History of the Gardens

The core buildings of Newnham College were the work of one architect, Basil Champneys, who worked with the College for over thirty five years from 1874 to 1910. Old Hall was built in 1875; Sidgwick in 1880; Clough in 1888, the original Library 1897; Kennedy in 1905; and Peile in 1910.

In 1892, the Chair of the Garden Committee, Blanche Athena Clough, decided to start planning the College gardens. The College engaged James Backhouse & Son of York to draw up a plan for the gardens (Plan 1). At this time, Newnham Walk still ran through the College past Sidgwick hall to Grange Road, although the College was negotiating with the City to have it closed as a right of way, and replaced by a new road to the north of the College. The new road, Sidgwick Avenue, was built and in 1894 the College site was unified.

The gardens did not follow the Backhouse plan exactly, or any of other plans that were commissioned subsequently; like the buildings, they just grew. The Founders were too busy with the welfare of their clients, women wanting accommodation and education, to worry particularly about the gardens. Although from the beginning the gardens were a core feature of Newnham life – there was to be no theory of quadrangles or grandeur for Newnham. Strict practicality was the watchword. The first Principal, Miss Anne Jemima Clough, declared that ‘students must have fresh air, exercise, and wholesome food’ but the garden could take care of itself. An orchard was planted, pigs, and chickens were kept, and tennis courts proliferated round the steadily increasing number of buildings.

The gardens continue to evolve as different parts of the college are developed. For example, the Mound was originally created in 1891 as the site of the observatory. The observatory was moved to its present position on the playing field when Peile was built and blocked the view of the heavens. A memorial to the Principalship of Mrs Sidwick was erected on the mound in 1914. The planting of the Mound was redesigned in 2009 when a knot garden was created. In 2013 when the Iris Collection was developed iris borders planted around the Observatory were created.

Four plans of the college gardens are known to exist.