John Tradescant [the elder & the son]

Member of The Hundred

John Tradescant [the elder & the son]
Birth and death
1570 / 1610 - 1638 / 1662
Profession details
Both father and son were members of the Worshipful Company of Grand Gardeners. (Highest honour for any horticulturalist).
Related place
Anna Almond
Tradescant John (the elder)

© Elmbridge Museum

Life outside Elmbridge

John senior was born to a farming family, his father being a Yeoman. In the 1600's this was defined as being a farm landowner who was not far behind the landed gentry in the social pecking order. John grew up with imparted knowledge of farming and business skills. So it was a natural progression for him to continue gardening and landscaping work. As a young man he started his work at Cobham Hall in Kent, where he worked hard and gained an excellent reputation throughout the south of England by 1610. By now he was married an Elizabeth Bromley and had a son, named John. He was then hired by Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, as Head Gardener at Hatfield House. Cecil initiated Tradescant to his travelling by sending him to the Low Counties for fruit trees during 1610 to 1611. Then when Robert Cecil died his son, William kept Tradescant on to create gardens at the family's London home, Salisbury House. Tradescant went on to design gardens on the site of the St Augustine Abbey for Edward, Lord Wotton in 1615 to 1623. Later he was gardener to the royal favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham remodelling his expansive gardens at New Hall in Essex at Burley-on -the-Hill. Tradescant travelled to Nikolo Korelsky Monastery in Arctic Russia in 1618. His diary account of this expedition exists in his collection in the Bodlean library in Oxford. He also volunteered to go to Levant and Algiers to help in expediting the Barbary pirates in 1620. He returned from these dangerous ventures unhurt and with a new species of tree for England, the Larch.

Life in Elmbridge Oatlands Palace

In 1624 he accompanied Buckingham as an engineer to the ill fated siege of La Rochelle. After Buckingham's assassination in 1628 he was engaged by King Charles I to be the Keeper of His Majesty's gardens and Keeper of the Vines and Silkworms at Queen Henrietta Maria's minor palace which was Oatland's Palace in Surrey.

Tradescant John the younger

© Elmbridge Museum

The Ark and the Musaeum Tradescantianum

On every one of his travels Tradescant collected seeds, artefacts and bulbs and assembled them in a collection of curiosities of natural history and ethnography. He housed these in a large house he named The Ark in Lambeth, London. The Ark was the prototypical Cabinet of Curiosity, a collection of rare and strange objects which became the first ever museum open to the British public. It was named Musaeum Tradescantianum. This museum became stocked with vast varieties of European plants, shrubs and trees. His son was now assisting his father and travelling in the direction of the Americas for horticultural specimens. He travelled with the Founding fathers to America, landing in Virginia and James Town, and collected enormous amounts of rare plants and trees to match his father's. He also published the first catalogue of its kind in 1634 which is now kept in the Bodlean library, Oxford. From their original "garden" they introduced many hundreds of species of plants, shrubs and trees that have become part of the modern garden's repertory. There are many plants named after him but the best known would be the climbing plant genus Tradescantia. Tradescant road is off the south Lambeth Road in Vauxhall and marks the former boundary of the Tradescant estate.

The Ark became the most popular attaction and London society came in their thousands to marvel at the exhibits and beautiful gardens. The Tradescant Nursery became the premier of the country. One year before John the father died, he was made custodian of Oxford Physic Garden in 1637. Son John carried on his father's work and continued to add vast amounts of specimens from the Americas. At one time the Ark is historically listed as containing not only plant life but the following: "Various kinds of birds, beaks, feathers, claws and spurs. Beasts including hides, horns and hooves. Fish and aquatic animals, shell creatures of univalvia and bivalvia, Snakes, Minerals and Fossils including earths, coral salts, bitumins, stones and gems. Exotic fruits and nuts and mechanical artificial works, such as carvings, turnings, sewings and paintings. European and Asian garments, vestures, habits and ornaments. Utensils and household items. Ancient and modern coins. Two whale ribs. A Mummy's hand, crocodile eggs, the head of a Lion, part of the body remains of a Dodo and wood claiming to be from the crucifixion cross of Christ." Remains of this collection can be seen today in Lambeth museum. Also documented are many remarkably detailed fruit stone carvings. One in particular shows all of the following: a Camel, Horse, Donkey, Dog, Boar, Bull, Bear, Lion, Stag, Squirrel, Goat, Lynx, birds, a Monkey riding on an Elephant and finally Rabbits. All these animals are to be found on the one fruit stone.

