Our 4th Quarter 2017 Newsletter

31st October 2017

Timothy Walker

350 years of glasshouses at the Oxford Botanical Gardens.

Timothy Walker retired as Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden in 2014.

The Garden was itself founded as a Physic garden in 1621 growing plants for medicinal research – as it still does today.  It takes up 2 ½ acres by the river. Its founder was Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby who gave £5,000 (£744,000 in today’s money) to set up the garden “for the glorification of the works of God and for the furtherance of learning”.  The site belongs to Magdalen College and the President of the Magdalen is one of two people who are entitled to the first bananas of each growing season.  Originally the front of the site had been a Jewish cemetery. 4,000 cartloads of “mucke and dung” from the Oxford colleges cesspits was needed to raise the rest of the land above the flood plain. There is now 32 feet of soil. The wall round the Garden was finished in 1632 and built of Headington stone. The impressive gateway was built between 1632 and 1633.

Jacob Bobart (1642-79) was the first Horti Praefectus and he produced the first catalogue of the plants in 1648.  Bobart was a skilful gardener who also owned three taverns in the town. Timothy Walker was the 16th Horti Praefectus, the previous 15 had all died in office!  Because of its close association with medical research the President of the Royal College of Physicians is still on the appointment board of the Horti Praefectus; and the President of the Royal College is the second person to receive the first crop of bananas.

Bobart listed 1,500 plants in his catalogue; the next catalogue was not published until 1999. The huge Yew Tree was planted by Bobart.  Jacob Bobart the Younger (1799 – 1719) established the seed exchange which still continues to this day. After Bobart the garden declined and in 1719 French visitors reported it was just an orchard.

David Loggan’s drawing of the Gardens shows the first glasshouses in 1675 – there was hardly any light as at the time it was not realised plants needed light. Johann Jakob Dillenius (1687 – 1747) established the Chair of Botany in Oxford.  In 1734 better glasshouses were built and heated by charcoal, a century later these glasshouses were photographed by Henry Fox Talbot.  John Sibthorp (1758 – 96) who held the Chair of Botany travelled extensively abroad and once sent the Head Gardener, James Benwell, 600 packets of seeds with the instruction they were to be planted.

Linnaeus who first explored the sexual system of plants visited the Garden in 1736.

William Baxter (1813-47) was followed as Horti Praefectus by his son.  Charles Dauberry, Professor of Botany stayed at Chatsworth House in 1840 and saw the glasshouses designed by Joseph Paxton.

In 1851 the tank in the tropical Lily house was built and visitors paid one shilling to see the huge waterlily when in bloom. The water lily flowers only last two days.  The waterlilies are re-sown every year, after the tanks are drained and cleaned.   A review of the Oxford Botanic Garden was made in 1871 by Sir Joseph Hooker.

The glass houses were rebuilt every 25 years but the latest design was built of steel and therefore will last longer. In 1971 the Alpine House was built; followed in 1995 by the Palm House, which is the largest glasshouse in the garden.   In 2005 both the Fernery and the Carnivorous Plants glasshouses were built.

Nowadays it takes 1.2 million a year to run. Dillenius when Professor of Botany arranged for the University to pay £150 per year towards the running costs, and today the University still pays a large proportion towards today’s expenditure.

28th November 2017

Pam Manix

Oxford’s Medieval Jewish Quarter.

Why Deadman’s Walk?


The question intrigued the undergraduate Pam Manix until she found that it was the path along which the dead of Oxford’s Medieval Jewish community were taken from their community around St Aldates to their cemetery in front of what is now the Botanic Gardens.  Jewish corpses could not be taken through the City.

Pam is now the Project Historian for the Oxford Jewish Heritage Centre.

Oxford’s medieval Jewish community is one of the best documented in the world.

There is no evidence of Jews in Anglo-Saxon England, but the Normans needed funds for the expensive business of conquering and holding England, and Jewish moneylenders arrived with them from the ‘Tsarfatic’ community of Northern France.

In England Jews were ‘wards’ of the King (in other areas they were wards of the local magnates), which gave them more protection, but in England they were limited to money-lending, which made them vulnerable when they lost the king’s favour.

To distinguish them Jews had to wear distinctive hats, and later a yellow badge, which in England took the form of the tablets of the law.  Some Jews supported this to help avoid assimilation.

Jews arrived in Oxford about 1081, initially via Wallingford, which had been a Norman town even before the Conquest.

The earliest text referring to Oxford’s Jewish community is by a monk of Rewley Abbey in 1141.  It describes how King Stephen demanded money from the Jews of Oxford to fund his pursuit of Matilda, who had just escaped from Oxford Castle.   When the Jews protested that Matilda had already cleaned them out.  Stephen burned the house of Aaron at Carfax and threatened to do the same to the other Jewish houses in the City unless they paid three-and-a-half times what they had paid Matilda – which they managed to do.

There were two Jewish areas in Oxford – Great and Little Jewry, the first on what is now St Aldates, the second around where The Bear now stands.  The community was safeguarded by the royal presence in and around Oxford – Woodstock and Beaumont Palace.  In 1220 the first synagogue was built.

During the reign of Henry II there were 25 Jewish quarters across England.  After the London quarter burned to the ground during Henry’s coronation, six others (but not Oxford’s) were torched as people realised that debt records would be destroyed in the fires.

To obtain land to found his college, Walter de Merton bought two houses from one Jacob – they still stand to the left of the gatehouse.

