Dr John Fothergill and West Ham Parks

Dr John Fothergill, was a well-known physician, Quaker philanthropist, botanist, campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and the owner of one of the best known gardens in England.

Fothergill was initially from Yorkshire but after building a successful career as a doctor he purchased a house and thirty acres near West Ham. The purchase was made in 1762 and Fothergill began enlarging the estate and renamed the home Upton House. He created a grander garden where plants acquired from foreign lands were heavily featured.

A local legend states Fothergill had so little time to devote to his garden during daylight hours that he would inspect the garden in the evening by lantern light. In order to enrich his garden, Fothergill entered into correspondence with persons in far countries. Fothergill enlisted the help of sailors in searching for new and interesting plants. He thus obtained large quantities of plants and seeds from China, Hindustan and other of the East Indies, the West Indies, Siberia and the newly discovered islands. In the greenhouses, Fothergill grew the first tea plants ever seen in Europe. One of his main interests was in plants with food and medicinal use and his gardens helped remind him about God.

Fothergill died in 1780 and in 1786, another Quaker, James Sheppard, bought the estate and when he died in 1812 it passed to his son-in-law, the banker Samuel Gurney. The estate continued to pass through the generations until the Gurney family decided to sell the estate in the 1860s. When this happened local residents worked with the City of London and the family to raise funds to purchase the site and enable it to be preserved as open space and was eventually sold in 1873.

West Ham Park was officially opened on 20 July 1874. The ceremony was performed by the Lord Mayor of London and, as a band played in the background, deeds of title were presented declaring the Park “open public grounds and garden for adults, children and youth” and that the City of London should maintain the Park forever at its own expense.

Today West Ham Park is one of East London’s most popular parks. It has seven acres of ornamental gardens and is noted for its nursery that supplies 200 species of plants for surrounding parks.

Dr John Fothergill was very important to the development of West Ham parks and the incredible quality of the gardens now owe a lot to him and his work.

Image: Dr Fothergill, Courtesy of Newham Archives

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