The other side of Chelsea…..

London is, of course, steeped in history and a key role in that history has been played over the centuries by its large number of trade Guilds ( associations). The first guild to receive a Royal Charter were Weavers in 1155.

In the 14th century more trades received Charters and by 1515 forty eight ‘Worshipful Societies’ had been established. These ‘Guilds’, each with its own Coat of Arms and distinctive regalia (livery) became known as Livery Companies with their own Headquarters in the City of London. The London Guildhall was the most prestigious. Construction began in 1211 and took 30 years to complete. Miraculously, it survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz (WW2) with only partial damage. It is the only secular stone building from before 1666 still standing in the City.

These Guilds played a pivotal role – approving membership, maintaining professional standards and establishing strict rules of conduct. Anyone frequenting taverns to excess or attending wrestling matches could be refused admission. In the early 14th century no one could set up shop, join a trade, take on apprentices or vote unless they belonged to a livery company.

Their list of 120 occupations makes fascinating reading – such as Playing Card Makers, Fan Makers and Carmen that I could recognise, but others were unknown to me, such as Loriners (horse’s stirrups, bridles), Girdlers (girdles and belts) and Horners (horn drinking vessels). Interestingly this traditional practice of establishing Livery Companies continues until today,  recent additions being Hackney Carriage Drivers, International Bankers, Management Consultants and Airline Pilots. I trust they were all closely vetted regarding their propensity to drink or attend wrestling matches.


view of the Chelsea Physic Garden

It was my discovery of a unique place in London – the Chelsea Physic Garden – that sparked my interest in Guilds, for  this Garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (pharmacists) in 1673 to train apprentices in identifying medicinal plants. Its first benefactor, Hans Sloane, provided land at a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity, on condition that 50 species of new plants were submitted to the Royal Society annually.

The location of the garden by the Thames was crucial, for this was the Age of Exploration when adventurers travelled the world seeking anything new in the botanical field, returning with their finds and mooring their vessels alongside the garden. One of the most famous explorers was Captain James Cook who, in his ship The Endeavour, discovered Australia. During a three year odyssey, accompanied by leading botanist Joseph Banks (adviser to King George III) he returned with over 3,000 plant specimens of which 1,000 were previously unknown.

My own somewhat tenuous link with Captain Cook is that he was born in the Yorkshire village of Marton. A monument dedicated to him is close to Roseberry Topping. I had a perfect view of this local ‘mountain’ from my Middlesbrough home. I walked up there often, including one occasion when I careered down its snow covered slopes on a toboggan to encourage my unborn first child to make his appearance! He chose to wait another six days.

On my visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden I was fortunate in meeting two wonderful guides, Anne and Michele, who brought the place alive with their unending enthusiasm and extensive knowledge. They explained how it had developed as an important centre of learning for apothecaries, maintaining its medicinal plant collection until today.

The Garden of Medicinal Plants contains hundreds of plants from all over the world. The Madagascar Periwinkle is now recognised as something of a miracle for its treatment of childhood leukaemia – increasing life expectancy from 5% to 95%.

Another plant – the Chaste Berry, was traditionally sprinkled on the food of Monks  to  suppress their sexual desire.  Pliny the Elder wrote about it in 77AD as did Chaucer in the Middle Ages. However subsequent researchers claimed it to be both anaphrodisiac and aphrodisiac. Somewhat confusing, but no more than today’s tabloids telling us how certain foods and medicines are good for us one day and then  bad the next.


The large leaved castor oil plant

The Garden of Poisonous Plants contains a Castor Oil Plant – dramatic in both appearance and usage. It grows to almost 10 feet with huge leaves. Castor oil has many medicinal uses, best known as a laxative, but it was also an effective lubricant for aircraft engines in WWII. It does however have a ‘black’ side as the source of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons.In 1978  it gained notoriety when a Bulgarian dissident was assassinated by a poison tipped umbrella on London’s Waterloo Bridge.

Flourishing in the Garden of Edible Plants is the Carolina Reaper – reputedly the hottest pepper in the world and now grown in Bedfordshire.. The Scoville Scale for assessing peppers’ heat, had to be re-calibrated to test it as it measures 2,200,000 units compared to cayenne at 50,000 units. Customers are advised to wear gloves when handling them. In my view it should carry a health warning as chilli of any strength is absolutely top of my ‘no eat list’. I personally question its inclusion in the ‘edible’ section!

Here you will also find  the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain and the most northerly grapefruit tree in the world. In 1945 a local lady wanted a house plant and placed a grapefruit pip in a pot. It grew and grew until eventually she had to extricate it from her home and offered it to the Garden.  It settled in happily, but took 50 years before it would bear fruit. Today it blooms abundantly, so much so that its grapefruits are made into marmalade each year. A niece of the lady who planted the seed visits the garden regularly to check on its welfare.

Two other trees that cannot be missed are a pair of huge Gingko Biloba, (Maidenhair), one male one female. This variety of tree dates back 270 million years. They adapt well to urban settings, being resistant to both pollution and pests, and are frequently used to provide shade in cities. Miraculously four gingko trees survived the 1945 atomic bomb at Hiroshima, despite being only 1 – 2 kilometres away from the blast. They flourish to this day which perhaps explains their capacity for survival since the Ice Age. There are those who believe that Gingko Biloba is effective for memory enhancement. A good friend of mine started taking this herb and continued for a year, at which time he said that he must buy some more, but had forgotten its name. To this day I cannot but be astonished that he never once questioned its efficacy.IMG_8284.JPGpart of the ‘Tea’ garden growing many varieties

The Garden was also important in developing trade – cotton being sent to the southern States of the US, tea seedlings were shipped from China to India and the rubber industry was developed in Malaysia. Britain can be justifiably proud of its involvement, however King James I’s attempt to break down the French monopoly of silk manufacture was not so successful. He imported 10,000 mulberry trees from Europe, ordering every English landowner to plant them. However he made one fundamental mistake in purchasing black mulberries instead of white ones – the latter being the preferred food of silkworms. His project failed.


White and black mulberries.

There are more than 5000 species of plants in the Chelsea Physic Garden. I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the richness and stories that you will find there. Suffice to say, go and see for yourselves – it is an utterly enchanting place where I unearth (not literally!) something new every time I visit.


One thought on “The other side of Chelsea…..

  1. Thank goodness I was able to read the Chelsea Garden article at last – I was quite frantic!!! Anyhow its great as usual. Of particular interest as my late husband Philip was a pharmacist. Just two comments!!! I guess if you ate the Chaste Berry you did not know if you were coming or going!! Also re the hot reaper pepper there was a television show last week where the contestants had to eat the peppers RAW and they went up gradually in extent of hotness – ending with one that nearly cooked one contestant’s goose!! He had to be carried off.
    Love Shirley


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