Botanic Garden


The original Cambridge University Botanic Garden was started in 1760 on the site of a former Augustinian Friary, but was displaced by the building of the Cavendish laboratories near the centre of town. One of the problems with the location was that the original site was only about 5 acres, so in 1831 Professor Henslow, who importantly was Charles Darwin’s teacher, decided that a larger garden was needed.  Therefore, in the Victorian era, with the research focus on understanding species especially developed by Darwin and his colleagues in botanical science, the plants were moved to a new 40 acre site on Trumpington Road. The first tree was planted in 1846 where trees and shrubs were planted in their botanical sequence, which by the end of the 1800s meant that the Botanic Garden contained the rarest tree collection in the country.

The Botanic Garden continues the tradition from the Victorian era of carrying out important research on the subject of plant genetics, understanding how plants develop, which is now called Plant Science rather than Botany.  One of the most interesting features for historians to see today, is the series of Chronological Beds which show how plants have been introduced into cultivation in Britain from the earliest times to the present day, and also tells the story of global travellers who brought back new specimens & species to the UK.  For example, it is thought that the Holly Hock (which is an Anglo-Saxon word) was brought from Israel at the time of the Crusades, with the Knights returning from the Wars who liked the flowers and brought back the seeds. 

The early Potato came to England in Tudor times, possibly with the Elizabethan travellers Drake or Raleigh, who brought back varieties from Spain which had come from Peru. But the potato from South America that we eat today, is linked to the potato brought back from the islands off Argentina by Charles Darwin himself! The tomato also came from South America, and was again brought to Europe from Peru in Tudor times and the first written evidence of a tomato eaten in Italy dates from 1550 and in England seeds were grown from the late 1590s but lots of people were worried about eating them because there were rumours that they were poisonous! 

Do please download the pdf, full powerpoint presentation and history laminate illustrating this subject which you will find useful to use for a class:

* Botanic Garden powerpoint (ppt) (currently in draft form)

* Botanic Garden laminate 


The first suggestion of such a garden in Cambridge comes in 1597, when a man named Gerard offered in a letter to Lord Burghley, Chancellor of the University, to lay out a garden in Cambridge, but the letter appears to never have been sent. As early as 1696 the ground was selected, planned and measured for a Renaissance Physic Garden, on the founds of an old Monastery of Augustine Friars. However, the plans were only brought to fruition in 1761.

The previous garden sat in the centre of town where the “New Museums Site” is now, home to the Whipple Museum, the Zoology Museum and the faculties of many subjects. The garden was a larder for the plants used in treatments, something necessary for the teaching of medicine. There is a physic garden in Chelsea, upon which the Cambridge garden was modelled, which exists today in its original form!

By 1825, the gardens had fallen into disrepair and the study of plants had the university had declined greatly – no botany lectures had been given in thirty years. It was to such a flailing faculty, that John Stevens Henslow arrived, when he took up a Professorship of Botany at the University. Having studied maths as an undergraduate, Henslow had gained a wealth of knowledge in plants, and had become a professor at the young age of twenty-six. Henslow is famous both for his forward thinking ideas in terms of plant families and as the mentor of Charles Darwin, who came up with the idea of evolution.

Henslow, against great reluctance in the University, pushed successfully for the rejuvenation in the University. He soon realised that the garden’s small site was insufficient for the studies he wished to carry out. He bought 40 acres of land from Trinity Hall in 1831, and passed an Act in Parliament permitting the moving of the gardens, but disputes within the University over the garden’s importance and finance, meant that they were only rebuilt on the new site in 1846.

Henslow used the move of the garden to change the focus of the gardens. While previously it had only been the stock room of a medic, the garden became a place for men to study the plants themselves. The Systematic beds placed each plant next to others of its family, according to the book by Swiss scientist Augusti de Candolle, which was at the forefront of scientific thinking. These beds can still be seen today.

The gardens also became somewhere people would enjoy walking around, with features also found in a stately home. This mix of scientific and grand is a style called “Gardenesque”. The Systematic beds sum up this style, as, while they are a crucial, scientific tool, they are also beautiful, laid out in asymmetrical curves rather than the straight blocks of most scientific gardens at the time. The lake is also typical, as it allowed scientists to study plants who like a wet/underwater environment, but also provided grandeur. It is shaped like U and gives the garden a whole new environment. It is supplied by Hobson’s Conduit, built in 1610, which is still visible on Trumptington Street! The Great Redwoods that stand along the Main Path are also scientifically valuable whilst also being impressive to look at; the trees are nearly 150 years old and are 30m tall. The seeds were brought over from California in 1801.

In 1951 money from a great donation from Reginald Cory allowed the gardens to expand into the full 40 acres of the site Henslow had bought. New research buildings were erected, along with a new winter garden, lawns, a rock garden, and the chronological beds.

The chronological beds are a wonderful historical resource. They display the plants in a sort of timeline, showing when each species was introduced to Britain. Woad (used by Celtic warrior to decorate their faces) and almonds are some of the first, while the sixteenth century discovery of potatoes is perhaps one of the most important. The beds provide a way of understanding how our diets and medicines changed, as well as tracking the UK’s growing global interaction with the world.

This renovation again moved the focus of the gardens, as it focused on ecology, the important science of the era. The limestone mound, for instance, allowed scientist to see how plants grew on a rocky surface. The gardens have increasingly also focused on sustainability as the issues of global warming escalate, looking after numerous endangered plant species.

Nowadays, and indeed throughout the garden’s history the gardens have been a place of research not just for plant scientists. A 1922 guidebook records how important the gardens were to professors of Oriental Studies, and the author donates a paragraph to how he has approach the wealth of Indian plants in the collection. The University state that the gardens have been used by students from Archaeology, Architecture, Computer Science, Earth Science, Engineering, Geography, Plant Science and Zoology.

In 1961, there was a fiery debate between the gardens and the Cambridge Dons after the garden proposed that a new gate, honouring Reginald Cory, include public toilets. Mr Corner of Sidney Sussex College called the move “vulgar” and one of “insolence”, stating that soon the gate would be known as “the Lavatory Gate”!

In 1975 the gardens again ran into controversy after it fired one of its park constables, Frank Power, an ex-Irish military man. He had been complained against numerous times, but was sacked after he supposedly pushed a 14-year-old convent-schooled girl into a fountain for standing on a wall. He claimed she had just stepped backwards into the fountain and he was found “not guilty” but he never returned to work at the gardens.


Botanic Garden - Present Site in 1846


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