Andrew Murray & the Lost Gardens of Kensington

Who was Andrew Murray I can hear you asking and how did he lose a garden, especially one in Kensington?  Well, of course he didn’t actually personally  lose the garden, but he did record it before it was lost.  A Scottish lawyer and natural historian Murray  held a variety of posts before becoming the assistant secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society between 1860 and 1865. Although its quite hard for us to imagine, the RHS was once thought incapable of running a garden, or at least of running a garden that didn’t lose money hand over fist.

The lost garden of the title – more than 22 acres of prime real estate in Kensington – was planned to be their financial salvation  and it opened  to great acclaim in 1861 with an extraordinary collection of buildings, canals, statuary and embroidered parterres. However it didn’t solve the society’s money problems or even pay its way, so after some acrimonious court cases the RHS was evicted and the gardens built over less than 40 years later.

The story really begins with the Great Exhibition of 1851, or rather, the end result of  its enormous success.   It had been organised by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and when it closed the Commission unusually became a permanent body to invest and spend the profits of £180,000 helping fulfill  Prince Albert’s ambition to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”.

The Royal Commissioners fro the Exhibition of 1851 by Henry Wyndham

The commissioners, originally presided over by Albert himself, invested the surplus in buying the Brompton Park estate of about 87 acres in South Kensington stretching from Kensington Gore to Cromwell Road which included the site of the famous Brompton Nursery.   Although dilapidated and divided into three, Brompton Park House was still standing on the south-west corner of the site.

In the  years that followed they  established what for want of a better term was a “cultural quarter” once known as Albertopolis.  Nowadays it  includes the Victoria and Albert Museum,  the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum,  the Royal Albert Hall  and Imperial College  as well as the Royal College of Art  and the Royal College of Music. The Commissioners are still landlords to most of the original estate.  To find out what they do with the income today look at their website.

The first part of Albertopolis to open was the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – in 1852, under the direction of Henry Cole. Meanwhile the rest of the site was being planned under the auspices of the Exhibition Commissioners and the Science and Art Department – a part of the Board of Trade and later the Education Dept.  The process was however effectively run by Cole and two other officials,  Richard Redgrave, the inspector for art,  and Francis Fowke an engineer and architect.

The Museum, the Art School and indeed most of the other institutions were  originally housed in temporary buildings or existing ones which were adapted. So Brompton Park House was reconfigured by Fowke to provide initial accommodation for the Art School. It also accommodated a detachment of  the Royal Engineers who were employed in clearing the site and constructing the Museum, one of whom can just be seen  in the picture of the house above.  The east end of the building was dismantled in about 1865.

Cole, Fowke and Redgrave were amongst Albert’s chief advisors and had discussed creating a large show garden in the middle of the site which would served to unite the various cultural institutions around it.  It would be an attractive feature in its own right, but  as a second international exhibition was planned for 1861 to form a  centrepiece for that as well.  Albert himself was attracted by its architectural potential and the way the garden could showcase sculpture, one of his particular passions.

Uncaptioned images below come from The Book of the Royal Horticultural Society by Andrew Murray published in 1863

So what’s that got to do with the Royal Horticultural Society?  Originally founded in 1804 as the Horticultural Society of London they  took on their  first major garden at Chiswick in 1821, on part of the 5th Duke of Devonshire’s estate.  Patronised by many of the elite it held fetes and flower shows there alongside its more experimental horticultural work.   But despite everything it did it always seemed to have serious financial problems.

After the death of the duke  its long-serving president  in 1858,  Prince Albert was, by fate or judicious manoeuvring,   asked to succeed him.  It will therefore probably  not come as a  surprise that within a few  months  the Society  formally asked the Commissioners [remember also presided over by Prince Albert] for a lease of the proposed garden site.

