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6 places to mark WW1 at Kew

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, here are some of Kew's sites of wartime importance.
31 October 2018
Blog team: 
Katie Avis-Riordan

First World War centenary

November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. But even a century on, its impact on Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew can still be felt.

The Gardens became an indispensable part of the war effort, helping grow food, offering answers to botanical queries, and carrying out research and experiments to help solve issues brought about by the terrible war. 

To commemorate the centenary, here are six key sites you can visit at Kew of wartime significance that highlight stories of tragedy, remembrance and hope.

1. Temple of Arethusa

During the First World War, most of the men working at Kew who were of military age and in fit condition enlisted to serve their country, from gardeners to scientists. 

Overall, 124 Kew staff signed up to join the forces but tragically 37 had died by the end of the four-year conflict. 

To honour these brave fallen men, a bronze plaque was unveiled in 1921 in the Temple of Arethusa, a Grade II listed building designed by Sir William Chambers for Princess Augusta, which sits opposite the Palm House.

The 37 names of Kew’s First World War dead were listed on the commemorative tablet as a sign of remembrance for Kew staff and visitors alike.

Sadly, another 14 names were added to the memorial after the Second World War.

Temple of Arethusa - Kew Gardens

Temple of Arethusa, Kew Gardens

2. Former site of the Verdun oak

The tale of Kew’s Verdun oak tree is one of heartbreak yet hope. Grown from an acorn collected from the battlefield of Verdun in France in 1917, this beautiful sessile oak (Quercus petraea) was planted at Kew in 1919 and became a symbol of new life.

The Battle of Verdun was the longest battle of the First World War, lasting from February to December 1916, between German and French soldiers. It was also one of the costliest with hundreds of thousands of fatalities.

After growing for nearly a century near the Palm House Pond, misfortune struck – on 28 October 2013 the destructive St Jude’s Day storm damaged the oak to such an extent the tree could not be saved.

But the life of Kew’s Verdun oak didn’t end with the storm...

As a symbol of new hope and to honour the soldiers of Verdun who lost their lives and the 37 fallen Kew staff, a young sapling grafted from the original Verdun oak will be planted in this same spot on 8 November 2018, just a few days before Armistice Day.

Palm House Pond at Kew Gardens

Palm House Pond, Kew Gardens

3. The Verdun oak seats

Kew’s Head of Arboretum, Tony Kirkham, also came up with the idea of creating a commemorative outdoor seat from the tree’s timber to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun.

Using boards cut from the oak’s trunk, two seats were created as places for rest and contemplation at Kew.

The Verdun Bench was unveiled in 2016 and the new ‘Remembrance and Hope’ seat will be in the Gardens from 8 November 2018.

The Verdun Bench at Kew Gardens

The Verdun Bench, Kew Gardens

4. Palm House parterre

The ongoing war from 1914 to 1918 led to food shortages in Britain, resulting in public land often being used for allotments to grow vegetables.

One such place was the parterre in front of the Gardens’ famous Palm House. The pretty floral displays in the flowerbeds were dug up and replaced with vegetable crops to support the war effort. 

Onions growing in the parterre at RBG Kew during World War I

Onions growing on the Palm House parterre at Kew during the First World War

5. Kew Palace lawn

Another area of the Gardens that was transformed during the First World War was the Kew Palace lawn. The area was ploughed up in 1917 and 1918 to grow potatoes for the Home Front.

In fact, 27 tonnes of potatoes were harvested from this patch in August 1918.

Similarly, the planting tubs along the Broad Walk were replanted with vegetables to aid the country during wartime.

Photo of Kew Palace

Kew Palace lawn in the present day

6. Jodrell Laboratory

Various government departments sought Kew’s help during the war regarding botanical enquiries.

Plant material sent for identification during the First World War – and subsequent Second World War – was mostly identified in the Jodrell Laboratory here in the Gardens.

Walk past and you’ll find the new laboratory suite, which sits on the site of the original small building demolished in 1963.

Photo of Jodrell laboratory, Wolfson wing

Jodrell Laboratory, Kew Gardens

Join our guided walk, ‘Remembering Kew in Wartime’, taking place daily throughout November to discover more about Kew's role in the war.

If you’d like to pay your respects and commemorate the centenary of the First World War, come and see the new ‘Remembrance and Hope’ seat which will be at Kew from 8 November 2018.