Dr Lettsom

Everyone at Dog Kennel Hill has a chance to play and learn in Lettsom Gardens, the community garden across the road, and some pupils also look after the school allotment there. If you’re in year 3, you’ll know that the gardens are named after an eighteenth century doctor called John Coakley Lettsom, who built a house there called Grove Hill. Dr Lettsom was a man who took the DKH Golden Rule very seriously.

This is how his friend James Boswell described him in a poem:

West India bred, warm heart, cool head, The City’s first physician: By schemes humane,–Want, Sickness, Pain, To aid is his ambition.

  1. Dr Lettsom’s golden rule

    It’s hard to sum up John Coakley Lettsom’s life because he wasn’t famous for just one thing, but did lots of different things to try to make the world a better place…

    At Dog Kennel Hill, everyone knows and respects our Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you. This was a rule Dr Lettsom lived by too.

    As a doctor to the rich and famous, he made a fortune. This allowed him to do the things he really cared about.

    Who will thank us for dying rich!

      he once said, and he spent his money as fast as he earned it, sometimes simply giving it away, but more often using it for projects like the General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street, where poor people could get free medical treatment, or setting up soup kitchens, or founding the Medical Society of London.

      He also spent a huge amount on developing his estate at Grove Hill, where he brought up his family and experimented with scientific agriculture (he introduced the mangel-wurzel, or swede, to England) and beekeeping, and grew seeds and plants sent by friends all over the world. Even more than money, Dr Lettsom gave his time to other people. He took up causes like smallpox vaccination, (discovered by Edward Jenner), and involved himself in promoting education, prison reform, life-saving and sea-bathing.

      When he was 23 he used the Golden Rule to make a decision that was very unusual at the time. He returned to the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to claim his inheritance, and discovered that it mostly consisted of slaves, who had belonged to his father. Lettsom set them free.

      In giving my slaves their freedom I acted from an impulse I could not overcome…and left myself penniless.

        This was in 1767, twenty years before the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. It was forty years before the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which we commemorate at DKH with our Freedom Sculpture. Dr Lettsom belonged to the Society of Friends, (the Quakers), the religious group most active in the abolition movement, but the movement had barely begun at this point. Years later, Lettsom explained why he decided to free his own slaves. After reading a great deal about different religions, he had come to believe that there is only

        one true religion, consisting in doing unto others, as we wished that others should do unto us…

          In other words, the DKH Golden Rule.

          I hope to die in this religion, not having yet found a better.

            Dr Lettsom also believed that the wealth of the world should be shared equally among its people:

            I have often calculated that if all the money in the English European dominions were equally divided, each person would possess about forty-five shillings. All I possess above this sum, is so much more than I deserve; for what right have I to keep more than my share? For so much therefore I am an accountable steward; as I conceive it to be superabundantly given to me, to disperse and to make those happier who have not got forty-five shillings in the whole.

              (Pettigrew, vol 1, p. 40 Letter to Dr Cuming May 31 1783)

            1. Dr Lettsom’s house, Grove Hill

              The hill south of Camberwell – a rural village in the eighteenth century – was the ideal place for Dr Lettsom to build a country house with high grounds where his family could enjoy the healthy air and fertile soil for the doctor’s horticultural experiments.

              The villa

              He began to build his villa at Grove Hill in 1780, a year after buying a 2.25 acre plot. By 1792 he had over 10 acres of gardens, greenhouses, orchards and ponds, and his friends were writing poems about the glories of Grove Hill.

              There was nothing Lettsom enjoyed more than ‘improvements’. He applied himself to Grove Hill with great energy, constantly putting up new buildings, rearranging ornaments and statues, and trying new techniques to increase the fruitfulness of the land and to grow new plants.

              He who improves the soil and augments its products by increased vegetation, who discovers new articles of diet, or a better method of cultivating the vegetables already known, is a benefactor to the community.”

              The house itself was quite a plain building, with four rooms on each floor and three storeys altogether. The two wings to the east and west were added between 1788 and 1792, providing Grove Hill with a library and a museum as well as greenhouses behind. The three stone tablets on the front of the house represented Liberality, Plenty and Flora, and you can still see them today, moved to the facade of 86 Camberwell Road – look out for them next time you are on the bus to the Elephant and Castle. Like the urns and sphinxes, these were made from Coude stone. (Lettsom was keen to promote this useful material, invented by the enterprising Eleanor Coude and made in her Lambeth factory. Look out for the Coude lion on Westminster Bridge.)


