Bleak House is my favourite Dickens novel. I don’t propose to defend the assertion now, but I mention it because recent rummagings in the library in which I spend my Friday mornings have brought to light a rather sad tale in which the benevolent intentions of one Benjamin Robertson, Esquire, of Surrey were overturned by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, sitting in state in the High Court of Chancery, even though the trustees who were trying to carry out the deceased’s wishes were represented in court by not only the Solicitor General (Spencer Perceval, later to acquire the gloomy distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated) but also Mr (shortly to be Sir Samuel) Romilly.
The case of Townley v. Bedwell was heard on 6 July 1801. Townley was one of Robertson’s executors, and Bedwell was the infant John Bedwell, Robertson’s nephew, who was the defendant in the case along with his aunt, Esther Moore, Robertson’s only surviving sister. Robertson had produced a very wordy will, of which the essential and contentious part was that: ‘… whereas I have after many years of labour, and at a very great expense, raised a freehold botanic garden at Stockwell aforesaid, with several buildings for the purpose of containing a very large collection of plants and other things’, he wanted the collection to be maintained (and indeed augmented), and that the botanic garden ‘… formed or established … by my trustees … should be called “Stockwell Botanic Garden, founded by Benjamin Robertson, Esquire”; and an inscription accordingly placed and preserved over the principal gate or door of such a garden’, ‘as I trust it will be a public benefit’.
So far, so interesting and far-sighted. The trustees of Robertson’s proposed garden included his executors, Edward William Townley (a nurseryman of Lambeth), and Thomas Goode. ‘Robert Barclay, Esquire, of Clapham’ may be the banker and amateur astronomer who built an observatory in his garden on the north side of Clapham Common. Adrian Hardy Haworth, Esquire (1768–1833), a botanist and entomologist, was about to start publishing his Lepidoptera Britannica, which became the standard work on the subject for many years; his various works on succulents were collected and reissued in 1965. William Acton of Kew is likely to be a typo (the name was frequently misspelt thus) for William Townsend Aiton, son of the more famous William Aiton, George III’s gardener at Kew, who succeeded his father in the role on the latter’s death in 1793. Alexander Macleay, entomologist, later continued his botanical and insect studies as Colonial Secretary in New South Wales. Alexander Malcolm, nurseryman of Stockwell, was a fellow of the Linnean Society.
Having perused the 1801 case (available here), I handed it to the nearest available lawyer. Him Indoors kindly explained that there were two issues before the court: the problem of the perpetual inalienability of land (which the complexity of the various future contingencies in the will attempted to cover), and the unfortunate fact that ‘the public benefit’ has no standing in property and inheritance law. (Analogous and more recent cases include a provision in G.B. Shaw’s will to develop a new forty-letter alphabet, which failed as not being charitable, as defined by law.)
The judgment ‘declared the disposition, as far as it relates to the botanical garden, void; and directed inquiries, who are the heirs at law and next of kin of the testator; and whether it was for the benefit of the persons entitled to the real and personal estate, that the plants should be disposed of’. The summing-up in the editorial side-note expands slightly: ‘Trust of real and personal estate by will, for the purpose of establishing a perpetual Botanical Garden, declared void, upon the expression of the testator, that he trusted [in vain!] it would be a public benefit.’
The legal process apparently didn’t end there: Townley v. Bedwell popped up again in 1808 (among the lawyers were Sir Samuel Romilly and Mr Fonblanque, the co-author with John Ayrton Paris of Medical Jurisprudence), but I’m sparing you this. The point is that it was presumably decided that ‘the plants should be disposed of’, as the document I came across was the catalogue for the sale.
(It may be observed in passing that a private botanic garden for the public good was an extremely novel idea at this period: Kew had barely got going as a national resource (as opposed to being the garden of a royal palace), and though Oxford’s botanic garden was founded, on the continental model, ‘to promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature’ in 1621, Cambridge (despite earlier attempts) had not achieved one until the 1760s. The Tradescants’ garden (just up the road in Lambeth) was by now abandoned, and other important gardens of the period were more about aesthetics (or medicinal use, e.g. the Chelsea Physic Garden) than about systematic botany.)
