Ref NoRC/84
TitleRoyal Horticultural Society: Gardens on the Commission's Estate
Description In January 1859, the Royal Horticultural Society approached the 1851 Commission with a proposal to rent the central square on the Estate, a proposal accepted by the Commissioners who were persuaded of the mutual benefits that could arise from such an arrangement. Mindful of their long-term plans, the Commissioners wished to reserve space to accommodate future institutions and buildings devoted to the promotion of Science and Art and provide recreational space for museum visitors. The Horticultural Society, on its part, would be provided with gardens in which to hold shows and, in the interests of both parties, advance the science of Horticulture.

The Royal Horticultural Society gardens opened on 5 June 1861, with the land leased for 31 years. The Commission constructed earthworks and erected Italian Arcades at a cost of £55,000, while the Society spent £60,000 in laying out the gardens and erecting a conservatory borrowing £50,000 for this purpose on debentures.

The agreement reserved no actual rent for the Commission but laid down that annual receipts from the gardens should be applied firstly in payment of expenses of the gardens, and of the Society's experimental garden at Chiswick; secondly in payment of interest on the debenture debt; and thirdly in payment to the Commission of the amount of interest the Commission was rendered liable to pay regarding its expenditure on the gardens. Any surplus was to be equally divided between the two bodies, the Society agreeing to apply three-fifths of their share of the annual profits to reduction of the debenture debt. If the rent remained unpaid for 5 years the lease would lapse, but could be extended if rent was paid.

The Society's occupation of its South Kensington gardens began successfully, due initially to visitors to the 1862 Exhibition, but from 1866 the Society was unable either to pay rent to the Commission or reduce its debenture debt. Its position had not improved by 1871, the first year of the Annual International Exhibition, when under the terms of the original agreement the Commissioners should have been entitled to re-enter the gardens.

With the gardens an obvious attraction for exhibition visitors, the Commission drew up an arrangement with the Society whereby its shows formed part of the exhibitions, season-ticket holders had free use of the gardens, and ordinary visitors had certain privileges. Although this enabled the Society to pay rent in 1871 and 1872, a newly elected Society Council, not wishing to upset the serious horticultural element among its Fellows, refused to allow use of the gardens by visitors to the exhibitions of 1873 and 1874.

This policy was not only a contributory factor in the failure of the Annual International Exhibitions, but also meant that the Society's income was insufficient to meet its obligations to either the Commissioners or the debenture holders. The Society's income continued to diminish and with little prospect of its increasing, the Royal Horticultural Society Council decided in August 1876 that the Society could no longer maintain the South Kensington gardens and would have surrendered the lease but for the opposition of the debenture holders.

The Commission subsequently issued the Society with a formal demand for repossession and on its being refused, commenced legal proceedings for recovery of its property. The case was finally heard by the Court of Appeal which decided unanimously in favour of the Commission, with costs. The Society was allowed to remain in occupation of the gardens for four months and the Commission obtained possession in August 1882. They continued to maintain part of the gardens immediately south of the Royal Albert Hall until 1888.

See also: Miscellaneous correspondence, 50/200 (Royal Horticultural Society Debentures); Correspondence and Papers, B, 1862, 1863, 1889.
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