Botany, Empire and Deep Time 1: Sydney Gardens, a reluctant heritage.

John Edwards
Sydney Gardens Bath
36 min readNov 7, 2020


Walking and asking questions in Bath’s Sydney Gardens with Richard White

Dr Richard S. White, Artist-researcher, Senior Lecturer in Media Practice, Bath Spa University

Beech trees at Sydney Gardens
Beech trees at Sydney Gardens

A scene setting underneath two old Beech trees

Perhaps you have just walked in past the Holburne Museum, maybe you had a cup of tea there, we’ll come to tea later. Once that was the only way into these Pleasure Gardens. Years ago it was a private space for subscribers only, surrounded by seven foot high walls and a track for horse riding. Perhaps you came in from the where the new gate once stood; small kiosk remains as a memory of a ticket price. The gardens are now free to enter, although of course we pay for them through our rates and are thankful for the money that recently flowed in from those who play the National Lottery. As in all things there is a price to pay and in some ways this walk is about the price paid for the privilege we have enjoying these gardens.

This is a walk about layers and entanglements, about obscured history and reluctant heritage, about wealth, power, people and plants. We are going to explore the story of a few trees in this garden mangled through different rollers of time and place, thinking about how things connect and, considering the price paid, perhaps discover something about ourselves here, and now.

It is a vast and lumpy canvas, extending all the time as we walk and ask questions. If you visit the Holburne Museum you will see another huge canvas on the top floor, The Byam Family. Painted by William Gainsborough in Bath between 1762–1766, it has been described as an image of a ‘slave-owner on holiday’. Like many other slave-owners the Byams visited Bath in the eighteenth-century to network, take the waters and gamble in style, no National Lottery scratch cards for them! Many slave-owners stayed in the city for the season, some retired here with their entire retinue including slaves. The Byams, the Beckfords, the Pulteneys, the Codringtons and many more holding vast fortunes of sugar plantation wealth generated a honey pot in Bath, they speculated in land, construction and architecture and blew it on lavish spectacles, art and plant collections.

Like the Circus and the Royal Crescent, the architectural vista funded by William Pulteney and today glimpsed from the front of the Holburne was a speculative investment aimed at the newly enriched visitors to Bath. The Pulteney Estate with Sydney Gardens at its heart connects us into the wealth of Empire and slave-ownership drawing us into the strange world of trophy plants and plant collectors, the naming and collecting of plants, and the story of European botany. The Sydney of Sydney Gardens was Thomas Townsend, the First Viscount Sydney, grandson of the famous pioneer of crop rotation ‘Turnip’ Townsend. His views on the capture, enslavement and exploitation of humans are unclear; although he did not oppose the regulation of the slave trade, in 1788 he accepted a six year old Black boy as a gift from the Governor of the British colony of Dominica. Some of the trees in what became this Pleasure Garden were already growing the day that boy was born into slavery.

Find a space near the north entrance to Sydney Gardens and look up at the old Beech trees, two of the oldest trees in the park. They were here when the Pleasure Garden was first laid out, probably planted deliberately but as a ‘native’ British tree there is an outside chance they just grew from a scattered seed. But as we will discover very little happens here by chance whether it’s the naming and planting of the trees or the naming of places, even the idea of ‘native’ may set off some questions for you by the time we finish!

To finish setting the scene and connect in with Sydney, following the loss of the American colonies as a place to get rid of criminals and radicals, Home Secretary Sydney came up with the plan to settle convicts in Australia. His first penal colony was intended to be established at place named by Europeans as Botany Bay, previously home for thousands of years to indigenous Australians, who have now re-asserted their name for the area, Kamay. This had been the site of Captain James Cook’s uninvited landing from the HMS Endeavour in 1770. On board Cook’s ship was a team led by the young gentleman botanist Joseph Banks. The diversity of plant life they identified earned the site its English name, Botany Bay. Cook claimed Australia for Britain; Banks established Kew Gardens as the British Empire ‘world centre’ for the exchange and study of plants… and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sydney’s first flotilla of ships not only carried convicts but were kitted out by Banks for the export and import of plants. When they arrived just seventeen years after Cook, in 1787, they discovered that there was not enough water at Botany Bay. A more suitable site was found nearby, they re-named it Sydney Cove, thereby founding the settler city of Sydney. Tommie Townsend, associate of William Pulteney, Home Secretary and Viscount Sydney, grandson of ‘Turnip Townsend’ thus brings us into the entanglements of plants, power and empire that weave through the reluctant heritage of Sydney Gardens in Bath.

The ‘Peace Oak’ planted for Peace Day in Bath in 1919.

