Library, Art and Archives blog
Welcome to Kew's Library Art and Archives blog. Here you will find information about Kew's collections, services and fascinating work which is taking place within the section and also meet the Library, Art and Archive staff who will provide regular updates with news from projects they are involved in, treasures they have discovered and exciting new developments planned for the future. Donate now - Help Kew look after its art and heritage
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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]
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.
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 -
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Get in touch with the team at email@example.com
- Buy 'The Plant Hunters' by Carolyn Fry from Kew's online shop, exquisitely illustrated with facsimile items from Kew’s archive
- Follow us on twitter @KewDC for project updates, fun quotes and further stories from the Directors' Correspondence project
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One short year - that is the time in which I have learned so much about the work done in a library and its essential place in ensuring that information is kept, distributed and displayed to entice the mind of the reader and encourage them to learn.
I will miss everyone who has helped me this year in Library, Art & Archives and will miss the work - from cataloguing interesting new books published across the world and adding them to Kew’s growing library collection, to helping readers locate information and ensuring they have a memorable and positive experience using the Reading Room. I also had fun creating eye catching displays of new books to entice readers.
The Library, Art & Archives Reading Room
Kew provided me with a wonderful range of opportunities and insights which I can put towards a career in libraries. I have had the chance to visit some of the most interesting collections in the UK, including the BFI Southbank Reuben Library , the Natural History Museum Library and the London Library . The work has taught me how important it is to maintain and develop these collections, in both physical and digital forms. Encouraging people to indulge their curiosity - whether it is about old herbals, new botanical developments, or even family history - ensures that the work of a librarian (in training) is never dull.
An especial highlight was working with the Archives Graduate Trainee on a display on the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and his contact with Kew .
I’m now headed for a Masters course in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield to build on the invaluable experience I’ve gained at Kew.
- Marc -
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Treasures of the Archives
During my traineeship the Archives have had record numbers of enquiries and visitors. As well as assisting the day to day running of the archive service, I have been involved in the preparation of displays for the public.
We recently held a series of events where we invited members of the public to hear talks exploring Kew’s historic relationships and displayed treasures from the Archives. This allowed me to showcase my favourite items in the collections, including those which record a familiar but unexpected visitor to the Gardens.
A historic visitor register, which was used to record visitors to the Herbarium in the late nineteenth century, bears the signature of one Beatrix Potter. This visitor book shows that Beatrix Potter visited Kew on a number of occasions, including Wednesday 20th May 1896.
The historic connections between Kew and Beatrix Potter will be interesting to anyone with an interest in her life, the history of Kew, or the role of women in the study of natural history.
The signature of Beatrix Potter in a Herbarium Visitor's Book on Wednesday 20th May 1896
Beatrix Potter and her Kew Connections
Today she is remembered as a talented children’s author and illustrator, but our collections reveal that Beatrix Potter was also a promising naturalist with a particular interest in the study of fungi. Her uncle, the distinguished chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, helped her gain access to the Gardens to further her study.
A letter held in the Directors Correspondence collection sheds further light on her interest in the study of nature
Letter from Beatrix Potter to William Thiselton-Dyer, 3 December 1896 (Archive reference Directors Correspondence [DC 99] folio 7)
Beatrix Potter the fungi expert
Potter wrote to the third director of Kew, William Thiselton-Dyer, asking him to view her paper on fungi which explored her own theory of how fungi spores reproduced.
Her paper was presented to the Linnaean Society in 1897 by Kew’s own mycologist; women not being allowed to present to, or even attend, meetings.
Being both an amateur and a woman, Potter’s theories were not taken seriously and her paper was not recommended for publication. But today we know that she was right in what she observed. Her theories were later credited to a male German scientist, meaning today her contributions to the study of fungi are considerably less well known than her contribution to children’s literature.
Beatrix Potter the painter
Earlier this year Kew acquired some of Potter’s botanical watercolours at auction. Drawn in 1885, the watercolours illustrate Daphne laureala in flower, and Tamus communis, the leaves and berries of a Black Bryony.
And Kew’s connections with Potter continue to this day. The Beatrix Potter Society recently visited Kew to view the archive and art materials associated with Potter and enjoy a themed walk around the Gardens.
