John Simmons, 25th May 2017

Due to personal circumstances our guest speaker for May, Senior Diabetes Specialist Nurse Liesl Richardson was unable to attend the meeting but our guest speaker for August, former Group Chairman John Simmons OBE, VMH, very kindly stood in with his fascinating presentation 'The making of Kew'.

During John's nearly 40-year career at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew he was Curator (Head of Horticulture at Kew & Wakehurst Place) from 1972 until his retirement in 1995. Amongst many other offices he was also President of the Institute of Horticulture, Chairman of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, a Royal Horticultural Society judge and served on the advisory boards for several gardens nationally and internationally and collected plants on field trips in many parts of the world.

The recreated 17th Century garden behind what became Kew Palace represents a period when the Capels (a leading Restoration family) had houses and famous gardens growing exotic plants there. Royal Kew followed from 1718 when Ormonde Lodge at the southern end of today’s Kew gardens was purchased by George II and Queen Caroline, in 1730, the latter using the landscape designer Bridgeman to develop another famous garden. Their son Frederick and his wife Augusta, Prince and Princess of Wales, with the help of designers like Chambers and Kent, developed yet another great garden alongside his parent’s garden, with Capel’s house converted by Kent to become their residence. After Prince Frederick died it was the then Dowager Princess who created the first botanic garden in 1759 as a part of her garden at Kew. Her son who became George III, later combined his parents and grandparent’s gardens, and further developed the then still small botanic garden within these gardens with the advice of Joseph Banks.

Sir Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820, had a passion for botany, and as a young man in 1768; he joined an expedition, led by Captain James Cook, to explore the uncharted lands of the South Pacific. Banks later promoted the colonisation of Australia and with Empire was interested in plants that could be used for practical purposes and be introduced into other countries for possible commercial use.  This also led to the ill-fated Bligh & the ‘Bounty’ expedition to collect breadfruit from Tahiti that carried two gardeners from Kew in support. However in his capacity as advisor to the King for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he also sent many other plant collectors abroad to extend this Gardens' collection.

After Victoria’s accession the botanic gardens were transferred to the State to become a public garden, and under its first Director, Sir William Hooker, developed to become essentially the Gardens we know today. It has of course continually developed, notably greatly expanding its science. For the garden itself a major development came in the form of Princess of Wales Conservatory, designed by architect Gordon Wilson in consultation with John Simmons, who had been planning it since 1970. It was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales on 28th July 1987, and is the most complex of Kew’s public glasshouses. It commemorates two Princesses of Wales, Diana and also Augusta, the botanical garden’s founder who also added a large, and for its day technically advanced, greenhouse. Within this new conservatory are ten different environments, ranging from scorching arid desert to moist tropical rainforest, all computer-controlled under one roof. The technology involved is highly advanced, with computer- linked sensors monitoring environmental conditions, commanding heat to flow, ventilation to open, or mists to spray to increase humidity.

The gale that ripped across southern England on October 16th 1987 hit the gardens at Kew destroying or badly damaging about 1000 trees, most of which were more than 100 years old, and much greater damage was done to trees at Wakehurst on the Sussex Weald, but John took some comfort in the knowledge that the precious newly collected plants in the gardens and also greenhouses survived the storm unharmed.

The talk that covered many aspects of Kew’s history up to the 1990s was well illustrated and showed many of the plants for which Kew is famous. During John's curatorship it was appreciated that he strove for quality in the collections, underpinned by conservation and educational objectives. The great glasshouses, the Palm, and Temperate House were restored and the Princess of Wales Conservatory created, but most of all he sought to increase professional and scientific standards, and greatly expanded the collections through many joint field-collecting programs. John also had the pleasure of leading the development of the Kew’s country garden at Wakehurst by also enriching its collections and landscape and also adding a botanical reserve for native plants.