Sir William Boreman

Greenwich Park remains one of the best examples of Baroque garden design in Britain with its long tree-lined avenues radiating from key locations and focused on the Queen’s House. It is the relatively unknown Sir William Boreman that we have to thank for making this happen, albeit with the help of some famous landscape gardeners.

William Boreman was born around 1613 in Greenwich. His father, also William Boreman (c.1564 – c.1646), was the Royal Locksmith, a role he held for 60 years serving Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. It was through his strong connections with the court, that William ended up working at the palace in Greenwich. He lived with his parents in a pleasant house behind Trinity Hospital with gardens and a cherry orchard and became responsible for looking after the needs of Queen Henrietta Maria who owned the Queen’s House.

Henrietta Maria had fled to France in 1642, afraid of the impending civil war. William Boreman remained in Greenwich and was a staunch royalist, continuing to serve Henrietta Maria, despite her absence. This was made more difficult by the people of Greenwich siding strongly with the parliamentarians. In 1643, Henrietta Maria returned to England and rejoined Charles II in Oxford. She fell pregnant with her 9th child, but by the end of the year had to flee to Exeter when Oxford was threatened by the New Model Army. Exeter itself soon fell under siege and William Boreman kept the family supplied with food during the entire 28 weeks that this lasted.

On 16th June 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth and shortly after fled to France from Falmouth. Considering the journey too dangerous, she left her family and newly born daughter in the care of her Lady in Waiting. William Boreman was charged with making arrangements for their safe travel to London. With everything in turmoil, he had to borrow £650 to provide their food and facilitate the journey and subsequently spent four months in a debtors’ prison as he did not have the means to pay the money back.

After Fairfax had defeated the royalists on Blackheath many of those sympathetic to the King fled from Greenwich. Unable to stay in his home, Boreman joined Charles I on the Isle of Wight in 1648. The civil war had ended in defeat for the King and parliament was now seeking a settlement with him. 

The Treaty of Newport was eventually signed, and this included the appointment of new servants to the King’s household. William Boreman was made one of the three assistant clerks of the kitchen. Under the guidance of the Chief Clerk, they were responsible for ensuring that the kitchens were properly provisioned with fresh food and materials and employed the staff. This included master chefs, cooks, bakers, maids and even the tum-brochés, who turned the spits. 

Despite being a prisoner, Charles I continued to behave arrogantly and petulantly, even refusing to shave unless parliament sent his barber to the Isle of Wight. Uriah Babbington was a favourite of the King and, as well as being his barber, he had been appointed as keeper of the palace, gardens and park at Greenwich for life in 1634 and would have known William Boreman well.

Unfortunately Charles I arrogantly refused to cooperate with the new government and parliament revoked the treaty and put the king on trial for treason. He was executed in 1649 and England became a Commonwealth. Boreman would probably have returned to Greenwich with Uriah Babbington and moved back into the family home that he now owned following his father’s death three years earlier. 

Uriah Babbington, continued to run the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich during this period, but Oliver Cromwell also put a member of parliament, John Parker, in charge of selling off the palace and park to raise money for the people. To that end, there would have been a need to manage the grounds and it may be that Boreman was employed on this because of his familiarity with the park and palace. In the end, no buyers could be found, and Babbington himself bought part of the palace so that he could remain living there.

On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II promoted William Boreman to be Chief Clerk and Supernumerary Comptroller within the Board of the Green Cloth on August 31. This was a much more important role than he had been given by Charles I and gave him more control over decision-making and expenditure. The Board of the Green Cloth is an archaic term that was used to describe the organisation within the royal household that oversaw the management of the properties and travel arrangements of the monarch. 

Charles II would have known William Boreman from his time supporting his mother at the Queen’s House, but he was also impressed by his loyalty and the work he had performed for his father on the Isle of Wight. Consequently, William Boreman was placed in charge of managing the Queen's House which, unlike the Palace of Placentia, had remained largely unscathed during the Commonwealth. Having spent much of his childhood at Greenwich and then Versailles, Charles II had big ambitions for the park and wanted to build a new palace. 

The park was in a very sorry state. There were a few hungry deer remaining and many trees had been felled. William Boreman’s first job was to create two new areas called the Wilderness where he could grow wood for use at the palace. He then revived and expanded the orchards around the gardens. Impressed with this, and wishing to start creating the grounds for his new palace, Charles II instructed Boreman to begin planting new trees to restore and improve the avenues, the first being Eltham Avenue, now known as Blackheath Avenue. 

In 1661 William Boreman was knighted and, in August, he submitted a petition to the King asking that he be allowed to keep and sell the produce from the grounds of Greenwich Park in return for an annual fee of £100.

By April 1662 much of the initial landscaping work was complete and the northern end of Eltham Avenue, next to the ruined castle which is now the site of the Observatory, had been levelled. Beneath it, Sir William Boreman had carved out giant steps to form the Grand Ascent, which impressed Samuel Pepys greatly. 

