In Conversation with Carolyn Hanbury

One evening in April, Cassandra welcomed guests to a talk by Carolyn Hanbury, of the Hanbury Gardens.

Carolyn guided the room through a whistle-stop tour of the history of the famous Hanbury gardens which has seen two world wars, visits from queens and several generations of Hanbury caretakers.

The gardens were created in 1867 by Sir Thomas Hanbury who was captivated by the rocky outcrop while holidaying in the French Riviera. After buying the land, Sir Hanbury, along with his botanist brother, began to create the Hanbury gardens. When Sir Thomas Hanbury bought the land, it consisted of a simple palazzo surrounded by barren land. Despite the barrenness of the land, the Hanbury brothers identified that the microclimate of La Mortola was perfect for growing subtropical plants which were their passion. To assist in the construction of his garden, Sir Thomas Hanbury employed Ludwig Winter as head gardener.

An incredibly devout and charitable man, Sir Thomas Hanbury heavily invested in the local community and surrounding villages. He built several schools and, apart from his German head gardener, employed multiple local men to work in the garden. To this day the local community of La Mortola remain close with the Hanbury family and pass down happy memories of Sir Thomas Hanbury to their children and grandchildren.

Over the years the Hanbury Gardens have had several notable visitors. Queen Victoria visited the gardens twice during her life and on the second visit gave only an hour notice. In a desperate attempt to clear the garden of visitors at the time, one older gentleman who couldn't exit in time was hidden behind a bush as the Queen walked past. The Queen wrote in her diary of the visit that strangely not a soul was in the gardens.

After Sir Thomas Hanbury's death in 1907 his eldest son Cecil took over the gardens. Cecil's wife Dorothy was a keen gardener and developed the key horticultural and landscaping aspects of the garden. Often a tricky character who regularly used the chaise longue and complaints of illness to get her way, Dorothy's love and strong will was critical in the further development of the garden.

However, as war broke out in 1939 Dorothy's hard work was laid to waste. The Hanbury's were forced to relocate back to England and the house was inhabited by the Italian military. Following the end of the war Dorothy returned to the neglected and bomb-damaged house determined to restore both to their former glory.

To finance the garden's restoration, Dorothy sold off the remaining Hanbury aspects, including large areas of land in La Mortola. She even sold off some of her personal jewellery to fund her restoration work. Without Dorothy's determination, the Hanbury gardens would likely have completely fallen into ruin.

After Cecil's death in 1937 Dorothy remarried Reverend Rutven Forbes who was not thrilled to have to relocate to Italy. Unable to properly maintain the gardens in her old age Dorothy, with the help of the heads of Kew and Wisley organised for the gardens to be bought by the Italian state, with the sale completed in 1960 before her death.

Unfortunately, Dorothy stated in her will that Forbes could remain in the house until his death. In the years after her death Forbes locked himself up in the palazzo and refused to allow anyone onto the property, even to care for the garden. Upon his death the garden was in grave disrepair and the house was found to be overflowing with cupboards overflowing with old magazines…

By the mid-1980s outcry from international botanical institutions over the gardens' mismanagement saw the garden management transferred to the University of Genoa. Today, the gardens remain under Genoa University management alongside Amici dei Giardini Botanici Hanbury, of which Carolyn is a member.

Under the care of the Amici the garden is open to the public every day except Mondays in the winter months. The Amici group are both an administrative group but also a close-knit community who meet weekly for group 'de-weeding' sessions.

Carolyn, who lives in the gardens, maintains a small apartment which is available for rent. Guests can enjoy the gardens to themselves in the evenings and every room of this quaint apartment has spectacular views of the gardens and the coastline. If you are interested in staying at Carolyn's apartment, please email your enquiry to: [email protected].

Return to Journal