situation. In 1898, W. H. Fisher (later Lord Downham), a trustee who also happened to be a Junior Lord of the Treasury in Lord Salisbury’s government, introduced a motion before the Central Governing Body urging the trustees to take over the garden from the Apothecaries Company. he stressed its importance as an open space and as a source of botanical study for students at the Battersea and South-Western polytechnics. The trustees were convinced and asked the Charity Commissioners to draw up a scheme. This was published in 1899 and required the Foundation to give an annual grant of £800 to the garden. the government provided a small supplementary grant, but from this time the Chelsea Physic Garden was essentially the Foundation’s responsibility, a state of affairs which was reflected in the composition of the garden’s managing committee, over half of whose members were to be appointed by the Foundation.”

(The City Parochial Foundation is one of the many bodies that have had an impact on the development of London. Formed in 1891 by bringing together a range of endowments so as to be under the control of a single corporate body, the Foundation was charged with helping the poor of London mainly through creating and supporting technical education in the form of the polytechnic movement)

It was good fortune that the Chelsea Physic Garden was saved otherwise it would now be just more Chelsea streets and buildings.

Chelsea Physic Garden

The City Parochial Foundation continued to support and provide grants to the gardens. By the early 1920s the original £800 per annum grant had grown to £2000.

The grant was reduced during the 2nd World War as the gardens were placed on a care and maintenance status, with several plants being moved to Kew due to damage by bombing. After the war the Foundation was responsible for repairs and redecoration to the gardens and buildings.

The end of the association between the City Parochial Foundation and the Chelsea Physic Garden started in the 1970s, again from the history of the Foundation:

“By the mid-1970s the trustees were becoming concerned about both the rising cost of repairs and the amount of grant now needed. There was also a nagging doubt, once the connections with the polytechnics had been severed, whether the Physic Garden could be said to serve the purposes of the Foundation any longer, if indeed it ever had done. The sub-committee which was appointed to prepare a policy for the quinquennium 1977-81 was asked to include the future of the Garden in its deliberations. It recommended that  funds should be made available for the modernisation of the Garden, but that the Charity Commissioners should be informed that the Foundation wished to withdraw further financial support. In the meantime the trustees would actively seek another sponsor.

Finally, in 1981 a new and independent body of trustees agreed to take over the Garden, and in return were promised grants totalling £200,000 to meet the estimated running costs over the next four years. A new scheme was published, and the formal transfer took place on 1 April 1983 when the Foundation’s scheme grant came to an end.” 

Along with the new status of the Chelsea Physic Garden, it was also formally opened to the public, and this continues to be the status of the gardens today with a small, independent charity responsible for the running of the gardens, and the associated educational work carried out to this day.

Chelsea Physic Garden

During their development, the gardens benefited from a constant stream of new discoveries from across the world. the 18th and 19th centuries were a time of botanical discoveries with expeditions being sent to all corners of the world to bring back specimens.

Among those who contributed to the garden was Joseph Banks, who had already made expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrador and was part of Captain Cook’s voyage to South America, the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. It was through his role as President of the Royal Society that Banks supported expeditions around the world to bring back specimens for the Chelsea Physic Garden. Banks was elected as President in 1778 and held the post for 41 years

Curators were also major plant hunters. One such being Robert Fortune who was curator from 1846 to 1848. He was a prominent plant hunter who brought back many samples from Asia.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Insect houses up against the boundary wall with the Chelsea Embankment.

Chelsea Physic Garden

It has not really been possible to do justice to the history of the Chelsea Physic Garden in the space of a weekly blog post, however I hope this provides some background and an incentive to visit another example of the history of this fascinating city.

The sources I used to research this post are:

  • The Face of London by Harold P. Clunn published in 1951
  • Old And New London by Edward Walford published in 1878
  • The City Parochial Foundation 1891 – 1991 by Victor Belcher published in 1991
  • London: The Western Reaches by Godfrey James published in 1950
  • The history of the gardens on the Chelsea Physic Garden web site which can be found here

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