John Evelyn is born to a wealthy family at Wotton in Surrey
“I was born at Wotton, in the County of Surrey, about twenty minutes past two in the morning, being on Tuesday the 31st and last of October, 1620.” Thus Evelyn starts his famous diary, at the age of 10.
Francis Bacon publishes Novum Organum: modern science begins
Bacon’s new system of logic suggested using experiments to form hypotheses, from which to understand the world. This turned natural philosophy on its head, and Evelyn was to become a keen advocate of the new approach.
At the outbreak of the English Civil War, Evelyn departs for Europe
Fleeing civil war, the young Evelyn embarked on a 10-year tour of the Continent. Besides attending the exiled Court in Paris, he studied anatomy in Padua and visited extraordinary new gardens across France and Italy. This trip was to form the inspiration of a lifetime.
Evelyn marries 12-year-old Mary Browne in Paris
Evelyn had met Mary when he was the guest of her father the English Ambassador to Paris, Sir Richard Browne. As part of her dowry, Evelyn was given the lease to Sayes Court - her youth meant it would be a further 5 years before they moved in.
Evelyn embarks on his life’s work, the Elysium Britannicum
For Evelyn, gardening was the chance to create a new Heaven on Earth, “the best representation of our lost felicitie”. To this end, Elysium Britannicum attempted to encompass every aspect of the ideal garden and its cultivation. Though never finished, several chapters were successfully published.
Evelyn moves to Sayes Court and begins to lay out his garden
Returning to England, Evelyn and his bride settled at Sayes Court next door to the Naval Dockyard. Having refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth, he was unable to take public office, so spent a quiet few years dedicated above all to his garden.
Evelyn becomes a founding member of the Royal Society
On the Restoration of Charles II, Evelyn’s enforced seclusion was over. He and his friends Hooke and Boyle founded their often-discussed new college for research and discussion, with experiments conducted in public based on Baconian principles.
Evelyn publishes the first text on air pollution in London
In Fumifugium, Evelyn argued that planting trees in London’s streets and parks could “perfectly improve the Aer about London.” Though the carbon cycle was far from being understood, this idea proved centuries ahead of its time.
Evelyn writes the first book published by the Royal Society
After the disruption of Civil War, the country’s estates and forests were seriously depleted. With the Dutch Wars raging, there was an urgent need for timber for the Navy. Evelyn’s Sylva encouraged landowners to plant millions of trees and was immensely successful, going into 14 editions.
Evelyn becomes Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Seamen
As the Dutch Wars continued, Evelyn worked tirelessly for his charges, spending his own money for supplies when food ran out. During the Plague of 1665, he and Pepys were the only commissioners to remain at their posts. He also outlined plans for the new hospital at Chelsea.
Evelyn’s plan to rebuild London as a new city after the Great Fire
In the days after the fire which destroyed medieval London, Evelyn, along with Wren and Hooke, saw the opportunity to rebuild the city on modern lines. Unfortunately complicated land ownership and the need to rebuild immediately meant the new plans were never achieved.
Evelyn discovers the young Grinling Gibbons
Walking across his estate one day, Evelyn discovered Gibbons “at his carving”. Struck by the beauty of Gibbons’ work, he introduced him to Wren who was then working on St Paul’s Cathedral, where Gibbons’ carvings can still be seen today.
Evelyn sets out the gardens for Groombridge Place in Kent
Evelyn’s famous garden at Sayes Court attracted many visitors including Charles II, and led to several commissions to design gardens for grand country estates. His design for Groombridge Place still survives, largely intact.
Evelyn continues to develop the garden at Sayes Court
This plan from 1698 shows how much the garden had changed since the Baroque formality of 1653. Evelyn was constantly adapting his designs in his quest for the ideal garden. Climate change played a big part in this, a run of cold winters had destroyed his parterre.
Peter the Great stays at Sayes Court - and wrecks the garden
Evelyn moved back to Wotton in 1694, and in 1698 Sayes Court was leased to the Czar whilst he studied shipbuilding at the Dockyard. His drunken parties caused much damage to house and garden - particularly Evelyn’s prized holly hedge, which he was pushed through in a wheelbarrow.
Evelyn dies at the age of 85, gardening and writing to the end
Evelyn ends his last edition of Sylva “[I] shall, if God protract my years and continue health, be continually planting, till it please him to transplant me into those glorious regions above, the celestial Paradise, planted with perennial groves and trees bearing immortal fruit.”
Sayes Court becomes a poor house and vegetables are grown in the garden
Sadly all Evelyn’s sons died before him and on his death Sayes Court was held in trust for his grandson. The gardens quickly decayed; in 1729 the manor became the parish poor house and Evelyn’s groves made way for market gardens.
Sayes Court is bought by the Admiralty
The purchase of Sayes Court (used variously as penal transportation depot and pensions office) was in fact the final fling of a dying Dockyard. After 3 centuries of technical innovation, the Navy’s warships had finally outgrown the shallow waters of the Thames at Deptford.
The Dockyard closes and Evelyn’s descendant buys back Sayes Court
The Evelyn family still owned land in Deptford, but the living conditions of their tenants had severely deteriorated with the expansion of industrial London. W J Evelyn (later MP for Deptford) decided to buy back the site of his ancestor’s garden, in order to create a public park.
Sayes Court Park is planted out with trees from the family home at Wotton
W J Evelyn opened the park and created a museum to his ancestor John Evelyn in the former Dockyard’s model house. However when he tried to make over the park and museum into public ownership, he ran into difficulties as there was no public body capable of accepting the gift.
W J Evelyn approaches Octavia Hill: the idea of the National Trust is born
Hill had made significant progress within the Open Spaces movement, so Evelyn asked her advice on how to ensure the future of the park. This inspired Hill and her friend Robert Hunter to establish the Trust to acquire and preserve both buildings and open spaces “for ever, for everyone”.
Octavia Hill sets out the park in the latest style, complete with bandstand
Sadly it took another 10 years to establish the National Trust, and they never acquired Sayes Court. W J Evelyn converted the manor into almshouses and retained ownership of the park, dedicating 1 1/2 acres to the people of Deptford in perpetuity and providing for its upkeep.
Two-thirds of the park is requisitioned for the war effort
When Deptford Dockyard was brought back into service as a supply and reserve depot for the army, more land was required. The almshouses and park, except for the 1 1/2 acres protected by W J Evelyn, were sucked back into the Dockyard. They were never returned.
Sayes Court Manor and the former museum are damaged during the Blitz
The requisitioned land was bought by the War Department in 1926, and Sayes Court became the Headquarter Offices. However much of the Victorian park remained intact within the Dockyard site, including tennis courts and trees. The Dockyard became a target for bombs in WW2.
The park is reopened with a new playground, paddling pool and creche
The remodelled park expressed the ambition to create a better Britain after the destruction of WW2. The bombed-out houses and school on Grove Street made way for an extension of the park, which was looked after by 4 full-time attendants and a nurse who supervised play!
The former Dockyard, now known as Convoys Wharf, is bought by News International
The site was sold by the MOD and returned to commercial wharf use, storing paper for the newspaper business. It continued in use up until 2000.
News International submits planning application to develop Convoys Wharf
The masterplan designed by Richard Rogers included 3,500 residential units and commercial space. Lewisham Council were minded to grant outline planning permission, but the GLA rejected the scheme as it failed to maintain a feasible working wharf on part of the site.
The remains Sayes Court Manor house are discovered by the Museum of London
As part of the wider investigations at Deptford Dockyard (Convoys Wharf) the MOLA archaeology team reveal the footings and basement rooms of the Manor House as well as the garden wall remains of Evelyn's famous parterre.