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Love in the Archives

Michèle Losse
12 February 2010
Read about love letters in Kew's Archives

Hello, I’m Michèle Losse Assistant Archivist at Kew. With Valentines Day around the corner, I thought I'd write about some of the love letters that I've found the Archives. You may have thought that most of the correspondence contained in our Archives relates to botany and plant collecting. I discovered however, that many correspondents also discussed personal matters, such as the subjects of ‘wives’ and ‘marriage’!


(Image: Roger McLassus; this file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.)

In times gone by, quite a few ladies accompanied their husbands on expeditions, and they were keen to talk about this in their letters. Mary Livingstone, the wife of missionary and explorer David Livingstone (1813-1873), accompanied him on many of his adventures. In December 1861, during the Zambesi Expedition in South Africa, Livingstone wrote to Sir William Hooker ‘My wife is I believe now on her way out here after a 3 years unexpected separation’ (DC 60, f.179). He had clearly missed her when she had needed to return to England due to ill health. Unfortunately she died of fever the following year, contracted whilst on the expedition.

Another botanist, William Keit from The Natal Botanic Gardens in South Africa, wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker saying that he does not yet have an assistant but that he has ‘treated myself to a wife’ (DC 190 f.791). I'm not sure whether in this instance it is love or necessity which drove him to matrimony!

In 1877, Sir Joseph Hooker left his beloved wife Hyacinth for a trip to America to visit his old friend Asa Gray and to undertake a tour of North America for 11 months. The letters he sent to Hyacinth show how much he enjoyed the trip but also that he missed her: ‘I do long to see you again and stroke your face. I am as anxious to be back as you can be and begin to count the days. I am most anxious to hear of you.’ In another, ‘this is my last letter to you from America, I am pleased to go, for I am wearying to be home and with you’ (Hooker/Gray letters JDH/2/22).

Photo of Frank and Jean Kingdon-Ward 

Frank Kingdon-Ward was the last of the great plant hunters in the 20th century. His first marriage to Florinda Norman-Thompson in 1923 had failed after 14 years; Frank was away on expeditions for at least 10 of these years, and Florinda didn’t share his passion for plants or far flung shores. When Frank met Jean McKlin, in 1947, it was love at first sight; she was much younger than him and despite her parents’ opposition, they married. He provided her with the adventure she craved for, and she accompanied him on his expeditions.

Letter from Jean Kingdon-Ward (FKW/1/38) 

The Kingdon-Ward collection contains many letters to and from Frank as well as photographs and diaries; these are by no means ‘technical’, they contain a wealth of information and observations as well as many references to Jean which show how fond he was of his new wife ‘my 63rd birthday. Darling Jean had a lovely birthday surprise for me…’ (FKW/1/21). Jean herself gave her husband a moving letter after their return from one of their expeditions in 1948: ‘Thank you so very much sweetheart for a lovely three weeks plant hunting .. I love you with all my heart for ever and ever, oh so much darling..’ (FKW/1/38). Reading this I really felt I was intruding into their personal lives...  

- Michèle Losse -


More information 


25 February 2010
Having had the privilege of looking at other archival information in the library it's the human face of the collection that I find fascinating. I'll be back in April to learn more. A belated Valentine's Day hug for all those who work to collect, preserve and learn from our past
18 February 2010
Wow - these are fascinating and it's wonderful that these letters have been preserved. Jean Kingdon-Ward's words are so heartfelt, I can see what you mean about feeling like you were intruding into their personal lives.
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17 February 2010
Thanks for your comment. As a historian, it's always interesting to hear from one of our correspondent's descendants. It was probably love that made William Keit decide to marry, but I suppose only he himself would be able to tell us...
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15 February 2010
I like to think that William Keit's remark about treating himself to a wife is an indication of love, as he is my great grandfather!
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