Jenner Walk, Jenner Gardens

18 09 2009

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Newly restored Jenner Gardens (Cheltenham Chapel’s former burial ground) with Jenner Walk in the background. Photographed September 2009

The Cheltenham town coat of arms bears the motto Salubritas et Eruditio – “health and education”. Not necessarily the first two things that spring to mind about the town today, but for the first half of the 19th century this little parcel of land just off the High Street in the town centre was an important epicentre of both. The tiny street now called Jenner Walk was packed with private academies for young ladies and named after the man who rid the world of smallpox.

Dr Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is well documented elsewhere, so there is no need for me to go into a detailed biography. A native of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, he was an early pioneer of vaccination whose most spectacular achievement was to eradicate smallpox, which had until that time been a widespread and seriously devastating disease. He has a museum dedicated to him at his former home in Berkeley, and their website has lots of interesting information about his life and work. Although his birthplace was always where his heart was, and his pioneering work also led him to establish medical practices in London, he spent some 25 years living during the summer season in Cheltenham, where he owned a house (later two houses and a garden) in St George’s Place. It was from this house that the smallpox vaccine was sent out around the world – and such was Jenner’s humanitarian spirit he administered it free of charge to the poor. The narrow street was frequently crowded with up to 300 people a day clamouring for his services.

Jenner House, sadly, was demolished along with its immediate neighbour in 1970 after several years’ tussle with the council and despite a high-profile campaign which found its way into the national newspapers. The house had fallen into poor condition, but the moronic decision not to save it has been so lamented ever since that in 1994 a replica was constructed on its site. This has a special personal significance for me, because in the early 1990s I was living in St George’s Place (in a Regency house built in Dr Jenner’s garden) right opposite the site of Jenner House. My top-floor flat overlooked the yawning gap where the house had been, which was then occupied by an ugly scrubby overgrown car park where only the tatty remains of a brick wall survived from this historic property. Although the rebuilt houses only match the originals in their facades, they look pretty close – and whoever lives in my flat now has a much nicer view.

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The original terrace of St George’s Place, which gave its name to the rest of the street. The rebuilt Jenner House is on the right, bearing a blue commemorative plaque beside the door. The two houses on the left are the surviving originals from c.1790; the others are replicas built in 1994. Not an exact replica – Jenner’s original house had its door on the opposite side!

The house Jenner lived in was one of a terrace of four built by Thomas Burges in the early 1790s, at a time when St George’s Place was simply a coach road across the fields and in fact was known by its earlier name of Stills Lane. Dr Jenner moved into the end-of-terrace house in 1795 and was probably the first occupant of the house, although he didn’t own it initially – he rented it from property speculator Joseph Pitt, who was later to conceive and build Pittville. It was this terrace which originally bore the name St George’s Place, but by 1800 the name had been applied to the entire street. A prospectus of the time describes it as “That handsome row of houses known as St George’s Place consisting of four capital messuages which are occupied by families of the first distinction … and all commanding the most beautiful prospects of the country.” They each had two parlours, a drawing-room, five bedrooms and a selection of outbuildings such as stables and coach houses. They kind of blend in now with the classic Cheltenham style, but in their day they would have really stood out – they pre-date much of the rest of the town and were among the finest townhouses available at that time. As this was the heyday of the spa and Cheltenham’s status as a medicinal centre, all of the houses were occupied by eminent doctors, including royal physicians. Athelney House, the grey one in the photo above and one of the surviving originals, was the home of another distinguished vaccination pioneer, Dr Fowler, who was a friend and colleague of Jenner’s and helped him in his crusade to immunise the poor. This house originally had a strange outbuilding in the back garden which was rumoured to be a secret dissection vault. With so many distinguished doctors living in the street, this corner of Cheltenham became a centre for the pioneers of vaccination. At that time vaccination was a new and controversial treatment, regarded with scepticism and contempt by much of the medical profession.

As one of the most respected people in the community it’s perhaps not surpring that Jenner served as one of the Town Commissioners, an early form of local government. However in all the records of the Commissioners’ meetings, Jenner’s only recorded contribution, in 1806, was a request to be allowed to have a drain built from his house to the sewer running underneath St George’s Place, which at that time was the only public sewer in the whole town. In 1808 he became actively supportive of a proposal that public sewers be introduced for the whole town, but no progress seems to have been made on this scheme until about thirty years later. Jenner was also a patron of the arts, and founder of a local Literary Society, as well as being friends with a number of prominent poets.

Dr Jenner has gone down in history as a medical philanthropist who saved millions of lives, but what is slightly less well known about him is that he was a keen gardener. His end-of-terrace house had a small garden at the back, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him, and although he had a very fine garden at his other home in Berkeley he was only resident there for four or five months in the winter, and missed the best of it. The solution came in 1804, when recognition of his talents brought him a Parliamentary Grant of £10,000. With his new wealth he was able to buy a large portion of land opposite his house, which was then still a field, and made it into a private garden. His passion included both the kitchen garden and ornamental garden, and he was very keen on trialling new varieties. He cultivated gooseberries, raspberries and figs and imported vegetable seeds from Italy and Spain.

