Meeting Report: The Chelsea Physic Garden

Date: 
21 January 2011
Speaker(s): 
Mr Allen Paterson

Allen Paterson, Curator of Chelsea Physic Garden from 1973 to1981 and later Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario, has a number of publications on plants, trees and gardens to his credit. How fortunate we are that this gentleman of manifold accomplishments chose to retire to Dumfriesshire!

He was invited to speak on The Chelsea Physic Garden by Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The importance of plant-based medicine has always been with man, he contended. He made occasional references to a 1922 publication, Chelsea Physic Garden by Dawtry Drewitt.

Apothecaries were part of the Grocers' Company until they broke away in 1617. They were given recognition by King James I and VI. By the 1630s they had their own Livery Hall. The fact that they had a laboratory there demonstrates the seriousness of their plant research as an educational tool for students and members. For instance, it was vital to know the difference between deadly nightshade and woody nightshade!

Finance in the troubled 17th Century was a problem. However, in 1673 they acquired 3.5 acres of land at Chelsea for rental at £5 per annum. The location by the river was important for travel to the site. Famous people over the centuries have visited: one such was the diarist, John Evelyn, in 1680 and another Linnaeus, the renowned Swedish botanist.

One early ill-judged move was the planting of 4 cedars of Lebanon in 1683. As they matured they left little room for other planting. They did become part of the iconography of the site. The last one was removed in 1903. The cedars fell foul of the choking London smoke. Allen himself lost precious orchids overnight in the early 1950s because of smog. The Clean Air Act of 1956 was a welcome development.

Sir Hans Sloane's purchase of the Chelsea Manor House proved beneficial. He was a doctor in his own right, an avid collector of plants, the man who introduced drinking chocolate as a medical aid after a time in Jamaica. He passed the £5 freehold to the Apothecaries in perpetuity, provided that they maintained it as a Physic Garden. A fine new classical orangery was created in 1733 but it did not last into the 20th century. A statue of Sloane by Rysbach stands in the grounds. Sloane Square and Sloane Street are named after him.

Sloane appointed Philip Miller, a Scot, as Curator and under his care it became an outstanding botanic garden. Miller is credited with fostering interest and tutoring such luminaries as Sir Joseph Banks, the explorer, and Forsyth of forsythia fame, who succeeded Miller.

Financial troubles were the reason for a Government Inquiry in 1893 to determine the validity of a Botanic Garden in London. A favourable result led to the funding of the charity by churches in London, a situation that appertained for 100 years.

When Allen was Curator a new financial solution proved necessary: a Board of Trustees was set up to maintain the Garden and so this worthy charitable trust continues to provide plant-based education, which is very popular today as the quest for natural medicines has gained renewed impetus.

The late Queen Mother planted a tree to mark the tercentenary of the Garden in 1973, an event to which the Paterson's were not invited even though Allen had already been appointed Curator. The tree died. The following year Allen's wife, Penelope, planted a new one. Justice prevailed, one might claim.

The Society turned out in force and enjoyed the talk, delivered by an excellent speaker, whose wit and humour added to the entertainment of the evening. Allen's garden at Grovehill House is open by appointment under Scotland's Gardens Scheme. (See handbook.)