Albert’s autograph

They got a good deal.  A lease on 22.5 acres for 31 years with a qualified right of renewal.  The Commissioners agreed  to spend £50,000 on basic earth moving and landscaping  and   building of a huge arcaded quadrangle  to surround the central garden area.  In return the Horticultural Society was to spend an equivalent sum, building a conservatory and laying out the garden.   The rent was £2,400 per annum but they were not expected to pay anything  until their annual expenses, including those of the Chiswick gardens were covered.  At the same time any profits from the garden and events held in it were split between the two sides.   The Commissioners further agreed not to  repossess  unless the rent was unpaid for five consecutive years.

What could possibly go wrong?

Victoria’s autograph

You might wonder how, if finances were rocky, the Horticultural Society could afford to spend £50,000 it didn’t have.   It was very simple. Victoria gave  a donation of £1000 and Albert  a further £500 while the Princess Royal  became  a life-member.   The minute the royals signed up so did the rest of fashionable society – and  would-be “fashionistas”.  The money was quickly raised by the issuing of debentures [ a form of bond] and Albert became a debenture-holder for another £1000, so the project could go ahead.  The icing on the cake was that the Horticultural Society was also granted a royal charter and in December 1860 became the Royal Horticultural Society.

Of course Albert took a great personal interest in the garden’s design and from the outset it was clear it was going to be very formal and Italianate.

Henry Cole visited Italy during the winter of 1858-9 and bought back photographs of arcaded buildings he had seen including the cloisters of St. John Lateran and the arcades in the gardens of the Villa Albani.

Interior court of the Lateran Museum.

These strongly influenced  the southern and northern arcades of  the new garden.

Responsibility for the architecture was shared by the three officials – Cole, Redgrave and Fowke but with addition of Sydney Smirke the architect of the British Museum. All their work was overseen, as always, by Albert himself.

Responsibility for the garden was, however, a slightly different matter and caused some controversy.


Fowke had overseen the earth moving and levelling for the Commissioners, but he was no garden designer. Some within the RHS wanted to employ Joseph Paxton, but Henry Cole was adamantly opposed to him on two grounds.  Firstly because ‘he repudiates Geometric laying out and knows nothing about it’, but secondly and one suspects more importantly  Paxton would want to be in sole charge and that was absolutely not acceptable.  Eventually the choice of Albert and Cole fell on William Andrews Nesfield and the RHS went along with that.  Nesfield had first come to Albert’s attention when he submitted plans for new formal gardens in the public area in front of Buckingham Palace.



Nesfield found himself in the middle of continual struggles between the Society and Cole and the commissioners, and Albert became  so involved with decision-making that Victoria began to call the gardens  ‘tiresome’.

Nesfield was constrained from the outset by the Italianate architectural style already decided upon, so his original scheme was revised considerably before being published in May 1860.  It now  included  ‘canals’ and other  ‘water works’, almost certainly at Fowke’s suggestion,  instead of the flowerbeds that  Nesfield himself had planned. This may have been because of Fowke was an engineer and liked the idea of water  coming from a 400ft deep  artesian well   ‘fitted up with some beautiful pumping machinery’.

Work had begun late in 1859 but progressed slowly through 1860, with the waterworks finally completed in January 1861. The RHS moved its offices into one of the new buildings that spring and by May 1000 men were working on the site.   Nevertheless the gardens were still unfinished when they were officially opened on 5 June 1861. According to The Athenaeum it was attended by ‘such a gathering of the higher classes [that] has been rarely seen in London, and the expressions of surprise and delight in the gardens were universal’.

The opening of the Winter Garden in June 1861 from Illustrated London News

Albert called the garden  ‘a valuable attempt at last to reunite the science and art of gardening to the sister arts of architecture, sculpture and painting’.

He foresaw a future for it as ‘the inner court of a vast quadrangle of public buildings,. . . where science and art may find space for development, with that air and light which are elsewhere well nigh banished from this overgrown metropolis.’

 Prince Albert died aged only 42 just a few months later in December 1861, and Murray’s The Book of the Royal Horticultural Society published in 1863 was dedicated to his memory and includes a laudatory poem.