The Golden Oak - WW1 Memorial

According to the Bath Chronicle,

“Monday last [16th September 1793] the first tree, a young oak, was planted on the elevated site of the new-intended gardens , at the end of Pulteney-street, to be called Sydney Gardens; on this occasion the cannons from Spring-Gardens were fired, and a barrel of strong beer was given to the attending spectators.”

This tree is now long gone but it is no accident that the oak was chosen for the first ceremonial planting. The fruit of the oak, the acorn, is part of the iconography of Georgian Bath and the leaves, seed and living oak tree are iconic of the English national story. The King once hid in an Oak, the nation’s cathedrals and ships were once built of oak, even the National Trust has an oak leaf as its logo and it is of course the symbol of the present day Conservative Party. In fact the oak tree has been co-opted into telling a partial version of the national story. Generations of school children have been taught to sing the rousing eighteenth-century song, ‘Hearts of Oak’.

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again

The song celebrates ships built from the descendants of trees that had arrived thousands of years before from Europe, and the mythic might of their sailors. ‘Hearts of Oak’ is the official march of the Royal Navy, first performed in 1760 it references the set of naval victories over the French and in India that established Britain as the dominant colonial superpower in the ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1759.

The English oak tree and certainly the Golden Oak you are looking at offer us a fascinating story of climate change and identity for which we have to think in terms of geological time, deep time. Twelve thousand years ago, not much more than a tick and a tock in the slow time of our planet, what became the British Isles was still very much part of the European landmass. The land had been in the grip of a winter that had lasted tens of thousands of years, very little life remained, the glaciers had scraped the trees from its surface. European trees survived in pockets of warmth and on the southern sides of mountain ranges from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians. As the climate slowly warmed plant life and animal life began to move into the newly inhabitable lands.

Ten thousand years ago trees were repopulating the north and what we think of as the English Oak was one of them. In the lead were the trees with wind-blown seeds, the silver birch advancing perhaps as fast as two kilometres a year across the plains of what is now Poland and Germany. The Oak was slow and relied not on the wind to advance, depending on other living things to distribute and plant its seeds. There were mountains to cross, the weather was getting warmer and the sea kept on rising; a window in time was closing. Eventually the land bridge from what is now Holland, Denmark, Belgium and Germany was flooded. The North Sea washed through to the English Channel, the window had closed leaving roughly 30 different kinds of trees trapped in what we now call mainland Britain.

The trees that had migrated into the formerly glaciated lands and then been cut off by rising sea levels are described as the ‘native’ trees of England. Today when we think of how Europe has been divided, what is English and what is foreign, who is other and who or what is determined as native, the trees in Sydney Gardens invite us to think. Listen to them, feel their bark, watch them move; ten thousand years ago there were no trees here. The trees of England come from all round the world, even that most English tree, the Oak, may have come from the other side of the Balkans, or south of the Alps. Some came on the wind, in the bellies and on the fur of animals; and as for the Oak, some people think that humans played a part in getting it here before this land became isolated by the sea.

For the humans that returned, the Oak became a vital resource and an important symbol. In fact, leaping a few millennia, the Oak and other timber crops were so essential to the nation that by the end of First World War, Great Britain had decimated its woodland on such a massive scale that the only trees left behind were small and badly formed or were those with significant sentimental value. Perhaps it was for this reason that a Belgian Oak was chosen as the memorial tree at this site.

Or perhaps it was in the hope of a new start and a new future just like the first oak planted in the Gardens back in 1793. Estimates for the total number killed in the First World War vary, including military and civilian casualties across the world something of the order of 20 million people died. More than 1800 military personnel who came from Bath were killed, many of them on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium fighting alongside soldiers from across what was then the British Empire. In their memory the Belgian Golden Oak was selected as a tree cultivated in the land where they had fought and died, where many of their bodies still lay. As we look at the tree we might consider the journeys of the oak trees and the stories they tell, and the next time you hear the band strike up ‘Hearts of Oak’ you might reflect on what is being romanced in that stirring tune. The Oak is also the national tree of Germany, oak leaves were used as part of Nazi regalia in the Second World War. When the Oak is described as a ‘native’ species we might reflect on its strange and uncomfortable story and the consequences of definitions of native and foreign.

Horse Chestnut Tree at the old Bandstand at Sydney Gardens
Horse Chestnut Tree at the old Bandstand

Horse Chestnut Tree at the old Bandstand

They say that some days if you stand quietly and listen carefully you can still hear the sound of the band playing on the bandstand that once stood near here. Once it was the pride of the gardens, reputed to have had the best acoustic of all the bandstands in the city. Sadly, in 1948, after years of austerity, dereliction and decay it was demolished. Mature trees, one of them a Horse Chestnut, now tower over the ghost bandstand, they saw and heard it all and grew to fill the space. Today some Horse Chestnuts have their own troubles from the dreaded bleeding canker to the leaf miner. The leaf miner was first spotted in Austria in the 1980s and the bacteria that causes the canker was first identified in India. A not so exotic import from the Himalayas.

