The first Lake at Kew Gardens had its beginnings in the 1740s, in Frederick, Prince of Wales's grand plans for his gardens. Frederick died in 1751 and in 1753 Thomas Greening, the new head gardener, was instructed to continue dredging the Lake. By 1763, it occupied nine acres (3.64ha) of which two-thirds were water and the remaining third an island. Water for the Lake was raised from a deep well by Smeaton's Water Engine, an Archimedes screw near the eastern end of the Lake. Smeaton's pump was in operation by 1761 and continued in use until the 1850s.
The island was accessed by the Palladian Bridge that crossed a narrow channel of water. Its design was largely taken from one of Palladio's wooden bridges but according to Chambers: 'There is nothing remarkable in the whole but that it was erected in one night'. The bridge appears to have had a relatively short life, since it does not appear on maps after 1785.
The Lake with its island however, was an important part of the design of the old Kew Gardens. It was flanked by several follies including the House of Confucius and the Temple of Arethusa, and was in full view of the White House at the far end of the Great Lawn. A remarkable Swan Boat was made for George III in 1755, when he was still the Prince of Wales, in celebration of his 17th birthday. Designed by John Rich, the manager of Covent Garden, the boat could hold ten people, and the swan's neck and head reached to a height of 18ft (5.4m).
A large part of this first lake was filled during the 1790s by the orders of 'Farmer' George III who wanted more arable land in his garden. By the time Aiton's "View of the Royal Gardens" was drawn in 1837, the Lake was a mere remnant of its former glory and on one contemporary plan was reduced to being labelled 'the pond'.
The present Lake, situated further west towards the Thames, was created by Sir William Hooker in the late 1840s. In 1848, Hooker told the Board of Woods and Forests that he wanted an 'open flow of water through a portion of the pleasure grounds'. What he did was extend the gravel pits, which were then being excavated to provide spoil for the foundations of the Temperate House. A plan for the Lake from 1855 shows how the shape of the southern shore was arrived at by retaining existing clusters of trees, which was Hooker's Pinetum. Some of these trees may still stand today.
Underground culverts were created to connect the Lake with the Thames, and it was filled for the first time in 1861. The four-and-a-half acres (1.82ha) of lake created by Sir William were extended by a further half acre (0.2ha) by his son Joseph, who said he was 'trying to make our very ugly lake an ornamental piece of water with a gang of 50 to 60 navvies'. Joseph Hooker also extended his father's plantings around the edges of the Lake and in later years the next director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, decided that the islands 'should be heavily wooded with well disposed clumps of trees. These give effects of light and shadow on the water which are often in striking contrast'. He landscaped the Lake to this effect at the end of the 19th century.
Did you know?
- A lesser known but crucially important function of the Lake was as a reservoir.
- In 1864, the Engine House was constructed to pump water from the Lake for use around the Gardens over the 19th and 20th centuries. Mains water supplies superseded river water from the Lake, and the Engine House finally ceased being used in 1973.
- The Lake is now five acres (2.02ha) of water, studded with four islands.
- The thickly-wooded islands are important nature conservation areas, undisturbed by regular human activity — the Lake boundaries are surrounded by vegetation, with some openings through which the water can be viewed.
- The Lake is in the clearing created by 'Capability' Brown during his landscaping of Richmond Gardens, and continues the tradition of an open space in this area.