How Loddiges’ famous hothouse in Hackney once rivalled those at Kew Gardens
PUBLISHED: 11:31 22 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:31 22 November 2019
Emma Bartholomew finds out more about the Loddiges family whose botanical gardens in Hackney rivalled Kew’s in the 1800s, when their greenhouse was the world’s biggest – and whose last living vestiges may be the town hall’s palm trees
Standing in Mare Street surrounded by traffic, pollution and concrete it's hard to imagine that 200 years ago the world's largest hothouse cultivating tropical plants stood nearby in the grounds of a globally renowned nursery garden.
Exotic plants, ferns, palms and orchids grew in Europe for the first time outside their native countries thanks to the Loddiges family who traded them from Hackney - which at the time was a rural village just north of London.
Amazed visitors described how they felt as though they were in tropical countries when they stood under the artificial tropical rainstorm in the hothouse. And an extensive tree collection of 2,500 different species helped make Stoke Newington's Abney Park Cemetery the largest arboretum in Europe - a term first used in connection with the Loddiges' family's work.
Conrad Loddiges was born in Lower Saxony, Germany, and trained in horticulture in the Netherlands. But when the Seven Years War broke out he moved to Hackney aged 19 to work in the garden of businessman Dr JB Silvester.
"He was obviously quite good at his job and somehow he worked his way up to become head gardener and decided to start his own business selling and distributing seeds, as he had become fascinated by botany and plants," said Zac Lloyd, who has researched the story as part of his job as community engagement officer at St John at Hackney Church.
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"He was really inquisitive about his field, and he pushed the boundaries further than someone running a nursery in Hackney needed to," he added. "He was always writing letters to people all over the world asking them to send him things to add to his collection, and that's why it became so famous. He's this incredibly visionary guy, and professionally he pushed his field forwards and would have had a huge impact on things like Kew Gardens today in a way that few speak about. There are hundreds of plants out there that are only in England because of the Loddiges family."
One of the first species Conrad introduced into cultivation in Britain was the Common Mauve Rhododendron in the 1760s before he even set up his own nursery business. He received packets of seeds from all over the world from both botanical explorers and ordinary travellers, and he helped import and establish rhubarb in Britain.
Loddiges' first seed catalogue was published in 1777, and the nursery became known amongst buyers from estates and botanical gardens in the UK, Europe and as far afield as Russia and Australia. The nursery rose to great prominence after Conrad's son George built the largest hothouse in the world, where Paragon Road now lies, to display their palms, ferns and orchids.
"Imagine a massive Kew Gardens there," said Zac. "In the physical landscape now there would be no reason to suspect this building had ever been there, which is one of the charms of the story. The palm trees outside the town hall are meant to have some connection to the botanical garden, which is really interesting. It's a living link. Otherwise there is no trace of the thing."
The air inside the Palm House was warmed by steam and the scale of the 40 ft high structure was unrivalled at the time, pre-dating the Palm House at Kew which wasn't built until 1848.
When George died in 1846, his son, another Conrad, took over, but - with parallels to Hackney today - the high prices the land could demand for housing development eventually priced his firm out. Stock valued at £200,000 20 years earlier was offered to Kew Gardens in 1954 for £9,000, but they refused, so many rare plants were sold by auction.
Today George's portrait is housed in Hackney Museum and a road off Morning Lane bears his family name - but few will know of the family's legacy.
"I went to the Garden Museum and everyone knew about him, but to local people, I imagine knowing these things would be an amazing thing and that's what we need to do more of; to let people who live in the streets around the church a heightened sense of the place they live in," said Zac, whose work is funded through a National Lottery grant to engage the community with St John at Hackney's history, as part of the church's multi-million pound restoration project. There are so many people with weird and wonderful stories who are buried in the churchyard and the Loddiges stand out for having impacted the world in a wonderful but also a surprising way."