A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden


I enjoyed the best of the Easter Monday weather with a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden yesterday afternoon.  After I don’t know how many years of good intentions, I finally got there and was rewarded with a gloriously sunny afternoon.  Many of the more tender plants were still warmly wrapped up in their winter layers of protective bubblewrap, but there were spring bulbs and green shoots poking through the bare earth.


As children played hide-and-seek among the beds and glasshouses and adults enjoyed tea and very fine cakes from the cafe, it would have been easy to forget that this Garden is more than four hundred years old and not recreational.  The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 to train their apprentices to recognise and understand the healing properties of the medicinal plants that would be used in their professional lives.

As I walked around, I stopped to read an information board about Carl Linnaeus and the naming of plants when my eye was caught by the paragraph at the end.


I remembered that Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) had obtained her licence to practice medicine in England through the Society of Apothecaries. In 1815, the Society of Apothecaries was granted the power to conduct examinations, licence and regulate medical practitioners – John Keats, the poet, had been one of the first to qualify in 1816.  So confident were the Society that no woman would seek a medical qualification that, unlike the other bodies able to grant medical qualifications, they did not even specify that women were to be excluded.  Instead of referring only to ‘men’, the regulations of the Society of Apothecaries referred to ‘persons’ and it was this provision that allowed Elizabeth Garrett to gain her licence in 1865. (A loophole that was closed a couple of years later on Valentine’s Day 1867!)

Elizabeth Garrett had been inspired to become a doctor by Elizabeth Blackwell, an English women who qualified as a doctor in America. So I was intrigued to learn of an earlier Elizabeth Blackwell, a Scottish artist and engraver who used the Chelsea Physic Garden to produce A Curious Herbal between 1737 and 1739.


Scottish Elizabeth had trained as an artist and formed a love match with her cousin Alexander. Alexander and Elizabeth fled to London when it was discovered that he had been practising medicine under a bogus license. In London, Alexander re-invented himself as a printer; again ignoring the regulatory niceties that, for his new profession, required him to have served an apprenticeship and belong to a Guild. Faced by heavy fines and having spent all of Elizabeth’s dowry, Alexander ended up in debtors’ prison and Elizabeth needed to earn enough to support herself and her family.

Illustration from A Curious Herbal

Learning that a new Herbal was required to describe plants being brought in from the New World, Elizabeth decided to combine her own artistic skills with her husband’s botanical knowledge. She moved to be closer to the Chelsea Physic Garden and set out to provide the illustrations for her Herbal, taking her drawings to Alexander in prison so that he could supply the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German.

Revenue from the first two editions of the book provided enough to secure Alexander’s release, but not to match his spending habits. Alexander ran away again. This time to Sweden where he got himself involved in a conspiracy at the Swedish Court which resulted in his being hanged in 1747 before his wife could join him. Elizabeth lived for another ten years and is buried in All Saints Church, Chelsea.

Labyrinth of Light – two more weeks

IMG_0552There is good news for anyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to nip down to see this stunning installation outside St Giles Cripplegate at the Barbican. Originally planned to last just over the period of Lent, Jim Buchanan’s glorious projection of a labyrinth of light from the roof of the church onto the old churchyard below will now stay in place for the next couple of weeks.  So if you are in the area over the holiday period why not pop along one evening to enjoy it?


The labyrinth’s creator Jim Buchanan is a landscape artist based in Dumfries, Scotland and he is one of the world’s leading creators of labyrinths.  Originally trained as a landscape architect,  Jim has a particular interest in creating ephemeral labyrinths. He  works internationally, using  earth, water, ice and fire as well as light projection.  This is the third time that Jim has created a light labyrinth for St Giles, but the first time it has been projected outside the church, where it now nestles into the space between the church and the City of London Girls’ School.

London Labyrinths

Kings Cross Labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth Mural, Varnishers Yard N1

Eagle-eyed readers may notice that a detail from this installation is pictured on my website.  Labyrinths have played quite a large part in my life since my partner developed a deep interest in all things labyrinthine some years ago. A quick glance round our living room reveals several labyrinth artefacts. On the mantelpiece alone I can see a small lace labyrinth, a photograph of a labyrinth made from sand on a beach and an invitation to a labyrinth gathering in Texas. Casting my eye around further, I spot the cover of the yellow paperback edition of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Dans le labyrinth, an A1-size conference poster about labyrinth initiatives hiding unsuccessfully behind a chair, and a wooden chest in the window bay that contains plastic and wood finger labyrinths, a small fabric labyrinth and other bits of labyrinth kit.