At the same time he also bought his house which he had been renting up until then, plus the one next door to it. He also had the road widened in front of the terrace in a semicircular pattern to provide enough space for his carriage to turn round in the narrow thoroughfare.

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1806 map (with annotations, and turned sideways to correct its eccentric orientation)

This is an extract of the 1806 map showing the High Street (at the top) with St George’s Place leading down from it. It shows the area at the time Dr Jenner lived there, only a year or two after he had acquired his new garden, which included most of the land on the opposite side of the road from his house. The semicircle of Dr Jenner’s carriage-turning area is clearly shown. The terrace of four houses, set back very slightly from the rest of the street, sits opposite. On the west side of the garden is a terrace of houses in what is now Ambrose Street, though most of these disappeared many years ago. Note that the small lane leading to the churchyard is not present day Clarence Street as you might expect – it’s actually the tiny but much older Chester Walk, now hidden behind the library. Towards the bottom of the map is the Great House, which was the focus of Cheltenham’s aristocratic social life for some 100 years, its site now occupied by St Matthew’s church.

Jenner didn’t keep all of the garden to himself, however. In 1809 the Rev. Rowland Hill, a close friend of Jenner’s, built the Cheltenham Chapel on land adjoining the edge of the garden. Built to relieve the overcrowding of the parish church and other local chapels during the town’s rapid expansion years, the new chapel was non-denominational and hosted services of pretty much any kind – only the Unitarians were banned. Designed by Edward Smith, it was described at the time as “plain, neat and commodious” and contained 1000 seats. A year later the chapel’s trustees bought the bottom end of Dr Jenner’s garden for £450 for use as a burial ground, and an access lane was made across the garden to link the chapel with St George’s Place directly opposite Jenner House. Jenner and Hill took a close interest in each other’s work, and a vaccination clinic was held in the chapel every Sunday after the religious service.

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Cheltenham Chapel viewed from Jenner Gardens, amid a swathe of late summer California poppies.

By the late 19th century the chapel’s congregation had declined and its graveyard was full, and the last burial took place in 1889. It was closed by order of the home secretary in 1894. Many years of neglect followed, and the burial ground became a locked up and forgotten corner of the town centre and a haunt for tramps and vandals, its graves drowning in an overgrown mess of ivy and litter. Julian Rawes, a stout-hearted volunteer who took on the task of transcribing all the monumental inscriptions in 1986 when the graveyard was at its most neglected, described it at the time as “sadly spoiled and dilapidated owing to demolition, and lack of care” and explained the difficulty of his task “owing to trees, ivy and people’s nasty habits with waste disposal on property other than their own.” Most of the tombstones were laid flat on the ground, a common practice in Cheltenham’s urban churchyards, so before any inscriptions could be recorded “it was a matter of prodding with a marling fork every foot or so, followed by the time consuming removal of up to 1ft of ivy, roots and rubbish.” Despite subsequent efforts to keep the graveyard clear it remained a magnet for litter and anti-social behaviour until the council closed it to the public altogether in 2004. Through the efforts of local volunteers and funding from businesses, it has now been comprehensively restored and planted with shrubs and flowers. In June 2009, exactly 200 years after the chapel first opened, the burial ground was reopened as a public open space and named Jenner Gardens. There is more information about the restoration project on the Friends of Jenner Gardens website, including Rawes’s painstakingly noted transcriptions – very useful if you are researching ancestors who may be buried here.

The Victorians liked to go overboard with their poetic epitaphs, and the headstone of 40-year-old John Ross bears this little gem:

Forgive blest shade the tributary tear
that mourns thy exit from a world like this.
Forgive the wish that would have kept thee here
and stayed thy progress to the realms of bliss.
No more confined to growing scenes of night
no more a tenant pent in mortal clay.
Now should we rather hail thy glorious flight
and trace thy journey to the realms of day.

Some are quite heartwarming. Mr and Mrs James Basem were so attached to their servant Martha Rice that when she died in 1864, aged 66 and after 23 years’ service to them, they had a “simple tablet” put up in “acknowledgement of her merits”.

Other burials include “Henry John, son of Thomas and Jane Plant, who was unfortunately drowned whilst bathing in the river Severn, 30th of July 1856 in the 17th year of his age”. And there is also the unfortunately named Bastard family.

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Tomb of William and Susannah Bastard

There is another surviving building in Cheltenham associated with Dr Jenner: Alpha House in St George’s Road, known in its time by the slightly more colloquial name of the Pest House. The building survives as business premises, and bears a misleading plaque claiming that Dr Jenner once lived there. He didn’t – but it was one of the sites where he held his vaccination clinics in his crusade to immunise the local poor.