What do we know about the well-intentioned Mr Robertson? Not a great deal, so far … He purchased 30 acres from the owner of the manor of Stockwell, Edward Thornycroft, in 1781: he may have bought other land in the area three years before. His heir, John Bedwell (or guardians for the infant) sold it in 1806. Sic transit gloria horti …
J.E. Smith, in his Specimens of the Botany of New Holland (1793, with plates by James Sowerby) refers to a plant which he named Pultenaea, ‘in order to commemorate the merits of a very amiable and deserving English Botanist, Dr Richard Pulteney … we received a living specimen of this plant from Mr Alexander Murray, gardener to Benjamin Robertson, Esq. at Stockwell, who raised it late in the autumn of 1792 from seeds brought from New South Wales.’
In the notice of Robertson’s death in the Edinburgh Magazine of November 1800, he is described as ‘Police-Magistrate of Union-Hall [in Southwark], London. The deceased has left the bulk of his fortune, which is very considerable, … to Botanical purposes, as a fund. His own garden, at Stockwell, contains exotics and other rare plants, to the value of upwards of £5000.’ Meanwhile, the Annual Register for 1800 says he was buried in the family vault at Crutched Friars (near Tower Hill), that his estate was worth £100,000, and the value of the plants was upwards of £10,000 …
More mysteriously, Robertson appears in the Naval Chronicle for 1803 (vols. 9 and 10) as the former ‘agent’ of one Mr James Dick, a Naval Storekeeper at Jamaica who was being interrogated by the Admiralty as part of an enquiry into ‘Irregularities, Frauds, or Abuses’. I don’t pretend to follow the complexities of the case, but it’s worth noting that on Robertson’s death, one Thomas Goode (see above) had succeeded him as Dick’s agent. Of course, operating as agent/banker/fixer for naval and merchant seaman would have offered splendid opportunities to obtain seeds and plants from all over the world.
In 1811, the second edition of Revd Daniel Lysons’ The Environs of London mentions the garden (and the court case) in an appendix (the 1792 first edition having no reference to it), with the comment ‘This institution never took effect, the will having been set aside by the court of Chancery.’ J.C. Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822) mentions (under ‘Surrey’) that ‘Benjamin Robertson formed a valuable botanic garden, at great expence, at Stockwell; he died in 1800, and bequeathed the whole of his estates for the purpose of establishing it as a public botanic garden; but his will was set aside.’ In 1835, Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine raises a question about it: quoting Lysons (above), T.B.H. of Kensington asks ‘Can any of your readers give me the history of this Stockwell Botanical Garden; which, it appears, actually existed in the year 1800?’ I haven’t yet found an answer in the subsequent issues.
So, the sale: the catalogue consists of 39 pages, and there are hundreds of lots of plants, with gardening books, equipment and sundries at the end. The list of plants is astonishing: almost all are non-natives, with very large numbers of southern African plants such as mesembryanthemums, pelargoniums and amaryllis.
There are ‘bulbs in the Great Stove’,
plants in the ‘Great Pit Stove’, the ‘Pit Small Stove’,
the ‘Small Stove’, and the ‘Botany Bay house’;
‘Pit Alpin Plants’, including forty auriculas;
books including the abridgement of Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary, and 140 folio numbers of the same work, Smith’s Botany of New Holland (4 numbers), 13 volumes of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine with coloured plates, and ‘a Catalogue of the Botanic Garden at Cambridge‘.
The second-to-last item is ‘a fine large figure of Hercules’. Where is it now?
By the way, the will of Robertson’s unexplained beneficiary Charlotte Smalt, who received £200 a year and could live in Robertson’s house and enjoy its contents for life, was proved in 1850: she left everything she owned to her ‘dear nephew’, Ambrose or Ambrosius Boyson, (c.1806–68), a merchant and local politician (who bought Elm House on Clapham Common in 1860 and donated a water fountain to the Elephant and Castle). Robertson would not be the first to provide for an illegitimate child during its lifetime – but more research is clearly needed.