Much of the last few days have been spent checking the index to my partner’s forthcoming book about … (yes, of course it is about labyrinths!) and so much in need of fresh air and exercise I set out for a long walk, but the labyrinth doesn’t let me go…

Phillip O'Reilly Kings X labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth mural detail


Tucked away in the Regent Quarter between Caledonian Road, York Way and Pentonville Road; Phillip O’Reilly’s ceramic installation can be found on the wall of Varnishers Yard. The glazed tiles that make up the seven metre by seven metre mural were hand made in the artist’s Peckham studio and use images of local industry, films, novels and plants. So if you peer closely you might just make out trains, barges and local parks.  The labyrinth is one of two Wall-Works commissioned from O’Reilly by P&O Estates.

Fen Court 2

Fen Court


The labyrinth on Fen Court, just off Fenchurch Avenue in the City, aims to provide a space for quiet contemplation in the midst of the hustle and bustle of City life.  Fen Court is the site of the old graveyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and never rebuilt.


Fen Court


fen court pigeon

Fen Court, EC3


Unlike many of the City’s squares and gardens, Fen Court is often far from tranquil.  It is a busy thoroughfare with  several doors opening onto it and smokers from nearby offices making good use of a strategically placed ash tray. Only at the weekend is it possible to get clear sight of the 5-circuit paved path and for a pigeon to enjoy the space undisturbed by human feet.

The labyrinth in front of the entrance to The Warren Playground on Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia is also paved and not especially conspicuous.  Indeed I had stood on it more than once without realising that the pattern of the pavers at my feet was a labyrinth.


The Warren Playground Labyrinth


As with Fen Court it is not ideally suited to the contemplative walker as it provides the link between road and playground, but it is a good size for children to race around its square seven-circuit path based on a medieval pattern.  Presumably the existence of a labyrinth and the name of the playground both play homage to nearby Warren Street.

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Warren Street tile motif


The tiling on the Victoria Line platforms of Warren Street station depicts a warren.  Not the single twisting, turning, though essentially unimpeded path of the labyrinth, but the tricks and dead ends of a maze – designed to confound. I’ve always enjoyed the bold pattern and bright colours of these tiles, but the link is erroneous as Warren Street takes it’s name from Anne Warren, wife of Charles Fitzroy, first Baron Southampton who laid out Warren Street’s houses in 1799.

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Labyrinth at Warren Street


Though of course there is a labyrinth on this as on all tube stations – part of Labyrinth, Mark Wallinger’s artwork celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Tube with 270 individual vitreous enamel artworks echoing the Tube’s roundel logo.


Labyrinth of Light – St Giles Cripplegate


Not all labyrinths are permanent, nor can all be seen during the day.  One of London most impressive labyrinths of the last few weeks has been landscape artist, Jim Buchanan’s stunning Labyrinth of Light cast onto the ground in front of St Giles Cripplegate and overlooked by the Barbican Centre across the water.


Installing the light labyrinth

The pattern is projected from the roof of St Giles Cripplegate each evening between dusk and about 10pm. But if you want to see it you need to hurry, as the installation is only for Lent and will finish on Wednesday 23rd March.

Matthew Flinders – the man who named Australia

Matthew Flinders statue euston

Mark Richards’ bronze statue of Matthew Flinders has been on the concourse of Euston station for almost two years but seldom gets the attention it deserves. Much of the time it is almost hidden among  passengers waiting  for trains who hardly notice what they rest their coffee cup on or where they perch to eat a sandwich and send a text message.  The modern traveller’s concentration on our contemporary tools of navigation and communication is mirrored  by the statue.  Matthew Flinders looks down, dividers in hand, concentrating only on his charts and making calculations with the tools of his own time.

Matthew Flinders & Trim 2

Later in the evening, when the crowds have died away and the rubbish has been cleared, Captain Flinders and Trim, his feline companion, are still hard at work. But now we can see what the work is. The chart is Australia. Although Flinders is not well known in his native country, his name (and that of his cat) are household words in Australia.

Matthew Flinders was a Lincolnshire lad, born on 16th March 1774. He went to sea with the Navy at 15, sailed with Captain Bligh to Tahiti and became a passionate and talented cartographer.  Flinders made three voyages to the Southern Ocean.  On the second, with his friend and colleague George Bass, he discovered that Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was a separate island rather than part of the mainland.  On the third he became the first person to circumnavigate the Australia and to identify it as a continent. In fact we owe the name Australia to Matthew Flinders who was the first to apply it specifically to the continent and who popularised it in his book Voyage to Terra Australis. 

Returning home from his final voyage, Flinders became caught up in the wars between France and England, was arrested as a spy and detained in Ile de France (Mauritius) for more than six years.

Flinders Plaque Fitzroy Street
52 Fitzroy Street

During this time he was able to make notes for Voyage to Terra Australis and on his return in 1810 he settled in London, renting rooms in Soho and Fitzrovia to afford the access to the Admiralty and to his patron Sir Joseph Banks that he needed in order to complete his book and an atlas of his maps.  London was expensive; he did not receive the promotion he hoped for and was living on half pay.  His health was poor and he lived only another four years, just long enough to see publication of his book and dying at the age of forty.