The Horse Chestnut tree did get to England by itself, it is an import; those warmly remembered childhood games of conkers are perhaps not as traditionally English as some claim. In fact the story of the Horse Chestnut has a lot to tell us right up to its current crisis threatened, as we all are, by imported parasites and globalised infections. The first conkers to be sprouted in England were grown by John Tradescant, an early seventeenth-century gardener and botanist; the trees soon became a regular ornamental feature in the gardens of stately homes across the country. The wood was not much use for building so they grew big and grand, an expression of wealth and power. Not exactly the kind of tree you might see on common land or in the hedgerow, these were trophy plants, a tangible material manifestation of the reach of the wealthy elite. Just as the Byams and other slave-owners were to keep Gainsborough in work in Bath a century later, others employed plant hunters and gardeners to find and grow exotic plants. Spaces were created, gardens and greenhouses to show off living Cabinets of Curiosities.

The Tradescants and their plant collections, like Gainsborough and his paintings, tell a story of patronage, wealth and empire. Tradescant, father and son, both called John, were in the vanguard of growing the British Empire, sometimes taking part in the military action, sometimes reaping the spoils of conquest, gathering plants and sending them back to their wealthy masters. They learned the market for curiosities and built good connections. On an expedition attached to an antipiracy operation John the Elder is reputed to have brought home the first Lilac, the ‘Algiers Apricot’, the Rock Rose as well as the first Horse Chestnuts. Others say he imported the first Horse Chestnut back when he joined a diplomatic trip to Russia, perhaps he smuggled home a pocket full of conkers! As gardener to the Duke of Buckingham and ultimately as Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms he was able to send messages to merchants and ship’s captains opening up the trade routes of empire. He sent this message via the Secretary to the Navy to those trading overseas, particularly in North America and West Africa.

“I have Bin Comanded By my Lord to let yr worshipe understand that it is His Graces Plesure that ye should In His Name Deall with All Marchants from All Places But Espetially the Virginie and Bermewde and Newfound Land men that when they go Into those parts they will take Care to furnishe His Grace With All Maner of Beasts and fowels and Birds Alyve. Or If Not Withe Heads Horns Beaks Clawes Skins fethers flyes or seeds plants trees or shrubs. Also from Gine or Binne or Senego turkeye…. also from the East Indes withe Shells Stones Bones Egge Shells with What Cannot Com Alive..[and so the list continues before ending] and …. Any Thing that is strang.”:

… and here we get a whisper of what else was happening and how the trade of the Tradescants was entangled in the emergent British Empire. John the Younger travelled to Jamestown in the new American colony of Virginia, once the home of the Algonquin nation. He arrived in 1637 less than twenty years after the first cargo of captured and enslaved Africans had disembarked there. The Tradescants had invested in the Virginia colony, notoriously the first colony to establish a legal framework for chattel slavery. In a single trip to Jamestown John the Younger brought back Virginia Creeper, Yucca and the Pitcher Plant. The indigenous names did not travel with them but in grim anticipation of what was to happen to the First Nations he also brought back, as a curio, the ceremonial cloak of Wahunsenacawh, paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. You can still see ‘Powhatan’s Mantle’ in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. So when you look up at that old Horse Chestnut, once also a collectors item, a tree from the Balkans, listen for the band and think of this. This tree planted more than two hundred years ago, admired perhaps by the retired and visiting slave-owners taking up residence on the new Pulteney Estate, now sheltering the ghost bandstand. Think of the Tradescants, father and son, and how they rode the wave of botany and empire.

Giant Sequioa at Sydney Gardens
Giant Sequioa at Sydney Gardens

Giant Sequioa - a tree of significance with a contested name

Alongside the railway line an enormous tree towers above us, pushing up vertically as the railway lines stretch horizontally under the bridges and away. Come in close and touch the fibrous bark, look up, it is as if you have grasped the plume of a rocket blasting off to the moon, fixed in time. When the Great Western Railway was constructed through Sydney Gardens it was to deliver the latest technology into the heart of the City. The railway cutting was landscaped so that park visitors could watch the power of coal, fire and steam tamed and contained in iron newly controlled by humans. A very modern spectacle. Watching it rumble, hiss and chuff through the park back then would have been as exciting as experiencing a space rocket launch today. Well, for the boys at least! What better way to for them to mark this new attraction and create a space to view it at the Gardens than the planting of the latest tree from America?

