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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Alcock

A Brief History of Chelsea Physic Garden in London

What is Chelsea Physic Garden?

Chelsea Physic Garden is London's oldest established botanical garden with over 5,000 species of edible, medicinal, and herbal plants.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Elisa.rolle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chelsea Physic Garden History

The history of this four-acre garden dates back five centuries. It was opened in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, one of the Livery Companies which play such a central role in the history of London; the Apothecaries detached themselves from the ancient Company of Grocers in 1617. Their intention was to create for the company a dedicated garden of plants for medicinal purposes. The medicines extracted from these plants could then be used to help treat the illnesses of local residents.

The Apothecaries selected a site next to the Thames with the logic that proximity to the river would produce a relatively stable micro-climate for the plants through the year: warm air currents allow various plants to exist in the same space. Sadly, however, by the end of the 17th century the gardens of the original location were sold in order to build a road on the land. Chelsea was no longer a quiet outlying village, but a fashionable area that housed the city’s elite.

In the early 18th century things started to look up for the gardens. Sir Hans Sloane – physician, naturalist, collector and most famous as the founder of the British Museum – bought the adjacent Manor of Chelsea. He leased the gardens to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for just £5 a year. In fact, this fee is still paid by the society to the descendants of Sir Hans to this day: inflation has been kind to the Apothecaries.

Thanks to Sir Hans and his investment, the garden by the 1770s boasted one of the richest stocks of medicinal plants in the world. The unique micro-climate of its location has enabled it to grow several plants that wouldn’t usually thrive in the UK. These include the famous olive tree, which remains the country’s largest example of the species that bears fruit. In 1976, it yielded a record crop of 7lb of ripe olives.

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