John Smith (1798-1888)
Despite four years’ experience at the Royal Botanic Garden
Edinburgh, John Smith started at Kew in 1822 as a stove boy keeping
the hothouse boilers stoked and coal cellar filled. He was soon
promoted and had the good fortune to take charge of the tropical
glasshouses just as Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) arrived
with William Bligh from Trinidad and large numbers of exotics
collected by Allan Cunningham were arriving from Brazil. Smith
became Curator in 1841, when Queen Victoria had just given the
Gardens to the nation and William Hooker had been appointed the
However, over the next two decades, government
interest in financing the Gardens waned and they suffered
accordingly - to the point that a Royal Commission deemed the Gardens
to be ’a
waste of money … in their present state’ proposing
that they either be ’relinquished … for public
purposes … or abandoned’.
It was largely thanks to Smith’s ’truly parental
affection’ that the Gardens were no worse. Smith had
made significant improvements, not least by replacing numbers
on sticks with full species names on iron signs.
It is significant that when stove-boy-Smith arrived at Kew, 40
species of fern were grown but when Curator Smith retired, there
In 1847 ’the most beautiful flower in Peru and Chile’,
a woody climber with transluscent pink waxy flowers, the
Chilean Bellflower (Lapageria rosea) was brought to England.
It later became Chile’s national flower. When it flowered for
the first time at Kew, Walter Fitch painted a beautiful illustration
for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
Associate of the Linnean Society 1837
to: People overview
to: William Bean