Who? Botanic Garden breaks new ground

John Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden between 1951-1973. Image: CUBGJohn Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden 1951-1973

Innumerable people have been involved in development of the eastern section of Cambridge University Botanic Garden in different capacities since 1951. One key figure in the physical and ideological shaping of this new section of the Garden was the post-WWII director, John Gilmour.

Dr John Scott Lennox Gilmour (1906 – 1986) became Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden at an exciting time in the Garden’s history. After the Second World War, Britain experienced social change, increasing optimism after years of wartime austerity and an interest in leisure pursuits. This was matched by John Gilmour’s enthusiasm, energy and botanical scholarship. At the same time, the unlocking of vital funds enabled the new eastern half of the garden to expand and flourish. John Gilmore was a Cambridge graduate (Clare College), having swapped medicine for botany. After graduating he became Curator of the Herbarium and Botanical Museum in the Cambridge University Botany School in 1929, before his appointment, at the age of 25, as Assistant-Director of Kew Gardens. He moved to RHS Wisley in 1946 as Director, before returning to Cambridge, in 1951, as Director.

According to the veteran horticulturalist and broadcaster, Bill Sowerbutts, speaking to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio 4′s Desert Island Discs in 1973, after WWII, once food had again became fairly easy to obtain, British gardeners ‘revolted’ against growing vegetables, revelling in flowers instead. This turning away from utility to something more creative and exploratory in British domestic gardens echoed what was happening in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Until 1951, the 20-acres in the eastern section of the Garden, originally purchased in 1831, had been leased as allotments for vegetables and fruit. Thanks to Reginald Cory’s generous 1930s bequest, John Gilmour and his superintendent, Bob Younger, were able to begin the transformation of the eastern half of the garden. They retained the Gardenesque (garden-like) style of the earlier and well-established mid-19th century western garden. The layout and design of the eastern garden’s new paths and plantings have strongly influenced the contemporary eastern garden that is visible to visitors today. Here plantings are organized as plant communities, rather than in family groupings.

During Gilmour’s directorship numerous major garden undertakings were begun. These include the construction of a Rock Garden (1954 – 1958) with a ‘doline’ (sunken) feature; a Scented Garden, developed for blind visitors in 1955, with assistance from the local Rotary Club; The Cory Laboratory and experimental glasshouses in 1957 and the Chronological Bed in 1958. This latter innovative planting presents a living timeline of the introduction of plants into the British Isles from across the globe since the 1500s.

John Gilmour’s personal passion for British wild flowers was instrumental in the development of an ecological limestone mound with British wild plants from the Eastern region (1962). In 1967, renowned British designer and silversmith, David Mellor, was commissioned to design a focal point at the eastern end of the Main Walk. The resulting Lily Fountain consists of seven large giant bronze water lily leaves each with a central column of water. It continues to be a popular feature in the Garden.

John Gilmour retired as Director in 1973, having bequeathed to the Botanic Garden a considerable enduring legacy of botanical developments and landscaping designs.