Construction would have caused immense upheaval, an army of men cutting a slice in the hillside and just to the west diverting and re-digging the canal, all to accommodate the new railway line. As the park was re-landscaped there was new planting and slowly the scars healed. One new planting was probably this Sequioa, although it is over a hundred and sixty years old it is still a young and energetic tree, rising like a cathedral spire above the canopy of the park. In its natural habitat the Sequoia can live for over three thousand years, and then continue to support omplex ecosystems long after its death. One such giant Sequoia still growing in California, named the General Sherman, was until recently considered to be the largest living organism on the planet. The giant Sequoia is an example of one of the many trophy plants introduced from America, feeding the elite British passion, collecting exotic and rare conifers, the Pinetum.

When the first redwoods from the northwestern Pacific coastal forests arrived the railway had only just opened through Sydney Gardens carrying passengers and goods to and from London. By the middle of the nineteenth century and the times of Queen Victoria, the plant hunters and gardeners who had started out piggy backing on the journeys of the slave trade and colonial conquest had become part of the structured business of imperial exploitation. Nurseries and seed suppliers had set up businesses in the major cities with extensive supply chains, sending out their own plant hunters. Botanic gardens were founded across the Empire with Kew Gardens established at the centre. Colonised lands were still being scoured for the strange, the beautiful and the exotic, but also for the economically useful. The great forests of northern America were attractive not only because of the beauty of its rare plants but as a source of varieties of timber.

In the 1840’s the Veitch nurseries in Exeter sent young Cornishman, William Lobb, on a plant hunting expedition to the Pacific coast of the United States of America. Lobb had previously imported plants from South America for Veitch, including the very successful Monkey Puzzle Tree. Almost certainly Lobb knew what he was looking for, as, like the Monkey Puzzle Tree, the tall coastal redwoods had been collected and described by Archibald Menzies from the HMS Discovery some fifty years previously. At the height of the Californian Gold Rush Lobb headed north into the redwood forests and saw great stands of gigantic trees. Neither Lobb or Menzies recorded the local name for the tree, only the colour of the cut timber felled by the settlers survives defining them as red woods. In 1853 Lobb returned to Exeter with a batch of saplings and seeds of the most enormous tree ever seen. This Giant Sequoia growing in Sydney Gardens may have been part of the first batch of saplings to be sold. For a moment in the middle of the nineteenth century this was the ultimate trophy plant. The battle over its name gives us a glimpse of its significance.

The European and US settler botanical world had already been alerted to the existence of these trees and a naming needed to be agreed. The settlers wanted to name the giant redwood after one of their slave-owning founders, George Washington, whilst the British botanical establishment wanted to name the tree after Waterloo war hero and pro-slavery Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Although the indigenous people’s name for the tree and the knowledge associated with it did not travel to England, intriguingly another name did and with it a slice of history. The tree now carries the generic name of Sequoiadendron after Sequoyah an educator and significant person in the Cherokee Nation. Sequoyah who could not read or write in a colonial language had invented the way of writing his own language, officially taken up by the Cherokee Nation in 1825. Thousands of Cherokee became literate in their own language and the first Native American newspaper in the United States was established using this system. Sadly this period of cultural consolidation coincided with the forcible removal of the Cherokee and others Nations from their ancestral lands in the East as a result of the US Government’s Indian Removal Acts. These genocidal settler government policies eventually resulted in the infamous Trails of Tears in which over 60,000 Native Americans and fugitive slaves were forcibly migrated over a thousand miles West, on foot. The conditions and the violence meted out were appalling and many thousands died along the way. As Lobb was gathering the seeds which were to carry his name, Sequoyah was involved in attempts to locate and reunite his scattered people. He died on the Mexican/US border in 1843.

The name of Sequoyah lives on through this tree and those like it, let us remember his gift to human potential as well as the misery of his people. The universalising project of the Latin naming system, although still unable to pass on the indigenous name and knowledge associated with the tree has at least bestowed us with an echo of indigenous American heritage.

Catalpa tree at the Temple of Minerva at Sydney Gardens
Catalpa tree at the Temple of Minerva

Catalpa tree - the Yellow Bean Tree

Looking at this tree growing alongside what appears to be a Roman temple, I would like to invite you into another provocation in the reluctant heritage of the trees of Sydney Gardens. Tree naming, deep time, Native American heritage and the anti-slavery movement all come together here! This strange tree appears to grow giant runner beans. This is described as a Yellow Bean Tree, and about the only truth in its name is that it is a tree!

