LIVERPOOL BOTANIC GARDENS 1802-2017
Our March talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Steve Lyus, who spoke to us on 19th March, has been researching the history of Liverpool's botanical collections, and campaigning to keep them intact and on view to the public. The story began in 1800 when two Liverpool doctors - Bostock and Rutter - proposed the creation of botanic gardens and a museum of natural history. William Roscoe and Rev William Shepherd (of Gateacre Chapel) were among those supporting the plan. The purpose was to enable the study of nature, and the economic and medicinal value of plants, using living specimens, and to provide a pleasure garden near the rapidly expanding town.
In order to establish the gardens, shares were issued to 'proprietors' and the Corporation was asked to provide a suitable piece of land. The site chosen - in the Mosslake Fields area - was bounded by what became Olive, Myrtle and Laurel Streets. The gardens opened in 1802/3, and a plan published in 1808 shows their layout, with a Curator's House and Library at the entrance and a Conservatory behind. The catalogue listed 4,823 different species.
The first curator was John Shepherd (no relation to William) who was paid £60 per annum "plus house, coal and candles". The plants came from the proprietors, collectors and sea captains. Between 1820 and 1840 Liverpool was the leading botanic garden in Britain, and was exchanging specimens and seeds with others including St Petersburg and Calcutta. By the 1830s, however, the gardens were completely surrounded by buildings, and suffering the effects of air pollution. Six acres of land in the West Derby township - on the south side of Edge Lane - were purchased, and opened in 1836. Many of the plants, including mature trees hauled on wheels by horses, were transferred from the original site.
Sadly, the gardens failed to cover their running costs, and in 1846 they faced extinction. Liverpool Corporation took over, using its powers under the Museums Act 1845. Free access was allowed to the public, visitor numbers climbed to 250,000 a year, and the gardens became famous for orchids and gingers in particular. However in 1858 the newly-appointed curator, Johann Wilhelm Birschel, who had worked at Kew and Chatsworth, reported that the grounds were in a "very poor state", the hot-house temperatures were "never regulated", and the tools were in "very bad order". He resigned a few months later.
The gardens remained at Edge Lane - as part of Wavertree Park - until after WW2. There were constant worries about the neglect of the collections, and sulphurous smoke from the nearby houses, gasworks and railway yards added to the problem. During the war, the gardens were blitzed, and Air Raid Wardens stationed in the buildings burnt the historic records to keep warm! After the war the decision was taken to move the gardens to Harthill within Calderstones Park. Orchid specialist Percival Conn became Superintendent of Liverpool Parks, and embarked on developing 'The Liverpool Orchids' species collection.
Conn told the Council, in 1951, that he needed £32,000 for new greenhouses. He was given just £1,320 - and it was 1964 before the new gardens opened to the public. What Steve called "the good times" (with 16 glasshouses, each 100ft long) lasted for 15 years, until 1979. The collections were exhibited, and won awards, around the world. But when Militant Tendency took over the Council in 1983, the horticulturists were sent to cut grass verges, and in 1984 the gardens closed. Nowadays the vestibule (housing the Calder Stones) survives, but there are just brambles where the glasshouses used to be.
Between 1984 and 2007, the 10,000 plants rescued from Harthill, and relocated to Greenhills Nursery in Garston, were "invisible to the world". Some tree ferns were taken to Sefton Park Palm House, and other plants went to the Eden Project, Chester Zoo and Kew. Then in 2008 - Liverpool's Capital of Culture year - Jyll Bradley published "Mr Roscoe's Garden" and persuaded the City Council to exhibit at Chelsea. Displays followed at Tatton Park and Southport. It was decided to close Greenhills Nursery, but to move "one of each plant" to Croxteth Hall. Fortunately that restriction was ignored, and today the Victorian Walled Garden at Croxteth is home to what is left of the city's botanical collections. For the time being, the threat to their existence has been lifted. Steve ended his fascinating talk by encouraging everyone to visit the Walled Garden when it re-opens for the summer.