Talk on the National Gardens Scheme, 7 March 2024


Bickham House photo.  Source: Julia Tremlett

Spontaneous applause marked the end of a most inspiring illustrated talk given to Exeter Branch by Julia Tremlett.  She spoke for 45 minutes without notes to describe the origins of this wonderful scheme which today raises over £3 million a year to support nursing, cancer, health and wellbeing charities.

Its origins were due chiefly to the efforts of a Liverpool merchant and philanthropist, William Rathbone, who employed a nurse to care for his ailing wife.  After she died, William asked the nurse to care for people in the local community instead.  So great was the need she found and reported in some distress to her employer, that William Rathbone took advice from Florence Nightingale and decided to set up a training school for nurses.  In a large city such as Liverpool, the nurses were then assigned to specific areas or ‘districts’ – hence the name ‘district nurse’ came into being.  Funding was sought from various sources and royal patronage helped when Queen Victoria became Patron and money was donated from her Golden Jubilee Fund in 1887.  Over time more training schools were set up in other cities and Rathbone, by now an MP, was pleased to support a training school and nurses’ home in London’s Bloomsbury.

Funds were always needed to support this valuable work and it was a lady called Elsie Wagg who first had the idea of opening large gardens and private estates to members of the public for a small charge.  This was a popular idea and the first gardens opened in 1927.  Royal patronage helped and the Sandringham estate was one of the first to open its gates to the public.  Soon some 600 gardens were part of this new fundraising initiative, which had the added benefit of offering attractive open spaces with fresh air to people who in many cases were living inn cramped housing conditions after WW1.

Today across the country over 3,500 gardens, large and small, are open to the paying public on specific days. Julia’s slides highlighted the huge variety of beautiful gardens open in the South West.  From estates with sweeping lawns, topiary and fountains to tiny town gardens packed with colourful plants – many in pots – there is endless variety in Devon.

Two Devon gardens which opened in 1927 are still in the scheme today.  Cadhay and Sidbury, now joined by many more.  In 2023, visitors to Devon’s gardens raised the largest sum of money for the NGS of all counties in the country.  The scheme continues to evolve with new gardens opening each year.  A recent initiative is to include small community gardens, many of which are in towns.  Advice to participants is available from an organiser in each county on how to go about taking part in this well-run scheme that gives great pleasure to those who visit and provides much needed support for so many nursing and health charities.

Photo source: Julia Tremlett

Exeter Branch is to visit our speaker’s garden, Bickham House, in the summer – see pictures above.


Louise Clunies-Ross


Created by Alex Volkov