This is another exotic trophy plant brought from the colonies, a testament to the reach and command of the British. In 1712, the plant collector Mark Catesby joined his sister in the British colony of Virginia by which time chattel slavery was fully established, he went on to stay with slave-owners and to draw and gather plant samples in the West Indies before returning to England. Like Gainsborough and Tradescant, Catesby was able to develop his talents and indulge his fascinations surfing the wave of wealth generated by captured and enslaved people working stolen land. Catesby is credited with initiating the eighteenth-century craze for North American plants and on a subsequent collecting expedition in 1722 he made drawings and sent back samples of a relative to this tree, the ‘Indian’ Bean Tree. To his credit he had a better name for it.

At first this seems very straightforward until we ask how the tree got its name, you may well ask how does any plant get it name? In fact do all plants have names? Before we head out towards the story of the Forget-Me–Not, lets just say that plants have names given them by humans. Sometimes those humans are people of power and status and it is often those names that survive. In the eighteenth century a European Enlightenment project was underway running alongside the expansion of Empires and a fashion for collecting. A supreme example of the wealth, reach and supposed intelligence of the eighteenth-century elite was a Cabinet of Curiosities in which there was an example of everything strange, exotic and beautiful from across the whole world. In owning those things and naming those things the world could be ordered, encompassed and owned. In this spirit, systems for naming all living things were developed and it rolled out along with the Empire, a colonising strategy suppressing and obscuring the knowledge systems of the colonised. The fashion was for Botany and the naming of plants in the elite language of European knowledge, Latin. The system that triumphed was based on the work of Carl Linnaeus. It was being extended globally by a pupil of Linnaeus on Captain Cook’s trip to what he called Botany Bay; the system is still in use today. In the Linnaean system all kinds of strange bits of information survive from the names of plant collectors, Linnaeus’s heroes and enemies to fragments of the story of the plant.

By the time Catesby saw what we know as an ‘Indian’ Bean Tree, the indigenous Americans were already being driven west carrying their local knowledge with them. The enslaved Black people working the British settlers’ plantations probably had as little local knowledge as their owners. Catesby did however pick up an echo of indigenous knowledge on his travels and it survives in the latin name for this tree, it is a catalpa. Catalpa derives from the Muscogee nation’s name for the tree. So despite surfing the wave of empire and slavery perhaps we need to acknowledge Catesby for that, as our ‘common’ name for this tree although full of the romance of empire is entirely misleading!

The Latin name of this particular tree is Catalpa ovata , the ‘Yellow’ Bean Tree, takes us further into an entanglement of time, place and empire. Just as the ‘Indian’ in the English name for the tree from North America carries a ghost of European othering, so too does its ‘Yellow’ relative: the Catalpa ovata was a trophy plant brought from China. But plants were moving around long before human empires and to puzzle this out we have to think in geological deep time as well as colonial time. Fossil seeds of the ancestors of this tree in Sydney Gardens have been found in fossils in rocks on the West coast of the USA. Over more than forty nine million years those trees migrated and the earth’s tectonic plates moved to distribute the Catalpa family across what is now Eastern Asia and North America. Distant cousins dispersed in deep time.

And we do have some local knowledge of the Catalpa ovata from its origins in China. The wood from this tree has been used for thousands of years as the soundboard for the Guqin, a stringed instrument producing a gentle sound evocative to Western ears of the far east. Guqin music is recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible World Cultural Heritage, the ancient sound has even been sent into outer space as an ambassadorial sample of what humanity can do. Unlike the lost knowledge of the Muscogee nation concerning the tree it named, this heritage of the use of its wood survives in sound.

Turning now to the temple, mixed up in this building is another story of wood, slavery and empire. This Roman temple is a fake, look inside and apparently it celebrates a 1909 historical pageant in Bath, the stone is real, however, the famous local stone cut from the hills above us, the same stone from which the real Roman temples of Bath were built. Stone made over millions of years from the compressed remains of millions of tiny lives laid down when where you are standing was at the bottom of a warm sea. This temple was built in London as a promotion for Bath at the 1911 Empire Exhibition at Crystal Palace. Unloved it was subsequently retrieved and re-erected here just before the out break of World War One. The Catalpa was probably here first, although as this story progresses ideas of ‘here’ and ‘now’ may be getting a little difficult to hold on to.

