History of the Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants. The location was chosen due to its proximity to the River Thames. This allowed the Apothecaries to moor their barge, collect plants in the surrounding areas and take advantage of the river’s warm air currents, which contribute to the Garden’s unique microclimate. River access also allowed plants arriving from around the World to be introduced to the British Isles via the Garden. Its international reputation was established early on as a result of the global seed exchange scheme, known as Index Seminum, which it initiated in the 1700’s and continues to this day.

During the 1680’s trainee physician Hans Sloane studied at the Garden. He later become its primary benefactor when he 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.

Under a number of notable Curators, such as Robert Fortune and Thomas Moore, the Garden has adapted to the changing times, whilst always retaining its medicinal plant collection. Different growing environments have been established such as the Grade II listed Pond Rockery, Fortune’s Tank Pond and an evolving collection of Glasshouses including one of the first heated greenhouses in the World. The Pond Rockery, which was completed in 1773, is the oldest planted structure of its type in Europe and employs Icelandic lava (brought to the Garden by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 on a ship named St. Lawrence) and carved stones from the Tower of London.

The Garden has also had a wide impact around the World, playing a key role in introducing the rubber industry to Malaysia and cotton to the Southern US. Perhaps most significant was the establishment of the tea industry in India. This was as a result of tea seedlings being transported from China to India by Robert Fortune in the newly developed Wardian cases (a type of portable glasshouse).

By the end of the 19th century the Apothecaries decided they could no longer retain the Garden. As a result the City Parochial Foundation took over running the site until 1983, when it became a registered charity and its gates were opened to the public for the first time.

Chelsea Physic Garden continues to play a significant role in education, running a range of courses for adults and activities for over 5000 school children a year. It also retains its medicinal plant display – one of the largest in the World, along with extensive ethnobotanic, useful, edible and conservation plant collections.

For more history of the Garden, see Historical Walk.

For a chronology of leading Garden staff, see History of Garden Staff