Since 1913, the Royal Hospital Chelsea has hosted the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show which continues to captivate audiences and is one of the most eagerly anticipated horticultural events on the gardening calendar.
The relationship between the Chelsea Flower Show and the Royal Hospital has been cemented by its longevity, but the grounds also boast a fascinating history in their own right. There are 66 acres of land in total which house both Ranelagh Gardens and the South Grounds, where the Chelsea Flower Show is held today.
Ron Willmore is the Grounds Manager at the Royal Hospital and has worked on the site for over 30 years. Here he explains a brief history of the Ranelagh Gardens and the South Grounds.
“The Ranelagh Gardens have changed dramatically over the years. Originally (in Georgian times) they were pleasure gardens where you had to pay an entrance fee. At that time, before public parks there were pleasure gardens dotted across the whole of London and the Royal Hospital was considered one of the most fashionable – even more so than its rival at Vauxhall. The Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens were well known in the area as they housed the big music hall that was frequented by celebrities of the day. Mozart famously played in the hall as he lived in the local area. There were vast Orangeries and great garden parties – all of society who could afford it would flock to the gardens. Eventually though, pleasure gardens went out of vogue and a lot of them became places of ill-repute. They turned into big drinking places and in effect brothels. This coincided with the advent of public parks and as such the pleasure gardens closed down as there were free public spaces to visit.
The first public park in London (Victoria Park) was opened in 1845 as a response to public health concerns. By the 1860s public parks really started to take off. Battersea Park was opened in 1858 and was designed by John Gibson. Gibson also designed the new Ranelagh Gardens on the grounds of the Royal Hospital (image below). He created the little hills and the path lay out that remains to this day. Most of the trees planted at this time in the Ranelagh Gardens are still there and they are now around 160 years old.
The South Grounds were originally water gardens when the Royal Hospital Chelsea opened. Creek gate was a working canal which brought all the supplies from the River Thames to the Royal Hospital. In those days the roads were terrible and the river was the main route to bring goods in. When the original grounds were laid out by Wren they would have gone further down to the edge of the Thames. These gardens were lost when the Thames was embanked in 1854 and as an effect the Royal Hospital lost some of its land.
The Chelsea Flower Show started here over 100 years ago it was just a few tents and was nothing like the spectacle it is today. The Royal Hospital is proud of its links with the Royal Horticultural Society and we are looking forward to the show this year."
Photos from last year's Chelsea Flower Show: