Thursday 14 February 2013

Kew Directors' Correspondence

Today a big thank you to Virginia Mills of the Kew Directors' Correspondence Digitisation  project at Royal Botanic Garden, Kew who has kindly written the following and fascinating guest post...

The team and I are @kewdc on Twitter, it was through Twitter that we struck up a dialogue with @gardenhistory over a mutual interest in intrepid botanist/explorer David Douglas (more on him later). 

KewDC stands for Kew Directors' Correspondence and over here behind the scenes in the library at Kew Gardens the Directors' Correspondence team is busy digitising letters from the gardens' archive. We scan the letters using a high resolution digital camera and also summarise their content pulling out important information about plants, gardens, places and botanists past, to create a description of each letter's content. This 'metadata' is uploaded alongside the images to a fabulous website called Jstor plant science  - a huge repository of plant based information, with many international contributors besides Kew, combining  digitised historical documents, plant  specimens and drawings, as well as published works. 

One of my fellow digitisers imaging a letter
So that's what we get up to during our working week but what exactly is the material we are putting out there? The Directors' Correspondence, one of the largest collections within Kew's official archive, is a unique resource, containing firsthand accounts and observations on botany, botanic gardens, ethnobotany, natural history, history, science and politics. The 218 volume collection contains the scientific correspondence received by Kew's Directors and senior staff from the 1840s to 1928, as well as correspondence received by Sir William Jackson Hooker prior to 1841. The collection highlights the important role played by RBG Kew in furthering 19th and early 20th Century botanical investigation and also its significance to the growth and development of the British Empire.

Kew was instrumental in helping the British Empire make the most of the natural plant resources in its vast territories and this was done through a network of gardeners, botanic gardens, experimental gardens and nurseries across the world all corresponding with the Directors at RBG, Kew. So the DC represents not just a history of Kew as a garden but of botanic gardens throughout the world: of their origin, development and day to day running. For example the collection includes over 500 letters from Calcutta Botanic Garden

The collection also represents the history of what we have in our back gardens today. Horticulture was big business in the 18th and 19th century. As the proliferation of shows and exhibitions of goods from around the empire fuelled the desire for all things new and exotic, plant hunters were sent out by nurseries, by the Royal Horticultural Society and by RBG Kew to find new interesting and ornamental plants. The DC includes letters from some of the great Victorian explorers and botanists who introduced many of today's common British garden plants, some of whom are remembered in the names of the plants they collected. 

But not all the people who can take credit for these introductions were actually employed as plant hunters and most are not well known or remembered. A favourite 'amateur collector' of mine represented in the DC is Augustine Henry who collected in China and Taiwan; he was not a trained botanist and plant hunting wasn't his job, he was posted in the orient as a customs officer. His letters are fascinating accounts of remote regions and fields of botany, which have now been lost to progress, but provided rich pickings for Henry at the end of the 19th Century. He sent over 15,000 dried plant specimens to Kew, material which included 25 new genera and 500 new species, many of which were suited to the climate of the British garden and his success prompted other sponsored collectors to be sent to China. In 1935 J.W. Besant wrote: 'The wealth of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs which adorn gardens in all temperate parts of the world today is due in a great measure to the pioneer work of the late Professor Henry'. See the letters on Jstor here.

The beautiful Lilium henryi, collected by Henry and named after him, appeared in the 1891 Curtis Botanical Magazine and is still a garden favourite
The professional side of plant hunting is represented in the collection by the likes of David Douglas who was sent by the Royal Horticultural Society to gather plants in the Pacific Northwest in 1824. Douglas is immortalised in the common name of the tree many of us bring in to our houses once a year – the Douglas-fir, which he introduced into cultivation in 1827.  Whilst collecting in 1832 Douglas wrote to Kew that: "you will begin to think shortly I manufacture pines" [DC61 f.106].  Indeed his other notable introductions include the Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Western White Pine, Monterey Pine and the Sugar Pine. His life as a collector in North America reads like a 'Boy's Own' adventure – from meetings with native American Indians and fur traders to taming eagles and surviving canoe capsizes. The DC reveals his adventures first hand and with a real personal note. You can read his amusement, for example, when he describes how rival collector Archibald Menzies was known to the Native Americans as "the red faced man who cut the limb of man off and gathered grass" [DC61 f.112]. Conversely, feel his despair when he writes about  his canoe being wrecked "I cannot detail the labour and anxiety this occasioned in both body and mind to say nothing of the hardship I endured" and encountering a frontier town decimated by a terrible fever: "not a soul remains!! Houses empty and the flocks of famished dogs howling and dead bodies in every direction" [DC61 f.112].

It seems there was scarcely a botanical letter written in the late 1830's that does not lament Douglas's grizzly death: gored by a bull when he fell into a cattle trap whilst collecting in Hawaii. And then because the 19th century botanist is a gossiping creature in my experience, there comes the epistolary discussion: did he fall or was he pushed?

The DC team scan and read every single letter, particularly difficult when they are cross-written like this one from David Douglas. Here Douglas writes about how dangerous it was when collecting in North California "my rifle is always in my hand night and day. It lays by [my] side under my blanket and my little faithful scotch terrier, the companion of all journeys, at my feet". [DC61 f.96]
David Douglas's letters are part of the North America section of the DC: the latest part of the collection being digitised.  This content will go live soon, in the mean time Jstor is replete with the letters from Africa, Latin America and Asia, so go explore!

For more of our favourite stories from the DC check out the Kew Library, Art and Archive blog.  And if you have any questions or want more info, email us or contact us through Twitter.

NB from Toby: There is also a whole chapter on Douglas in the Kindle edition of The Plant Hunters.  

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