              Plan of Grove Hill

              Grove Hill was demolished in the late 19th century, but the house belonging to Lettsom’s neighbour, Henry Smith, still stands. (It’s just visible behind the trees on the right of the picture above, and a DKH pupil lives there now.) On this plan of the grounds (1795) that house is marked with a T, and it’s the white house just by the school allotment. As you can see, the woods where DKH children now play were once part of the Lettsom family‘s pleasure gardens. The greenhouse you can see in the background of the painting of the family is marked with a C.

              The garden

              Dr Lettsom was an obsessive botanist, plant-collector and horticulturalist. Friends from all over the world sent him plants and seeds for his gardens. He had been encouraged in these passions by another Quaker, Dr John Fothergill, whose own gardens at Upton were considered to be equal to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Fothergill helped Lettsom an enormous amount in his career. After his mentor’s death in 1780, Lettsom acquired about 2,000 rare plants and greenhouses from Upton which he moved to Grove Hill, where he said he was “ready to water their foliage with tears that are due to the memory of their late possessor.” Fothergill’s natural history library was also housed at Grove Hill in the building marked B above, with the rest of Lettsom’s vast collection.

              A lodge for the postman

              An avenue of elms (Camberwell Grove) led to the entrance of Grove Hill, and alongside the outer gates with their busts of Roman emperors, Lettsom built a lodge for the Camberwell postman, in return for the “trouble of opening the gate”. The postman was probably kept pretty busy, as Lettsom had streams of visitors, and as well as all his friends and acquaintances and friends of friends, he welcomed the public to his gardens on certain days. Visitors could take away cuttings or roots of plants they wanted to grow themselves.
              The pleasure garden

              The pleasure garden was laid out where the lower woods of Lettsom Gardens are now. The upper part was a bowling green, overlooked by statues. The lower part was divided by espaliered trees with large oval flower beds on either side, one for American shrubs (most of these came either from Upton or were sent from Pennsylvania by Lettsom’s friend Humphry Marshall), and one for English and European plants. This was then divided into 24 beds “each containing one distinct class of Linnaeus, and every order in each class; but as the whole compartment is capable of admitting only 500 plants each genus could not be included.”

              Fruit and vegetables

              A 30 foot long stove house to keep tender plants warm, a hothouse and a conservatory were built at the north end of the kitchen, the conservatory opening into the pleasure garden. A stone model of the goddess Flora stood over the entrance to the kitchen gardens, which as well as the usual vegetables, contained a vast collection of fruit trees which included apricots, peaches, nectarines, apples, cherries, pears, plums, 5 fig trees and 44 grape vines of 16 different varieties. (It’s possible that the mulberres that still fruit so beautifully each year in Lettsom Gardens are descendants of the doctor’s trees.) Next to these were the succession gardens, where nursery beds full of cuttings and seedlings made sure that a succession of fruit and vegetables were available all through the year. Several beds were devoted to seakale (Crambe maritima), which Lettsom recommended as a culinary vegetable which no kitchen garden should be without.

              Medicinal plants

              This is where he experimented with plants used in the American Materia Medica (medicinal plants), urged on by his friend Dr Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. (Rush, along with Franklin, was one of the men who signed the American Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776.) Rush sent Lettsom “the butter-nut pill and cow-tongue with seed”, as well as seeds of “the winter or crooked neck squash”, “Indian corn” (sweetcorn), “the Cape Horn pumpkin” and a “small root the country people call Adam and Eve, while others…call it Devil’s bite.” Lettsom in turn sent Rush seeds of “the true Turkey rhubarb” (Rheum Palmatum), “Chinese Hemp” for the Bishop of Virginia – this was a variety of cannabis that grew to 14 feet at Grove Hill. He also sent seeds of the mangel-wurzel, Lettsom’s beloved “root of scarcity”, which Rush then sent on to “our great and good Virginia farmer, General [George] Washington.” Lettsom’s work with the sick poor of London made him very interested in what people ate, and he wrote a great deal about nutrition – including a recipe for Camberwell Soup.
              Animals in Grove Hill