The prosperity of the community is shown by the stone buildings they constructed.  The House with the Stone Chamber, on the site of the present Town Hall, survived as the Town Hall until 1751, and parts of the cellars survive under the Town Hall.  One wealthy resident, David of Oxford, was involved in a notorious 13th Century divorce case.  He wanted to divorce Muriel, his barren wife of 25 years, and marry Licoricia of Winchester, a fertile and wealthy widow.  The Jewish courts of both London and Paris supported Muriel, but David bribed the king with a pair of silver spurs and obtained his divorce.

There were four other Jewish houses on the Town Hall site.  One became the Guildhall in 1228 when the owner, Isaac, died without heir.  The cellars of Jacob’s Hall probably survive under what is now Santander, although it is currently impossible to access them.

Staircase 18 of Pembroke College was Moses Hall, and later lived in by Lumbard of Cricklade.  He was a wealthy Jewish trader, dealing in wheat and wool, with warehouses along what is now Brewer St, and on the river.

A reflection of the king’s interest in Jewish finances is the royal purchase of iron-bound chests for their records.  All of these survive!

Initially there was only one Jewish cemetery in England, at Cripplegate in London, which must have caused great problems.  In 1177 Henry II gave permission for individual quarters to have their own cemeteries.  In 1190 the Oxford Jewish community bought land now near the cloisters of Magdalen College for a cemetery, but the nearby Hospital of St John coveted it and managed to buy it in 1232.  A new cemetery was provided under what is now the rose garden in front of the Botanic Gardens.  Large quantities of bones were found when the area was dug up for a gun emplacement during the Civil War – and bones have also been found under Magdalen College’s SCR.  These are currently being analysed to see if they are from the Jewish cemetery.

From 1225 the status of Jews in England began to decline.  As Edward I began to govern with Parliament, he traded granting of funds for his wars for ever tighter restrictions on the activities that Jews could undertake.  Impoverished Jews resorted to coin-clipping to survive.  In 1278 Edward I held a coin-clipping purge: all Jews were locked up (in Oxford, at the Bocardo at the Northgate) and their houses searched for evidence of coin-clipping.   In Oxford seven men and one woman were hanged for clipping.

By now the community was so poor that it was of no further use to the king, and 1290 all Jews were expelled from England.  They were allowed to take no more than what they could carry on their backs, and returned to their roots in France, from whence they were expelled in turn in 1306.

In 1656 Cromwell allowed Jews back into England, although a few years earlier, the first coffee house west of Venice had been opened in what is now The Grand Café by ‘Jacob the Jew’, a Lebanese, shortly followed by a rival opposite run by Cirques Jobson, a Syrian Jew.

12th December 2017

Katherine Bradley

Early Professional Women Gardeners

Christmas Party and Katherine Bradley, Early Professional Women Gardeners.

Despite the snowy and severe ice conditions about 30 members enjoyed a festive Christmas Party organised by Olive Williams.  And the Society was grateful to those members that offered lifts to those unable to drive to Moorside; in particular I would like to thank Henry who delivered your Newsletter Reporter safely to and from Moorside but also drove the speaker home to Oxford.

Henry reported that the KDHS publications on sale at the Christmas Lights Switch-on made £187; the two best sellers were John Amor’s Kidlington History and John Lowe’s recent publication on the Kidlington men who died in the First World War.

Katherine Bradley who had braved the conditions from East Oxford gave an interesting talk on early professional women gardeners – this was not the talk she had intended to give but her computer had other ideas!

In the early modern period it was the women’s place to do the weeding, reaping and hoeing. In particular they were in charge of the large herb gardens; herbs were important as they counteracted the smells from the sewage that ran down the streets. In the seventeenth century a William Dawson was the first person to write about women and gardening.  At this time 445 new plants were introduced to this country.  And Brompton Park had 10 million plants valued at £40 million –  this in the eighteenth century! The eighteenth century saw the development of public squares and formal public gardens.

Gertrude Jekyll and Jane Loudon were the first who really encouraged women to become gardeners either in their own homes or professionally.  Jane Loudon (1807 – 1858) worked with her husband on his Gardeners Magazine.  She also wrote a pioneering work of science fiction The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).   In 1840 she published two books on gardening for women: Instructions in gardening for Ladies and The Ladies Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals.   This was followed in 1842 by Botany for Ladies.

By the mid nineteenth century it was becoming more acceptable for wealthy women to be involved in the planning their own gardens.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), artist and gardener, a friend of William Morris, published in 1908 Colour in the Flower Garden.  Previously she had been an artist studying colour and design under Morris. In 1883 she bought a 50 acre plot of land, and 1891 she had to abandon art because of poor eyesight.  She met Edwin Lutyens and with him designed 100 houses and gardens.  During which time she wrote 15 books and 1,000 articles!  She thought of herself as an amateur but bridged the gap between formal and informal gardens. Her size 8 gardening boots were painted and this now hangs in the Tate Gallery – Gertrude used the boots for over 50 years!

Frances [Daisy], countess of Warwick (1861 – 1938) was perhaps the first woman professional gardener. She founded a school for blind women gardeners. In 1903 she founded the Studley Agricultural College for Women – the annual fee being £80. Edward VII, one of her lovers, initially financed this school which ran until 1969. All the students had to take the RHS examination.  The school was to provide women gardeners for Kew; until 1915 there had been no women gardeners at Kew.

Waterperry Horticultural Training School for Women was founded in 1932 by Beatrix Havergal (1901-80) who with Avice Sanders provided a 2 year course for 15 to 20 students on all aspects of gardening. Waterperry finally closed in 1971.

This talk with its descriptions of summer gardens and flowers in full bloom was a perfect antidote for the snowy conditions outside in The Moors.