The Apothcaries’ Garden at Chelsea was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673, and renamed the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1875. The Society was itself founded by Royal Charter in 1617 as a trade association for those whom today we would call pharmacists. Apothecaries, as well as dispensing medicine, were involved in the gathering and processing of medicinal plants. It was important, therefore, that they had somewhere to study and grow the plants they would one day prepare.
The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 on a four acre plot of land in the privately owned Manor of Chelsea. It was leased from Buckinghamshire MP, Charles Cheyne, by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries so that they could plant a garden where students could learn to identify the medicinal plants that they would one day prepare for their customers. Additionally, it would provide somewhere they could build a boathouse for their official barge.
One of the first Curators was John Watts, and it was he who in 1682 devised the seed exchange programme with other leading botanists, an exchange which still goes on today. Possibly the most celebrated of all these transactions was the sending of the first long-strand cotton seeds to the British Colony of Georgia in 1733, laying the foundation of the American cotton industry.
In 1712 Charles Cheyne sold his estate to Dr Hans Sloane, the noted physician and collector whose extensive assortment of curiosities would one day be left to the nation as the basis of the British Museum. Sloane, himself, had studied at the Physic Garden in his youth, and became concerned when he saw the Apothecaries’ difficulties in maintaining their tenure. In 1722 he guaranteed them a permanent lease for the fixed amount of five pounds per year, an arrangement which is still ongoing.
That same year he appointed acclaimed botanist Philip Miller as Gardener (Curator). It was under this gifted individual’s stewardship that the botanical garden rose in prestige to become a world famous site. The seed exchange thrived, not least because Miller was extraordinarily successful in cultivating plants never before grown in Britain. He was generous too in passing on his knowledge to the young men who came to study.
One such student was Joseph Banks, naturalist and explorer, who later brought back to Chelsea the ballast of Icelandic lava that was used on his ship, the St Lawrence. This helped build the famous rock garden, first of its kind in Europe, that was completed in 1773. Many of the plant specimens collected on his voyage of discovery with James Cook on the Endeavour were also donated to the Physic Garden.
When Botany was dropped from the medical curriculum at the end of the 19th century, the Society of Apothecaries gave up the running of the Garden and the lease was taken up by the City Parochial Foundation. It was still a resource for scientific research, but not in the same way of old. In 1983 it became a registered charity, opening its gates up to the public for the first time.
The Chelsea Physic Garden now receives, on average, around 50,000 visitors a year who, as well as learning about medicinal and edible plants, discover the wonderful botanists who made the Garden what it is today.
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