This research project focuses on the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) – in particular the eastern half of the Botanic Garden from the 1950s – so the answer to the question: ‘Where?’ may seem entirely obvious. Nevertheless, by their very nature, botanic gardens are outward-looking national and international, as well as local institutions. Indeed one of CUBG’s key aims is ‘to extend knowledge of the Botanic Garden, its collections and its activities within the local, national and international communities’. The interests of the CUBG have always extended far beyond the confines of the thirty-eight acres plot between Hills Road and Trumpington Road in Cambridge.
Another key aim of CUBG is ‘to maintain a correctly-named and professionally-curated living collection representing the diversity of terrestrial green plants’. Diversity is an old French word which means ‘different or varied’. It was in the 1980s that the word was allied with ‘bio’ to create the term ‘biodiversity’, the ‘diversity of plant and animal life’, yet the desire to collect and study plants from across the globe has long been one of the keystones of this Botanic Garden and indeed all botanic gardens.
The annual reports of the Botanic Garden reveal local, national and international connections of the Garden were thriving before and after WWII, although these were curtailed during the war years (1939 – 1945). For example, in 1934, the then-director, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1921-1950) used his annual travel allowance towards a Christmas collecting trip to Barbados and Trinidad. Such exotic trips were atypical however. More usual in the 1930s were visits to European botanic gardens. Gilbert-Carter visited Walsertal in Austria in 1937, Norway in 1938, the Savoy region of France in 1939 and Denmark in 1940. At the same time, Bob Younger, his Garden Superintendent (now known as Curator), travelled the breath of Britain, visiting botanic gardens, private gardens and commercial nurseries to collect and swap seeds. After WWII, Gilbert-Carter’s final foreign visit as director was to the Copenhagen Botanic Garden, Denmark in 1947. Gilbert-Carter retired in September 1950 and John Gilmour succeeded as director in March 1951.
Each year, contributions are received from – and distributed to – British and international botanic gardens and horticultural institutions. The CUBG annual report for 14th November 1951 notes the annual donations for that year; contributions were received from sixty-seven Botanic Gardens and horticultural institutions from Adelaide to Zürich, as well as fifteen British botanic organizations.
In addition to such institutional exchanges, as part of Cambridge University, the Botanic Garden is also the recipient of seeds, plants and other materials from students, staff, associates and other generous donors. Another entry in the 1951 annual report notes contributions from over fifty donors, including seeds and fern spores from Colombia, succulents from South America as well as seeds from the Aegean and Western Anatolia. In the following year – 1952 – several plant-collecting exhibitions were being sponsored in Spain, New Zealand, Ecuador and Turkey, ‘which have resulted in the addition of a large number of interesting plants to the Garden’.
Although geographically the Cambridge University Botanic Garden may be confined within thirty-eight acres, it is a microcosm of the wider world. This world is seen through the lens of British and international botanic gardens, Cambridge alumni, academics, travellers, explorers and scientists, all of whom are interested in preserving, studying and understanding the flora of the world we inhabit.
The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is unusual in that only half its area – the western section – was developed by Andrew Murray and his team in the nineteenth century. The eastern half of the 38-acre plot was rented out for allotments and experimental beds until the 1950s. Understanding some of the motivations behind why and how the eastern section developed alongside the existing nineteenth century garden are key areas of interest for this history project. What ideas helped to shape the various plantings and developments into the twenty-first century at the Botanic Garden? What was the vision of those who planned and managed the new garden section? Was the idea to integrate the new twentieth century section into the existing nineteenth century gardenscape, or was the plan to develop a new era in garden development?
Early research suggests a mixture of the two approaches was adopted. Director, John Gilmour (1951 -1973) and his superintendent, Bob Younger, wished to preserve the gardenesque feel of the historic garden, so winding pathways were designed to echo those of the original garden. At the same time, the team planned new and innovative areas in the recently requisitioned eastern half. It was a heady, if muddy, time for the garden team. One that required an abundance of vision and foresight to imagine the future potential for the overgrown allotments.
According to Norman Villis, garden supervisor in the 1990s, who joined the Botanic Garden as a young man in the 1950s, one of the philosophies for the eastern garden was that space would consciously be kept for those who came in the future. Any garden is by definition a work-in-progress, with a constant element of experimentation and trial and error, which makes a Botanic Garden a stimulating ongoing physical and intellectual challenge.
It is fascinating to discover the various narratives about the eastern garden as we begin to excavate some of the motivations behind the various decisions and choices taken; and to follow how these unfold during the course of this research project. Next instalment coming soon…
Innumerable people have been involved in development of the eastern section of Cambridge University Botanic Garden in different capacities since 1951. One key figure in the physical and ideological shaping of this new section of the Garden was the post-WWII director, John Gilmour.
Dr John Scott Lennox Gilmour (1906 – 1986) became Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden at an exciting time in the Garden’s history. After the Second World War, Britain experienced social change, increasing optimism after years of wartime austerity and an interest in leisure pursuits. This was matched by John Gilmour’s enthusiasm, energy and botanical scholarship. At the same time, the unlocking of vital funds enabled the new eastern half of the garden to expand and flourish. John Gilmore was a Cambridge graduate (Clare College), having swapped medicine for botany. After graduating he became Curator of the Herbarium and Botanical Museum in the Cambridge University Botany School in 1929, before his appointment, at the age of 25, as Assistant-Director of Kew Gardens. He moved to RHS Wisley in 1946 as Director, before returning to Cambridge, in 1951, as Director.
According to the veteran horticulturalist and broadcaster, Bill Sowerbutts, speaking to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1973, after WWII, once food had again became fairly easy to obtain, British gardeners ‘revolted’ against growing vegetables, revelling in flowers instead. This turning away from utility to sometime more creative and exploratory in British domestic gardens echoed what was happening in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Until 1951, the 20-acres in the eastern section of the Garden, originally purchased in 1831, had been leased as allotments for vegetables and fruit. Thanks to Reginald Cory’s generous 1930s bequest, John Gilmour and his superintendent, Bob Younger, were able to begin the transformation of the eastern half of the garden. They retained the Gardenesque (garden-like) style of the earlier and well-established mid-19th century western garden. The layout and design of the eastern garden’s new paths and plantings have strongly influenced the contemporary eastern garden that is visible to visitors today. Here plantings are organized as plant communities, rather than in family groupings.
During Gilmour’s directorship numerous major garden undertakings were begun. These include the construction of a Rock Garden (1954 – 1958) with a ‘doline’ (sunken) feature; a Scented Garden, developed for blind visitors in 1955, with assistance from the local Rotary Club; The Cory Laboratory and experimental glasshouses in 1957 and the Chronological Bed in 1958. This latter innovative planting presents a living timeline of the introduction of plants into the British Isles from across the globe since the 1500s.
John Gilmour’s personal passion for British wild flowers was instrumental in the development of an ecological limestone mound with British wild plants from the Eastern region (1962). In 1967, renowned British designer and silversmith, David Mellor, was commissioned to design a focal point at the eastern end of the Main Walk. The resulting Lily Fountain consists of seven large giant bronze water lily leaves each with a central column of water. It continues to be a popular feature in the Garden.
John Gilmour retired as Director in 1973, having bequeathed the Botanic Garden a considerable enduring legacy of botanical developments and landscaping designs.