From Victorian plant-hunters to the D-Day landings and Donald Healey, Trebah has a rich and fascinating history

The oldest records show that for centuries Trebah was passed, by sale or marriage, through many old, noteworthy Cornish families, including the Killigrews, Vyvyans and the Nicholls. The surviving Georgian house at the head of the valley was built by the Nicholls in the 18th century and predates the garden. The Ordnance Survey map of 1813 shows Trebah as being a wooded valley within which the garden was subsequently developed.

Ordnance Survey Map

Surveyed 1878, published 1888

This historical map is a wonderful record of Trebah from the late 1800s. The boundaries of the garden are clearly shown and the original boathouse on the beach is referenced too.

1888 os map of trebah

The beginning of a great garden

The wonderful garden to be enjoyed at Trebah today is the cumulative result of almost 200 years of horticultural endeavour.

Charles (1797-1878) & Sarah Fox (1800-1882), of a wealthy Quaker family, bought the house, garden and Polgwidden Cove at the foot of the valley for £4,375 in 1838. They pioneered Trebah as a 26-acre pleasure garden.

The Fox family ran a very successful shipping business, as well as having interests in mines and fishing. They were responsible for creating 6 local gardens, stocking them with exotic plants – many of which had never been grown in Britain before.

Sarah Fox was also a published author and poet.

From 1856-57, a fine Victorian house was built to the east of the Nicholls' original house, which was then used as servants quarters.

Charles & Sarah Fox

At Trebah 1838-1878

During the 40 years owning the garden, they oversaw the planting of hundreds of pines and oaks to act as a shelterbelt against the worst of the elements.

Charles fox

The Backhouses

Charles and Sarah’s daughter Juliet (1828-1898) married Edmund Backhouse (1824-1906) and inherited Trebah on her father's death in 1878. The ensuing 30 years of Backhouse ownership was a golden era for Trebah during which it acquired a huge collection of exotic plants and trees from all over the world.

By the end of the 19th century the garden at Trebah was beginning to resemble much of what we see around us today. The main paths had been dressed with gravel from the shore and pools were dug out along the stream running through the valley.

Juliet Backhouse

At Trebah 1878-1898

Inherited the garden from her father in 1878 and oversaw a golden age of planting for Trebah

Juliet Backhouse

Edmund Backhouse MP

At Trebah 1878-1906

Edmund Backhouse came from a family of wealthy bankers, originating in Darlington. When he died in 1906, he was buried at a Quaker burial ground in nearby Budock.

Edmund Backhouse portrait

The Hexts

In 1907, Charles Hawkins and Alice Hext bought Trebah. Charles died in 1917 but until the outbreak of the Second World War the garden continued to be developed by Alice and the diversity of the plant collection continued to expand. In addition to her work on the garden, she was a philanthropist and generous benefactor to nearby villages Mawnan and Constantine, as well as a Justice of the Peace.

The marshy area at the bottom of the valley was puddled to create what has subsequently become known as Mallard Pond and it was stocked with pink flamingos. An open-fronted, thatched roof and cob-walled summer house was built on the eastern side of the garden, which was recreated in recent years.

Alice died in 1939, drawing this era to an end. The estate was inherited by a niece, who sold the farm and house separately.

The war years

During World War Two, Head Gardener Robert Day and a reduced staff did little more than maintain the garden. The beach was concreted and the boathouse and rocks were dynamited to allow access for tanks. The garden was used as an ammunition store, and trenches dug in the lower part of the garden.

On 1 June 1944, a regiment of 7,500 men of the 29th US Infantry Division, along with their tanks, guns and transport, embarked from Trebah Beach in ten 150-foot flat-bottomed LST landing craft. For five days they battled through enormous seas to the Isle of Wight and then on to the D-Day assault landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, where they suffered grievous casualties.

A memorial at the bottom of the garden commemorates the courage of these brave young American soldiers.

Post-war and the Healey years

The garden changed hands multiple times within this period. In 1947, during repairs to the roof, the main house caught fire and was destroyed, leaving only the original Georgian house at the head of the valley. At about this time, the remaining moor was ploughed, drained and planted with blue hydrangeas.

In 1961, Trebah was bought by racing driver and car designer Donald Healey who used some of the outbuildings to carry out development work on his Healey cars. Over the next ten years he removed much of the concrete from the beach with a grant from the War Department and built the existing boathouse with granite, which had been used as hardcore on the beach.

Recent history to present day

Major Tony Hibbert and Eira Hibbert bought Trebah in 1981 as their retirement home, but were persuaded by the Cornwall Garden Society to begin a programme of work to restore the garden to its former glory. Under their care the garden was vastly improved and opened to the public.

The Trust is born

In 1990, ownership of the house, garden and cottages passed to Trebah Garden Trust, an independent registered charity. The Trusts’ objectives are; to preserve, enhance and re-create for the education and enjoyment of the public the gardens of Trebah and to promote the education of the public on matters connected with the arts and sciences of garden land.

Trebah has become an award-winning and inclusive attraction for all ages, welcoming over 100,000 visitors from all over the world into the garden each year.