Liverpool Botanic Gardens

The history of Liverpool’s Botanic Gardens goes back over 200 years. Steve Lyus tells us their fascinating story.

The creation of Liverpool’s Botanic Garden was undertaken by a number of eminent Liverpool gentlemen (led by Drs Bostock & Rutter, Rev. W. Shepherd and William Roscoe). They met up with other interested parties in the Liverpool Dispensary on Church Street on 26th November 1800 to agree on the Rules and Regulations of this new entity.

The original purpose was to facilitate their study of nature as they appreciated that this was best done using living specimens. They also felt strongly that they wanted such an institution locally in Liverpool rather than having to travel to London. The model they used for the entity was the same as had already been used successfully to create the Athenaeum, that is, a subscription only private institution. Initially they created 300 shares at a cost of 12 guineas, with an annual subscription of 2 guineas. One important difference with the Athenaeum was that women were allowed to be proprietors and 6 took up this opportunity when the shares were offered. Later on another 150 shares were released, when further capital funds were needed. The first meeting of these proprietors was held in May 1801, chaired by Richard Walker.

The Corporation leased them 10 acres at Mosslake fields in the Mount Pleasant area, at that time in the country outside the built area. A walled garden of a triangular shape was created over the next year and in May 1802 William Roscoe, the new President, gave the inaugural address. The gardens were opened to subscribers a few weeks later.

Economic products such as food, fibres and medicinal plants were the main focus of attention and very quickly Liverpool joined Glasnevin (Dublin), Calcutta and Kew as THE major botanic gardens in the world. Plant specimens came from all over the globe through Liverpool’s extensive trading connections.

The 1808 glasshouse

The 1808 glasshouse

By 1808 a large glasshouse had been built 240ft long (24ft high in the centre section) with 5 temperature zones. 4823 different species and cultivars can be seen listed in their first plant catalogue. John Shepherd was the first Curator of the collection and to him is due a lot of the credit for the success of the gardens. To him is attributed the concept of a rockery for displaying plants in their natural habitat.

The Herbarium was started with plants from the gardens, 30 years before Kew initiated theirs. Later on herbarium collections were received from many parts of the world. An example is Johann Forster’s collection brought back from the Pacific when he voyaged with Captain Cook.

In 1827 it was reported: “No Public Garden in the UK is in a higher state of cultivation, and in no similar institution are stove and greenhouse plants in a more healthy and vigorous state.”

By the late 1820’s the City was starting to surround the gardens and the consequent pollution was starting to threaten the health of both the plants and visitors. They had also run out of space and by 1831 they had chosen a new location and started the move to this new site, again outside the city limits to Edge Lane in Wavertree.  The move was completed by 1836. They even moved mature trees using horses and carts, which must have been quite a sight moving along the tracks!

Unfortunately John Shepherd died soon after the move was completed but he was succeeded by his nephew Henry, who had been his assistant for the previous 30 years. Henry was nowhere near as outgoing as his uncle, but was still recognised as a first-class botanist. Henry was the first person in the UK to work out how to grow ferns from spores, so ever since then the Fern collection has been an important component of the gardens.

By the early 1840’s the number of Proprietors started to reduce as many now had their own private plant collections in their homes. The gardens started to get into financial difficulty as their subscriber income only just balanced the annual expenditure, but did not cover the interest on their debt. The Corporation was prevailed upon to help out, which they did. This meant that the general public were allowed free entrance for 2 days a week (Mondays & Fridays). By 1846 the Corporation had bought out the Proprietors completely and the general public gained full access (but only 1 day a month in the conservatory!).

Once the Corporation obtained full ownership it took a while for them to manage it properly. In the early days the lawns quickly became threadbare as the public did not keep to the footpaths and a lot of the rare plants became stalks following the extraction of significant quantities of cuttings material! Eventually the Corporation invested money and revived the state of the gardens and by the 1850’s it was very well regarded. Indeed it was the Orchid Species capital of the UK. It was also famous for its extensive Fern collection and exotic Tropical Plants.

In 1863 the curator, John Tyerman, first built raised beds in the “Dutch” style; that is, the Carpet bedding so beloved of Victorian Parks. These beds have been described as “scrolled”, based on the design of the tiles in St George’s Hall.

1886 was a very important year, as the RHS staged its first provincial show here and entertained Royalty from home and abroad. Unfortunately this event was not repeated as it was not a financial success and the RHS did not revisit this idea for more than 100 years!

By the turn of the century it is clear that scientific enquiry had ceased to be undertaken in the garden and the sorry state of the Herbarium and Library convinced the Corporation to form a Botany department in the City Museum. In 1909 40,000 herbarium specimens were transferred, of which only a quarter were regarded as worthy of retention! These collections have been well managed since and can be researched to this day. The library books were also moved to the City library.

In the early 1900’s Arthur Bulley, creator of Ness Botanic Garden, was very scathing about the management of Liverpool Botanic:”The Chairman … and the rest of the honourable committee have a combined knowledge of gardening altogether below a guinea pig’s”!

Very little mention can be found of the Gardens through the First World War, but one can guess at the effect of losing most of the staff to the conflict. Between the wars was also difficult, because of the sulphurous smoke from houses, gas works and nearby railway marshalling yards at Edge Hill.

A map of the Wavertree gardens in 1925

A map of the Wavertree gardens in 1925

In the inter-war years the gardens continued to be of scientific value in the production of specimens for use by the University, Colleges and Schools in the City.