Ironically, although Dr Jenner cleansed mankind of smallpox, he was powerless to do much about the other common killer disease of the time – consumption. It claimed the life of his eldest son in 1810, and in 1815 his wife Catherine also succumbed. Theirs was a very close marriage and her death plunged him into the bleakest depression from which he never really emerged, spending several years as a recluse before leaving Cheltenham to spend the last few years of his life at his other home in Berkeley. The two Cheltenham houses remained in his ownership and he bequeathed them to his surviving children, and they remained in the Jenner family until 1860.

Rapid changes were afoot during Jenner’s time and the years immediately after his death which moulded the character of St George’s Place into what we know today. By 1820 the street and its environs had been significantly built up, so it was no longer the edge-of-town setting he had originally settled in. More drastically, his garden began to be built on. The Post Office map of 1820 shows both sides of St George’s Place now mostly filled up with housing right up to the edges of what is now Jenner Walk. The semicircular carriage turning area is no longer visible and in its place the line of Jenner Walk is shown as a pathway leading from St George’s Place to the chapel, still bounded by a small area of garden with no houses as yet. Within the few years following Jenner’s death, the southern side of this path was built up with a terrace, and the garden all but vanished.

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The view down to Jenner House (the blue door) from the gate of Jenner Gardens. You can see how the lane was placed to give Jenner an attractive vista to the chapel as well as a convenient footpath to reach it. The houses on the right were built c.1820s on part of his garden. On the left, some old railings and mature trees are a legacy of the formal gardens which survived here until relatively recent times. Notice the attractive lamppost – one of three in the area.

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1834 map

The difference between the 1806 and 1834 maps is always stark, because it illustrates how massive and rapid Cheltenham’s building boom was in those years. By this time St George’s Square is clearly shown and the large black rectangle marked ‘F’ is the Cheltenham Chapel. The faint line of Jenner Walk is just visible leading from the chapel grounds through to St George’s Place, with its row of houses already built on the south side. The north side is still mostly gardens, but parcelled up into plots.

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1921 map. For the sake of clarity, the houses of Jenner Walk are marked in red, as are the two houses in St George’s Place owned by Dr Jenner. Present day Jenner Gardens is shown in green.

The 1921 map shows Jenner Walk and its environs pretty much unchanged from 1834, and it provides a lot more detail. The south side of the street is still the only part which is built up, with the north side still occupied by formal gardens, a small relic of Dr Jenner’s endeavours. By this time the chapel had fallen to secular use and its burial ground closed up, so Jenner Walk was just a cul-de-sac. At a first glance St George’s Square also looks unchanged from the 1834 map, but notice the absence of an entire row of houses on its west side – the site of the present day bowling green. Notice also the name Manchester Street for what is now the western end of Clarence Street.

The little cul-de-sac of Jenner Walk has only been named in the last couple of decades. Prior to that its houses were numbered as part of St George’s Place. Even after Dr Jenner had left Cheltenham, the area continued to be packed with medical establishments and the homes of eminent doctors, but at this time it also became a centre for ladies’ education. During the 1840s all the houses in Jenner Walk were being run as private academies, with more in St George’s Place itself.

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Jenner Walk from St George’s Place. Although it’s a beautiful street the most striking features are in the entrance; a rare example of an original and beautifully preserved Georgian shopfront on one corner, and a magnificant mature horse chestnut tree on the other. Photos of the street in the late 1960s show the original flagstone paving still intact, but sadly it seems to have since been replaced with mass-produced concrete block paving. At the far end of the street the Cheltenham Chapel is visible.

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View of the end of Jenner Walk from Jenner Gardens. The tall house just visible here was known as St George’s House and was run by Miss Price and her sisters as an Academy for Young Ladies from 1851 to 1880. The Price family were involved in women’s education in Cheltenham for more than 60 years. The smaller house at the end is Hurlock Cottage, which in 1841 was occupied by Miss Harriet Bowller’s Ladies’ School. By the late 1970s it was derelict and occupied by squatters, but its current well looked after condition is indicative of the upturn in fortunes this whole area has been through in recent years.

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Until recent years this 1820s house – known as Laurel House – was the only building on the north side of Jenner Walk. This is actually the side of it and it’s no.17 St George’s Place, but it looks out over the walk. The cottage at the back is now separate and numbered as part of Jenner Walk. I’m not sure whether there was always a separate front door here or whether it was originally all part of the same house. Most likely it was a staff cottage belonging to the main house. In 1840 Laurel House became Miss Jenkins’ School for Young Ladies and was probably the earliest of the many academies in the vicinity. Its gardens once stretched all the way down the walk as far as the chapel grounds, and were a lingering relic of Jenner’s horticultural efforts. The house itself is built on part of Jenner’s garden and carriage semicircle.

Bibliography for this article: Saint George’s Place by the Cheltenham Spa Campaign (1978); Cheltenham Churches and Chapels by Steven Blake (1979); monumental inscriptions compiled by Julian Rawes and George Cryer of Gloucestershire Family History Society (1986)

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