Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Wakehurst Place

The Palm House at Kew

Kew Field in 1600 was a large strip farmed field. By the 1730s this field had been enclosed, and by the seventeenth century Kew estate was owned by the Capel family. It was the Capels who first developed gardens at Kew. The Capels were obsessed with gardening, and their gardens were admired for their greenhouses and exotic plants. In 1759 Princess Augusta and Lord Bute established the first botanic garden at Kew. This garden followed in the tradition of botanic gardens first established in Pisa, Padua and Florence in the 1540s as medicinal teaching collections. Britain's first botanic gardens were Oxford Botanic Garden established in 1621, and Chelsea Physic Garden established 1673. Although these gardens were initially designed to grow and develop medicinal plants, this medical role soon gave way to a role in empire building and colonial expansion. Plants were brought back from colonies and their economic value assessed. Advice and expertise was then offered back to colonies.


The gardens of Richmond, neighbouring Kew, had a long royal connection. In 1772 George III united Kew Gardens with its neighbour. It was at this point that Joseph Banks became involved. Banks was a wealthy entrepreneur and natural history enthusiast. His overseas collecting expeditions included James Cook's round the world expedition on Endeavour between 1768 and 1771. On his return to England from this voyage Banks was granted an audience with George III, a meeting which led to an alliance crucial to the history of Kew. George III and Joseph Banks were to become the major driving force behind Kew Gardens' development as an internationally recognised institution.

From 1773 Joseph Banks took charge at Kew. The gardens were now seeking economic uses for exotic plants brought back from overseas. It was through this work that Banks played a marginal role in a famous incident of eighteenth century naval history. In 1793 Banks supervised a plan to transport breadfruit seedlings from their native Tahiti to the West Indies to improve the diet of plantation slaves. This had been attempted two years earlier, on a ship called HMS Bounty, captained by James Bligh. A mutiny on that occasion delayed the plan.




Kew Palace, home of George III from 1800 - 1820

By 1800 Kew had an international reputation. But a downturn in the garden's fortunes was to occur in 1820 when both Banks and George III died. Without these two powerful advocates Kew Gardens lost its way. In 1839 a parliamentary enquiry was organised to decide the gardens' fate, which resulted in the appointment of William Hooker as Kew's first official director. The gardens were freed from royal control and became a National Botanic Garden. Reinvigoration followed, with Kew playing its familiar imperial role, supplying seeds and scientific expertise to British colonies.

Between 1841 and 1885 the Palm House and Temperate House were built. These structures are amongst the most spectacular examples of Victorian architecture in Britain. Research was expanded. A railway was completed, and Kew became a visitor attraction as well as a research establishment. All of this development was supervised by William Hooker, and then from 1865 by his son Joseph. Kew remained intimately associated with the Empire, and this was to continue up until the beginning of World War Two.


Incidentally it was during this period, in the late nineteenth century, that writer H.G. Wells was living in nearby Richmond. In his book The Time Machine Wells based his vision of the future on Kew Gardens. Follow the link to H.G. Wells for more details.




Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place

From the end of World War Two Kew's economic role in supporting colonical agriculture was replaced by an interest in conservation. With the appointment of Ghillian Prance in 1988 conservation became Kew's main focus. Kew is now a leading conservation research centre. At Kew's Wakehurst estate in Sussex a Millennium Seed Bank was built. This is a repository for seeds from every species of British plant, and from tens of thousands of other economically important plants from all around the world. It is hoped that this collection will protect plants threatened with extinction and help in their regeneration. The Seed Bank is in effect a Noah's Ark for the plant life of Britain, and the rest of the world. It is a peaceful place of shallow reflecting pools, polished stone work and glass.

Both centres offer guided tours, guided trails, educational facilities, and lectures. Restaurant facilities are good.






The Temperate House at Kew



Visiting Information for Kew


Address: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB

Opening Times: Please use contact details below.


Directions: Kew is near Richmond, south west of London. The gardens are served by their own Underground station on the District Line. From north London Silverlink trains run direct to the station at Kew. River boat services are also available from Westminster, with a journey time of between fifty five and ninety minutes depending on the tide. See for details of sailings. Car parking at Kew is limited so it is advisable to use public transport if possible. Click here for an interactive map centred on Kew.



Access: Wheelchair access at Kew is good. There is level access at the Underground Station. At the gardens wheelchairs are available to borrow on a first come first served basis. The only area which cannot be reached by wheelchair users is the Marine Display in the Palm House basement. There are adapted toilet facilities. A large print map is available for those with sight problems.

Contact: For Kew

telephone: 020 8332 5655



Web site for Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Wakehurst:



Early spring flowers at Wakehurst Place


Visiting Information For Wakehurst Place


Opening Times: Please use contact details below.

Address: Wakehurst Place, Ardingly, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex RH17 6TN

Directions: Wakehurst is on the B2028 at Ardingly, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex. There is ample car parking. Click here for an interactive map centred on Wakehurst Place.


Access: Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are available, and a map details which areas of the garden are suitable for wheelchairs. There are adapted toilet facilities.




Contact: For Wakehurst

telephone: 01444 894066


Web site for Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Wakehurst:









©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/13)