By 1911 the Crystal Palace had been dismantled and rebuilt in the south London suburb to which it gave its name. The 1911 Empire Exhibition was an echo of the Great Exhibition of 1851 for which the Crystal Palace had been constructed. This Exhibition was a celebration of European imperial, and especially British, industrial and scientific achievement with contributions from the Empire nations and former colonies. Standing in Sydney Gardens thinking of that great celebration and another that was held here in 1834 when the status of slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire, I would like to share an echo of the continuing anti-slavery campaign. In his autobiography Josiah Henson tells a story of an incident at the Great Exhibition; Henson, whose story Harriet Beecher Stowe adapted for her famous anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, escaped from slavery to Canada. In Canada Henson became a campaigner and a farmer. He took the opportunity of the Great Exhibition to show off Black Walnut wood produced on his farm and travelled to London, his wood shipped from Boston, USA. When Henson arrived at the US stand to collect and pay for his shipment, he was refused access to his wood:

Thought I, if this Yankee wants to retain my furniture, the world shall know who owns it. I accordingly hired a painter to paint in large white letters on the tops of my boards: “THIS IS THE PRODUCT OF THE INDUSTRY OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE FROM THE UNITED STATES, WHOSE RESIDENCE IS DAWN, CANADA.”

The result was that Henson’s wood was delivered discreetly to the Canadian exhibition without a word being said or a bill presented. With chattel slavery still legal in the United States, the US stand was a focus of anti-slavery attention. Whether Henson’s action was deliberate and designed to coordinate with other protests at the Great Exhibition we do not know, but he recalls sadly that,

Among all the exhibitors from every nation in Europe, and from Asia, America, and the Isles of the Sea, there was not a single black man but myself. There were negroes there from Africa, brought to be exhibited, but no negro-exhibitors but myself. Though my condition was wonderfully changed from what it was in my childhood and youth, yet it was a little saddening to reflect that my people were not more largely represented there. The time will yet come, I trust, when such a state of things will no longer exist.

Gingko Tree at Sydney Gardens
Gingko Tree

Ginkgo Tree and the Tree of Heaven

Walking to the top of the gardens, following the alignment with Twerton Roundhill’s bronze age burial mound we reach the strangely ill-proportioned ‘restored’ Pavilion. This structure, although a shadow of its former self, offers a place to sit and view and think. Much of the architecture of the site and in particular this alignment with a bronze age burial mound reflects the late eighteenth-century elite’s obsession with antiquity. Wood famously used the dimensions of Stonehenge as a guide in the design of the Circus and much of the architectural design of the period references ancient Greek and Roman structures. Antiquarians reached out to draw connections of legitimacy and racial superiority and a lineage of ideas about matter and the cosmos going back to ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Looking through the Garden from the classical shelter of the Pavilion across what was once a Roman burial ground towards a distant burial site of the ancients, the view is now obscured by trees. Some times botany turns the tables! Bringing our perspective closer we are looking between two very different trees from China, they connect to another ancient civilisation, one which the British did much to destabilise. On the left an example of the revered Ginkgo tree and on the right, now considered to be an invasive weed, but with the most glorious name of all, a Tree of Heaven.

These two trees, although far too young to have been part of the original planting, reminds us of the many Chinese references in Sydney Gardens. From the bridges over the canal and the layout of the site to the accounts of Chinese decorations and fireworks in the Gardens in the summer of 1812, there are links and ghosts of a historic fascination. The Ginkgo appears in eleventh century Chinese literature as a plant native to eastern China producing a precious fruit. Its English name is the Maidenhair tree but its official name does at least resonate with its origins in China, the name Ginkgo is said to derive from a Chinese word meaning ‘silver apricot’, yinxing. The Ginkgo was known to grow to a great age, the old trees were tended and respected in the monasteries of China and Japan. In fact the Ginkgo is a tenacious survivor of an ancient group of trees that were growing 350 million years ago. Leaves of the Ginkgo have been found in the fossil record on every continent. Although it is listed as endangered in the wild, the Ginkgo tree is still cultivated in China to supply leaves for herbal medicine. Check out those leaves, no other trees has leaves that fan out like this, food for dinosaurs and food for thought today. You are looking at a living fossil.

The earliest European report of the Ginkgo tree appears to be a 1692 description from Englebert Kaempfer working for the Dutch East India Company in Japan. The first seeds were growing in the Utrecht Botanical Garden in the 1730s but it was not until the 1750s that the plant was cultivated and sold in England. The Dutch and the British East India Companies were competing for access to the natural and mineral resources of the East; great wealth was generated in the trade in commodities such as cotton, spices and tea as well as the trade and labour of captured and enslaved people. By the time the Pulteney Estate and Sydney Gardens were established, Chinese gardens and design were the height of fashion, the British East India Company was in control of India and trying to break into China. China was then the only source of the prized commodity, tea, and the British East India Company had the trade monopoly.

