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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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Misfortune in paradise

By: Caroline Wakeham - 30 Mar 2010
Read about one 19th Century botanist's run of bad luck while collecting plants in Latin America. Every botanist has a different story to tell, although not always a happy one.
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My name is Caroline and I work one day a week with the Directors' Correspondence digitisation team at Kew. Digitising the letters is fascinating and intriguing: no two letters are the same and every botanist has a different story to tell. They often had to leave their loved ones behind and contend with natural disasters, political unrest and hostility from the native population. If this wasn't enough to struggle with, infection and disease were also constant dangers, as highlighted through the experiences of one botanist stationed in Dominica.

LAA Caroline

We work with the original letters to summarise them and make them available online. 


Suffering from 'ground itch'

George A. Ramage (1864-1933) collected plants for the West Indian Commission to Dominica. It is from here that he corresponded with Kew and, in a letter sent in August 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.419-420), he complains of becoming afflicted with 'ground itch', which has prevented him travelling to St. Lucia.

Ground itch affects the feet and is characterised by blister-like eruptions and severe itching caused by the entry of hookworm larvae into the skin. Ramage complains of both legs and feet ballooning to twice their size and leaking 'watery serum'. Ramage did not, however, do himself any favours when plant collecting, which left him vulnerable to infection.

A letter written on 17 June 1889 (DC Vol. 212 f.429-431) details Ramage's expenses whilst in Dominica and he is keen to stress that he saved money wherever he could: he 'used neither alcohol or tobacco' and 'went into the forest barefooted'. Whilst he must be commended for being thrifty, had he worn shoes, he would have certainly avoided the undesirable consequences of ground itch.

The infection was cured when a local doctor supplied a lotion of acetate of lead, which is no longer used in the modern age due to its high levels of toxicity. Not only did Ramage have to contend with infection, but also with the possibility of being poisoned by his treatment!

More problems in St. Lucia

Ramage did however, make it to St. Lucia, but his problems did not end there, as he records in a letter to Kew on 6th December 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.421) that he was struck down with a fever and had to be carried in a hammock through the 'swampy abandoned cane land'. In a letter dated 23 January 1889 (DC Vol. 212, f.424), Ramage apologises for his poor collection of plants as he has been unable to undertake any forest collecting for two months because of fever and dysentery.

Unfortunately, it all proves too much for Ramage, as he concedes he is no longer fit for forest collecting. He is pleased to hear someone has been sent to replace him, however, not before he has finished collecting in Dominica and St. Lucia. Ramage explains that he enjoys the tropical climate but that he would like to find 'some less trying occupation'.

Ramage finds love

Eighteen months later, in a letter written on 10 September 1890 (DC Vol. 212, f.371), Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls writes that Ramage seems settled and is going to apply for the post of Curator at the Botanical Station. Nicholls attributes this change in Ramage to his recent nuptials as he writes 'his recent marriage to a person old enough to be his mother has strangely enough improved him vastly'!

LAA Nicholls comments on Ramage

Extract of a letter from Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, 10 Sep 1890 commenting on Ramage's new wife (DC Vol. 212, f.371).

Ramage's example highlights the stark reality facing many botanists who collected overseas: whilst the tropical climate was favourable, the threat of disease and infection was never far away and could ultimately end a man's career, if not his life. Thankfully however, Ramage seems to have achieved his happy ending.


- Caroline -

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Growing our Collections - Archive accessions at Kew

By: Kiri Ross Jones - 15 Mar 2010
Find out how Kew's archival collections are growing, what we do with the documents we receive each year and how you can get involved.
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In this weeks blog post, I thought I’d tell you a little more about how we add to our archival collections here at Kew and highlight a few recent additions.

For those of you that are familiar with how archives work, you will be aware that collections are constantly growing, as new documents and items come in. As well as being a place to store records from the past, new records and other items appropriate for archival collection are also constantly being produced. You never know, that e-mail that you sent the other day might just end up in an archive in the future!

LAA Monica Cole collection

Part of the Monica Cole collection

How items arrive in the archive

Here at Kew there are several ways that items come into our archival collections. We have a records management programme which ensures that once working papers are no longer of current business use, they are transferred into the Archives if they are of historical interest. This process enables us to capture key Kew records for prosperity, including the details of our new buildings, lists of Kew staff and scientific research.

In addition to these official Kew records we also collect papers related to botany in general, such as the papers of eminent botanists. We are fortunate in that the majority of these documents are donated to us either by the botanists themselves, or by their families. Occasionally papers also come up for sale at auction or via rare book sellers. In these cases we sometimes have to raise funds to enable us to bid for them.

LAA Hawkes collection

Jack Hawkes papers, including photos from the plant collecting expedition to Peru in 1939

A snapshot of our accessions in 2009

In 2009 we accessioned 23 collections into our Kew official papers, 35 new collections into our personal papers, several hundred registered files and hundreds of items of ephemera into our Kewensia collection. The official papers included 155 Kew posters, oral history recordings, maps and postcards. Last year was also a particularly good one for the donation of personal papers. Here's a list of some of the highlights:

  • around 100 collecting notebooks of Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) and images from his plant collecting expeditions to Latin America and the Far East,
  • 25 boxes of papers of Gerald Wickens (1927-) the baobab tree expert,
  • 23 files of Frank Pagnamenta’s (1909-2009) research on the aiton family,
  • 20 new boxes of Monica Cole (1922-1994) papers (to add to the 164 boxes that we already hold),
  • the Cumberlege Thai Orchid Archive (1959-1965),
  • 12 boxes of the papers and books of Reginald Rose-Innes (1915-), the eminent grassland ecologist.