              As well as these gardens, and a ‘melonary’ for growing melons under glass, Lettsom had a small farm at Grove Hill, which produced hay, tares, turnips, and potatoes. His interest in natural history was not confined to plants. He kept pigs and hens, and also put up an aviary and a menagerie to house the birds and animals his friends sent him from America. Next time you are in the woods, remember that some very ancient tortoises once walked that ground, and flying and ‘ground’ squirrels, a great white American owl and a bear actually lived at Grove Hill… until the bear escaped and had to be killed.
              Arbustrum plantation

              The path running east from the pleasure gardens brought you past the kitchen gardens and succession gardens through a grove of trees and shrubs Lettsom called his “Arbustrum”. This plantation was nearly a mile long altogether, with plants and trees neatly labelled and arranged according to the Linnaean system, leading first to a pond and a statue of Cupid (N), and then, turning north, the path to Lettsom’s Temple of the Sybil (0).

              The temple of Sybil

              This was a kind of amateur observatory offering wonderful views of the Thames beyond Shooters Hill and Greenwich. Inspired by the ancient Roman Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, Lettsom’s version had eighteen oak trees instead of corinthian columns, with ivy, honeysuckles and vines growing up them. Here he kept some spectacular scientific apparatus that had once belonged to the astronomer James Ferguson, as well as weapons and curios from the South Seas and a set of models of various classical tombs made out of cork. Near the Temple was a large and carefully labelled collection of beehives, yet another of Lettsom’s improving passions.
              Water features

              The path discreetly avoided an outdoor cold bath (P), in daily use as Lettsom was one of few eighteenth-century doctors who advocated regular bathing – most people at that time barely washed. It was “a beautiful object in front of the dwelling house” that lay in a natural hollow in the ground, surrounded by evergreens and circular walks, and was fed by a spring that overflowed into a basin, with a papier-mache cover. Instead, walkers were directed towards the canal, or reservoir, 200 by 50 feet, fringed with cedars of Lebanon, pines and American shrubs. The spring which flowed into it through a Coade stone vase was, according to Lettsom, the spring of the well after which Camberwell was named. Opposite was a rotunda, supported, like the observatory, by oak trees. The next section of the path was called the Shakespeare walk, after the statue of Shakespeare in the valley (R), which stood opposite a fishpond.

              Fountain cottage

              The walk ended at Fountain cottage, where visitors could rest and admire the jets of water spouting from a mermaid on top of four Portland stone basins – a huge extravagance on the part of Lettsom, justified by the fact that its construction had provided employment for poor local people and supplied several houses with water. Lettsom loved rustic cottages – he had two others, including the one still standing at 220 Camberwell Grove – and hoped one day to re-erect at Grove Hill the wooden house in the West Indies where he was born.

            2. Dr Lettsom and his family

              Dr Lettsom built the villa he called Grove Hill so that his growing family could live just outside London, where the air was thought to be healthier.

              Here you can see them in the garden on their estate, near the glasshouses Dr Lettsom’s hand is on the shoulder of his oldest son, also called John (born on Christmas eve, 1772). You can find out more about his childhood and education here.

              Holding his father’s other hand is Samuel (born 11th November 1778). Their oldest sister, Mary Ann (born 23rd April 1775) is sitting next to their mother, Ann Miers Lettsom, and she was named after a sister who had sadly died in 1774 at the age of only three. (Another sister, Harriet, born in 1777, died when she was just two.)

              You might think that the child leaning against her, playing with the little brown puppy, is another little girl. In fact it’s probably Pickering, the Lettsom’s fourth and youngest son, born 2nd December 1782. In the eighteenth century, little boys wore dressed just like their sisters until they were ‘breeched’ at the age of 5 or 6. And the child sitting on the grass in front of him, stroking the family dog, is most likely to be Edward, who was born the year before Pickering, on 27th August 1781. Edward suffered from an incurable medical condition called hydrocephalus (commonly known as ‘water on the brain’) which caused learning difficulties which became worse as he grew up. He developed epilepsy and lost his memory at the age of 16.

              Their younger sister Eliza wasn’t born until 19th November 1785 – too late to be included in this picture. She was said to have been so striking when she grew up that she sometimes had to escape into a sedan chair to avoid embarrassing comments on her beauty.