Botanical watercolour by Beatrix Potter, recently purchased by Kew
And so goodbye from the Archives Trainee...
My time at Kew is up. What now? I will be studying for the postgraduate diploma in Archives and Records Management at University College London from next year. To become an archivist you need a postgraduate qualification which is accredited by the Archives and Records Association.
Elisabeth Thurlow working in the Archives store
After completing the qualification I hope to gain employment as an archivist, putting into practice the skills I have developed during my time at Kew.
And although it is goodbye from me, look out for blog posts from the new Archives Graduate Trainee.
- Elisabeth -
- Contact the Archives
- More information about Traineeships in Library and Archives at Kew
- Learn more about working in Archives
- Visit the website of the Archives and Records Association
- Learn about the Beatrix Potter Society
- Find out more about fungi
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I have just started working on a new project at Kew - The Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence Project. This means I get to explore the Kew archive collection of Joseph Hooker's personal and professional papers in preparation for creating an online collection of this often-overlooked scientist's most interesting missives. Although the letters will not start to go online until the beginning of next year I couldn't resist giving you all a sneaky preview of the project and sharing my new found enthusiasm for Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Who was Hooker?
Those of you who know a little about the history of Kew Gardens may recognise the name 'Hooker'. Joseph Hooker was Director of the Gardens from 1865 to 1885 during their Victorian heyday, having succeeded his father Sir William Jackson Hooker in the role. Kew was then at the centre of the botanical world, playing, among other things, a major role in orchestrating what crops were grown in the colonies and shaping the landscape of the British Empire.
Portrait of Joseph Hooker by Theodore Blake Wirgman, 1886
A mover and shaker of the Victorian scientific scene, Hooker had an impressive network of correspondents, the most famous being Charles Darwin. Hooker was the great evolutionist’s earliest confidant for his theories and they maintained a lifelong correspondence. Though Darwin's reputation as a scientist now far outstrips awareness of his friend Hooker, hopefully Kew can begin to bring Hooker to a wider audience. Hooker's letters to Darwin along with others to prominent men of botany, the wider scientific world and personal letters to his family will be digitised and made available online as part of the Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence Project.
Hooker the Traveller
Though he may be best known as a Director of Kew, Hooker also had a life beyond the walls of the Gardens. The letters in the Kew archive reveal him as having been an adventurous traveller throughout his life: from his earliest scientific trip as assistant surgeon and naturalist to Sir James Clark Ross' Antarctic expedition in 1839-43, to an 8,000 mile journey across America in 1877 at age 60 - though from the looks of things in later life he travelled in considerable style.
Photograph of Hooker (seated front left) on a collecting trip in the Rocky Mountains in 1877 with friend and renowned American botanist Asa Gray (seated on the ground)
In the 19th century, travel for the purpose of collection was one way to establish yourself as a credible naturalist. It was Hooker's pioneering exploration of India and the Himalayas (1847-1851) which cemented his scientific reputation. During the trip he discovered many species of Rhododendron, species which he then introduced to RBG Kew, starting a global craze. Many of these species can still be seen in Kew's Rhododendron Dell.
Hooker in India
Hooker's Indian letters paint a vivid picture of his trek through the little-explored Himalayas to observe the terrain and collect the unknown vegetation. On this quest for plant riches he fell foul of Rajah's, rickety rope bridges, lack of supplies, leeches, and constant threat to his precious botanical collections and to his own safety under difficult travelling conditions. The journey even claimed the life of his faithful travelling companion, his dog, Kinchin:
" On the route up here I stopped at the foot of some rocks below the foot of a very long cane bridge (40 yards) and Kinchin, having scrambled up, ran on to the bridge. I could not see him and was not thinking about the dog when his shrill short barks of terror rang above the roaring torrent – before I could get up, he had lost his footing & was no more to be seen – we went on to the middle of the bridge, and straining our eyes down the boiling flood, but he had been carried under at once & swept away miles below... I went on my way sorrowing." [JDH_1_10_384-387]
Drawing by Hooker of himself and his dog. From a letter written by Hooker from Lachen Valley, Sikkim, India in 1849. [JDH_1_10_171-173]
Throughout these hardships Hooker remained a prolific letter writer. Many of his personal letters from this trip, to his family and to his eminent scientific friends, with these evocative anecdotes and expressions of the effort and frustrations involved in plant collecting, have never been published in their entirety. They are some of the most consulted documents in the Kew archive and they will be the first letters to go online on the new Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence website in 2014. Hopefully you will seek it out when it goes live and enjoy India through Hooker's words.
