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A potted history

The Botanical Gardens have their roots in the early 18th Century, but Bicton itself dates back more than 1300 years. It was originally called Beoccatun, meaning the hamlet belonging to Beocca, a Saxon chieftain who settled in the forest on the west bank of the River Otter, then much wider than it is now.

Four centuries later, the Normans took over and built a prison at Exeter’s Rougemont Castle to keep the local Saxons under control. Wardenship of the jail became a hereditary duty of the lords of the manor at Bicton for some 700 years until the office of prison keeper was rescinded when the castle fell into disrepair in the late 1700s. By then, Bicton’s Italian Garden was well established, and horticulture was set to play an increasingly significant role in the future of the estate.

A young woman who married the lord of the manor in 1822 was a major influence in Bicton’s development as a garden of botanical importance. An enthusiastic plantswoman, the Honourable Louisa Trefusis was 28 when she became the second wife of 66-year old Lord John Rolle.

The Rolle family began their association with Bicton through marriage in the early 17th century. Their predecessors were the descendants of Sir Robert Denys, who bought the estate in c.1500. The Denys’s prospered through business deals, land acquisition and political intrigue during the reign of Henry VIII, when many new aristocrats flaunted their wealth by building magnificent houses. The Denys family demolished Bicton’s medieval manor house and replaced it with a Tudor mansion, surrounded by a deer park, which was to dominate the grounds for 200 years.


The Rolle family, who already possessed  many acres, became one of the biggest  landowners in England when they inherited Bicton and other estates acquired by the  Denys. At one stage, the Rolles were the  lords of 45 manors. By 1883, their 55,592  acres in Devon were yielding an annual  income today worth millions of pounds.

Three Rolle brothers, Henry, John and Dennis, transformed the Bicton estate in the 

18th century. Henry, later to become the 1st Baron Rolle, began changing the scene when he laid out the Italian Garden in c.1735. On Henry’s death in 1750, John demolished the Tudor manor house and started to build the present mansion. He died however before much of the work had been done, and the task was carried on by Dennis.

When Dennis died in 1797, Bicton passed to his son John, who served as the Tory Party Member of Parliament for Devonshire from 1779 until he was elevated to the peerage as the 2nd Baron Rolle in 1796. Lord John retired from politics to manage the Rolle estate after his father’s death.

Bicton entered the 20th century in the hands of the Honourable Mark Rolle, whose initials on numerous buildings in nearby towns and villages are testimony to his energy as a property developer. Born Mark Trefusis, great-nephew of Lady Louisa Rolle, he adopted the name Rolle after inheriting Bicton in 1842. On his death in 1907, the estate went to his nephew, Charles, the 21st Baron Clinton. Shortly afterwards, Bicton’s long era as a private retreat came to an end. The manor was used during the two World Wars, first as a military hospital from 1914-18 and later as a school for girls evacuated from Sussex.

Faced with post-war austerity, Lord Clinton decided it was no longer possible to run such a large place as a family home. He rented, and later sold, Bicton House and Home Farm to Devon

County Council as an agricultural and horticultural college. The gardens were not included in the lease, although their maintenance had been reduced in 1939 – a level of care that was to exist for more than 20 years.

Lord Charles, a noted botanist who helped to found the Forestry Commission, of which he later became chairman, died in 1954, aged 91. Bicton was inherited by his great-grandson, Gerard Fane Trefusis, the present Lord Clinton and lord of the manor, who restored the gardens to their pre-war splendour before opening them to the public in 1963. Twenty-three years later, Lord Clinton gave the gardens to a charitable trust, from which the present owners acquired the park in 1998.

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