Growing knowledge

Chelsea Physic GardenChelsea Physic Garden

Dr Christine Hodgson, a volunteer guide at the Chelsea Physic Garden, will be giving a talk about this unusual open space and research centre for the Wanstead Historical Society this month.

Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries. In those days, apothecaries were half doctor, half pharmacist, and if you were ill, you went down to the apothecary's shop, described your symptoms and waited while he (and it was always a he) selected a plant from the shelf and told you how and when to take it. Some people may remember, as a child with a cough, being taken to visit a chemist (as they were called in the 20th century) and being told to cough so that he could give you the red, green or purple medicine according to the type of cough!

The Apothecaries' Hall in Blackfriars had a garden on the site until it was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The hall was rebuilt quite quickly and you can visit it today, a splendid piece of late 17th-century architecture on the north side of Blackfriars Bridge. But the apothecaries decided they needed a much larger garden for training their apprentices and chose the site in Chelsea where the garden stands today: 3.8 acres close to the River Thames, in an area where many people had built large houses and whose proximity to the river meant the climate was very favourable to gardening. Two of these were Hampton Court and Syon House, whose gardens today are still exceptional.

All went well for the apothecaries until near the end of the century when they started to run out of money. They were saved by Sir Hans Sloane, one of their number who was a great plantsman, a doctor and, above all, very rich. He was able to buy the garden from its then owners and rent it back to his fellow apothecaries. The rent was fixed at £5 a year and surprisingly, that is still the rent the garden pays today. Hans Sloane's daughter married into the Cadogan family and Lord Cadogan is the current landlord. Under the Sloane regime, the garden prospered and became one of the leading botanic gardens in Europe. It still attracts researchers from far and wide who come to study the more than 5,000 plant species grown there. Not all are medicinal, but visitors are often surprised to find the plant from which their current drug originates growing in one of the garden's beds.

Education was the original purpose of the garden, as it still is. As well as the students, more than 3,000 schoolchildren visit each year to find out about plants and garden life, pond dipping and butterflies. And, of course, the general public come in large numbers to see the plants, attend lectures and courses, eat in the splendid restaurant and wander along the paths, watching the seasons change and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of one of Britain's most unusual gardens.

Christine's talk will take place at Wanstead Library on 16 March from 8pm (visitors: £3). Call 07949 026 212

For more information on Chelsea Physic Garden, visit

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