"This India is a wonderful place, & quite equal to all my expectations of it. I am already stunned with the vast amount of things to see, do, & get" [JDH_1_10_25-28]
JDH Correspondence Project
In the meantime I will be cracking on with preparing this material and designing the website. I am privileged that this job allows me the time and opportunity to read through Hooker's letters so I can create a transcript that users will be able to see online alongside an image of the original letter. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it is indeed a privilege as I slog through deciphering Hooker's often untidy scrawl, but it's not long before I am rewarded by an interesting story or amusing turn of phrase from Hooker's pen.
Extract from one of Hooker's letters from Kolkata, 1848 [JDH_1_10_35-38]. Text reads:
"In the town I saw a juggler with the hooded snake or cobra, a beautiful creature, but of a rather sickly yellow colour, which coiled round his neck, & suffered itself to be teazed[sic] to phrenzy[sic]. He also swallowed an egg & brought it out by his ear;- very common India tricks all"
The work of imaging and transcribing the letters for the website has been made possible by a generous grant from the Stevenson Family’s Charitable Trust. This grant also makes provision for important conservation work to be carried out on the Hooker letters, ensuring that this record of Joseph Hooker, his work and achievements will be safely preserved, digitally online and on paper in the Kew archive for the enjoyment and enlightenment of scholars and the public.
Alongside the letters and transcripts I am currently amassing other content for the Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence Project website, including examples of other Joseph Hooker material held in the Kew collections: his glasses, his microscope and some of his field sketches to name a few. Other features will include essays by world-renowned Hooker scholars, some short films, and accounts from those who have been inspired by Joseph Hooker, including thoughts on Joseph Hooker, the traveller-botanist, from one famous modern globe trotter. Watch the blog for more news.
If you want to find out more about Joseph Hooker, Kew publishes a sumptuous book about his life and explorations, 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer', available from the Kew online shop.
- Ginny -
If you have any questions please do contact me about the project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Buy 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer' at the Kew online shop
- Find out more about Joseph Hooker
- Read Hooker's journal of his Himalayan travels online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library
- Browse for more books about Hooker in Kew's library catalogue
- Search the archive catalogue to find out what else is in the archive
- See images of specimens collected by Hooker in Kew's herbarium catalogue
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From Africa to America
The Directors' Correspondence team is currently digitising a collection of nineteenth century letters to Kew's senior staff from North America. We have especially enjoyed a series of letters from Joseph Burke (1812-1873), a seemingly little-known plant collector. In fact Burke had undertaken a successful natural history collecting trip to Africa in 1839 for the 13th Earl of Derby. The Earl introduced Burke to Kew's first official Director, Sir William Hooker who, greatly impressed by his efforts, arranged for Burke to collect for the two gentlemen in the remote west of North America with the assistance of the Hudson's Bay Company.
In June 1843 Burke sailed from Gravesend to York Factory on the supply ship Rupert. We have digitised fifteen letters concerning Burke's travels. Though relatively few in number they are crammed with fascinating stories: dangerous encounters, wonderful wildlife, Blackfoot, Flathead and Nez Perce Indians, and news of emigrant parties heading for Oregon, then just on the verge of becoming an American territory.
Detail of a map of western America from Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains
A challenging expedition
Burke's engrossing letters give a clear indication of the many difficulties he encountered, not least the poor communications: there was only one mail a year that would bring Burke letters and word from home. Travel was difficult with horses up to their saddles in swamps, and passage through dense, impenetrable woods. Burke reports his dog sledges and drivers falling through ice-covered rivers into the freezing waters below. On occasion supplies ran very low.
"We had scarcely anything to eat for three days. The people killed a dog to eat him. I was not quite hungry enough to join them." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]
Burke and his party traded for supplies with local Indians but this could be far from straightforward.
