John Evelyn was a 17th century intellectual, writer and gardener who, like his friend and contemporary Samuel Pepys, kept a diary that gives us much information about the momentous events in English and London history that he witnessed. He was also an enthusiastic correspondent, many of his letters having been preserved. Evelyn associated himself with just about everyone of importance in Restoration London, including the royal family, and there were few of the grand projects of the time that he was not somehow part of.
John Evelyn was born in Surrey into a family whose wealth was based on gunpowder production and he grew up in Lewes. Attending Oxford University, he finished his education at Middle Temple in London, during which time he witnessed some of the events that led up to the Civil War, including the execution of the Earl of Stafford. He joined the Royalist army for a time but went to Italy and France to avoid the conflict and in 1647 married the daughter of the Royalist ambassador in Paris. By the time of the execution of Charles I Evelyn and his wife were back in England and he purchased a house from his father-in-law at Sayes Court at Deptford, close to the royal naval dockyard, where he began to create a garden.
During the interregnum period Evelyn sent intelligence information in code to his wife’s father in Paris and after the Restoration he was favoured by Charles II for his loyalty and assistance, becoming an advisor to the King throughout his reign.
Like a number of his contemporaries Evelyn had a great interest in new kinds of scientific, geographic and philosophical ideas and in 1660 was a founder member of the Royal Society. During a visit to Deptford in November 1665 by Samuel Pepys, Evelyn instructed him on methods of art (which he himself had learnt from Prince Rupert) and read him some of his works about gardening as well as plays and poems he had written. In his diary Pepys concluded: “a most excellent person he is…being a man so much above others.”
In 1661 Evelyn published his pamphlet Fumifugium, or the Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated in which he criticised the way that smoke and noxious waste from industries such as lime-burning and soap-boiling were polluting London’s air. “It is this horrid Smoake which obscures our Churches and makes our Palaces look old, which fouls our Clothes and corrupts the Waters” he wrote. Charles II was in agreement and commanded Evelyn to draw up a Bill to put before Parliament to prohibit such pollution but nothing immediately came of it. However, the point must have been in people’s minds when plans were being drawn up after the Great Fire because his ideas were included in the post-fire royal proclamation and the subsequent Parliamentary Rebuilding Acts.
When he returned from exile Charles II was appalled by the poor and dirty condition of London compared with the cities he had seen on the Continent. He created a Royal Commission ‘for reforming the buildings, ways, streets, and incumrances, and regulating the hackney coaches in the City of London’, headed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clarendon and Royal Surveyor, Sir John Denham and including Evelyn and the King’s financial advisor Stephen Fox. They met regularly during 1663 and 1664.
As ever more ships were being built in England the requirement for suitable wood, particularly oak, had out-stripped supply during the previous centuries. Following the Restoration, the Navy Board turned to the Royal Society for an answer to the problem, which in turn commissioned Evelyn, as a horticulturalist, to prepare a paper. The result was his Sylva or Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominion, published in 1664. The large work contains much practical advice on the growing of trees and he implores the land-owning classes to protect woods and forests. The book was still being reprinted into the 19th century and in the 1679 edition Evelyn claims that it had led to the planting of a million oak trees. Over one hundred years later, after the defeat of Napoleon, the historian Isaac D’Israeli (father of the future Prime Minister) wrote: “Inquire at the Admiralty how the fleets of Nelson have been constructed and they can tell you it was with the oak that the genius of Evelyn planted.”
During his self-exile in France Evelyn spent time travelling to Europe’s great cities such as Amsterdam, Rome and Sienna where he was impressed by their town planning and layout. Rome in particular had undergone a major renewal within the previous century under Pope Sixtus V in the latter 1580s and Evelyn was full of ideas of what could be done to London. In 1664 he translated a French publication regarding architecture. As fellow members of the Royal Commission considering the state of London’s streets, Evelyn made the acquaintance of Christopher Wren who shared his interest in architecture. When it was decided that Wren should travel to Paris in 1665 to inspect the city Evelyn was able to offer advice on what he should see there.