It is difficult to believe that William Boreman was responsible for the designs which have all the characteristics of French royal gardens of the time. Claude Mollet was part of a dynasty of royal gardeners who had brought Italianate landscaping to France He was head gardener for three French kings before Louis XIV replaced him, but was also employed by James I who walled Greenwich Park and would have added avenues at that time. André Mollet, Claude’s son, was also working for Charles II during 1661 in St. James’ Park. 

The Round at Blackheath Gate, a semicircle from which three avenues radiated, is a classic patte d’oie design that was much favoured by the Mollets. Therefore, we must assume that William Boreman had help either by following existing designs or through conversations. However, no documentary evidence remains.

In 1662, the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria, returned to the Queen’s House. Both she and Charles’s sister had been talking much of the new head gardener to Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre. Impressed by progress at Greenwich, Charles II commissioned Le Nôtre to draw up some plans for a parterre in front of the Queen’s House. 

Boreman continued to oversee this work and plant the avenues, and his accounts describing the work between 1661 and 1665 are quite detailed. Boreman was living at his house in Greenwich during this time and Samuel Pepys was one of his friends. They often dined together, and Pepys frequented Boreman’s house, enjoying his cherry orchard and venison pies.

On 13th September 1664, Charles II gave Boreman another promotion, making him the First Clerk Comptroller of the Board of the Green Cloth with responsibilities for the entire royal household.

On 26 May 1671, Sir William Boreman was promoted again, becoming the Second Clerk to the Board of the Green Cloth, the second highest position in that organisation, and the highest rank he was to obtain.

In 1672, Sir William Boreman founded a school in Greenwich called The Green Coat School. This school was to provide education and clothing for twenty boys born in Greenwich who were the sons of watermen, seamen and fishermen, especially if they had served in a war.  He endowed it with land, tenements, and farm rents for its ongoing maintenance. In his will of 1684, he bequeathed the school, land and property to the Drapers’ Company. 

The Green Coat School was situated in Prince of Orange Lane near Straightsmouth (close to the present Greenwich station) and in 1851 had twenty-five boys aged between eight and thirteen in attendance. Although it no longer exists, Sir William Boreman’s Foundation does, and today it provides grants and financial support to students in the Greenwich and Lewisham area.

In 1675, Sir William Boreman's first wife, Dulcibella Robinson, died. He had married her at St Martin’s in the Field church on the 22nd February 1638 (possibly 1639) when he was twenty-five. She was the eighteen year old daughter of the Archdeacon of Gloucester, Hugh Robinson. Boreman successfully petitioned the King regarding assistance in the publishing of a significant religious work by her father the year before she died.  It seems they had one son, as Samuel Pepys writes of borrowing a horse from Sir William Boreman’s son in 1665, but as there is no mention of any heirs in Boreman’s will, he must have predeceased his father.

In 1676, Charles II granted lands within the manor of Old Court at East Greenwich to Sir William Boreman on a 99 year lease. Sir William Boreman was still taking a strong interest in Greenwich Park, and wrote to Sir Ralph Verney from Whitehall on the 12th of May 1671.

Sir, I beg your pardon that I have been so long before I returned you the king's kind acceptance of, and thanks, for the Quickenbury [Rowan, or Mountain Ash] trees you sent his Majesty, to whom I delivered in your name and told him how bountiful you had been before in furnishing, or rather beautifying Greenwich park with plants of that kind; they thrive exceedingly well, and I should be very happy to see you there, that you may see how well they flourish upon a piece of as barren ground as is in England.

William Boreman remarried a woman called Sarah Burgess, but she also died before him. His third wife, Margaret Young, had already outlived four husbands, and outlived William as well, who died in 1686 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Alfege’s.

In his will, he left most of his land and property, of which there was a great deal, to his wife. Apart from his ‘manor house’, he also had about 20 tenements, a farm and various parcels of land. He also made financial provision for his only two surviving relatives, the son and daughter of his nephew. As previously mentioned, his school and its assets were given to The Draper’s Company to manage in perpetuity. 

One final lasting legacy was that Sir William Boreman’s widow sold the remaining term of the lease on the Old Court estate to Sir John Morden in 1699. He had founded Morden College on Blackheath in 1695 as a home for merchants of the Levant Company who had fallen upon hard times. The college had been partially funded by profits from the extraction and sale of gravel from Blackheath as ballast for ships leaving London. Ballast Quay, in Greenwich, had deep enough water to allow the ships to take on the ballast.

Sir John Morden was able to get a grant of perpetuity for the lease and then bequeathed the land to his college. With the acquisition of this land, Ballast Quay was now owned by the college along with most of the surrounding area and still is today. If you look at the houses and Cutty Sark pub on Ballast Quay you will see signs for Morden College with a horse and the text ‘MC 1699’.


Main Sources:

The Boreman Genealogy – Charlotte Goldthwaite – 1895

|The Environs Of London – Daniel Lysons – 1796

June Burkitt – Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society – 1977 Vol 8 No 6

1851 Census Index

The Verney Family during the civil war – Frances Verney - 1892

Honest Harry, Captain C. W. Firebrace, f.s.a - 1932