Lettsom Gardens was formerly the estate of Grove Hill, which was once part of the Manor of Camberwell Buckingham. It was purchased in 1779 by Dr John Lettsom, who lived here until 1810 and developed the gardens, which became famous in his day. They included a kitchen garden, orchard and hothouses as well as plants from all over the world as a result of the botanical expeditions that Lettsom financed. The grounds also had a boating lake with a central fountain, and Coadestone plaques and statuary. After Lettsom sold the estate it began to be built over for housing from 1819. A small portion of the estate survived and was saved from further development by the Lettsom Gardens Association in 1980.
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The Grove Hill estate was sold in 1779 to Dr John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815) who lived there until 1810, liking its 'healthy breezes blowing from the south' (Boast). Although Lettsom had been born in the West Indies he was educated in London, and he practised as a doctor in both countries. A Quaker and founder member of the Medical Society of London and the Royal Humane Society, his work among the poor was well-known. He founded the first General Dispensary in London for the poor, as well as a Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate. His mansion at Grove Hill housed his collection of coins, shells and minerals and he had an extensive library. The grounds of Grove Hill contained a kitchen garden, orchard and hothouses as well as plants from all over the world as a result of the botanical expeditions that Lettsom financed and through which he collected some of the first seeds of American plants cultivated here. The grounds also contained Coade stone plaques and statuary in the style of ancient Greece and Rome and a boating lake fringed with willow trees with a central fountain, adjacent to which was a small cottage called Fountain Cottage. The lake and grounds were supplied with water from a natural spring that fed a reservoir. Grove Hill was famous in Lettsom's day, among its admirers the poet Thomas Maurice.
After Lettsom sold the estate it began to be built over for housing, initially from 1819 by William Whitten. From 1840 the house was used as a girls' school called Pelican House, but it was later demolished by railway engineer William Chadwick who bought Lettsom's mansion in the 1890s. A small portion of the estate survived and was saved from further development by the Lettsom Gardens Association in 1980. Lettsom Gardens is a haven for nature with grassland and two areas of woodland that have a number of trees including mulberries possibly descended from those planted by Dr Lettsom. Adjacent are Camberwell Gardens Guild allotments.
Mary Boast, 'The Story of Camberwell' LB Southwark Neighbourhood History No. 1, 1996; John Archer, Bob Britton, Robert Burley, Tony Hare, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Southwark' Ecology Handbook 12, London Ecology Unit, 1989