Seeds from the Tree of Heaven followed a more collaborative route having been sent by a French missionary in China back to France in 1751 and on to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. The tree has a pedigree as good as the Ginkgo, it is mentioned in ancient Chinese literature, it has been used in herbal medicine, as host for silkworms and its wood for fine baskets and furniture. The English gardeners thought they were growing a tree whose sap could be used to make the prized varnish, Chinese lacquer. They were mistaken and the saplings they produced were to grow into beautiful but invasive monsters. This exotic fast growing tree contributed rapidly to the fashion for all things Chinese, becoming an accidental trophy plant in the gardens of England. As the nineteenth-century industrial city skies darkened it became popular as a street tree, proving resistant to pollution, diseases and insects. The tree has now been spread across the world and it has fallen out of favour because of its invasive growth and destructive habits, it kills other plants and breaks into sewers! In Australia it is classed as a weed and in New Zealand as unwanted and in South Africa it is in a category that must be controlled, or removed and destroyed, the law states that any form of trade or planting of this species is strictly prohibited.

As the Ginkgo trees and the Trees of Heaven were flourishing in the Chinese Gardens of England, the East India Company was knocking at the doors of the ancient Chinese state. The Emperor was really not that interested in trade but was happy to sell some tea to the British for silver bullion. The Company knew that in China there was a market for opium and being refused the front door, fuelled the black market. Opium grown on lands they controlled in India was sold for silver to smugglers, thereby generating the silver they needed for the official market in tea. Chinese officials resisted and as their nation slid into opium addiction, the trade war turned violent. As British gunboats enforced a trade deal, the East India Company sent in plant hunter, Robert Hunter, to get tea plants and other exotics. In 1851 he returned to Calcutta with tea bush seedlings and young plants, tea production equipment and eight captured tea growers. At the same time, as part of this attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea, a commercial Indian tea plantation worked by slaves and indentured labourers was underway on the conquered lands of Sikkim and Assam. As the plants from China and India flourished and their leaves harvested, the Chinese monopoly was broken and wealth continued to flow West. All for an English cup of tea, sweetened with sugar from the plantations of the West Indies, as the BBC put it,

By the turn of the 20th Century, Britain had become the biggest drug dealer the world had ever known, and China had developed the biggest drug problem experienced by any nation ever.

This Pavilion was a good spot for afternoon tea, to see the sun set, to contemplate its history and to meditate on these trees. The beautiful Tree of Heaven presents a metaphorical conclusion and a story of botanical revenge, like the British Empire its roots are strong, penetrating and aggressive. It spreads rapidly, vegetatively as suckers, poisoning plants that come close, its sap stings. To cap it all it is said to stink, a current Chinese name for the tree is chouchun meaning foul smelling tree. The Ginkgo in its more stately growth, long life, ancient lineage and healthy by-products may offer us another wisdom, nevertheless its fruits are said to smell of vomit!

London Plane tree at Sydney Gardens
London Plane tree

The London Plane and the footbridge over the canal.

This solid tree, a London Plane, is one of the oldest in the park and unlike the veteran Beech trees was definitely no accidental planting. When the canal was being dug this tree, dated to 1777, would have already been twenty years old and no mere sapling. Perhaps it was intended to line a path and become a landmark. Get up close to this tree, feel its presence. Towering solidly over the gardens this tree was here before the canal, before the railway, it was here before the Sydney Gardens were even laid out. We don’t know why it is here, but someone put it here and it has been soaking up and metabolising the history of this City ever since. This tree is a living monument fixing the minerals from the soil, thriving on sun, air and the water evaporated from the Atlantic that falls on Bath as rain, turning it all into new life.

The London Plane will be familiar with many city dwellers, a strong, resilient pollution resistant tree. Appropriately for Sydney Gardens it is a cross between trees from two different continents: a tree from America, known as the American Sycamore and a tree from the edges of Europe and Asia, the Oriental Plane. The London Plane has a mysterious origin its Latin name reflects a Spanish connection, although some say it was an accidental cross fertilisation in the Tradescants’ plant collection in London. This origin myth finds an early London Plane growing in John Tradescant’s nursery in the mid 1600s. The Tradescant’s ‘Ark’, as they called it, was just along the River Thames from the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall, relaunched in 1785 as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens it was the model for Sydney Gardens. Many of the plants collected by the Tradescants and their successors including the London Plane were to be displayed as part of the living spectacle in these fashionable private gardens.

The Tradescants are recorded as having successfully grown the Oriental Plane in 1633 and John the Younger is recorded as returning from the colony of Virginia with seeds or cuttings of the American Sycamore in 1647. Whether the Tradescants ‘Ark’ was the birthplace of the London Plane is, however, unlikely, as its American parent plant did not like the cold damp English climate and refused to flower. So perhaps the accidental hybrid occurred in a Spanish tree nursery, after all the Tradescants were not the only plant hunters beginning to surf the great wave of European colonial expansion in the seventeenth century. The tree has lost the indigenous names of at least one parent and gained a Spanish mystery in its Latin name, Platinus x hispanica. The London Plane is without doubt a product of early globalisation, flourishing iconically now in the cities of Empire, it carries a story of conquest and the induced amnesia of colonisation.