After outlining the society’s early history Murray concludes that the RHS  had been saved from collapse by the Prince’s efforts and interest, even though Albert  was ‘in no way more specially interested [in horticulture] than in any other liberal pursuit’.  Instead he was  ‘using, unobtrusively and silently, the Society as an influence for the good and advancement of the people’, to whom it would afford ‘occasional access’ to the influences of horticulture and art.  The garden would serve as a place where the scholars from the various institutions and equally the visitors ‘the student and the amateur might retire to refresh themselves, when fatigued with their labours’.

Interestingly Albert was  determined that none of the various institutions should be exclusive, and that included the garden.  They should all be accessible and attractive with things like  reading-rooms with magazines, as well as attractions for children – although in Albert’s case that meant an aviary and a maze rather than swings or a skateboard park.   No populism tho’ because that would antagonise the society’s elite membership  who were used to the fetes and flower shows at Chiswick best known for what the Survey of London calls  “their aristocratic brilliance”.  Indeed one journalist’s description of the Kensington gardens said they were  ‘a very charming addition … to the fashionable lounges of the West-end’.

Any  attempts at exclusivity showed signs of slippage when for the 1862 exhibition tea rooms were built over the southern arcades, while the garden’s furniture  had the makers name attached in the same way as exhibits in the exhibition itself. Henry Cole went one stage further telling the RHS that profit was more important than its perception of its own standing, and that it should attract as many as visitors to  ‘promote Science, pay its debts, and keep its public obligations’.  As  a message it seems to have worked and the 1862 exhibition made the RHS a much-needed profit.

The link between the Commissioners and the RHS became closer when, after Murray left, Henry Scott who was  Henry Cole’s assistant, was named his successor.  By this stage the development of Albertopolis was well under way. Between 1868 and 1871 Scott designed and built a series of buildings behind the arcades that ran around the garden, and   which were to be the home of  annual international exhibitions being planned by Cole.

Unfortunately the garden was still costing the RHS more than its revenue and for three years running they failed to pay the rent.   The Commissioners now proposed that there was greater public access – which irritated the RHS membership – and to lease land on the estate for elite private housing. This all led to major rows both within the ranks of the RHS and between them and the Commissioners.  The RHS council was replaced, Cole’s planned exhibitions failed, and there was still no money.   The RHS suggested installing a skating rink – newly fashionable – but the commission refused to allow them to do so as it patently didn’t serve science or art.

By now the horticulturalists involved with the RHS were gaining the upper hand.  The gardens may have been ‘the largest and, as regards flowers, handsomest of London squares’ but with pollution from London smoke increasing  there were problems with cultivation and since they still had the gardens at Chiswick perhaps the society’s horticultural aims would be better served by focussing their attention there rather than on trying to maintain  Kensington.

A move out of the garden by the RHS also suited the Commissioners who had decided by 1876  that  a science museum was needed and proposed using  part of the site for it while turning the rest into a public park.   Unfortunately  the debenture holders who had put up the money to build the gardens in the first place refused to agree with the gardeners who wanted to return to Chiswick.

The only way forward was for the Commissioners to give notice to evict, which they did in 1879.  Cole claimed the garden was in decline anyway and mirrored the poverty and decline of the Society.  It took several court cases that lasted until 1882 for that to be enforced and for the debenture-holders to be ignored, effectively losing their money. But even after that  RHS stayed put and continued to host exhibitions until 1886.



It wasn’t util 1888 that they finally quit Albertopolis.  Immediately they did two new roads were laid out across the site and new buildings, including the science museum, began.  The old arcades became storage and galleries for the Museum and classrooms the Imperial Institute, and some were still there until the 1960s when both the Science Museum and Imperial College needed to expand and they were demolished.

 So a sad end to what had been an extraordinary garden. As the Survey of London said in 1975: “with its great conservatory, its arcades of brick, tile and terra-cotta, its spiral shrubs and its statuary standing among stone-edged canals and box-embroideries of coloured gravel it is one of the more unimaginable pieces of a fairly recent past.” Luckily Murray’s book serves as a reminder of what, had it survived, would now be, whatever one’s view of the over-the-top Italianate nature- one of the jewels in London’s green crown and almost certainly Grade 1 listed.  And I’ll be posting more about the gardens themselves soon…

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