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The Nobel Prize winner at the bottom of the garden

Of all the mind-bendingly expensive streets in Chelsea, The Boltons, pictured above, are probably the most picture-postcard perfect. Homes here will cost you somewhere in the vicinity of £2,500 per square foot which, based on Sigma-Aldrich prices, is nearly 20% the price of an equivalent area in gold.

Houses for the mega-ultra-wealthy need staff to run them, which is why in 1954 one of the well-to-do residents of the elite SW10 neighbourhood employed a well-spoken Australian man in his mid-sixties named Willie to look after her garden for her. Willie was an enthusiastic gardener and did a fantastic job. However, as Francis Crick wrote in his memoirs:1

For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window said to her hostess, “my dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?”

The response to that question quite simply was, “gardening,” which I hope the hostess delivered in the dry tones of an unperturbed Maggie Smith. A more pertinent question might have been “why is Sir Lawrence Bragg in your garden?” and the answer, quite simply, is that he loved gardening.

Sir William Lawrence Bragg CH OBE MC FRS, known to his employer as Willie, had graduated from the University of Adelaide at 18 and got into Cambridge the following year despite sitting the entrance exam while in bed with pneumonia. His Master’s degree research won him the Nobel prize for physics at the age of 25 which, until Malala Yousafzai, made him the youngest-ever winner of a Nobel Prize. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society at 31 and had spent the remainder of his career at Cambridge University chilling out and doing odd jobs like helping the aforementioned Crick discover the structure of DNA.

However, none of this was known to the Chelsea homeowner when groundskeeper Willie turned up to see to the beds and hedgerows. Describing her father’s religious beliefs in a tribute issue of Acta Crystallographica,2 Bragg’s daughter referred to him as

“… what he termed a ‘blue sky’ worshipper, which meant, in his terms, that he gardened when we were taken to church on Sunday.”

In 1954, Bragg had moved from Cambridge to London to become the Superintendent of the House at the Royal Institution. The position included accommodation in a flat on the top floor of the Albemarle Street property that houses the Institution, which is all well and good for easy access to the nightlife of Belgravia and Mayfair, but not a great place to live if all you want to do is potter around the garden. Unfortunately, Crick’s memoirs implied that it was considered somewhat improper to have a knight of the realm trimming your verge, and Bragg’s services as a Chelsea gardener were terminated.


References:

  1. Crick, Francis (1989). What Mad Pursuit. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. p. 53.ISBN 0140119736
  2. Thompson, Patience (2013), A tribute to W. L. Bragg by his younger daughter Acta Crystallographica

Further reading on Bragg’s life at the Cambridge University outreach page and The Royal Institution.

Price per square foot of property in The Boltons estimated using Fermi estimations of ~£30 million price tag for a ~15,000 sq ft mansion, although for obvious reasons I don’t have access to exact figures on the price and size of one of these properties.

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