Books seem to have played a large part in Matthew Flinders’ life, and he clearly made time for fiction.  As a boy, he had been inspired to seek a Naval career after reading the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Trim the cat was named after Uncle Toby’s manservant in Tristram Shandy on account of his ‘great fidelity and affection’. Trim was a ship’s cat born in the South Seas.  He circumnavigated Australia, survived shipwreck and was the subject of a biographical tribute written by Flinders when he was detained in Mauritius.

But what are Flinders and Trim doing on Euston Station?  Sadly, the answer relates to  Matthew Flinders’ death.  When Flinders died he was buried at St James Church, Hampstead Road, London. When the burial ground was closed to burials in the mid-nineteenth century and later opened as a public garden, part of the land was lost to the development of the railway.  It is said that Matthew Flinders’ final resting place may lie beneath what is now platforms 12-15 of Euston Station.

Something of Matthew Flinders’ flair and methodological approach seems to have passed down the generations. Matthew’s only child Anne, was the mother of Flinders Petrie, the pioneering Egyptologist whose extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities now resides a stone’s throw from Euston in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Petrie’s  brain (and head), deposited with the Royal College of Surgeons  in nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were reputedly brought back by his widow in a hatbox from Jerusalem where his body is buried.

The Garretts of Gower Street – an adventure story for girls

No 2 Gower Street
No 2 Gower Street

Just up from the Georgian charms of Bedford Square and around the corner from the swish new World Conservation & Exhibition Centre of the British Museum, the number 73 bus rumbles down Gower Street and on into Bloomsbury Street.  As it stops at the lights, an observant passenger might spot the blue London County Council plaque to the left of the matching blue door of number 2 Gower Street.

Behind this door between the 1870s to the 1930s, four women of one remarkable family were making their mark upon the world though only one, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, is named on the plaque. So how did it begin?

Apparently, her mother Louisa told this story of how two of her daughters decided upon their careers.  One evening at the family home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Elizabeth and Milly and Elizabeth’s friend Emily were brushing their hair by the fire, discussing the inequalities facing women and what they might do to advance women’s cause. Emily (aged 29) said women needed an education and she would open the universities to women, Elizabeth (aged 23) argued that women also needed an income so she would open up the professions, starting with medicine, and Milly (aged 13) was allocated the task of winning the Parliamentary vote.  (Emily Davies co-founded  Girton College Cambridge.)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who did indeed go on to lead the constitutional campaign for women’s suffrage, has long been one of my heroes.  Her peaceful and persistent campaigning for women to get the vote began almost fifty years earlier than the direct violent action of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU) so graphically depicted in last autumn’s film Suffragette. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), of which Millicent became President, continued to campaign for gender equality in different guises and, now as The Fawcett Society, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital  – now part of Unison  Euston Road

Millicent’s older sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson didn’t live in Gower Street but she did open up the medical profession. Elizabeth Garrett, became the first woman to qualify as a physician in Britain.  She went on to found the New Hospital for Women (later the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital), was Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women and the first woman in Britain to be elected Mayor when she was elected Mayor of Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1908.

Part of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital building is now incorporated into the offices of the trade union Unison and houses the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery

London School of Medicine for Women

Elizabeth’s daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, trained as a doctor at the London School of Medicine for Women and in 1915 established the Endell Street Military Hospital with her companion Dr Flora Murray.

From the 1870s, long before Millicent moved in, No 2 Gower Street was the home and workplace of the firm of A&R Garrett House Decorators.  A&R  were the architectural decorators Agnes and Rhoda , (sister and cousin of Millicent and Elizabeth) and strictly speaking, the neat brass plate on the door that advertised their business contravened the terms of their Bedford Estate lease.

After a formal apprenticeship with the architect John McKean Brydon (who designed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and the London School of Medicine for Women) the two cousins became the first women  professional house decorators, They designed carpets, textiles, furniture and wallpaper, exhibited in Paris and published a design book that ran to several editions.   The composer Sir Hubert Parry employed them and they successfully tendered for interior design of the New Hospital for Women.

A&R Garrett Laburnum Wallpaper
Garrett ‘Laburnum’ Wallpaper
Agnes garrett Fireplace EGA Hosp
Fireplace by Agnes Garrett

Millicent moved in with her sister Agnes in the 1880s after the death of her husband, the academic and Liberal MP Henry Fawcett and their cousin Rhoda.  Millicent’s daughter Phillippa Fawcett lived here and from here set off for Newnham College (of which her mother had been one of the founders) where she made history and newspaper headlines with her success in the mathematics finals, when she was placed “above the senior wrangler”.  In plain English, she was better than any of the men!

If you would like to find out more why not join my Garretts of Gower Street walk on Saturday afternoon 5th March.








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