The South London Botanical Institute

Posted: November 4th, 2022

A glimpse of the South London Botanical Institute's garden on the busy Norwood Road

A glimpse of the South London Botanical Institute’s garden on the busy Norwood Road

The delights of the South London Botanical Institute, based at a Victorian villa on the busy Norwood Road, are myriad.   ‘School children often gasp when they walk into the building. It reminds them of Harry Potter, says Nell Gatehouse, the Administrator.  The Institute has an enchanting garden brimming with more than 500 plants, and has been lovingly tended for the past 20 years by Sarah Davey and Cath Pearson together with a host of wonderful volunteers, including Maude Smith, the educational volunteer (see earlier blog on Maude).

The garden is divided into a grid about 17 yards square with specialist beds including dye plants, geraniums, monocot, poisonous and medicinal plants, a woodland section and best of all a ‘weed garden’.  ‘A living museum of strange visitors,’ wrote G.G. Desmond in the Daily News and Leader in 1912.  The article is illustrated with an arresting image of mulleins, willowherb and other weeds, ‘It is as though a complete and ordered revolution on the part of the Saxons had swept away every haughty alien from the flower beds – here we have the native aristocracy superseding the foreign mandarins.’  To this day many of the same weeds are still flourishing – foxgloves, meadow cranesbill, skullcap, yarrow and yellow meadow rue among others offering a delightfully eccentric twist to this beguiling garden.  There are also some fine specimen trees such as Sophora tetraptera and a Azara serrata. 

A small pond brimming with frogs and newts is filled only with rainwater collected from the roof of the house.  ‘Pond dipping is very popular with children.  There is always an excited babble as many of them have never seen anything like it before.’ One suspects that, as I was, they are utterly beguiled to discover this secret verdant space in the depths of South London. It is veritable oasis of tranquility. The annual plant fair held in May attracts a queue of people snaking down the road.

‘The garden is managed in a naturally relaxed way, and many self-seeders such as echiums are allowed to grow where they will be better. We are beleaguered by snails which is soul destroying but we don’t use any chemicals,’ says Sarah.

A corner of the Botanical Reference Library

A corner of the Botanical Reference Library

The SLBI was created by Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912) in 1910.  A fascinating character, co-founder of the Indian National Congress in 1885, Hume was the son of Joseph Hume, the Leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons. He spent years in India as a civil servant. Like his father he was a controversial figure, frequently questioning British policies (he believed India should be ruled by the Indians) whilst pursuing his two passions: botany and ornithology.

Eventually he returned to England and in 1900 decided to establish the Institute, creating an herbarium – a collection of dried, usually pressed, plant specimens. Along with his friends he began collecting British plants to form the basis of the herbarium. ‘He was obsessed with classification,’ says Nell. He donated an astonishing 72,000 Indian birds’ skins to the Natural History Museum – they are  now at the Natural History Museum in Tring.  The herbarium includes a staggering 100,000 specimens of British, European, Scottish plants as well as a seedling collection and lichens, mosses and liverworts.  Not all were collected by Hume – some of the specimens date from as far back as 1820.

The garden stays open late on Thursday evenings in the summer.  ‘A lot of people just want to come and sit,’ says Sarah.

Hume bought 323 Norwood Road to house his herbarium as well as a botanical library. Its aim was ‘promoting, encouraging, and facilitating, amongst the residents of South London, the study of the science of botany.’  Like so many other Victorian/Edwardian philanthropists he saw it as his duty to improve the lives of others and opened the Institute on Thursdays evening for ‘the working man to visit to improve his mind’ says Nell.

A beguiling poster by Maude Smith

A beguiling poster by Maude Smith

Today the Institute runs a flourishing educational programme.  ‘Children are coming from further and further afield, even from St. Albans’ says Nell.

The South London Botanical Institute offers a good programme of educational activities for children

The South London Botanical Institute has a good programme of educational activities for children

There are also regular workshops such as making Botanical Inks or From Plant to Perfume – Intro to Botanical Perfumery and online lectures.

Do go and visit. You won’t be disappointed.


South London Botanical Institute

323 Norwood Road

London SE24 9AQ

020 8674 5787

Opening Times:  Thursdays 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm (usually check Events page).