I have twice visited the small Islington park known as Battishill Street Gardens (between Battishill Street and Napier Terrace on the map below) and written about it in A discovery and A quiet visit to a damp sculpture. Today, rummaging around in books and online information about Islington, I discovered an interesting background story to the Gardens. At least, it is interesting to me.
On the above map, ‘A’ roughly indicates the position of the estate once belonging to William Pitcairn, who lived from 1711 (some say 1712) to 1791. William was born in Fifeshire and was related through his mother to the ducal line. Having graduated in medicine in Rheims, William became the physician to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and was a Fellow, later President, of the Royal College of Physicians. He became the fourth successor to the Gold Headed Cane, which makes an interesting story in its own right.
In the 18th century, it was customary for physicians to mark their standing and authority by carrying a walking stick or cane with a decorated head in ivory or precious metal. It is said that these canes were hollow and were filled with medicinal powder. On entering the presence of a patient, the physician would tap the ferrule of the cane on the floor, causing it to scatter powder about, supposedly disinfecting the premises.
The Gold Headed Cane seems to have originated with the larger than life Yorkshire physician, John Radcliffe (1652-1714) who when consulted by King William about his swollen ankles, made a remark that upset the king so much that he thereafter would have nothing more to do with Dr Radcliffe.
John Radcliffe passed the cane on to Richard Meade (1673–1754) and it became the custom for each holder to nominate the next successor. Thus Anthony Askew (1722-1774) inherited it and passed it on to William Pitcairn. He, in turn, gave it to Matthew Baillie (1761-1823), but here the succession ended, for Baillie’s widow presented the cane to the Royal College of Physicians where it has been kept ever since, though I believe an annual award is made in its name. Thus, the Gold Headed Cane has become a symbol of the art and science of medicine.
A Dr. William MacMichael published an intriguing little story of this object in 1827, entitled The Gold Headed Cane. This book is still extant and the text can be downloaded free, should you wish to read it.
What has this got to do with Battishill Street Gardens, you ask? Well, I’m coming to that. Now, in fact. Upon his retirement in 1785, William set about creating a botanic garden in the grounds of his estate. It contained rare and exotic trees and plants and seems to have acquired the reputation of a fine garden so that a bromeliad was named Pitcairnia in William’s honour.
On his death, William’s estate was auctioned off and the garden fell into neglect, then became a nursery. Houses were built along the Upper Street margin of the property and the modern Battishill Street runs across what would once have been William’s botanic garden.
There, that’s a sufficient clue, isn’t it? Apparently, Battishill Street Gardens stand on ground that was once part of the botanic garden, preserving that corner from the voracious encroachment of bricks and mortar. For me at least, that will add an additional note of interest and pleasure to the experience of future visits.
Modern development, spurred on by commerce and industry often wipes away all traces of previous ages, traces that we would sometimes wish we could have preserved. Just occasionally, however, it is necessary only to scratch a little at the surface to discover a reminder of a past that is really not so remote from us as we sometimes think.
P.S. If you are wondering about the naming of the Pitcairn Islands, that had nothing to do with William. They were named after Robert Pitcairn, a 15-year-old midshipman aboard HMS Swallow (commanded by Captain Philip Carteret), who was the first to sight the islands in 1767.