Museum Gardens, York YO1 7FR

The Yorkshire Museum and the Museum Gardens have their origins in the chance discovery in 1821, in a cave near Kirkdale, of a cache of fossil bones of hyenas, elephants and other animals not normally associated with 19th-century Yorkshire. A number of gentlemen of a scholarly disposition acquired bones for their private collections. Soon afterwards, three such gentlemen: James Atkinson, eccentric surgeon; Anthony Thorpe, lawyer; and William Salmond, retired Army officer and gentleman of means, met in December 1822 in James Atkinson’s house in Lendal (now the House of the Trembling Madness) to decide how these remains of antiquity could best be preserved for the perusal of like-minded antiquarians. As gentlemen of the period were prone to do, they resolved to form a society: the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, with a view to establishing a suitable museum and focus for similar scholarly endeavours. Their second decision, to recruit the Revd William Venables-Vernon to the enterprise, was to prove almost as momentous.

Museum expands

Before long the society had established its museum in five rooms rented from Wentworth, Chaloner & Rishworth’s Bank in Low Ousegate. As members of the fledgling society donated archaeological, geological and natural history specimens, the museum outgrew its space rapidly. In addition, the bank had failed, so the hunt began for new premises. The Revd William Vernon Harcourt (as, confusingly, Venables-Vernon had become) realised that the Manor Shore – the precinct of the ancient St Mary’s Abbey – would be an ideal site on which to construct a ‘Philosophical Institution’. Since its seizure by Henry VIII, the abbey precinct had been Crown land. At the time in question, it was tenanted by Lord Grantham and contained a motley assortment of boatyards, coalyards and gardens. Much of the area was used as pasture. Unofficially, it had also become a public space (to the detriment of the pasturage and income therefrom) for ‘the Citizens of York and Strangers who resort here for amusement and curiosity in viewing the Ruins’. Lord Grantham was asked if he was willing to relinquish the lease to allow the society to acquire the land. He initially declined but subsequently relented, having in the interim become a trustee of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Vernon Harcourt then directed his attentions to the Crown. Throughout 1826 and 1827 discussions continued with the branch of government concerned, the Office of Woods and Forests. The Office thought it would be possible to transfer a few acres of land to the society for such a purpose, then realised that the relevant Act applied only to the London area and a new Act of Parliament would be required. Miraculously, this Act was passed, despite considerable political turmoil. Perhaps this was facilitated by the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer – who soon became Prime Minister – was Lord Grantham’s brother (and a correspondent of Vernon Harcourt); three of Vernon Harcourt’s numerous relatives held positions within Woods and Forests; and others were scattered throughout Westminster and Whitehall.

Very soon the new Act – which makes no mention of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society – allowed the Crown ‘to grant small portions of land as sites for Public Buildings’ up to four acres. The Deed of Transfer was duly promulgated on 22 February 1828, giving the society ‘three acres or thereabouts … for the purpose of erecting a Building … for the scientific purposes of the said Society … and converting the remainder of the said piece of ground into a Botanic Garden.’ This was fortunate, as the society had in fact already established itself on the site and conducted an extensive archaeological excavation. Moreover, the Archbishop of York (Vernon Harcourt’s father, as it happened) had ceremonially laid the foundation stone of the museum and construction of the museum was well advanced.

Controversy over museum design

Feelings had run high over the design of the museum. One member of the society felt strongly that ‘the particular spot intended for the site of the Museum is most peculiarly Gothic’ and that anything as ‘abhorrent from the genius of the place’ as a Classical design would subject the society to ‘an immortality of ridicule’. On the other hand, the architect William Wilkins thought that ‘you have such Gothic at York that any design in the same style must appear trifling’. Wilkins’ Grecian design won the day; the great exponent of the Gothic style, Augustus Welby Pugin, naturally, reviled the museum building as ‘detestable’.

At the time of the formal opening, in January 1830, the press was enthusiastic, describing ‘the handsome carriage roads’ through ‘Grounds … tastefully laid out as Shrubberies [with] … the choicest trees and shrubs that could be procured’. Although this may have somewhat conflated the society’s achievement with its aspirations – it was, after all, January, immediately after a period of intensive construction work in the gardens – the vision for the gardens soon became a reality. Much of the credit for this goes to Henry Baines, a key figure in the gardens for the next 40 years, who within a very short space of time had procured and installed some 1,500 plants. The gardens were well on the way to becoming the desired ‘graceful and picturesque accompaniment to the Museum, displaying to advantage the beautiful ruins of the Abbey’.

The 14th century Hospitium

Once museum and gardens were established, the society set about expanding its domain. Acquisition of the Multangular Tower followed. Then, after the usual Vernon Harcourt negotiations with Woods and Forests, the gardens were extended down to the river, incorporating the “Hospitium”. Finally, the land between the museum, Bootham and Marygate was incorporated, including the remainder of St Mary’s Abbey church.

