If you were to walk around Cadogan Place Gardens on a sunny Saturday in June, I’m quite sure you’d think it a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Whether you were wowed by the most healthy looking roses you’d ever seen, the sumptuous herbaceous borders, the Union Jack-coloured meadow or the green, green shady woodland, amongst an enormous three hectares of immaculate planting, something’s going to ‘get’ you!
But within this garden, even more than the planting, it’s the history that really took my breath away. My fourteen-year-old self, dropping the subject at the first possible moment, would be quite discombobulated by this fact. But oh, that history teacher was something else. If only Mrs Bannister had taught me history as well as maths.
Cadogan Place –North and South Gardens–is listed on the Historic England register and with very good reason: it’s hard to imagine a set of plants that could have more extensive links to our past.
Despite being just one kilometre west of Victoria Station, the area was no more than a set of fields and market gardens until 1777. But after the Great Fire of London, wealthy Londoners had not wanted to return to the crowded medieval City and so new estates were built in the ‘countryside’ to the west, offering a healthier way of life for this new commuter group. And so garden squares began.
No less than Mr Humphry Repton was brought in by Earl Cadogan to design the North garden, with extensive excavations undertaken to create hollows and hillocks between gently winding paths.
Meanwhile, the South garden was developed as the ‘London Botanic Garden’ by William Salisbury, who held botanical classes in the late eighteen century in the library, hothouse, greenhouse and conservatory buildings on site. Subscribers to the garden, all of whom lived within a mile of the site, were also treated to summer evening concerts.
The North garden continued pretty much as was right up until World War II when all traces of Repton’s design were lost. First, the railings surrounding the garden were donated to the war effort and a barrage balloon secured to the site. In 1942 the balloon was decommissioned, to be replaced by a military camp with tanks dug into the ground and anti-aircraft gun stations.
Happily, a few of the perimeter trees survived the war, but, not so happily, many later succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. At this point, the opportunity to construct an underground car park was taken; it is very hard to believe that today much of the space is purely roof garden, existing on 100 centimetres of soil.
Meanwhile, the South garden had become a public promenade by 1820, but was redeveloped as private gardens in the late nineteenth century, as part of wider development in the area, which had become quite run down. Tennis courts replaced the old Botanic Garden glasshouses and new houses were built around the perimeter. The South garden escaped the war relatively unscathed, but those pesky Dutch elm beetles weren’t so generous and much replanting was carried out after the 1970s.
Charles Dickens once described Cadogan Place as “the connecting link between the aristocratic pavements of Belgrave Square and the barbarism of Chelsea”. I suppose he talks of the time just before his death, when the area became run down.
The Cadogan family still own large swathes of the very upmarket Chelsea today and are second only to the Duke of Westminster, the richest landowner in Britain. The Cadogans descend from Major William Cadogan, a cavalry officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army, but in fact their wealth predominantly came through marriage, when the second Earl of Cadogan married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Sir Hans Sloane, lord of the manor of Chelsea.
Sir Hans Sloane was a botanist, physician and philanthropist, who contributed much to natural science and whose legacies include the British Museum, Natural History Museum and the wonderful Chelsea Physic Garden.
However, there is some irony in the fact that much of the Sloane’s (and hence Cadogan’s) wealth came from slave-worked Jamaican sugar plantations, as later on, William Wilberforce resided at number 44 Cadogan Place. It was here that he learnt, just three days before his death in 1833, that a bill had been passed to abolish slavery in the UK once and for all, the culmination of his life’s work.
Number 52 Cadogan Place was also the birthplace, childhood and family home of Harold Macmillan, the UK’s Prime Minister from 1957–1963. And at number 30 lived Dorothy Jordan, who bore some ten children as the mistress to King William IV, and with a further five children in tow it’s hard to imagine how she ever had time to establish fame as a highly successful comedy actress.
It’s certainly been all go at Cadogan Place Gardens over the years. It’s fascinating to think how much has gone on within and around this one garden. But with an estimated population of around six million in eighteenth century England and limited practicalities for travel, I guess everything was a little more interconnected back then.
I have yet to become a real city person, but if I can sit underneath an ancient mulberry tree–rumoured, if unlikely, to have been planted by Charles II 300 years ago–learning about London’s history, there is just a small chance of me catching the city bug yet!