Blue Plaques

FORTUNE, Robert (1812–1880)

Plaque erected in 1998 by English Heritage at 9 Gilston Road, Chelsea, London, SW10 9SJ, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Botanist, Plant Collector

Category

Gardening, Science, Travel and Exploration

Inscription

ROBERT FORTUNE 1812-1880 Plant collector lived here 1857-1880

Material

Ceramic

Robert Fortune was a gardener, botanist and one of the earliest plant collectors to visit China, introducing many new plants to Britain which are now commonly seen in English gardens. He is also remembered as the collector who ‘stole’ China’s tea plants and knowledge, introducing tea to India and ending China’s monopoly. Fortune is commemorated with a blue plaque at 9 (formerly 1) Gilston Road, Kensington where he spent the last two decades of his life.

Illustration of Robert Fortune by unknown artist
Illustration of Robert Fortune by an unknown artist © Photo by Apic/Getty Images

Gardener to Plant Collector

Robert Fortune was born in Berwickshire, Scotland, the son of Thomas Fortune, a hedger, and his wife, Agnes, née Ridpath. Fortune established himself as a skilled gardener and botanist, working his way up from an apprenticeship in the local gardens to become superintendent of the Horticultural Society’s hothouse in Chiswick.

In 1843 Fortune made his first trip to China, charged by the Horticultural Society with collecting both ornamental and useful plants and gathering information about Chinese horticulture and gardening. He spent three years there, exploring areas little known to foreigners and some that were forbidden to them. In such cases he would need to disguise himself in Chinese dress and use his limited knowledge of the language to pass himself off as a native. 

Thanks to the Wardian case – an innovative portable greenhouse which greatly increased the chances of bringing back plants alive from distant countries – Fortune introduced many then new plants to Britain. This included the kumquat, the Japanese anemone and several species of azalea, rhododendron and chrysanthemum. He also collected orchids from Java and Manila during his travels. 

Fortune’s journeys coincided with a growing interest in gardening amongst the upper and middle classes, and an increased demand for colourful flowering shrubs and ornamental trees. At the time, the successful introduction of such ‘exotic’ plants to Britain was seen as a botanical triumph. The original plant collector was often honoured in the plant’s new European name, such as the Trachycarpus fortunei and Rhododendron fortunei, two Chinese plants named after Fortune. There was an element of exploitation to this transplantation, with no heed paid to the impact of such plant collecting on the country of origin, such as the decline in certain plant populations.

The ‘Tea Thief’

After a spell as curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden (1846–8), Fortune set out for China once again, this time charged by the East India Company with bringing back samples of the tea plant. In 1851 he introduced 2,000 plants and 17,000 sprouting seeds of tea into the North Western Provinces of India (then under Company rule). Fortune also shared invaluable knowledge on the processes for manufacturing tea that he had secretly observed in China. Fortune’s plants and knowledge had far-reaching economic consequences, enabling the British to take the lead on the lucrative production of tea and effectively end China’s monopoly of the industry. The element of espionage in Fortune’s work – and the sentiments of the Chinese about this – was made plain in the title of the 2002 film Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief.

A map illustrating Fortune's visits to the tea districts of China and India, by August Heinrich Petermann, 1853
A map illustrating Fortune's visits to the tea districts of China and India, by August Heinrich Petermann, 1853 © Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Later life

From 1857 Fortune lived at Gilston Road in London, with his wife Jane and two children. The house, built by George Godwin, was almost new when they moved in.

Throughout his life, Fortune published several travelogues – lively accounts of his journeys to China and other parts of Asia which also included detailed insight into areas little known to Europeans. Works published while living at Gilston road include A Residence among the Chinese (1857) and Yeddo and Peking (1863) – his last work, which described his journey to China and Japan to collect tea shrubs and other plants on behalf of the United States patent office.

Fortune’s later years were blighted by illness associated with the adversities endured on his many travels. He died at this address, and is buried in nearby Brompton Cemetery. 

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques


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