A Rare Georgian Botanical Garden
“Sheffield Botanical Gardens were fortunate to have some of the era’s leading experts involved in its creation including the polymath Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth fame and Robert Marnock who went on to become one of the leading landscape gardeners of the 19th century.”
Thomas Dunn, the then Master Cutler, called a public meeting in June 1833 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 from the Wilson family, the snuff makers.
The Society advertised a competition for laying out the grounds, the submitted plans were judged by experienced gardeners – Joseph Paxton (Chatsworth), Cooper (Wentworth), Walker (Banner Cross) and Wilson (Worksop Manor). Robert Marnock, gardener of Bretton Hall, Wakefield (now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park), was appointed to design the Gardens and act as their first Curator. He laid out the Gardens in the then highly fashionable Gardenesque style, where each plant was displayed to perfection in scattered plantings. The runner-up in the competition, Benjamin Broomhead Taylor, was appointed as the architect for the buildings. The Gardens were finally opened on the 29th and 30th June, and 4th and 5th July, 1836, when more than 12,000 people visited. The Gardens were only open to the general public on about 4 Gala days per year; otherwise admission was limited to shareholders and annual subscribers.
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.
The gardens were saved by the Sheffield Town Trust, dating back to 1297. In 1898 they paid £5,000 for the value of the shares, becoming owners and managers of the Gardens for the first half of the 20th Century. 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, the management of the Gardens passed to the Sheffield Corporation 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.
1984 to 1996
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. Sheffield Council was not financially in a position to provide the required matched funding for a bid. SBGT and FOBS agreed that they would be responsible for raising the funds.
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. Eight years of committed fundraising was required. At that time Sheffield Botanical Gardens was the only public open space in the country where the voluntary sector had raised more than £1 million in matched funding. The incredible generosity of local and national charitable trusts, large and small, businesses, individuals, constant fundraising have restored the Gardens to their former magnificence.
2008 to 2014
Since the restoration the Gardens have received numerous awards and commendations including from The Civic Trust Awards, The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, The Historical Gardens Foundation, The Landscape Institute, The Institute of Horticulture, RHS Yorkshire in Bloom Gold Medal 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, Green Flag Awards from 2007 (The Green Flag is the national benchmark for quality parks and green spaces). The City of Sheffield won a gold medal from Entente Florale in 2005 in the large city category of the Europe wide competition. Sheffield Botanical Gardens played a significant part.
As a Botanical Garden there are always enhancements to be made to the plant collections.
In 2013 the Mediterranean Climate Garden was redesigned and replanted to a higher specification than the original restoration.
There were enhancements to the Prairie Garden. Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough from the Department of Landscape trialled this style of planting in Sheffield Botanical Gardens prior to their acclaimed “Fields of Gold” plantings in the London Olympic Park in 2012.
The new Himalayan Garden was opened in June 2014. The plants were derived from seeds collected by Chris Chadwell, a modern day plant collector, particularly from plants growing between 9,000 and 14,000 feet. One of the Friends with a passion for Himalayan plants has been share sponsoring Chris’s collecting trips and for the past 6 years growing a collection for the area.
Present and Future
The restored Gardens attract thousands of visitors annually. They are now established as the outdoor cultural venue for Sheffield. The Theatre, Art and Music in the Gardens events attract a further 30,000 visitors over the season.
The Friends have a long established schedule of horticulture and botanical lectures and workshops. A number of plant fairs and specialist plant society displays are hosted eg Hardy Plant, cactus, rose and orchids.
The Gardens have a popular thriving Florilegium Society.
In 2021 our focus is on education. Over the past several years funds have been accumulated to build a new education centre. There are approximately 125,000 pre and schoolchildren in our area and 500,000 in the natural catchment area of Sheffield Botanical Gardens.
The Dorothy Fox Education Centre was completed and opened in March 2017 and has 3 classroom areas, a library and an office for an education officer. The centre has been totally paid for by generous legacies and donations and fundraising. The National Heritage Lottery Fund and the Sheffield Botanical Gardens Trust have funded a project officer for a year and it is hoped that there will be further funding in the autumn from NHLF for an education officer for two years.
There is a new bed at the bottom of Osborne field filled with South African plants grown by the Friends. Money has been donated to create four huge environmentally-friendly composting bays. Early in 2021 the major refurbishment and painting of all the gates and railings surrounding the site was completed.
The gardenesque style of garden design evolved during the 1820s from Humphrey Repton’s picturesque style. The term gardenesque was introduced by John Claudius Louden (1783-1843) in 1832.
The main characteristic of this style is that all the trees, shrubs and plants are positioned and managed 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 to promote beauty, variety and mystery. This contrasts with other botanical collections with similar plants grouped together.
Many of the features, which distinguished this design style such as winding paths, dotted island beds, expanses of grass, and tree-planted mounds, can still be seen. It was Robert Marnock, their designer and first curator, who perfected the style when he laid them out in 1836.
Sheffield Botanical Gardens were acknowledged at the time as being the best of their kind in Britain. They are still one of the best gardenesque landscapes in Britain.
Robert Marnock was one of the outstanding horticulturalists and garden designers of the 19th century and was considered by his contemporaries to be the best exponent of the gardenesque school of landscape gardening.
Before he came to Sheffield, Marnock worked as the head gardener in Bretton Hall (now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park), Wakefield. He was appointed by the Sheffield Botanical and Horticultural Society in 1834 to design and lay out the Botanical Gardens, at an annual salary of £100. Marnock designed the Botanical Gardens in the then highly fashionable gardenesque style. He became the first Curator of the Gardens in 1836. He also acted as a landscape consultant for the Sheffield General Cemetery, across the valley from Sheffield Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1836. It’s considered a nationally outstanding example of a Victorian cemetery.
In 1840, Marnock moved on to lay out the Gardens of the Royal Botanic Society of London in Regent’s Park and was appointed as the Gardens’ Curator. His appointment was on the advice of John Claudius Loudon. “Mr Marnock has evidently an excellent taste in landscape gardening, and may be regarded, in this point of view, as a valuable acquisition to the part of the country in which he is situated”. He remained curator until 1863 but continued to practise as a landscape gardener until 1879.
He returned to Sheffield for 2 commissions, Thornbury in 1865 and Weston Park in 1873. Thornbury was a mansion for the cutlery and steel magnate Frederick Mappin. It is now a private hospital. Weston Park was the first municipal park in Sheffield and developed from the grounds of Weston Hall which was converted into Sheffield City Museum.