History of the Garden

Since 1673 Chelsea Physic Garden has occupied four acres of land on the edge of the Thames. First established by the Apothecaries in order to grow medicinal plants, this extraordinary garden in London has had wide reaching impact around the world.

Place

The Garden’s location feels special and secret. It is nestled behind walls and positioned close to the River Thames. The ideal Thames location is no accident as back in 1673 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries chose their Chelsea village site for its proximity to the river to make the most of its warm air currents. It gave them a base to moor their barge, allowing them to conduct plant finding expeditions in surrounding areas and to teach their apprentices to identify plants, those that might cure and those that might kill! The site is also blessed with a south facing aspect and good quality warm light soil, having previously been the site of a market garden. The River access allowed plants arriving from around the world to be introduced to the British Isles via the Garden, allowing the Garden to make a big impact from early on. Its international reputation was established quickly as a result of the global seed exchange scheme, known as Index Seminum, which it initiated in the 1700s and continues to this day.

The Garden’s unique microclimate and location has allowed many of our gardeners throughout our history to grow plants not frequently found outside in the UK, including the UK’s largest fruiting olive tree. In 1976 the head gardener collected a record crop of 7lb of ripe olives, which is a London crop record! Chelsea is no longer a village but the Garden’s location still feels special and has been a huge factor in its success to this day.

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Plants

The Chelsea Physic Garden is London’s oldest botanic garden and contains a unique living collection of around 5,000 different edible, useful and medicinal plants that have changed the world.

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People

The Garden has seen numerous, notable figures over the years. The Garden’s primary benefactor was Sir Hans Sloane, a famous physician, naturalist, collector and founder of the British Museum. The Garden had been struggling with management for some years, but in 1712 its fortunes were about to change when Sir Hans purchased the Manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne, and leased the Garden to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for just £5 a year in perpetuity. We still pay this sum to Sir Hans’ descendants today.

Sir Hans had trained as an apprentice at the Garden in the early 1680s under John Watts. He went on to have great success as a society physician serving the Governor of Jamaica. Whilst in Jamaica, Sloane acquired a stock of quinine, which was used to treat malaria (actually common in marshy areas of Britain at the time). Sir Hans also observed local women in Jamaica mixing cocoa with milk to treat stomach ailments, and he brought back the recipe with him. The recipe would eventually be bought by Cadbury’s and would help Sloane to become very wealthy, allowing him to purchase the Manor and lease the Garden where he had received his training, ensuring its survival for years to come.

Among other notable curators are Philip Miller, appointed as Head Gardener in 1722 by Sir Hans himself. Mr Miller served for almost fifty years to be followed by William Forsyth (relative of the late Sir Bruce Forsyth), who joined the Garden in 1771 and created the Grade II listed Pond Rockery that still stands today. Later in 1846, the Garden was headed up by renowned Scottish plant hunter, Robert Fortune who made dramatic changes to the Garden that are still appreciated today, including Fortune’s Pond. The Victorian curator, Thomas Moore, made the Garden the foremost collection of medicinal plants in Britain.
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350 YEARS

1673

Apothecaries lease site from Charles Cheyne

1681

First stove house built at Chelsea

1722

Sloane grants Covenant to the Society of Apothecaries

1732

Original building, Orangery & glasshouses established

1752

Philip Miller publishes Gardener’s Dictionary

1899

(to 1983) The City Parochial Foundation take responsibility for the Garden

1836

John Lindley is appointed as Praefectus Horti (1836–53), later Secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society

1902

Foster & Pearson glasshouses completed

1941

Glasshouses receive direct hit in WWII Blitz

2002

Cool Fernery repaired

2018

NLHF supports Glasshouses Restoration project

2023

Chelsea Physic Garden celebrates 350 years anniversary