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The schoolmaster and the sweet pea

Autumn is just around the corner, and time to gather in the last sweet peas and then say goodbye to their sweet summer fragrance. But the sweet pea might never have made it to the United Kingdom at all had it not been for a Sicilian monk and a school master from Enfield with a plant mania and great connections.

The first known mention of the sweet pea in print was in 1695 by Father Franciscus Cupani. Cupani had not long become the director of a botanic garden near Palermo and sometime in the late 1690s set about sending the seeds of this fragrant delight to his connections all over the world, including to the Enfield home of Dr Robert Uvedale.

Uvedale was the master of Enfield Grammar School and was on Cuprani’s mailng list due to his fame as a botanist and hothouse pioneer. According to J. Gibson, writing in 1691, ‘[He] is a great lover of plants, and, having an extraordinary art in managing them, is become master of the greatest and choicest collection of exotic greens that is perhaps anywhere in this land. His greens take up six or seven houses or roomsteads. .. His flowers are choice, his stock numerous, and his culture of them very methodical and curious.’

Uvedale had taken up his post at Enfield when he was still in his early 20s, and gone on to expand the school with the lease of the Manor House just south of Enfield market place (where Palace Gardens is now) for a new cohort of private boarders. He’d also given Enfield Grammar his own family motto “Tant Que Je Puis” (As Much As I Can).

By kind permission of Enfield Local Studies & Archive
By kind permission of Enfield Local Studies & Archive

Perhaps the full motto was more aptly “as much as I can get away with”. Despite his odd but sedate appearance in the portrait, left, Uvedale seems to have been a bit of a character. While still living with his family in Westminster, a sixteen year old Uvedale had nipped up and stolen an escutcheon from the funeral hearse of Oliver Cromwell, something which remained with the Uvedale family (framed and with an account of his exploits on reverse) for several generations. In 1676 Uvedale nearly lost his post at the school for neglecting his duties at the grammar in favour of looking after his more lucrative private boarders. There was also a curious allegation that he obtained an appointment as an actor and comedian at the Theatre Royal from the lord chamberlain to protect himself from the execution of a writ.

Uvedale seems to have shown off the plant to the Royal Professor of Botany and former  classmate Dr Plukenet in around 1701. In 1713 sweet peas were flowering at Chelsea Botanic Garden and eleven years later, they were on sale commercially.

Sadly Uvedale’s amazing botanical collection didn’t remain in Enfield for long after his death, but the Cedar restaurant at Pearsons’ is a nod to the great Cedar of Lebanon he is said to have planted in the 1660s. The cedar, and Enfield Manor, the home of Uvedale’s cash rich boarders, survived until 1927.

You can still buy an approximation of the Cupani/Uvedale/Plukenet sweet peas, which are said to be particularly fragrant (try Sarah Raven). Plant them soon under cover and you will have good sturdy plants for next year.