It’s a Sheffield park that we take for granted, but the story behind the Botanical Gardens is not as straightforward as we might believe. The next time you visit, spare a thought for our ancestors who probably didn’t have the opportunity.
It is Sheffield’s oldest park, with origins going back to 1833 when Thomas Dunn, the Master Cutler, called a public meeting following a petition signed by 85 local residents concerned about the lack of public open spaces and facilities to promote both healthy recreation and self-education in Sheffield. It was resolved, at the meeting, to develop a Botanical Garden.
By 1834 the Society had raised £7,500 through shares, and, having taken practical advice from Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth and Joseph Harrison of Wortley Hall, they purchased 18 acres of south facing farmland at Clark House from Joseph Wilson, head of the family of snuff makers.
“The roads to it were good, the land itself lay very well to the south, it was well sheltered and very fertile.”
The laying out of the grounds was determined through a competition, the winner chosen from a panel of judges made up of experienced gardeners – Joseph Paxton (Chatsworth), Joseph Cooper (Wentworth), Joseph Walker (Banner Cross) and John Wilson (Worksop Manor).
A design submitted by Robert Marnock, former Head Gardener at Bretton Hall, was chosen for the new Botanical Gardens – . “He laid out the Gardens in the then highly fashionable Gardenesque style, the main characteristic being that all the trees, shrubs and plants were positioned in such a way that each plant can be displayed to its full potential in scattered planting. The approach involved the creation of small-scale landscapes, winding paths, expanses of grass and tree-planted mounds.”
The runner-up in the competition, Benjamin Broomhead Taylor, was appointed as the architect for the buildings. The pavilions became known as Paxton’s Pavilions, hinting that these were designed by Joseph Paxton, but it is more likely that he merely offered advice in their design.
The Botanical Gardens were finally opened on the 29th July 1836, under the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk, Duke of Devonshire, Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Wharncliffe, the Earl of Surrey and John Stuart Wortley.
“Two excellent bands of music were stationed in the grounds, and refreshments of various kinds offered. The buildings, consisting of a lodge or grand entrance, on the left of which are the conservatories, and the residence of Robert Marnock, the Curator, are erected in a very tasteful style of architecture, which reflects the skill of Mr Benjamin Broomhead Taylor.
“The walks assume all the intricacy and mystery of a labyrinth maze, while the monkey cages, the bear’s den, the eagles’ habitation, water-works etc., give a variety to the whole.
“The gardens command a view of many miles of rural scenery, with the grand imposing appearance of the New Cemetery (General Cemetery) in front, seeming, as it were, to form a portion of the grounds.”
A few things to note here. One, is that the Botanical Gardens were built in what was then open countryside. Second, the Gardens were only open to the general public on about four gala days each year; otherwise admission was limited to shareholders and annual subscribers.
In 1839, The Gardeners’ Magazine reported that the attempt to combine a zoological garden had not succeeded. “In fact, the filth, stench, roaring, howling, and other annoyances incident to carnivorous animals, are altogether inconsistent with the repose which is essentially a botanic garden.”
Robert Marnock left the Botanical Gardens in 1840 and moved to Hackney in London. Soon afterwards, the Council of the Royal Botanic Society appointed him Curator and to lay out the grounds in Regent’s Park.
In 1844, financial problems led to the failure of the first society, but the Gardens were rescued with the formation of a second society (also known as the Sheffield Botanical and Horticultural Society) which purchased the land from the former society for £9,000. The conservatories were extended, a tea pavilion and the present Curator’s House were constructed within the succeeding decade. A period of steady development and growing international renown followed for the next 30 years.
In 1897, falling income, competition from the new free city parks and residential development in the area meant that the Gardens were in danger again. It was decided that the proprietors could not make them pay and were disinclined to maintain them. It was suggested that several of the shareholders would give their shares, and others would sell theirs, for £5 each, if the Sheffield Town Trust (dating back to 1297) would purchase the Gardens and maintain them for the benefit of the people of Sheffield.
In 1898 the Sheffield Town Trust paid £5,445 for the value of the shares, becoming owners and managers of the Gardens for the first half of the 20th Century. The Gardens were reopened without fuss on Thursday 20th August 1899, and it was then that free admission was introduced and continues today. Demolition of unsafe buildings was necessary and only the conservatory domes were repaired. The Gardens thrived until World War II, when extensive damage left the Sheffield Town Trust unable to afford the repairs and restoration required.
In 1951, a Special Committee decided that they could lease the Botanical Gardens at a nominal rent; the maintenance of the Gardens as a Botanic Garden; that no organised games or sports other than a children’s corner be permitted; that the staff of the Gardens be taken over by Sheffield Corporation.
Sheffield Corporation accepted the offer and the management of the Gardens passed to them on a 99-year lease for a peppercorn rent of one shilling per year raised to 5p a quarter in 1971. The Town Trust remains the owners of the Gardens.
With the aid of a grant from the War Damage Commission, the Council was able to instigate repairs to the domes, creating an Aviary and an Aquarium, and restoring Sheffield Botanical Gardens to their former glory. However, a downturn in the economy during the 1980s meant a severe reduction in funding and once again the Gardens were on their way to dereliction.
In 1984, the Friends of the Botanical Gardens, Sheffield (FOBS) was established as a group providing education for the public and supporting the Gardens. Practical volunteer work to help staff maintain the Gardens started in 1993.
The Friends managed to arrest the decline in many parts of the Gardens but not the listed structures, even the Paxton’s pavilions were derelict and in danger of collapse.
In 1996 the Friends set up the Sheffield Botanical Gardens Trust with the aim of applying for grants to restore the Gardens.
The Heritage Lottery Fund announced its Urban Parks Programme in January 1996. Soon afterwards, an organisation known as the Sheffield Botanical Gardens Partnership was formed to produce a bid for the Gardens. Its membership was Sheffield Botanical Gardens Trust, Friends of the Botanical Gardens, Sheffield Town Trust, the City Council and the Landscape Department of Sheffield University.
The Gardens were awarded a grand of £5.06 million, which was to be matched by £1.22 million in funds and £0.41 million in work in kind.
The project was designed to restore the Gardens, all the buildings and features to their 19th century condition whilst adapting to modern requirements. This included the full reinstatement of the Paxton’s pavilions to become a splendid home for frost sensitive plants from around the world.
The restored Gardens were officially opened in June 2007 at a cost of approximately £6.69 million.
(Information for this post was provided by Sheffield Botanical Gardens, Sheffield Town Trust and ‘Sheffield Botanical Gardens – People, Plants and Pavilions’ by R. Alison Hunter).