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Old letters meet new faces

Jon Nicholls & Jess Smith
18 September 2013
Digitisation Officers Jon and Jess write about their experience as new starters on the Directors Correspondence project – find out what they have discovered in Kew's archives.

The Directors' Correspondence , or 'DC' collection, contains original letters written to the Directors and senior staff of Kew between the 1840s and the 1920s, from plant hunters and botanical gardens all around the world. Our particular project delves into the North American correspondence and includes some interesting people and some fascinating discoveries.


Luckily for us, the DC collection was systematically organised to perfection before we started and had been divided into volumes. We index these volumes to make sure it's all there and log any letters which are missing or out of sequence. We also log extra attachments included, such as newspaper clippings or death certificates. We then data-base the volumes, giving each letter a unique identification, known as a KDC (Kew Directors' Correspondence) number.

As suggested by the title, we do actually digitise some stuff. We carefully photograph each letter as accurately as possible, using appropriate lighting to keep that 'old' look to them and to ensure the image is as close to reality as possible. This transforms our fragile archives secured away at Kew into an easily accessible digital copy to be accessed by anyone (via JSTOR Global Plants) from anywhere in the world!  

New starters Jon and Jess (not forgetting the Victorian moustache!)

Creating metadata is the biggest part of the job and involves reading through the letters and summarising the content. In doing so we go for the most important and interesting information which includes the names of important people, places, plant species and any social and historical mentions. Gossip is always good! 

Deciphering Victorian handwriting

One of the most difficult things is reading and interpreting Victorian handwriting. Paper was relatively expensive and it was common for authors to write very small and cram everything on as little paper as possible! For example, this extract below by Mr George Engelmann, botanist and notorious scribbler. This makes the job uniquely challenging but, when eventually deciphered, makes it very rewarding. 

Example of writing by George Engelmann, 1879 [Archives ref: 199/157]

The ageing process can make it particularly difficult to read, bearing in mind that some of these letters are over 150 years old. Occasionally people have written in pencil or spilt ominous things on the letters making them almost impossible to read. Another example, this letter extract below by Lemmon. Can anybody tell us what it says?


Example of writing by John Gill Lemmon, 1887 [Archives ref: 199/281]

Plant stories

The world of plant hunting is an interesting one; there are so many intriguing and unusual stories. We have many first hand accounts of botanists exploring new regions and discovering exotic plants on their travels. After documenting their findings they sent them back, often with samples, artwork or photographs attached. Many botanists encountered dangerous terrain and diseases on their expeditions. They included lengthy descriptions of their voyages and described their illnesses in gruesome detail. There are, of course, many interesting stories about plants. One example we found was a letter regarding a particularly rare species, Shortia galacifolia, which was rediscovered by Asa Gray, who features heavily in our correspondence.    

The Shortia galacifolia, The Garden Journal 1890 [Archives ref: 63/226]
(The image above found by our amazing illustrations team)

We have also come across some fairly enterprising botany, some experimental fruit, mention of the Suffragettes and of the Titanic disaster, a few deaths including a suicide, this grisly murder and so much more waiting to be discovered!

- Jon and Jess -


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