Before Victoria

The earliest botanic gardens were attached to monasteries and were used for growing medicinal plants and for teaching monks to cultivate, identify and use such plants. When European universities began to take over the teaching of medicine, they created university botanic gardens on the model of their monastic predecessors.

Two views of the Palm House (1896), Sefton Park, Liverpool. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

The oldest university botanic gardens in Britain were are Oxford and Edinburgh, but during the nineteenth century there was an explosion of new gardens. For example, in 1800 the Glasnevin botanic garden was founded by the Dublin Society for Promoting Husbandry and Other Useful Arts; with its comparative plantings of different crops and regular demonstrations of the latest agricultural machinery, must have been more like a model farm than a botanic garden. By contrast, the Liverpool botanic garden was created in 1803, was more like a public park, an ornamental pleasure garden, full of exotic blooms and very much dedicated to the growing popularity of gardening as a hobby. The difference between the two gardens can be largely attributed to the fact that while Glasnevin was founded by a society of landowners intent on scientific agricultural improvement, Liverpool was financed through public subscriptions. During the early decades of the nineteenth century an increasingly large network of botanic gardens was also growing up in Britain's colonies.

The Kew Gardens Controversy

As Richard Drayton has shown, controversy about the role of the Royal Gardens at Kew erupted in 1838, when reformers in parliament demanded curbs on Royal expenditure. A "Royal Gardens Committee" was set-up by the treasury to investigate Kew and all the royal parks, with a view to reducing expenditure. The botanist John Lindley sat on the committee and wrote a report arguing that Kew should be brought under direct government control and made more useful to the nation, by managing the activities of the numerous provincial and colonial botanic gardens throughout the empire:

A National botanic garden would be the centre around which all those minor establishments should be arranged; they should be all under the control of the chief of that garden … explaining their wants, receiving their supplies, and aiding the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom. Medicine, commerce, agriculture, horticulture, and many valuable branches of manufacture, would derive considerable advantages from … such a system (Lindley, 1838).

Lindley hoped to become director of the "new Kew", but his old friend and mentor Sir William Jackson Hooker (then Regius Professor of botany at Glasgow University) was also interested. Both men lobbied frantically, but what ultimately cost Lindley the job was that the full scope of his reforms would have cost over £78,000 – far too much in the political climate of the 1830s.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Hooker's lobbying and the influence of his powerful friends and patrons in government paid off. In 1841, he was appointed the first director of Kew – 18 acres of land and a salary of £500 p.a. including housing allowance. However, as Drayton has shown, Kew's future was uncertain and Hooker needed new patrons: making Kew useful to the empire, especially by building it a role in agricultural improvement, would be crucial to this process.

During its early years, Kew was divided into the Pleasure Grounds, a public park, and the much smaller Botanic Gardens, into which the public were only occasionally admitted. And serious students of botany were admitted in the morning, while the public were only allowed in after 1pm. These divisions and distinctions symbolise the debate about the Kew's role and purpose that mirrored a wider debate about the place and importance of botany and which continued throughout much of the century. Was Kew a scientific establishment or a Royal Park? After William Hooker's death in 1865, his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker, succeeded him as director and tried to give the gardens an even more scientific character. London's expanding railway network made Kew accessible to crowds of working class visitors from the East End, who were regarded with some scorn by the new director. In his 1871 report, Hooker characterised some of Kew's visitors as "mere pleasure or recreation seekers … whose motives are rude romping and games". Extending the opening hours would merely encourage such people. In 1874, the Gardener's Chronicle complained that:

Large numbers of excursionists came from London to the Gardens, and great was their disappointment at finding that the gardens were not open until the afternoon. Many of these excursionists were poor people, who only obtained a holiday once or twice a year.

Hooker retorted that catering to these swarms of working class visitors would simply lead to the Gardens being over-run with "swarms of nursery maids and children". However, as the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported, those who arrived in the mornings and found the gardens shut, "betook themselves in true British fashion, to drinking and dancing, and them some 2 hours later sought to refresh exhausted nature by falling asleep on the grass". In 1877, Hooker finally relented and opened the garden at 10am on public holidays; although he was still concerned that "luncheons, pic-nics & bands of music" would undermine Kew's scientific status, he probably realised that working-class drunks who "resorted to the woods for immoral purposes in great numbers" and then passed out in the shrubberies were doing Kew's reputation even more harm.

These debates at Kew were repeated at many other gardens, including those in the colonies. The Sydney Botanic Gardens witnessed a similar debate in the 1830s, when those who wanted to raise botany to genuinely scientific status clashed with people who saw botanic gardens merely as a superior kind of public park.

Last modified 8 March 2008