Ruins of the nave of St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens

For the first few decades after their foundation, the museum and gardens owed their success primarily to two remarkable men. John Phillips – recruited as Keeper of the embryonic museum in Low Ousegate – was the dominant figure in managing the museum and also many of the society’s other activities. He became recognised as an eminent geologist and, many years later, reflected that ‘educated in no College, I professed Geology in three Universities’. Just as remarkable is Henry Baines, born within sight of St Mary’s Abbey. Baines sank his first spade, at the age of 12, next to the Multangular Tower. He created the gardens and oversaw their development over more than 40 years.

Once the lower Manor Shore had been acquired and the sitting tenants dispersed, the society invited a celebrated garden designer, Sir John Murray Naesmyth, to bring together the disparate parts of the Manor Shore, and ‘produce the most pleasing effects by the harmony or contrast of its various architectural features’. The first plan seems to have incorporated broad steps or terracing leading down towards the river, ending in a raised promenade affording views of the river in one direction and the gardens in the other. It was described, in the press, as ‘this insane project’ and Sir John was politely requested to reconsider. After pacing the land with Henry Baines at his elbow, Naesmyth produced a second plan which was implemented by the society and which defines the layout of the gardens as they are today.

Buildings within the gardens came and, in some cases, went. At John Phillips’ suggestion, the Brown Cow public house (formerly the Abbey Gatehouse) became his residence and was suitably reconstructed. This now houses the administrative offices of the York Museums Trust, flanking the Marygate entrance to the Gardens. The Museum Street entrance underwent various changes before acquiring, in 1871, the present Lodge, a ‘nice bit of Victorian nonsense’ according to Pevsner.

Various other buildings appeared within the gardens: the Observatory, Manor Cottage (built specifically to accommodate Henry Baines and his family), greenhouses including Victoria House constructed to accommodate the Giant Amazonian water lily, Victoria regia, which had been entrusted to Henry Baines by Sir Joseph Paxton. And, of course, the cages of the short-lived menagerie; short-lived mainly because the bear escaped and chased the Revd William Vernon Harcourt and Professor Phillips round the garden. The menagerie was summarily closed and the bear despatched to the new London Zoological park by stagecoach, chaperoned by Henry Baines.

Rules and regulations

Essentially, the Museum Gardens combined the role of botanic garden with that of pleasure gardens for members. Curators of botany sometimes struggled to support the former while the society frequently strove to maintain the tranquillity of the latter. Regulations proliferated covering such matters as access rights, where perambulators and bath chairs might or might not be deployed, and whether a member who was a doctor in the York Asylum should allow one of his patients – not himself a member – the use of the gardens. ‘Infringement of propriety’ – not infrequently by the sons and daughters of members – was, of course, frowned on. Such problems, albeit rarely involving bath chairs, persist to the present day.

Increasingly, the society mounted public events in the gardens, particularly when these generated useful revenue. Military bands played on Sunday afternoons, horticultural exhibitions were held, Russian cannon (war booty from the Crimean War) were displayed, plays were staged. In 1909, a great Historical Pageant foreshadowed the later Mystery Plays. One of the largest public incursions was, surprisingly, one of the earliest. In 1844 the society responded with enthusiasm to a request that they accommodate ‘a numerous party’ of children from Wakefield schools and workhouses in the gardens. A few days later, the party – a total of 1,058 – arrived on a special excursion train of 26 carriages. After ‘evincing delight and admiration’ at the gardens, they were entertained to tea and buns in the King’s Manor. Thousands of York citizens thronged to the bar walls to cheer as the train pulled out of the station on its return to Wakefield.

Open to the public

Public access to the Museum Gardens had not gone unnoticed by the city of York Corporation, mindful of their obligation to make provision for public parks. The first shot was fired in 1897 when the corporation suggested to the society that they might like to hand over the gardens to celebrate the Queen’s forthcoming Jubilee. Much though they might like to help, the society felt unable to do so; the terms of the 1828 Deed of Transfer, regrettably, would not allow it. In 1912, a proposal that the gardens be thrown open to the public for two days each week foundered when the society noted that the corporation was not offering a subsidy to replace their missing gate money and a prominent member talked of the risks of releasing hordes of unbridled children on the ruins.

And so it continued, intermittently, over the following decades. By 1956, the society realised that its income no longer covered the costs of maintaining even the gardens alone; the situation could not continue. Delicate negotiations with the corporation began, usually minuted, discreetly under the heading of ‘Future Plans’. Agreement was reached, some 63 years after the corporation’s initial approach. On Monday, 2 January 1961, in the Tempest Anderson Hall, the Yorkshire Museum and the Museum Gardens were ceremonially handed over to the citizens of York. The ‘treasure which could not be sacrificed … a glorious place’ could again be enjoyed freely by ‘Citizens of York and Strangers who resort here for amusement and curiosity’.

Further reading

Peter Hogarth and Ewan Anderson, The Most Fortunate Situation, The Story of York’s Museum Gardens (Yorkshire Philosophical Society, York, 2018)

© Peter Hogarth