On 20 Nov 1940 a bomb meant for those marshalling yards missed and shattered all the glass on the glasshouses. The plants inside were shredded and as it was winter all the surviving plants were hurriedly moved into nearby private glasshouses. The Orchids were all moved to Sudley House.

To cap it all, the soldiers that were billeted in the curator’s lodge burnt all the garden’s records to keep warm!

After the war Percy Conn was appointed Superintendent of all Liverpool Parks. If he had not had the vision to revive the ethos of Roscoe and Shepherd, this would have been the end of Liverpool Botanic Gardens.

It was decided to create a third Botanic Garden in an area better suited aesthetically and from an atmospheric point of view, particularly for the growing of outdoor plants. So in 1951 they began rebuilding on the Harthill estate in Calderstones Park.

In 1950 Percy employed the legendary orchid grower Blackwood Dalgliesh to develop their orchid collection further. One of the results of this new focus was the creation of the “Liverpool Orchids”, named after the Liverpool Parks, which became icons of the city in the late 50’s like the Liver bird.

Percy asked for £32,000 to build the glasshouses, but only got £1350, the price of a single glasshouse! The Council had very little money to spare at this time as they had to replace 80,000 sub-standard homes at this time. Progress on re-building was very slow as it was dependent on what money was spare in any year. Also, low grade spruce, not teak, was used in the construction, a decision which came back to bite them in the 80’s.

Harthill, 1964

Harthill, 1964

Finally in 1964 the glasshouse complex of 16 houses was completed and opened by Sir George Taylor, Director of Kew.

To populate the new glasshouses, the City was given plants by Kew, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Glasgow Botanic Gardens as well as many private individuals. The City also subscribed to two of Frank Kingdon-Ward’s expeditions to Burma and NE India.

During these years Liverpool represented Britain at international shows including Paris, Cologne, Vienna and the Floriade in Amsterdam, and also regularly exhibited at Harrogate and Chelsea.

There were 15 years of good times with many skilled horticulturists trained up on the various collections.

However, by 1979 the wood was rotting, glass was falling out and the houses were not repaired. In 1981 they were quoted £10,000 to build one new glasshouse! Again, the City’s economy was in dire straits; Tate & Lyle’s and Cammell Laird had closed; unemployment was over 25% and it was the period of the Toxteth riots.

Michael Heseltine stepped in to create the Merseyside Task Force which launched a series of initiatives, including the 1984 International Garden Festival.

This idea came about as a result of the heritage of the Botanic Garden, which encouraged people to think that there would now be money available to rebuild the glasshouses. It was estimated that a complete rebuild would now cost £200,000! However these dreams were soon dashed even though the “Friends of Harthill & Calderstones Park” campaigned vigorously. The Department of the Environment was not interested; they only had money for special social needs.

A further complication arrived in 1983 when Militant Tendency came to power. The Council decided that the glasshouses future was in doubt due Health and Safety concerns. Before the final decision on whether to close was made, all 6 skilled botanic gardeners were put out to cut the grass verges.

The case of these gardeners became known as the “Harthill Six”. It went before the County Court in Liverpool and surprisingly the court found in favour of the Council. Their case was then taken to the High Court in London in October 1984 and the judge ruled that the six had been unfairly redeployed.

The day after, when they returned to work, they found that their glasshouses had been closed!

All the plants were then moved to the glasshouses at Greenhills Nursery in Garston. For the next 23 years five botanic horticulturists were paid by LCC to tend the 10,000 plants, invisible to the world! They were occasionally allowed to create a display at the Southport Flower Show.

'Mr Roscoe's Garden', Chelsea 2008

‘Mr Roscoe’s Garden’, Chelsea 2008

We must now jump to 2006 and the preparation for the events to be held during the City of Culture year in 2008.  The artist Jyll Bradley had been commissioned to produce some appropriate work for this commemoration. The first was the book “Mr Roscoe’s Garden” followed by the design of a stand for the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show to promote the history of the Liverpool Botanical Collection; which won a Gold medal. This stand then went on tour to four locations in the NW of England.

Vanda 'Blue Magic', Croxteth 2014

Vanda ‘Blue Magic’, Croxteth 2014

During 2007/8 a third of the plants were found room in 4 glasshouses within Croxteth Hall’s Victorian walled gardens when they could then be finally seen by the public again. This move was part of LCC’s plan to close Greenhills Nursery, which finally happened in 2012. Connected with these changes, all the Parks and Gardens staff were made redundant, with the option of being re-employed by Glendale, to whom the contract for the maintenance of Liverpool’s Parks and Gardens had been given.

Impatiens niamniamensis, Croxteth 2014

Impatiens niamniamensis, Croxteth 2014

There are now only 3 botanic horticulturists in charge of what is left of Liverpool’s Botanic Garden. Even though it is a shadow of its former greatness, it is still worth visiting throughout the year as Tropical plants do not work to seasons. These four glasshouses contain the following plants:

  • ¾ Span House: Tropical plants including the National Collection of Dracaena (Dragon tree)
  • Teak House: Orchids, Marantas, Economic plants and the National Collection of Codiaeum
  • Metal House: Bromeliads (Pineapple family)
  • Cedar House: Pelargonium and National Collection of Solenostemon (Coleus)

One of the many consequences of the current squeeze on the Corporation’s finances is that the current organisation and management of the glasshouses will have to change significantly by April 2015. We await this decision with bated breath!

Written by: Steve Lyus February 2015

Twitter contact: Myself: @sinogrande     Liverpool Botanics: @LivTropicals