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 The Tradescants



These remarkable 15th and 16th century men are credited with establishing English gardening as we know it today. They were both royal gardeners and brought to England many of the beautiful plants and trees that we now take for granted. They were also known for their remarkable collection of natural history objects and curios from all over the world. The collection formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570 –1638)
(Trandescant Snr.)
Probably born in Suffolk, Tradescant the Elder was a naturalist, gardener, collector and traveller. He was an intensely curious man and his career began as head gardener at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. In 1607 King James I exchanged Hatfield House for Theobalds, the home of Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury.
Robert Cecil set about building a new Jacobean mansion and employed John Tradescant the Elder to create a new garden for him. He sent him to Europe to bring back new plants. He arrived back with trees, bulbs, plants and fruit trees never before grown in England. We can thank Tradescant for the introduction of daffodils, tulips, roses, fritillaries, and mulberries to England.
In 1608 John Tradescant the Younger (Tradescant Jnr) was born. Tradescant Snr worked at Hatfield for Robert Cecil for five years and during that time he formed lifelong friendships with Jean Robin the French Royal Herbalist and Rene Morin, the greatest French nurseryman of the 17th century.
Another of Cecil’s properties was St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury which was leased to Edward, Lord Wooton. In 1615 Tradescant Snr designed and oversaw the development of 16 acres of gardens on the site of St Augustine’s Abbey. The site which is to the east of Canterbury Cathedral is now a World Heritage Site and in the care of English Heritage.
Tradescant Snr. was still busily sourcing plants from other countries. In 1616 he invested £25 in a share of an expedition to the New World colony of Virginia. The beautiful purple flowered Virginia Spiderwort is one of the plants sourced on this expedition.
Whilst working in Canterbury Tradescant Snr. was advisor to Sir Dudley Digges and in 1618 accompanied him on a trip to Russia. The most notable plant that came back with him from this journey was the larch tree. He also brought back from Greenland some Eskimo artefacts which joined his ever growing collection of curios and natural history objects.
On returning from Russia the Tradescant family moved in 1619 to Canterbury and young John was enrolled in The King’s School at Canterbury. In 1621 Sir Edward Wooton released his gardener to go on an expedition to the Mediterranean. Sir George Villiers organized an expedition to put a stop to the Algerian pirates harassing British Merchant vessels. Tradescant Snr joined as a Gentleman Volunteer but it is thought that he spent more time on land collecting botanical specimens than fighting pirates.
From this expedition he returned with the apricot, pomegranate, horse chestnut tree, gladioli and crocus bulbs, white jasmine, the Cos lettuce, scarlet runner beans, plum trees and the lilac. Rarities from Italy, Turkey and the Holy Land were added to his growing collection of curios.
In 1623 Tradescant Snr. went to work for the Duke of Buckingham and went with him to Paris to attend the wedding of King Charles I to Henrietta Maria. An enormous pie was part of the celebratory feast and out of it jumped the famous dwarf, Jeffrye. Tradescant Snr. acquired ‘little Jeffrye’s boots’ to add to his collection.
In 1625/26 the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral leased an estate in South Lambeth, London to Tradescant Snr. He built the large ‘Turret House’ residence where he housed his huge collection of natural history specimens, curios and rarities. The collection was opened to the general public as an educational resource and was known as ‘Tradescant’s Ark’.
The Ark was very popular with London Society and there was a steady stream of visitors to view the extraordinary collection and visit the beautiful gardens. The Tradescant house has been demolished but it stood on the corner of Tradescant Road and Walberswick Street in Vauxhall, London.
In 1627 Tradescant Snr. accompanied the Duke of Buckingham on another trip to France and returned with the poppy and scented stock. The garden in South Lambeth was becoming the premier horticultural nursery in England.
In 1630 John Tradescant the Elder was appointed ’Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms’. Part of his duties was to manage the Queen’s palace grounds at Oatlands near Weybridge in Surrey. He held this royal position until his death in 1638. The Tradescant Family tomb can be seen in the garden of the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London (formerly St Mary-at-Lambeth Church)
John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662)
(Tradescant Jnr.)
Born in Meopham, Kent and named after his father, Tradescant Jnr. was also a famous gardener and botanist. He was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury, and then he went to work with his father. He is credited with introducing the pineapple (brought back from the Mediterranean in 1621) as an ornamental feature. As a tribute to the Tradescants' association with Lambeth, stone pineapples adorn Lambeth Bridge.
