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History of Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens is "A World Heritage Site". It originated in the exotic garden at Kew Park formed by Lord Capel of Tewkesbury in the 17th Century, and sits alongside the River Thames. The Capel family lived at Kew park during the later half of the 17th century and records from that time show that they were devoted to gardening. The gardens were admired for their greenhouses, trees and exotic plants, in small walled gardens and formal courtyards flanking the house. A map from 1730 shows a house and gardens.

The Royal Influence

The development of Kew really started in the 16th and 17th centuries when Henry VII built the nearby Richmond Palace and moved his court there for the summer months. This Thames side location meant the royal party could sail to and from London, more quickly than by road. The very presence of the court meant that nobles and influential courtiers wanted to be in the area also and Kew village grew rapidly over the next 100 years.  It came into Royal hands in 1731, when Kew Farm was leased by Frederick, Prince of Wales (son. of King George II).  The house on the site was redesigned and extensions added to either side with a white Palladian facade which earned it the name of the 'White House'. Frederick married Princess Augusta and they were garden enthusiasts and took on landscaping the area around the house with trees, the Great Lawn, the Lake with a large island and the mound on which the Temple of Aeolus now stands. Frederick died in 1751 before his ambitious plans were realised, but his widow Princess Augusta continued to enlarge and extend with the help of the Earl of Bute. It was Bute who had the dream to have a garden which would 'contain all the plants known on Earth', and with the aid of Princess Augusta they founded the Botanic Gardens at Kew.

On the death of Princess Augusta in 1772, her son George III inherited and continued to enrich the gardens, aided by William Aiton and Sir Joseph Banks. In 1802 the two properties of Richmond Gardens and Kew Gardens were united by closing Love Lane, which had been a main right of way and by taking down the walls that divided the two royal estates. Aiton now the Head Gardner carried out more changes to the landscape and buildings, including demolishing the 'White House'. But it was the association with Banks, a wealthy entrepreneur and botanist, that made a significant change at Kew and the shaping of the gardens for the future. He instigated collecting campaigns in South Africa, India, Abyssinia, China and Australia, bringing back plants including over 800 species of trees and shrubs, and by the 1800's virtually no ship left India or any other colony without some living or preserved specimen for the Botanic Gardens.

The gardens went through a period of decline between 1820-1841 after the death of George the III, with his brother re-opening up some parts of it to the public again. The collections continued to grow somewhat haphazardly. However in 1840 it was established as the worlds leading botanic garden and adopted as a national botanical garden with the appointment of William Hooker as it's director. Under his directorship the buildings and structures were redeveloped, including the building of the Palm House and the grounds were increased to 75 acres and the pleasure grounds, or arboretum, extended to 270 acres, and later to its present size of 300 acres.

The gardens today is a leading centre of botanical research, training centre for professional gardeners and a visitor attraction. They are mostly informal gardens, with a few formal gardens.  Their seedbank contains approx 7 million specimens and are mainly used for research. The library and archives have over half a million items, including books, botanical illustrations, photos, letters, manuscripts, periodicals and maps.

The Plant Collections include:

  • The Arboretum

  • The Carnivorous Plant collection - in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

  • The Cacti collection - housed in and around the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

  • The Alpine collection

  • The Bonsai collection

  • The Grass collection

  • The Rhododendron dell - Carved out of the flood plain by Capability Brown in 1773 in the shape of a large oval horseshoe. There are over 800 specimens of Rhododendron planted here.

  • The Azalea garden

  • The Bamboo garden - contains one of the largest collections of Bamboo in the UK with 135 species.

  • The Rose garden

  • The Juniper collection

  • The Berberis dell

  • The Lilac garden

  • The Aquatic garden

  • The Rock garden

  • The Herb garden

  • The Fern collection

  • The Orchid collection

  • The Queens Garden - a 17th century style garden behind Kew Palace.

The Buildings

Amongst the 300 acres of Kew, there are various buildings, some of which are detailed below, and of these 39 are listed.
Kew Palace is the oldest building on the site and was originally known as the Dutch House, built in 1631 by a merchant son of a Flemish émigrés, Samual Fortrey. It was originally built as a Thames-side villa but later in 1781 it was purchased by George III as a nursery for the royal children. It is the smallest of the British royal palaces. It is administered separately from the gardens and is the only permanently open attraction within the grounds that requires an additional fee to view. To the rear of the is the "Queen's Garden" which includes a collection of plants believed to have medicinal qualities. No plants that were not extant in England before the seventeenth century are grown in the garden.


  Kew Palace See Larger Image

The Great Chinese Pagoda - built in 1761 was built by Sir William Chambers along with many other structures. The lowest of the ten octagonal storeys is 49 feet (15 m) in diameter. From the base to the highest point is 163 feet (50 m). The staircase, 253 steps, is in the centre of the building. During the Second World War a hole in each floor was cut so there was a hole running down the inside from top to bottom. Model bombs were then dropped to test the way that they fell. The Pagoda was closed to the public for many years. but reopened for the summer months in 2006. Renovation is under way for permanent opening to the public to celebrate Kew's 250th birthday in 2009.