Members of the Archives team will be blogging about some of the more fascinating aspects of these collections shortly.

Help Kew's archive grow

At the end of each year we submit details of our archive accessions to the National Register of Archives. You can browse the NRA website to find out more about our recent acquisitions.

We are always interested to hear from people who might be willing to donate original material such as letters, diaries and collecting notebooks related to botany or the history of the Gardens. If you think that you may have something like this, please do get in touch and help our archives grow!

- Kiri -



Further Information

If you would like to donate something to the Archives, please contact Kiri at


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Latin American lonely hearts

By: Kat Harrington - 01 Mar 2010
Find out about lonely hearts from Latin America in the Directors' Correspondence Archive Collection.
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Our Assistant Archivist Michèle recently blogged about love in the archives to coincide with Valentine's Day. This got the Director's Correspondence team talking about the theme in our collection. However, it was not love we ended up noting, but the loneliness experienced by some botanical collectors as they ventured into sparsely populated and inaccessible areas in South America, the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean in search of plant wonders. During their travels they often ventured truly off the beaten track.

In the 19th century, botanical stations were established on many of the West Indies islands. A significant proportion of our correspondence concerns these outposts, which functioned variously as plant nurseries, experimental plots, exchange posts and educational tools. When seeking new employees, the Directors of these stations or the local Government would write to senior staff at Kew for advice listing the sort of qualities they desired in an employee. Many such letters express the desirability of a married man!

In 1890 William Fawcett, Director of Public Gardens and Plantations in Jamaica, writing to Daniel Morris then Assistant Director of Kew, remarks upon the loneliness of the Cinchona botanic station. He already had to repost one gentleman owing to isolation and was now looking to employ a man who has 'plenty of occupation of his own in the evenings' (DC 210, f.255). 


(Illustration: Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804 - 1865), Wiki Commons

Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804 - 1865) was an explorer and naturalist celebrated for his surveying work especially in British Guiana . He was knighted by Queen Victoria and worked in various official capacities, including a posting as the British consul to Santo Domingo.

From there we have a detailed and moving letter from Schomburgk in 1850 to William Jackson Hooker, then Director of Kew (DC 70, f.290). He feels that he now stands 'alone growing old, and have no person with whom to exchange my ideas, whom[?] to cherish'. He has frequently thought that he 'threw one chance away, and this was when you [Hooker] put the two Misses W. under my protection: the elder of whom, I thought pretty and most amiable'.

Unfortunately we do not know the 'Miss W.' to whom Schomburgk refers and he never married. In the same letter Schomburgk remarks that 'these are petty confessions and nothing to do with science at all – nor do I know how they flew into my pen'. However, his confessions offer a candid opinion amongst a collection often formal in tone. 

In spite of their often isolated situations and the great distances that separated correspondents from loved ones in Europe it is frequently apparent in the correspondence that it was the love and enthusiasm for their work which spurred gentlemen like Schomburgk on. Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Lieutenant Governor of the Falkland Islands in the 1840s writes to William Jackson Hooker on many occasions mentioning tussock grass. Moody chastises himself for dwelling on the subject but notes that his 'heart is always full when he thinks of it' (DC 70, f.205).


(Photograph: Colonel Richard Clement Moody (1813 - 1887), Wiki Commons

Doubtless the communication with colleagues and friends afforded by steam packets travelling regularly across the Atlantic was also vital in helping overcome isolation. Correspondents eagerly awaited the latest news and publications and just like today, the latest gossip!



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Making the most of Library Services at Kew

By: Craig Brough - 18 Feb 2010
Read about the Library's Information Services Team and find out how they can help with your questions and curiosities about the world's plant life, plant artefacts and other plant uses such as medicine.
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 Library Information Services Team     

Hello! This is Craig Brough, Information Services Librarian, with my colleagues Marie Humphries, Lizbeth Gale and Tracy Wells. We are a small team within Kew's Library, Art & Archives. The kind of things that we deal with include:

  • requests to use library material and providing responses to general enquiries,
  • supplying library material for visitors to enjoy and producing copies of this in both paper and digital form,
  • providing guidance to visitors on how to use the Library Catalogue, on what we have in our collections, and also on what is available in other libraries and on the web.

Many people see Kew as being synonymous with horticulture, but it is actually the case that our library collections are richer in material on wild plants in their natural habitats and the explorers who brought them to Europe. We also hold materials related to ethnobotany (the cultural and economic value of plants) and the genetic makeup of plants.

So, if you are visiting another part of the world and are interested in its flora, we may be able to give you an idea of what you might find there. Or, if you discover an interesting object made from plant fibre or wood and wish to know more, we may have this documented. If you are interested in how plants have been used in medicine, we can help here too.

To get in touch, please email: or telephone +44 20 8332 5414.

- Craig -


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Love in the Archives

By: Michèle Losse - 12 Feb 2010
Read about love letters in Kew's Archives
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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’!

The photographer's wedding ring and its heart-shaped shadow in a dictionary.
(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
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 to her husband FKW/1/38
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 -


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