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Kew Gardens and its fascinating inhabitants

Kew Gardens was founded by Princess Augusta - the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales and the mother of the future George III - in 1759. It started out as a nine-acre botanical garden with a pleasure ground, but now covers an area of about 326 acres (132 hectares).

Frederick was the hapless son of Queen Caroline of Ansbach and King George II. He died after a cricket ball struck him on the chest and it formed an abscess. It was written of him:

“Here lies poor Fred who was alive and is dead,

Had it been his father I had much rather,

Had it been his sister nobody would have missed her,

Had it been his brother, still better than another,

Had it been the whole generation, so much better for the nation

But since it is Fred who was alive and is dead, there is no more to be said!”

A pretty miserable epitaph for a crown prince. His mother once said of him: “My God, popularity always makes me sick, but Fretz’s popularity makes me want to vomit.” His tragic accident took place at Cliveden Manor - now a hotel – in Buckinghamshire, where the Profumo affair took place.

It was due to his death in 1751 that, his son, George III, jumped the queue and came to the throne in 1760 on the death of his hated grandfather George II. His grandfather used to box his ears when he visited him at Hampton Court Palace, leading to partial deafness and George III’s great abhorrence to this royal residence.

Frederick also hated his parents and ran away from Hampton Court Palace with his 18-year-old wife, Augusta, who was in labour on the night of Sunday 31st July 1737, purely to spite his mother, Caroline, in preventing her from being present at the birth. She was manhandled into a carriage and swiftly driven to St James’s Palace. Caroline took chase but she was just too late to see the birth of the baby, who was called Augusta after her mother. Queen Caroline had suspected they may attempt to swap the child for a changeling; as she put it, “there may be some juggle”. However, on seeing the child was a girl and a “poor, little ugly she-mouse”, she was finally satisfied it was theirs.

Within Kew Gardens is Kew Palace. Caroline and George II took a lease on the palace from the 1720s and it was lived in by successive Georgians until the time of George III and his queen, Charlotte. Charlotte loved the palace and had a little cottage built there which still survives and is known as Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. Although the royal family rarely visited Kew from 1809, it was at Kew Palace that Charlotte died in 1818 as she was taken ill nearby and was rushed to the palace where she never recovered. By this time, George III was suffering greatly from porphyria disease and was so ill that he didn’t comprehend that his wife had died.

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage was built as an ornamental, picturesque teahouse and a place to rest whilst strolling in the gardens. The Georgian kings had taken a liking to housing exotic animals. For example, at Kensington Palace, George I kept a tiger and two civet cats in cages and had a “snailery” (presumably for consumption) and George II’s queen, Caroline, kept tigers at Richmond. George III and Charlotte had a tamer farm here with oriental cattle and colourful Tartarian pheasants which are still there today. From the 1790s they also had kangaroos imported from Australia, and by the early 19th century there were 18 of them. The kangaroo paddock was later turned into a more manageable flower garden.

Eventually in 1898, Queen Victoria gave the cottage and its grounds to the public in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, as it had pretty much been disused from the early 1800s.

The magnificent Pagoda pictured here was built by the great architect and designer William Chambers in 1762 and has recently been restored at a cost of about £4.5 million. Chinoiserie was very much in vogue at this time. The restoration includes replacing the 80 dragons that were lost. It was rumoured they were removed in 1784 to pay off the gambling debts of the future George IV (another dodgy Georgian royal), although it is now believed that they just rotted over time as they were made of wood.

In 1768, the great botanist Joseph Banks set sail with Captain Cook, sending seeds back to Kew from the South Pacific, and became the first unofficial director of the gardens on his return. Lancelot "Capability" Brown, so-called as he would survey the landscape he was to design and declare that it had “capabilities”, created the gorgeous Rhododendron Dell. He was probably the most famous landscape designer of the day. Also pictured on this blog is the Palm House, which was completed in 1848 designed by Decimus Burton, who designed the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner and the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall.

Spring is a splendid time to visit these beautiful gardens and it is one of the few attractions to open this Easter during our long lockdown.

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Thanks Clarissa for this wonderfully enlightening blog. I am a member of Kew and go there often but thanks to you, I will now have a whole other level of enjoyment when I visit.

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