Marriage Dilemma

John the son married a woman named Jane Hurt who unfortunately died of plague after giving birth to two sons. John the son made three voyages to Virginia with the American founding fathers between 1637 and 1654 to gather new exotic trees and plants. While there he fell in love with a young Indian girl from the Powhatan tribe where Pocahontas lived. He then spent a lot of the early 1650's making a comprehensive catalogue of the contents of the Lambeth Ark which was published in 1657. Upon his return to England John was to find that his father had left a woman in his house for him to marry and rear his sons. John was devastated as he had promised the Indian girl he would return and marry her. He agonised over what to do and eventually his friends persuaded him he had responsibilities to his sons. He was criticised heavily for being selfish. So he married Hester and they lived for a time at Oatlands, Weybridge. John never again saw his beautiful Indian in Virginia. It is not known whether she was informed of his decision, so possibly waited some years for his return.

The Ashmole Trickster

Both father and son Tradescants dedicated most of their work to the Royal College of Physicians as so many of the genus of plants they had found had new found medicinal value. As John the son reached his declining years he wanted his second wife, Hester Pooks to part own and enjoy the income of the horticultural collection after he had died. John had a co-worker friend called Elias Ashmole, a collector of curiosities and a businessman. Ashmole drew up a deed of gift awarding the whole business to himself and so tricking John and his wife into signing the deed on the pretence that the museum would, upon John's death, be jointly owned by Hester and himself. Not long after John had died Elias took Hester to court and gained control of the whole business and museum which he presented to Oxford in his own name. The Ashmolean museum there today houses what remains of the collection. As Ashmole records in his diary Hester Tradescant was found drowned in her pond in April 1678; she was buried in St. Mary's churchyard in the Tradescant tomb. In 1976 a woman named Rosemary Weekes, founder of countless voluntary organisations and recipient of an MBE for her voluntary work, visited St Mary's Church and found it had been deconsecrated and was in ruins. A short time later she was attending a function at Lambeth Palace and the then Archbishop of Canterbury sadly told her the church was to be demolished to make way for a coach park for Waterloo Station. Rosemary was horrified and promptly set up a huge campaign to save the church and graveyard and turn the area into a museum of Garden History. In 1977 the Tradescant Trust was formed and managed to raise enough funds using high profile supporters including the Queen Mother and Prince Charles. The church was rebuilt and the Tradescant tomb revealed, including the neighbouring tomb of Captain Bligh who's ship was used for many of the collection voyages. In 1981 the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth London, was opened by the Queen Mother with Prince Charles as patron. It houses the most extraordinary collection of artefacts, tools, ephemera, drawings and original garden literature. Outside there is a reproduction of the 17th century Knot Garden, designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury and is planted only with species known and found by the Tradescants. It is quoted as being an "oasis of horticultural and perfect tranquillity beside the Thames." The Ashmolean Museum is in Oxford.

Numerous Species

Tradescants Tomb Elder & Younger

© Miranda Hodgson [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It is almost impossible to list the total number of species that have enriched our island due to a father and son's life long efforts and dedication. The number of species total seven hundred and fifty. Here are some that have introduced this nation to beautiful images, a vital part of the food chain for the insect world, and initiated a huge variety of fruit and vegetables that make up vast farmlands and form a large part of our daily diet today: Trees: Larch, Liriodendron Tulipifera (Tulip tree), Taxodium Distichum (Bald Cypress) Horse Chestnut, Lilac, False Acacia, Robinia, Aspen, Cherry, Laurel, Black Walnut, Mulberry, Sassefrass Albidum (a rare deciduous upright tree) Pomegranate, Apricot, Pineapple and many other fruit trees. Ivory Dogwood, Douglas Fir, Lodgepole Pine, Lombardy Poplars, Spruce, Lime/Lemon and Grapefruit trees, Pyrus Tree, Japanese Maples, Canadian Maples, Olive. Shrubs and Flowers: Lavender, Chamomile, Savary (paintbrush plant), Fritillia, Wandering Jew, Hissop, Wild Strawberry, Daisy, Mint, Gardenia, Michaelmas Daisies, Phlox, Cistus (papery flowers), White Jasmine, White Lupin, Daffodils, Gladiolus, Cos lettuce, Runner Bean, Virginia Creeper, Passion Flower, Tradescantia, Poppy, Scented Stocks, Hydrangias, Some species of roses, Agapanthus, Fuschia, Campanulas, Pieris, French Lavender, Wood Annenomes, Iris, Siberian Rhododendron, Rhododendrum Augustini, Wisteria (from Russia), Cyclamen, Hellebores, Rosemary, Perlargonium. For a full list of all the species imported by the Tradescants to England and the diary kept by John Tradescant the son, refer to The Horticultural Society of Lambeth and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. A painting of John Tradescant the younger can be found at the Wisley Museum.

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