Explore Your Archive!
To celebrate the launch of the nationwide Explore Your Archive scheme, one of Kew's archivists highlights a treasure from Kew's past.
Explore your archive
This week sees the launch of the nationwide Explore Your Archive campaign, complete with colourful poster!
Poster for the Explore Your Archive campaign
John Smith’s list of gardeners at Kew
Across the country many archive services are hosting special events and talks to promote the treasures they hold and encourage the public to discover their past. I am going to take this opportunity to write about one of my favourite items in our Archive collections – John Smith’s List of Gardeners at Kew.
This small, unassuming volume was created by John Smith, Curator of the Gardens from 1841 to 1864, to record the hiring (and firing) of gardening staff. He includes details about the particular skills, knowledge and character of the men under his employment, and often notes where they moved on to after leaving Kew. These added details mean that we can gain real insight into the men who worked at Kew as well as the way John Smith liked to manage his gardeners.
John Smith, curator of Kew Gardens, 1841-1864
Sometimes the notes Smith has made are quite intriguing. Here he writes of the gardener George Bond that he is ‘a good and industrious workman but wants sence [sic], does very sily [sic] actions as regards his private affairs. He I fear will not succeed as a Gardener'.
John Smith's notes about George Bond
Smith seems to value the men who aim to ‘improve’ themselves while at Kew, and even offered prizes for the gardeners with the best private collections of plants. Charles Baxter received one of these prizes ‘having collected and named about 400 species’. Unfortunately, we know the ultimate fate of Baxter, as Smith recorded that he died during an expedition up the Niger river.
John Smith's notes about Charles Baxter
Researching family history
We regularly receive enquiries from people researching their family history who discover that their ancestor was a gardener at Kew. As this is the only record we have of the gardeners at this early period, I always keep my fingers crossed that I will find their name in John Smith’s list, and be able to tell their great-grandchildren a bit more about them. Although sometimes they might be quite shocked by what they discover!
Swedish gardener Knut Forsberg worked at Kew for only a year before being discharged for ‘improper conduct viz stopping away from his duty and insulting the Foreman and Curator’. Of course, we only hear the curator’s side of the story, but it would appear the two men did not end on the best of terms. Smith adds that Forsberg ‘threatened voilence [sic] on me’ and signs his name against it for good measure.
John Smith's notes about Knut Forsberg
There are thousands of archive services across the UK and Ireland and each one is unique. Whatever you are interested in; there will be an archive that contains untold stories to inspire you.
- Lorna -