The Hanbury Botanical Garden: a pharmacist’s holiday destination in 1906

By Karen Horn, RPS Librarian

The Hanbury Botanical Garden is situated on the La Mortola promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. A glance at TripAdvisor  tells us that it is ‘spectacular,’ ‘a real gem,’ and ‘a beautiful, calm place with stunning views.’

What we are not told, though, is the garden’s connection to the Hanbury family and pharmacy.

Thomas, Daniel and the making of a garden

Daniel Hanbury was an enthusiastic traveller, taking every opportunity to further his research on materia medica. It was he who brought La Mortola to the attention of his brother, Thomas.  In March 1867, Thomas, a merchant in Shanghai, visited the area and found the ruined Palazzo Orengo with its neglected grounds and olive groves.

Once purchased, work began immediately to restore the Palazzo. Daniel saw the potential of the plot with its mild climate and sheltered position, and the brothers spent hours in the grounds discussing the creation of a botanical garden.  With his extensive knowledge of plants, Daniel’s influence on the early garden was considerable.  Through his numerous contacts, he was able to obtain rare plant species from around the world. He endeavoured to collect plants of particular importance to pharmacy, such as Illicium, Iris florentina, Euphorbia resinifera  and Styrax officinalis, from which he successfully extracted a few drops of resin, known for its medicinal properties.

A pharmaceutical chemist’s holiday

Much has been written about the Hanbury garden at La Mortola, including a 1906 article in The Chemist and Druggist in which William Maskew describes his visit whilst holidaying on the Riviera.  ‘All the garden paths lead down towards the sea,’ he wrote, ‘and I did not find a square yard of garden devoid of interest to the pharmacist.’  Of particular note were the various species of agaves and aloes, cacti specimens and the Bottle-Brush tree from Australia.  There were yuccas, Camellia japonica and Pinus pinea.  Indigenous plants had been allowed to grow wild in one area and here alone there were 450 plant species.

A visit to La Mortola, he concluded, ‘should not be missed by any pharmacist, naturalist or antiquary who may find himself anywhere between Cannes and San Remo.’

An afterthought …

Sitting on a train heading northwards, I’m reading a fascinating book entitled Thomas Hanbury and his Garden.  It’s between these pages that I discover the closeness of the Hanbury family.  I learn about Daniel’s final hours: how his brother and sister, Thomas and Anna, took turns to sit with him throughout the night.

And I suppose this is a fitting place to end. It takes me back to the beginning: to the memory of a beloved brother and to his book collection, with which neither brother nor sister could bear to part.  The RPS Library might never have been lucky enough to own it if, 17 years after Daniel’s death, Anna hadn’t moved house.  The Hanbury Collection forms part of the Society’s rich history of which we are rightly proud.

Contact the RPS Library to visit and see its amazing collection.

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