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.
Reginald Radcliffe Cory on the French Riviera, 1933. Cory’s generous bequest to the Botanic Garden enabled the development of the eastern section from the 1950s.
The beginning of a research project is a particularly exciting time. There is the delicious element of the unexpected, not knowing what you may discover, which paths will appear or unknown connections may emerge from your explorations and questions.
Since my project focuses on the social history of the eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden through time, understanding the timeline of people and developments seems a useful navigational point to begin. While historic people, decisions and events have influenced the development of the contemporary eastern garden, it was only after the second world-war that work began on this half of the garden, following a generous bequest from Reginald Radcliffe Cory (Trinity College). Cory is a key figure in enabling the development of the eastern garden, therefore Cory’s story is an important one. It dates back at least to the 1920s and his relationship with the first academic director of the botanic garden, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter.
The main emphasis of my project will be on key people and developments from the 1950s. For example, since 1951 there have been six directors and acting directors – John Gilmour, Max Walters, Donald Pigott, Thomas ap Rees, John Parker and the current acting director and curator, Tim Upson. The newly-appointed director, Beverley Glover, takes up her post in July 2013. Each director has overseen a range of developments in the garden; each has been influenced by prevailing ideas about the environment, biology and horticulture.
A serendipitous opportunity to attend a SHARE Museums East training day at the Cambridgeshire Archives (Shire Hall) and the Cambridgeshire Collection (Central Library) offers some additional fascinating resources to explore. It is hoped that information from these local archives will add further colour and texture to the botanic garden history.
The Cambridge University Botanic Garden reflects the shifting perspectives of human relationships with our environment, our scientific priorities and our preoccupations. Established in its present 38-acre (16-hectare) site south of Cambridge city centre in 1846, the first garden established at Cambridge University in 1762 as a small physic garden. During the nineteenth century, the western half of the New Botanic Garden was planned and planted under the direction of John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany and mentor to Charles Darwin, and Andrew Murray, first Curator of the Garden. This Grade II heritage landscape is renowned internationally for its systematic beds and its ‘Gardenesque’ style.
During the 1950s, following a generous bequest from a former Trinity College student, Reginald Cory, development of the eastern half of the garden began. Although this post second world war garden echoed the ‘Gardenesque’ layout of the existing western half of the garden, unlike the 19th century garden, the development of the eastern area was ‘in a piecemeal way without a master plan’. The resulting garden therefore enables us to chart the changing perspectives echoed by the various plantings through the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. My project traces the social history of the eastern garden over seven decades – from the 1950s to the present – to examine contemporary social and scientific priorities and to document how people have responded to the changing gardenscape.