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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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Celebrating 120 years of the Kew Guild: LAA display

By: Kiri Ross-Jones - 02 Oct 2013
A new display explores the history of the Kew Guild and showcases some of the treasures of the Kew Guild Archive
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9 September - 21 October 2013

Come and see our Reading Room display and learn about the Kew Guild!  

The Kew Guild was founded in 1893 with the aim of uniting “all Kew men in the bond of fellowship by means of a journal”, and was initially open to those who were working, or who had worked, in the horticultural departments of the Gardens. In 1898 membership of the Guild was opened up to any member (present or former) of Kew staff “in a position of responsibility”. Today there are about 500 members of the Guild, which continues to unite past and present staff, as well as encouraging the advancement of horticultural and botanical knowledge.

Photo of the Kew Guild dinner 1905

Kew Guild Dinner 1905, held at the Holborn Restaurant, London KGU/1/9/1/112

The Guild’s papers came to Kew’s Archives in 2005 and provide an unique snapshot of Kew life, as well as documenting the Guild’s own history. For example, from menus from the Guild’s annual dinner covering the period 1900 to the modern day we can see the tastes and culinary trends of the time. The archive includes very rich photographic collections which are of great use for those seeking images of ancestors who worked at Kew, as well as documenting the history of the Guild and the Gardens. A number of these images can be seen in the recently published “The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs”.

Documents such as membership books, accounting records, papers about scholarships and prizes awarded by the Guild, and correspondence are all held in the archive. Amongst these, personal stories can be found such as that of Winifred Young, the widow of a Kew student gardener, Thomas Young, who wrote to the Guild asking for a grant of money for her and her eight year old daughter. Young’s case went before the Kew Guild Committee and they were able to send her £10 (equivalent to about £350 now).

Photo of the Kew Guild Display

Part of the display

The display in our Reading Room covers the founding of the Guild and highlights some interesting stories and famous faces that can be found in the archive. Historic dinner menus, artworks, students notebooks, photographs, the Guild’s parchment grant of arms and original handwritten documents are all included.

All are welcome to visit the Reading Room to view the display and access is free!

- Kiri -


Visitor information

  • Dates - 9 September - 21 October 2013
  • Times - 9.00-17.00 Mondays - Fridays
  • Location - Library, Art and Archives Reading Room, The Herbarium, in the Library, Art & Archives Building (off Kew Green)
  • Map - The entrance to the Herbarium is through a black, wrought-iron gateway on the north side of Kew Green (download a map)


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Old letters meet new faces

By: Jon Nicholls & Jess Smith - 18 Sep 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.
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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!  

Photo of Jon & Jess imaging the DC letters

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. 

George Engelmann handwriting example

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 handwriting by John Gill Lemmon

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.    

Ilustration of Shortia galacifolia

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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Reflections on a year at Kew

By: Marc Muller - 12 Sep 2013
Read Library Graduate Trainee Marc Muller's final blog post as he leaves Kew to begin a Masters course in Librarianship
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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. 

Photo of the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room

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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An unexpected visitor

By: Elisabeth Thurlow - 05 Sep 2013
In her last blog post, Elisabeth writes about her experiences as the Archives Graduate Trainee and reveals more about an unexpected Victorian visitor to the Gardens.
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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.

Photo of a page from the Herbarium Visitors Book 1892-1899

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

 Photo of a letter from Beatrix Potter 3 December 1896

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.


Beatrix Potter botanical watercolour

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.

Photo of Elisabeth Thurlow in the Archives Store

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 -


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The Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence project - a preview

By: Virginia Mills - 29 Aug 2013
Introducing the Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence Project, a new initiative by Kew to digitise and transcribe the letters of Joseph Hooker, great Victorian explorer-botanist and renowned director of Kew Gardens. Find out more about the man and the project.
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Banner image for the Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence project

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. 

JD Hooker pen & ink portrait by Wirgman

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.

Photo of JD Hooker at a Rocky Mountain camp

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]

Sketch by JD Hooker of himself and his dog

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.

JD Hooker snake charmer letter extract

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

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