It is thought that Tradescant Jnr. helped his father with the work at Oatlands Palace where he is credited with having successfully cultivated the first Michaelmas daisies. In 1634, at the young age of 26, he was made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.
This was also the year his first wife Jane died. Still a young man with two children, he married Hester Pooks who survived him. When his father died in 1638 he succeeded him as ‘Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms’.
From 1638 to 1642 he was engaged in making gardens to complement the Inigo Jones designed The Queen's House at Greenwich. It appears that he continued to do some work at Oatlands during the Civil War and the subsequent Commonwealth period. In 1660 royal patronage resumed with the Restoration of Charles II to the throne.
Between 1637 and 1654 Tradescant Jnr. travelled 3 times to the New World Colony in Virginia (America) to collect new plants. He returned with seeds of magnolias, bald cypresses and the tulip tree. He brought garden plants such as asters, phlox, wild columbine, and St John’s Wort. In all he was able to bring home 40 American plants including Virginia creeper and lupins for propagation in the nursery at Lambeth.
He also brought back American curiosities to add to the family’s collection. An important North American Indian acquisition was the feather ceremonial cloak of Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas.
The early 1650’s were spent cataloguing the Ark collection and in 1657 the catalogue was published under the title Museum Tradescantianum aka a ‘Collection of Rarities preserved at South Lambeth near London by John Tradescant’. This unique publication was dedicated to the President and Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians, an indication that Tradescant thought of his collection as a contribution to serious knowledge.
In old age, Tradescant Jnr. decided that he wanted to pass on the collection to Oxford University but he wanted Hester to continue to enjoy the prestige and income from the Lambeth Ark during her lifetime. John had befriended another collector of curiosities, one Elias Ashmole, and engaged him to supervise the cataloguing of Museum Tradiscantianum. The duplicitous Ashmole had his eyes on the collection and knew of John’s wish to keep it for his wife’s lifetime.
Mr. Ashmole persuaded John and Hester to sign a Deed of Gift awarding the ‘Closet of Rarities’ to Elias Ashmole on John’s death. The Tradescants thought that the Museum would be jointly owned by Ashmole and Hester. When John died in 1662 the estate was left to Hester but Ashmole wanted the collection. In 1664 he took Hester to Court and gained control of the Museum.
Ashmole moved into a house next door to the Museum ostensibly to make it easier for him to run the Museum. Apparently he criticized and harassed Hester about how she was running the Museum so that she fell into a deep depression. On 14 April 1678 Hester was found drowned in a garden pool on the estate. Her death was explained as ‘an accident’. She is buried in the Tradescant family tomb in St Mary-at-Lambeth churchyard with her husband’s first wife, husband, father-in-law and stepson.
Elias Ashmole eventually gave the Museum Tradescantianum to Oxford University. The bequest formed the core of what is now known as the Ashmolean Museum.
Tradescant Family Tomb
The Garden Museum occupies the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth and the historic churchyard containing the Tradescant tomb has been made into a beautiful garden filled with the plants that the Tradescants introduced into England.
The tomb itself is of natural stone with carved panels. The north face recalls Egypt with shells, a crocodile and some buildings; the south face depicts broken columns, Corinthian capitals, a pyramid and ruins; the east face features the Tradescant Coat of Arms and the west panel has a seven-headed hydra surmounting a skull. Stunted trees with heavy foliage are carved on each corner.
Getting There (Garden Museum)
To find the best way for getting to , visit TfL Journey Planner.
The Garden Museum website has very good Web: ‘Getting There’ information
Nearest tube stations are Westminster, Waterloo, Lambeth North or Vauxhall.
Westminster Station   District, Circle and Jubilee Lines 
- By Underground
Westminster Station    District, Circle and Jubilee Lines

From Westminster Station, walk across Westminster Bridge, turning down Lambeth Palace Road past St Thomas’ Hospital to Garden Museum (St Mary-at-Lambeth Church) or

From Westminster Station, past Houses of Parliament and along Millbank turning across Lambeth Bridge turning left into Lambert Palace Road to Garden Museum (St Mary-at-Lambeth Church)

- Mainline Rail
Victoria, Waterloo or Victoria stations then bus 507 in either direction.
- Bus (easier method of travel to the Museum)
To Lambeth Road C10, 3 and 344.
To Lambeth Palace Road 77 and 597. (597 Mon-Fri only)  
Google Maps - Garden Museum

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