"At the little lake we found an Indian called the little chief & his party. They were not inclined to be very friendly with us. The Spaniards from Taos[?] had commenced fighting & had killed many of the Youtas... They made strict enquiry concerning the strength of our party, & would not trade their furs without the whole of the goods were brought [here]. Although they had abundance of trout, they would not trade any. The little chief's brother, who has always been friendly with the whites, gave us some fish... [&] told us unknown to the others, to saddle our horses and retreat as fast as possible for they were then holding a council against us. Some were for killing us at once, & others thought it better to try & persuade us to bring the rest of the party & all the goods." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]
The weather also had a deleterious effect on Burke's plant collecting;
Extract reads: "The past summer has been the most unfavourable the oldest persons about this place ever remember witnessing... We have had frost, snow, or cold rain, nearly the whole time. I expect in a few days to be able to cross the Athabasca, on my way to the Columbia, I fear I shall find but few ripened seeds on account of the unfavourable season." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.147]
Burke gives lively descriptions of the landscape, the successes and failures of hunts, and his meetings with various Indians. In the autumn of 1845 Burke travelled with Hudson's Bay Company men to obtain buffalo meat for the winter. Their party joined a large camp of Nez Perce who were suffering a great deal of sickness, especially amongst the children.
"The Indian doctors were all busily employed, & a great noise they made. It was enough to give a person in health the headache, to be in the same lodge with them. The Medicine man... has several helpers, who beat with sticks on a piece of wood laid across the lodge. They all sing at the top of their voices... They say it is to frighten away the sickness. These Medicine men are often shot. When the patient gets worse... Although it is a dangerous calling it is so profitable that there is no want of doctors. Amongst the Crows[?] the Medicine bag is more dreaded than any enemy." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.151]
Success at last
Although Burke felt his collecting was thwarted he did meet with success and reported to Hooker that he was sending the Earl of Derby: male & female skins of Mountain sheep, the skin of a wolverine, 29 small quadrupeds, 80 birds, two species of fish, a few birds' eggs and a small box of butterflies. Another letter provides detailed notes regarding various seeds collected during the summer of 1845. One of these includes Camas grass, the bulbs of which were collected by Indian women for food. A ground kiln was constructed and when sufficiently heated the ashes were removed and the space filled with camas. A large fire was made over the top and in three days the camas was perfectly baked. It was then taken out and worked by hand into cakes.
An unfortunate conclusion
In the autumn of 1846 Burke was stunned to receive a letter from Hooker informing him that his funds had been cut off, in spite of the fact that Burke had clearly explained the difficulties he had encountered and at a time when all his collections had not yet reached England.
"I think Sir William it is a very hard case if a collector is sent from the Royal Botanic Garden to a country where he cannot send his collections by any means by the time mentioned in your letter, that his funds are to be stopped. If it only means my salary I think very little of that, but should it mean that my supplies are to be stopped in the country, it would dishonour me for life." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]
Burke hoped Hooker would forgive him for retiring from his employment without awaiting an answer as it "would be two years upwards before I could receive one." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]
Burke returned to England and did eventually resolve his financial relationship with Hooker before emigrating to Missouri with his family in 1848. Burke's fascinating correspondence will shortly be made available via the JSTOR Global Plants website.
The following works can be found in RBG Kew's library:
- The Man Who Did Not Go To California: A paper read to the Canadian Historical Association at Edmonton, R. Glover, 5 June 1975.
- A Hard Case in the Oregon Country: Letters of English Botanist Joseph Burke 1844 – 1846, D.R. Johnson, 2001.
- A Region Of Astonishing Beauty: The Botanical Exploration of the Rocky Mountains, R.L. Williams, 2003.
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Get in touch with the team at email@example.com
- Buy The Plant Hunters by Carolyn Fry from Kew's online shop, exquisitely illustrated with facsimile items from Kew’s archive
- Follow us on twitter @KewDC for project updates, fun quotes and further stories from the Directors' Correspondence project
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Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains many millions of items within its collections. Find out about the diverse teams who look after these collections and make them accessible.
- Archives team
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
Suffragettes at Kew: Fascinating stuff. Love the old headlines. . by: Neil
History of art in the Directors' Correspondence: the painting of an iconic Kew image: Hooker is my favourite Fellow, He was a lab bench man and it is fitting that he should also be celeb ... by: Brian S. Hartley FRS
Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.: Hi Judy, thanks for your lovely comment supporting the work of the project. Your great grandfather w ... by: Virginia, RBG Kew archive
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