See Larger Image Pagoda

Queen Charlottes Cottage - this cottage was given to Queen Charlotte as a wedding present on her marriage to George III. It has been restored by Historic Royal Palaces and is separately administered by them. It is open to the public on the May Day and August bank holidays and at weekends during July and August.

The Palm House was built by architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner between 1844 and 1848, and was the first large-scale structural use of wrought iron. The structure's panes of glass are all hand-blown.

The Temperate House, which is twice as large as the Palm House, followed later in the 19th century. It is now the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence.

Temperate House

Princess of Wales Conservatory - 1987 saw the opening of Kew's third major conservatory, the Princess of Wales Conservatory (opened by Princess Diana in commemoration of her predecessor Augusta's associations with Kew), which houses 10 climate zones.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory

Orangery - built in 1761 is the earliest at Kew and is a large classical style building designed by Sir William Chambers.

The Evolution House, previously known as Austrian house as it was a gift from the Australian government in 1952. It was the first example of a prefabricated aluminium alloy building at Kew. Now houses an exhibition showing the evolution of plants.

Nash Conservatory - a classical stone 'Greek Temple' design originally designed for Buckingham Palace, but moved to Kew in 1836. Today used as a school's centre.

The Waterlily House - is the hottest and most humid of the houses at Kew and contains a large pond with varieties of waterlily, surrounded by a display of economically important heat-loving plants.

Waterlily House

Alpine House - Opened in March 2006 it is the 3rd version of an alpine house at Kew since 1887. It has a set of automatically operated blinds that prevent it overheating when the sun is too hot for the plants.

Alpine House  See Larger Image

Minka House See Larger Image

The Japanese Gateway (Chokushi-Mon) - Near the Pagoda there is a replica of part of a Japanese temple (1910) surrounded by a reconstruction of a traditional Japanese garden. Chokushi-mon See Larger Image The Minka House - Following the Japan 2001 festival, Kew acquired a Japanese wooden house called a minka. It  is located within the bamboo collection in the West central part of the gardens.

The Marianne North Gallery of Botanic Art - was built in the 1880s to house the paintings of Marianne North, an MP's daughter who travelled alone to North and South America and many parts of Asia to paint plants in a time when women rarely did so. The gallery has 832 of her paintings. The paintings were left to Kew by the artist and a condition of the bequest is that the layout of the paintings in the gallery may not be altered.

Marian North Gallery See Larger Image


Inside the Marianne North Gallery See Larger Image

The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanic Art opened in April 2008, and holds paintings from Kew's and Dr Shirley Sherwood's collections, many of which have never been displayed to the public before. The gallery is linked to the Marianne North Gallery.

Other Attractions
Treetop walkway - opened in 2008. This walkway is 18m high and 200m long and takes visitors into the tree canopy of a woodland glade.

Compost heap - the largest compost heap in the world, made from green waste from the gardens and the waste from the stables of the Household Cavalry. It is mainly used in the gardens.

Rhizotron - opened at the same time as the treetop walkway giving visitors the opportunity to investigate what happens beneath the ground where trees grow. It is essentially a single gallery containing a set of large bronze abstract castings which contain LCD screens that carry repeating loops of information about the life of trees.

Museums - Near the Palm House is a building known as "Museum No. 1" which was designed by Decimus Burton and opened in 1857. Its aim was to illustrate mankind's dependence on plants, housing Kew's economic botany collections including tools, ornaments, clothing, food and medicines. It was refurbished in 1998 and the upper two floors are now an education centre and the ground floor houses the "Plants+People" exhibition which highlights the variety of plants and the ways that people use them.

The Tree Canopy Walk See Larger Image

The Sackler Crossing - a bridge made of granite and bronze opened in May 2006 and crosses the lake.

Guided walks - Free tours of the gardens are conducted by trained volunteers and leave from Victoria Gate at 11am and 2pm every day (except Christmas Day).

Vehicular tour or the Kew Explorer - Is a service that takes a circular route around the gardens, provided by two 72-seater road trains that are fuelled by Calor Gas. A commentary is provided by the driver and there are several stops. Tickets cost £4 for adults and £1 for children, and allow travel for the whole day.

See Larger Image Sackler Crossing

Other Key facts

  • Kew was the location of the successful effort in the 19th century to propagate rubber trees for cultivation outside South America. In February 1913 the Tea House was burnt down by Suffragettes Olive Wharry and Lilian Lenton during a series of arson attacks in London.

  • In October 1987 Kew Gardens lost hundreds of trees in the Great Storm of 1987.

  • In July 2003, the gardens were put on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

  • There have been three series of 'A Year at Kew' filmed for the BBC.

  • In 2009 it celebrated it's 250th anniversary - it's official birth taken from the year when William Aiton was appointed to care for and expand the gardens for Princess Augusta, 1759.

For details on what to look out for on a visit and also visitor/photographer information such as opening times, fees and links to its own website - see our location guide Kew Gardens.

See Also:


By: Tracey Park Section: Gardens Section Key:
Page Ref: history_kew_gardens Topic: Gardens Last Updated: 03/2011

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