2010 was the 350th anniversary of the birth of Sir Hans Sloane, the great enlightenment figure whose presence is felt in Chelsea to this day.
Sloane Square, Sloane Street, Hans Place and Hans Town are all named after him. Yet with the passage of time his voice and character have grown more silent; he didn't have his own scribe so we will never know the nuances and idiosyncrasies of his character but his actions echo ever more loudly down the centuries. Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), physician and collector, was a man of his time, and the age he lived through imprinted itself upon him and he in turn made an indelible contribution to that world, no more so than through his enduring association with Chelsea. So who was he and what was his attachment to the area?
Hans Sloane was born in Killyleagh, Ireland on April 16, 1660. From an early age he developed a strong inclination towards the study of the works of nature - an interest which led him to study botany at one of the foremost institutions of his day, the Chelsea Physic Garden. This was his first introduction to Chelsea. Sloane also studied chemistry at the Apothecaries Hall and then took off travelling around Europe, returning in 1683 after passing his medical doctorate. During this time he also came under the influence of two older contemporaries who were to remain his firm friends for the remainder of their lives, John Ray and Robert Boyle. There seems little doubt that the acquaintance of these scholarly figures and their circle produced a powerful formative influence on the development of Sloane's interests.
In 1687-9, Sloane went to Jamaica as physician to the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. During this voyage he began collecting samples of plants and animals. This 'collecting' was the start of a life-long obsession. He also brought back from Jamaica a very important discovery – chocolate. He believed it had 'health giving properties' and invented a recipe for drinking chocolate. This recipe was later purchased by Messrs Cadbury and commercially produced.
After his return to London Sloane stayed in the service of the Duchess of Albemarle for a few years before setting up what was to become an immensely successful medical practice in Bloomsbury. In 1712 Sloane purchased the Manor of Chelsea, thinking that the Manor House would be the ideal venue to store and exhibit his burgeoning collections. Chelsea at that time was a pleasant village in reach of the city of London, a fashionable place to live and the site of many grand houses along the river Thames. In 1695 he married Elizabeth, the widow of Fulk Rose, formerly of Jamaica. They had two daughters; Sarah and (in 1702) Elizabeth. In 1717 Sloane's younger daughter Elizabeth married Charles, later 2nd Baron Cadogan. It is through this union that the stewardship of Chelsea passed into the Cadogan family and the Cadogan Estate in Chelsea was established.
Sloane had the good fortune to be inspired by some of the greatest physicians of the age. While in Oxford he met John Radcliffe, perhaps the country's wealthiest medical practitioner, and entered into 'the greatest intimacy of friendship' with Thomas Sydenham, the undisputed master of the medical world. Sloane was appointed physician to three British monarchs; Queen Anne in 1696, George I in 1716 and George II in 1727. In the same year, he succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society, an appointment that placed Sloane at the hub of the learned world. While he was a skilful promoter of science and defender of the practices of observation and experiment, Sloane was also much admired for his philanthropy and 'his bounty to the distressed'. His medical care of London's most affluent enabled him to amass a vast fortune which he then redistributed to the city's poor in the form of free medical supervision. Before the socially-minded Sloane had retired from his medical practice, he was an occasional visitor to his Chelsea estate where he probably continued his London habit of treating the poor free of charge, as he did at Chelsea after his retirement. In 1721 Sloane gave the Physic Garden to the Apothecaries for £5 per annum in perpetuity, under the condition that 50 new plants grown in the gardens were to be submitted annually to the Royal Society. Later, in 1732, Sloane presented his nephew, Rev. Sloane Elsmere, with the rectory of Chelsea, and gave three-quarters of an acre, near to the King's Road burial ground, for the building of a workhouse.