Cambridge University Press publishes serious books with serious titles: Essential Neuropharmacology, European Union Law, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life. When we came across The Romance of the Apothecaries’ Garden at Chelsea, of which Cambridge published the third edition (‘further revised and enlarged’) in 1928 (the two previous editions of 1922 and 1924 having been published by Chapman and Dodd Ltd), we were surprised by the word ‘romance’ – a bit fluffy, a bit unscientific? The blurb for the reissue, written by one of our freelance team, contained the words ‘charming … engaging … gentle … light touch’ and we started getting nervous. (I should explain that books previously published by Cambridge are sometimes reissued without the expert advice which we rely on for the books of other publishers, on the ground that they have already gone through academic scrutiny.) So I took the book home and read it. It is (in my opinion!) a gem. It is a history of the Chelsea Physic Garden, from its origins (not in Chelsea but near Blackfriars’ Bridge) in the 1630s, to the 1920s. The garden’s original purpose was as a practical teaching facility (rather like the ‘systematic beds’ in Cambridge University Botanic Gardens), for apprentice apothecaries, who needed to know which herbs would cure or ameliorate which diseases. But with the upsurge of interest in botany – triggered both by the arrival in Europe of exotic plants, first from the Americas and then from rest of the world, and by the correspondence, visiting and plant-swapping of English botanists with their colleagues in the rest of Europe – the Garden became a major centre of plant cultivation and study, and, before the development of Kew Gardens, was the place to which foreign plants and seeds were brought for nurturing and examination.
The two great heroes of this study are Sir Hans Sloane and (inevitably!) Sir Joseph Banks (the presiding divinity – or at any rate the King Charles’s Head – of this blog), both of whom are portrayed (Sir Joseph in a mezzotint after the Reynolds portrait which, sadly, does neither the sitter nor the artist justice).
Sir Hans Sloane had become the Garden’s landlord by his purchase of the manor of Chelsea, and in 1722, by a decision of great generosity and imagination, he gave the Garden to the Apothecaries’ Company in perpetuity, in exchange for £5 a year, with the stipulation that ‘every year, for forty years, fifty specimens of plants (all from the Garden, and no two alike), carefully dried and mounted, should be sent to the Royal Society. This ensured that 2000 different species of trees, shrubs and flowers would be grown in that time. The agreement was faithfully kept.’
The great and good Sir Joseph is described as going fishing as a schoolboy in the Thames by the Garden, and he supported it throughout the rest of his career (inter alia, by bringing lava rocks back from Iceland for the rock garden). It was at one of Sir Joseph’s famous breakfasts that Sir James Smith, founder of the Linnean Society, then a young medical student, learned that Linnaeus’s great plant collection was being sold off, but that Sir Joseph himself was not going to purchase it. Smith persuaded his wealthy father to put up the money (£1000 – a massive amount for the time) and the collection was shipped to England, in the teeth of the King of Sweden, who, when he learnt of the sale, attempted to stop the collection leaving the country.
Linnaeus had visited the Garden, as had two of his most distinguished pupils, Kalm and Fabricius. One of the many anecdotal digressions in the book examines in minute detail whether the story of Linnaeus falling on his knees in ecstasy at the sight of gorse blooming on Putney Heath could be true. Another is on the first bunch of bananas ever seen in England, another on the disastrous futility of war . . .
And even if you aren’t much interested in plants, you cannot fail to be seduced by the evocation of eighteenth-century London, when Fulham, Chelsea and Putney were villages separated from the City by heaths and fields of grazing cattle. Did you know that Charles II ordered the King’s Road in Chelsea to be built as a convenient route for him between Whitehall and Hampton Court, and that for many years only the King and his servants could use it? Or that the river Westbourne is channelled through a huge iron pipe which can be seen (worryingly) above your head at Sloane Square Underground station? For more fascinating information (including the history of quinine, and what Sir Clements Markham, known to us as one of the leading lights of the Hakluyt Society, had to do with it; why Thomas Wheeler, the distinguished and venerable Demonstrator of the Garden, was once mistaken for an escaped lunatic; what to do with viper fat; and why this piece is headed ‘Paradise in London’), read the book!
And PS (13 September 2011): we have just received the first copy of Memoirs of the Botanic Garden at Chelsea, first published by Henry Field in 1820, and revised and extended in 1878 by Robert Hunter Semple. This history of the Society of Apothecaries and its garden covers similar ground to that of Drewitt, but with rather more facts and figures – a good companion read in any case!