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Stories for a changing climate

Stories for a changing climate

Above Australian House at Kew, at the rear of the Temperate House complex Image: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

I have developed a fondness for the Australian House at Kew as only an expat Australian would. Having left the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, at Cranbourne Gardens, I am newly arrived at Kew in London to take up my dream job as the Head of Interpretation. In essence, my role is that of chief storyteller. I arrived in the freezing cold of early March with the only promise of warmth the crocuses bravely poking through the lawns. At the moment, a big part of my job involves working out what stories we will tell visitors in the refurbished Temperate House complex, and where and how we will tell them. The Australian House will re-open, as part of that complex, in May 2018, as the Davies Exploration House. As it was originally designed to do it will again contain plants from the Western Australian biodiversity hotspot. When I’m cold and homesick next winter this is where you will find me.

The Australian House is a sparse and modernist glasshouse designed by SL Rothwell an architect from the British Ministry of Works. Its plain and practical rust-resistant aluminium frame was constructed by The Critall Manufacturing Company Ltd in large spans so that the central space, within the house, is unencumbered by pillars or cross beams – creating an ideal space in which to grow plants from the warmer dry regions of Australia.  In 1952, when the Australian House was opened to the public, aluminium was still a relatively new material to the British building industry.  Critall went on to put aluminium framed windows in almost every post-war British house. The company’s work is emblematic of that period of utility, renewal and rebuilding.

Sitting next to the Australian House, the Temperate House is extraordinarily beautiful. The greatest glasshouse in the world, it is a magnificent high Victorian confection of glass, pillars, spiral staircases and spandrels – a cathedral of air and light.  Like the Australian House, the Temperate House is still under wraps, shrouded in scaffolding and canvas, undergoing a complete restoration, awaiting the autumn and replanting. When it opens, it will contain rare and threatened plants from across the temperate world, some teetering on the edge of extinction, others already lost in the wild. Temperate regions may at first seem less exotic than tropical ones because temperate regions are where most of us live, where we grow most of our food, and build most of our cities. The plants native to the temperate world are becoming more and more precious as they reside at that critical frontline of global change, forced to deal with an array of extinction risks of which we humans are the cause.

The Temperate House was commissioned by William Hooker, Director of Kew, in 1859 and designed by the renowned British architect, Decimus Burton. Burton had created the famous Great Stove glasshouse at Chatsworth House for the head gardener, Joseph Paxton, in 1836. Paxton went on to great fame and fortune as the architect of the Crystal Palace, another great Victorian glasshouse, which was sadly destroyed by fire in 1936. The Temperate House first opened to the public in 1863.  It was designed to create a warm climate for the frost tender plants that plant hunters were sending back to Kew from their exploration of the temperate world. The glasshouse was a huge success when it first opened, offering a unique opportunity to explore plants from Africa, the Himalaya, New Zealand, Asia and Australia. It was especially popular as a winter garden – a warm and other-worldly refuge in which to promenade, to see and be seen, in the chill of London’s winter.

How the Australian House came to be at Kew is an interesting story.  In 1949, the Director of Kew and Agricultural Scientist, Sir Edward James Salisbury came to Australia with a delegation of British scientists to attend the British Commonwealth Scientific Conference in Adelaide on plant and animal nutrition in relation to soils and climatic factors. Salisbury arrived by boat in Western Australia and spent some time both before and after the conference touring Australian botanic gardens. This post-war period was a time when most Australians still travelled under a blue British passport, and deferred to Britain as the source of expertise and authority. The Australian press treated the respected English botanist like a celebrity, putting Salisbury’s photograph in practically every local newspaper along his tour.

Salisbury had a very clear conservation message for Australia which was repeated in many of the newspaper articles.  He advocated that, “It was much easier for Australia to preserve its own plants in their natural climate than it was for persons in other parts of the word” nevertheless the “best way of safeguarding wild flora from the loss of any of its species was the provision of a botanical garden or natural reserve.  The rarer species at least could be cultivated and maintained so that if they were lost by accident in their natural state they would be preserved for future students.[1] ‘Preservation through cultivation’ would eventually become the catchcry of Australian plant conservation in the 1950s.

During his visits, Salisbury talked about the loss of Australian plants in the Temperate House collection damaged by bombs during the Blitz of the Second World War. While it didn’t suffer a direct hit, the bombs were close enough to cause leaks in the House’s delicate structure, leaks that led to an abundance of moisture and mould – certainly not the preferred growing conditions of Western Australian flora.  Australian newspaper articles talk about the seeds that Australian botanic gardens sent to Kew during the war to help rebuild.  Lovely evocative articles highlight what a special place Kew was to expats,  the seeds sent emblematic of a shared memory of place.[2] Salisbury stressed the importance not only of reinstating that collection at Kew, in an Australian House, but also spoke to the importance of growing native flora in Australia. During his visit he actively supported and no doubt influenced the development of Bold Park in Perth, a 437 ha urban bushland at City Beach. He planted the first tree at the Australian National Botanic Garden in Canberra – an oak.

Salisbury, like many agricultural scientists at this time, was concerned with the impacts of climate on soils and the potential loss of plants. Looking back at his work and his time in Australia, from my perspective, he stands at the other end of the J-curve, at the very beginning of the ‘Great Acceleration,’ when in the 1950s humans first began to change planetary systems.  I wonder what he would make of our times and what advice he would offer regarding our future.  I wonder too about the power of the Australian House and its ability to tell stories about global change. The thing that I love most about my job at Kew is hearing stories directly from Kew’s extraordinary horticultural and scientific experts. Can we share these stories in such a way that will fill the modern visitor with the same sense of awe and wonder that Victorian visitors felt when they first visited? Is there a story powerful enough to change the way that people view our role in creating a sustainable future? Can the passion of Kew’s scientists and horticulturalists convey how important it is to bring these plants, bring all of us, back from the brink?

Glasshouses where born in the age of steam at the dawn of the Anthropocene when the activities of people became a driving global force.  In the beginning, they were served by enormous boilers and relentless coal fires that made them unaffordable luxuries by the turn of the 19th-century. Improving upon past designs, an energy efficient biomass boiler will power the refurbished glasshouses, but there is still a price to pay in creating an artificial climate, a balance to be struck. The Australian House allows us a place in which we can travel in both time and space. It has the potential to tell us powerful stories about global citizenship and the plants that made our past as well as our future possible.  I hope to see you there in 2018.


Sharon Willoughby is ‎Head of Interpretation, ‎Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.



[1] West Australian, Friday 12 August 1949, page 2.

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7 December 1940, page 11.



Below The entrance to the Temperate House complex Image: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew