Let us, (since life can little more supply

Than just to look about us, and to die,)

Expiate free o'er all this scene of man,

A mighty maze! but not without a plan.'

     Pope, Essay on Man, 1733.

On the assumption of the throne by William III of Orange (nephew of James II) and Mary (James' daughter) in 1689 the asthmatic William found the claustrophobia of the mediaeval Palace of Whitehall intolerable, and resolved to spend the greater part of the year at Hampton Court, whose broad avenue-lined canal and Thames flood-plain flatness no doubt reminded him of the Netherlands. He commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to modify the Tudor palace and gardens to a scale more suitable to the monarch's permanent residence.

Wren remodelled the gardens and totally rebuilt the sovereign's apartments to form the splendid Renaissance east front and the Fountain Court. Further designs to realign the ceremonial approach by a magnificent chestnut avenue skirting a great fountain in Bushey Park and leading to a new entrance court on the north side of the Tudor palace were only partially executed by the time of William's death in 1702.

Preparatory to the construction of the northern entrance court the Tudor orchard created beyond the moat by Henry VIII in 1525 was levelled, and London and Wise, the King’s gardeners, laid out a 'Wilderness'. Actually this was an extremely formal design of an intersecting lozenge and cross of paths, bordered by high hedges of hornbeam, and incorporating a maze, three 'Troy Towns' (an earlier form without choices) and various other topiary works in yew, with cypresses as infill within the hedges. It is unclear who was actually responsible for the design; it appears in a collection of Sir Christopher Wren's drawings acquired by Sir John Soane, and so may actually be Wren's.

Mary died of smallpox in 1694, and the heartbroken William suspended all work at Hampton Court. In the accounts for this first period of work, submitted by William Talman in 1695, we find the first mention of the maze and Wilderness -

John and Elizabeth Apprice - painting work in the maze .... £552-0-4

Edward Wilcox, Carpenter- 1,243 ft of posts and rails set up in the Wilderness and Kitchen Garden .... £749-8-10

It is therefore clear that both were at least laid out and in some degree finished in 1689-94.

Early in 1698 the Palace of Whitehall was burnt down - sparing only the Banqueting House and Henry VIII's Wine Cellar - and William refused to rebuild it. Instead he revived the Hampton Court plans and work on the interior decoration of the royal apartments, the Bushey avenue, and the gardens was recommenced. The accounts submitted by William Talman, Comptroller of the Kings Works, in 1699 show the Wilderness was being turfed and gravelled:

Henry Wise, Privy Garden - Laying screened gravel on walks -  turf and new covering earth and sand - planting several yew trees.....Like service in the Wilderness ............... £259-9-8

On her succession in 1702 Anne, who had always disliked William, swept away the old order; Wise however continued in office as Deputy and she took a resolution 'to restrain the expense of the gardens'.

In 1706 London and Wise translated a French work by Louis Liger and issued it as ‘The Compleat Florist or Solitary Gardiner' afterwards published by J Carpenter as 'The Retir'd Gardener'. On labyrinths it said:

A Labyrinth is a Place cut into several Windings, set off with Horn-beam, to divide them from one another... The most valuable Labyrinths are always those that wind most, as that of Versailles, the contrivance of which has been wonderfully lik'd by all that have seen it.... The Palisades, of which labyrinths ought to be compos'd should be ten, twelve, or fifteen foot high; some there are that are no higher than one can lean on, but those are not the finest. The Walks of a Labyrinth ought to be kept roll'd and the Horn-beams in them shear'd, in the shape of Half-moons.

This would tend to support other evidence that the original maze at Hampton Court was in hornbeam. It is at present principally in yew, which change may be attributable to the last year of Anne's reign in 1714 when Henry Wise submitted a bill for:

A figure hedgework of very large evergreen plants in the Wilderness to face the Iron Gates

These gates were put up in 1714 to close the vista of the Bushey avenue on the abandonment of the grandiose terminal entrance court and approach which would have entailed the Wilderness being laid out anew with a wider central road and the destruction of the maze. The present Lion Gates were subsequently moved to this position from the garden entrance to the Home Park, where they had been erected in the Reign of George I. There is however a school of thought which assigns this passage to the first construction of the maze - but, as we have seen, a maze is mentioned in 1689-94, and Ralph Thoresby of Leeds, visiting Hampton Court in 1712 mentions 'labyrinths' - the dating of the first construction of the present maze is therefore unresolvable.

Stephen Switzer, a pupil of London and Wise, published a treatise on gardening 'Iconographia Rustica, or the Gentleman's, Nobleman's and Gardner's Recreation' in 1718. In his somewhat labyrinthine style he says concerning a maze design of his:

The most stops that I ever observed in this case are at Hampton Court, where, I take it, there are but three or four false stops, or methods to loose or perplex the rambler in his going in; whereas in this there is above twenty and I presume to say (If it were of much value when I had so said), that 'tis not a very easy matter to find this centre, withought the draught, or perhaps with it. But, be it as it will, it is of no great use to enlarge upon it after the design is thus fixed; and in the large quarters and divisions of a wood, this may give some light in the making them intricate and perplexing, and may help to accomplish our garden amusements.

The Wilderness was subsequently erased by a sea of 'natural' grass and tastefully disposed trees in the manner of the English landscape movement of Kent and Brown, to produce what we see today, though the exact date of this 'improvement' is not established. It is known Kent grassed over the scroll-work in the great Fountain Garden and removed all the fountains but one. However in 1764 Brown, nicknamed 'Capability' from his propensity to see 'capabilities of improvement' in every new commission, was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court. With this post went Wilderness House, which still adjoins the maze on the west, and where Brown principally resided for the remaining nineteen years of his life.

From a solitary upper window a superb and unique aerial view of the maze was, and still is, obtained - Brown must have been afforded much amusement in his idle hours by this example of outmoded garden design so far removed from his own ideals. Although it is said he declined to improve the grounds 'out of respect to himself and his profession' two works elsewhere at the Palace are attributed to him and it is at least a possibility he was responsible for the erasure of the Wilderness leaving only the maze and five of the original paths. This accounts for the curious shape of the maze, which was originally only part of the much larger design.

The last reigning monarch to reside at Hampton Court was George II, who died in 1760, and since this date limited access to the house and gardens seems to have been available to the cultured connoisseur. In 1782 the Honourable Daines Barrington published in the journal Archaelogia a resumé of the history of gardening, singling out Hampton Court maze for special mention:

As it is perhaps the only such garden device now remaining after the devastations of Messrs Kent and Brown, I shall mention some particulars relative to it. The winding walks amount to half a mile, though the whole extent is perhaps not more than a quarter of an acre, and there is a stand adjacent in which the gardener places himself in order to extricate you by his direction, after the stranger acknowledges himself to be completely tired and puzzled.

Before I made this arduous attempt, I resolved to fix upon a certain rule as my best chance to avoid being confounded, and I succeeded by always keeping as near as I could to the outermost hedge.

The true dimensions are a quarter of a mile of paths and a third of an acre in extent. Barrington's 'rule' however is completely accurate, and in a more general form involving 'hand trailing' is still the simplest clue to solving this type of maze.

Eventually the Palace and grounds were thrown open to the public by Victoria one year after her accession in 1839. They were 'freely admitted to view whatever is curious or interesting within the walls of Hampton Court Palace' - which of course included the maze!

Visitors to the maze had been sufficiently numerous before this to warrant William IV, Victoria's uncle, granting the 'Bounty of the Maze' to his head gardener William Turrell, who was allowed to charge one penny per visitor. When Victoria ceded the maze and Kitchen Garden to the Office of Works in 1850 Turrell transferred to Keeper of the Vine (planted by Capability Brown in 1768), and the Bounty eventually devolved onto one William Dobson, a sergeant in the 90th Regiment in the Crimea War, invalided out of the service at age thirty two in 1856 and appointed Sergeant Keeper of the Maze.

Dobson maintained himself thus for the next thirty four years - apparently living in the keeper’s hut, then as now located at the entrance to the maze. He produced, on his own initiative, a plan of the maze, and received permission from the Office of Works to sell postcard reproductions of it. The plan was based on one published by E. Jesse (Surveyor of Her Majesties Parks and Palaces) in his 1839 guide to the newly open Palace 'A Summers Day at Hampton Court' and was widely distributed becoming the basis of all subsequently published plans. Obviously encouraged by this sympathetic response, and at the age of seventy three becoming incapacitated by rheumatism, Dobson foolishly requested enlargement and repair of his hut (not unreasonable after thirty four years) which drew attention to the dereliction of the maze hedges.

This request obviously required higher authority than that for selling plans, and apparently for the first time Dobson's existence came to the attention of Her Majesty's First Commissioner of Works. Far from enlarging his hut, in 1899 Dobson was given three months notice, to be replaced by a salaried attendant at £100 per annum, and a turnstile neatly counting the visitors (prudently re-used from the ice enclosure). Despite frenzied pleading from Dobson the First Commissioner was of the opinion the Dobson must have been saving over his thirty four year incumbency.

Receipts under the new system yielded £450 in 1903. Dobson's practice of selling plans had evidently lapsed by 1906, when the keepers petitioned the Office of Works for permission to do the same, siting Dobson as a precedent. Initially refused, permission was finally granted in 1909, after the original artwork was unearthed in response to a request from the Peruvian Ambassador for a copy, in order that a replica might be built in Lima. It seems a pity that no accurate plan is now sold at the site.

The subsequent history of the maze is one of continuing and steady popularity, and a constant battle to preserve its innocent pleasures for future generations under the inevitable depredations of this popularity. The maze has manifested its capture of the public's imagination by several embodiments in literature. For example the 'British Magazine' of September 1747 published a 'True Draft of, and Reflections on Walking, the Hampton Court Maze', and in July 1749 a contributor reflected on the curious pleasures of it's frustrations, albeit in doggerel Latin:

Whosoever would visit the Royal Gardens at Hampton,

Let him know that here are the deceptions of a labyrinth.

As soon as a youthful throng has entered;

At the very entrance, and on the very threshold; the pathway deceives.

The diverted proceed to wander, retracing their footsteps

To see if in any way they can progress along the misleading route.

If they decide to turn back, the same fate attends them on their return,

The same confusion holds them enmeshed in the misleading paths.

They call to each other, all laughing in turn;

What else can at once be so near and yet so far?

However, the ensnared never weary of rushing back and forth,

Nor is it an effort to cover the same ground so often.

Indeed, the whole company is captivated with delight,

Patiently enjoying being deceived with their comrades.

What a sweet sort of game! That same most pleasing maze deceives

And yet gives pleasure to their weary selves by its deceit!

However, the most famous appearance of the maze in literature is, of course, in the American humorist Jerome K Jerome's classic 'Three Men in a Boat', published in 1899 and capturing the end of the Dobson era:

Harris asked me if I'd ever been in the maze at Hampton Court. He said he went in once to show somebody else the way. He had studied it in a map, and it was so simple that it seemed foolish - hardly worth the twopence charged for admission. Harris said he thought that map must have seen got up as a joke, because it wasn't a bit like the real thing, and only misleading. It was a country cousin that Harris took in. He said; 'We'll just go in here, so you can say you've been, but it's very simple. It's absurd to call it a maze. You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We'll just walk round for ten minutes and then go and get some lunch.'.....

...Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way, and his cousin said he supposed it was a very big maze. 'Oh, one of the largest in Europe', said Harris. 'Yes, it must be' replied the cousin, 'because we've walked a good two miles already'.......Harris began to think it rather strange himself....(they give up and attempt to get out).....About ten more minutes passed, and they found themselves in the centre. Harris thought at first of pretending that that was what he had been aiming at; but the crowd looked dangerous, and he decided to treat it as an accident.....

.....He was a young keeper, as luck would have it, and new to the business; and when he got in he couldn't get to them, and then he got lost. They caught sight of him, every now and then, rushing about the other side of the hedge, and he would see them and rush to get them, and they would wait there for about five minutes, and then he would reappear again in exactly the same spot, and ask them where they had been. They had to wait until one of the old keepers came back from his dinner before they got out

This well known description is unfortunately tinged with slight poetic licence, and visitors familiar with it may be slightly disappointed with the complexity of the actual maze, though it is possible to get lost even with a plan. Otherwise the description appears totally accurate, even down to the young inexperienced keeper - Dobson did employ assistants out of the Bounty.

The maze as originally designed was rigidly formal, with constant width paths and hedges meeting at sharp angles, and slightly smaller than the present maze. It contained two hedge islands, though as the goal was not contained within either of them it would seem London and Wise / Sir Christopher Wren were unaware of the necessity of this device in defeating Daines Barrington's 'hand-trailers'. The present maze is carried out in yew, on average two metres high, each hedge consisting of a double row about two hundred millimetres apart with a central iron fence. The exterior hedge has been doubled with a mixture of privet, hornbeam, holly, hawthorn and sycamore. The tarmac paths extend for 439 metres, and the shortest route to the centre is 265 metres. If you visit every part of the maze once you will travel 818 metres, or half a mile.


The modern disposition of the paths, though approximating to the original design, has undergone a number of transformations due to the ravages of impatient visitors over the years both before and after the design was frozen by the insertion of railings. The sharp corners have become rounded and smoothed, and new paths and dead ends have been created. It is however, difficult to see how the extreme rounding of the corner nearest the Lion Gates could come about naturally and this may date from the installation of these gates and a desire to cut back the sight-line in 1714 when we know Wise was doing some topiary work here. The original design had two islands, whereas the design at the moment has only one, and it will be seen the present goal was split into three goals, two being part of the way along the route; the present design is thus considerably inferior, both aesthetically and mathematically, to the original, which could be reinstated easily.

© Roger J Morgan September 1999


MAZE c 1700