During the late 18th and early 19th century as road conditions improved and with the development of the railway, it became fashionable for merchants and businessmen to seek more desirable areas to live, from where they could commute to their business premises. It was at this time between 1803 and 1807 that John William Hentig purchased land in Cottingham, and Thwaite House, as it was originally called, was built on the 31acre estate. The estate was situated next to the road which was named The Thwaite. This was from the Old Norse meaning of “a clearing in the wood ”. It is now named Thwaite Street
Mr Hentig, a Hull merchant, lived there until his death in 1853 and shortly after, the estate was purchased by David and Charles Wilson, sons of Thomas Wilson who owned the famous shipping company in Hull.
When Charles Wilson took over the property from his brother David, he greatly extended the property and created the lake by digging out the stream and widening both ends. The stream was fed by natural springs running from the “Bogs” and under the railway pedestrian crossing into the lake. The lake was named the “Fish Pond” and was a sought-after venue for anglers. Charles, who became the first Lord Nunburnholme, also laid out the gardens and planted many trees and shrubs, including rhododendrons and lilacs to the north side of the lake.
When Charles moved to Warter Priory, the estate was bought by Hull solicitor Albert Rollitt who was later to receive a knighthood for his services to Hull. He served as the Lord Mayor of Hull and at one time he held the office of Sheriff of Hull. An extract from the Beverley Guardian in 1883 gives an example of the entertainment provided by Dr Rollitt at Thwaite House.
“The members of the Kingston Model Yacht Club met at Thwaite House, invited by Dr Rollitt. The grounds were in admirable order, the parterres well set out, luxuriant in growth and colouring. The lake, a beautiful sheet of water, made picturesque by islands and the taller and statelier variety of trees at the upper extremity, was found admirably suited to the purpose of sailing.”
The house was later sold to Colonel Goddard who resided there until 1928 when the property was sold to the University College, now Hull University. The house was again extended to provide accommodation for students and was renamed Thwaite Hall.
The gardens suffered some neglect during the war years. However, in 1948 the University established the Botanic Garden and Experimental Ground within the gardens. Between 1967 and 1971 existing glasshouses were replaced and further ones built to accommodate the vast collections of Tropical, Sub-tropical, Temperate and Cool House plants. There was a fern house and glasshouses used for research.
The front entrance garden was planted with species of a more tender nature, making use of the east and west facing walls for protection and shelter from cold winds. The rear gardens were well stocked with herbaceous plants and shrubs arranged in their family groups.
Various conifers were grouped together in beds as were several apple species and a bed of old rose species. Previously, research work was carried out on this site by the staff of the Department of Biological Sciences. This still continues today, but the staffing has been drastically reduced from 7 to 1, due to government funding cuts in the early 1980s.
In the early 1990s a vast number of the glasshouse plant collection was transferred to Ripley Castle and at that time there were fears that part of the land might be sold for housing development.
Concern for the future of the gardens prompted a submission by the Cottingham Civic Society and the Victorian Society to various national societies, including English Heritage. As a consequence of this, the garden was spotlighted as a Grade 2 Garden of Special Historic Interest.This does not give the gardens protection from any future development plans. However, following a public enquiry, a reprieve allowed the gardens to remain and in the late 1990s, the University resolved to make the gardens more widely accessible.
Unrestricted public access could have posed health, safety and security risks, so a way had to be found to widen access without incurring those risks.
Enter the Friends of Thwaite Gardens. On the initiative of the University, a steering group was formed to draft a constitution and a public meeting was called to launch the Friends organisation. Initially about 70 members signed up. In another move towards accessibility the University allowed the British Red Cross to hold fund raising Open Gardens events. Impressed with what they saw, quite a few of their visitors subsequently joined the Friends. As membership increased, the Friends committee – 6 elected members and 2 University appointees considered how to meet the two founding aims. The first very modest improvement was the construction of two small alpine beds in an unused area.
Following the Red Cross example, the Friends launched their own annual Open Day which was a great success and attracted yet more members. The most popular feature of the day was the tree trail which offered guided tours or walks around some of the most beautiful areas of the gardens where some of the most interesting trees are to be found.
By linking its visual assets to information and education, and consequently attracting more visitors, the Friends’ next, and more ambitious project was a herb garden. An application for an “Awards for All” Lottery grant of £4.500 for the construction of the herb garden was successful and the herb garden has now been completed and is fully open. Other projects, such as the jetty on the lake, have been completed and future projects will be announced in the Newsletter. With the gardens becoming increasingly accessible and the membership growing in numbers and stature, we have made a promising start to the 21st century, not just for the group but also for the local community.