The Tradescants, like Joseph Banks who kitted up the ships of Sydney’s first penal colony in Australia to carry plants as well as convicts, or Veitch who established the nurseries in Exeter and employed plant hunter Lobb, each found a way of making a living through their fascination with plants and trees. Crucially they were able to do so participating in the processes of colonisation and extending the Eurocentric networks of Empire. They generated influence and income selling the seeds they collected and the plants cultivated, plants were removed from one continent to another usually disconnecting them from their indigenous names and associated knowledge systems. The natural heritage of colonised lands was plundered and categorised to structures determined by European thinking. From cash crop species of rubber, cotton and sugar to the exotic trophy plants that survive in Sydney Gardens, natural heritage was bent to the will of the new colonial masters.

Sydney Gardens could never offer visitors a chance to see sugar cane growing and being harvested or the cultivation of tea or coffee, although no doubt plenty was drunk. Neither did they ever grow rubber trees or cotton here although many visitors would be wearing the fabric and in later years have arrived on rubber tyres. Visitors were invited to an enchantment at Sydney Gardens and it is perhaps only by listening to these stories in the trees that you might get an echo of the cost of that enchantment.

Now, if you turn to the delicate Chinese motif-ed bridge across the nearby canal, feel the old painted metal…and consider this: the bridge was manufactured at Abraham Darby’s foundry in Coalbrookdale and assembled here in 1800 seven years before the abolition of the slave trade, thirty five years before the ending of the status of slavery in the British Empire. Along with other goods including the brass pans and manillas made along the River Avon, the same metal as this bridge, iron, was traded for captured and enslaved Africans. This same iron was shaped into the shackles and chains that held them captive. Many historians argue that it was the slave trade and the wealth generated through slave ownership that provided the capital for Britain’s industrial expansion. The Coalbrookdale Company was financed by Bristol merchant Thomas Goldney in the first decades of the eighteenth century from the proceeds of the infamous Woodes-Rogers slave trading expedition. Many years later the Coalbrookdale foundry cast the statue of slave trader William Colston that was recently toppled into Bristol Harbour.

The London Plane flourishes in the falling rain, evaporated from the Atlantic Ocean where more than three million bodies of captured and enslaved Africans were dumped over board. This bridge survives from those times, its reminder should we choose to be alerted, is in the sensation of inescapable iron on skin.

Not walking away but a closing question

Imported exotic plants like the Rhododendron and Japanese Knotweed have now jumped the walls of the English country estates and gone feral as no doubt have the plants Banks sent out to Viscount Sydney’s penal colony in Australia. Other plants and trees imported by the plant collectors have become such an integral part of the landscape of this country we no longer notice them as exotic or as a manifestation of wealth. But as I hope you have discovered walking around the Gardens each tree has a story to tell.

Visiting these seven trees we have traversed millions of years of time and space, from the time of the dinosaurs and before, to these times when the birds of empire are coming home to roost. Ideas of ‘here’ and notions of ‘now’ may be very different for you as we come to the end of this journey. We began thinking about Sydney Gardens when you had to pay to get in, to a time when entry is free and we started to think about the price paid. I have introduced you to some the plant collectors that rode the waves of colonial expansion bringing these trees back for their wealthy masters. You may think about the majesty of those plants but I hope you will also think about the plants stripped of their local names and associated knowledge, as part of the price paid. Perhaps too you will think of these trees as representatives of the colonised peoples whose lands were occupied and whose languages and systems of knowledge were disrupted and disrespected. Trees that hold a memory of Africans who were captured and transported to the Caribbean plantations, the wealth generated through their lives and labour is manifest around us. All part of the price paid.

I close with one final question. The Yew, the Birch, the Oak and the Beech and all those others cut off from mainland Europe in the great melt water floods eight thousand years ago, took hundreds of years to repopulate the formerly glaciated lands. Today global warming is happening so rapidly that the trees will not be able to move fast enough. Global warming can be attributed, in part at least, to Britain’s industrial expansion in the nineteenth century as part of its expanding global dominance. Sydney Gardens is strangely grateful to the gamblers who play the National Lottery, the gardens bear witness to those who, whether they knew it or not, were gambling with our future. So as we consider the price and our luck, the chance of being born a particular skin colour or in a particular time or place, I leave you with the question, is global warming the ultimate price to be paid? How can we work together in a spirit of truth and reconciliation to respond to today’s interconnected climate and human rights crises and begin processes of social repair?


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John Edwards
Sydney Gardens Bath

Volunteer at Sydney Gardens, Bath. Helping document the progress of the restoration project.