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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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Bringing Kew's Archive Alive

By: The Trading Consequences Team - 02 May 2013
In this guest blog from the Trading Consequences team, find out how digital data produced by Kew's Directors' Correspondence team is being brought to life and can be used to visualise the British Empire's 19th Century trade networks
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Trading Consequences

TRADING CONSEQUENCES is a Digging into Data project that analyses how automatic text mining of large quantities of historical text can assist environmental historians in their work of researching the effects of 19th century trade in the British Empire. The text mining technology recognises mentions of commodities, locations, diseases, disasters and dates in historical text. It also enriches this information, for example, by geo-referencing the extracted locations and identifying which commodity mentions are related to which location mentions. When the mined information is visualised in different ways we are able to provide interesting views of historical collections which so far only tend to be accessible by historians through key word search. 

LAA Trading Consequences system

 System architecture of TRADING CONSEQUENCES 

Using Kew's Data

One of the collections we are processing in TRADING CONSEQUENCES is the Directors’ Correspondence Collection from the Archives at Kew Gardens. It contains hand-written, scientific letters and memoranda received by Kew’s Directors and senior staff from the 1840s to 1928, as well as correspondence received by Sir William Jackson Hooker prior to 1841. It provides first hand accounts and observations on botany, ethnobotany, history, natural history, science and politics around the world. In Trading Consequences, we are working with letters specifically relevant to Africa, Asia and Latin America. We are not processing the letters themselves but the meta data attached to each document: particularly a written summary of the content of each piece of correspondence.

This collection contains meta files for more than 24,000 letters and is accessible via JSTOR Global Plants. Other historical text collections, which we process in TRADING CONSEQUENCES include the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers from ProQuest, the Early Canadiana Online data archive, Adam Matthew’s Confidential Print collections, a sub-part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection from JSTOR, and a number of books relevant to trading in the 19th century. 

Text Mining

The text mining is developed by computer scientists at the School of Informatics at the University at Edinburgh. We first convert the meta information from Excel into an in-house XML format, thus creating one XML file per letter. We treat the title and description of each letter as textual information and retain all other information, including creator (i.e. the author of the letter) and date of creation (i.e. when the letter was written) as meta information. Each file is then processed by a series of steps. At first the stream of text is automatically split into its words and sentences. Then several syntactic processing steps are carried out, for example to determine the lexical category of each word (noun for cinnamon, verb for imported, preposition for through, adjective for fresh etc.) or to determine the canonical form of each word (e.g. export for exported or exports). Subsequently, we extract all commodity, location, date, disease and disaster mentions from the text. This is done in various ways, depending on the type of entity mention. In the case of commodities, we use a manually created commodity ontology and combine it with an automated bootstrapping techniques to identify other commodity mentions in the text. We also geo-reference each extracted location mention with an adapted version of Edinburgh Geoparser by linking them with a latitude and longitude. Finally, we extract commodity-location relations whenever a commodity is associated in some way with a location. All this information is stored in the Trading Consequences database.

Visualising the data

The database allows us to query for all commodities that were associated with different locations as mentioned in the historical collections analysed. We can also search for a particular commodity with respect to dates or locations, or for all commodities mentioned in relation to a specific location. For the following analysis, we extracted all commodities mentioned in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection and identified a subset of frequently mentioned ones (rubber, palm, coffee, cotton, bamboo, Liberian coffee). For each commodity in this subset, we extracted all commodity-location relations along with the year of publication date of the letter they occur in and the latitude and longitude for each location. The result is a list of “year,commodity,location[lat,long]” triples which can be visualised on a timeline or map. We identified 360 triples for rubber, 276 for coffee, 176 for palm, 164 for cotton, 63 for Liberian coffee and 51 for bamboo. A further step counts the identical triples, allowing us to display the more frequent occurrences with larger symbols.

The following video shows all locations each of the six commodities is associated with in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection over time. The yellow dots represent all locations mentioned in this collection over time, irrespective of whether they are related to any commodity. These yellow dots provide an interesting mapping of the British Empire during the 19th century and show how the reach of Kew Gardens expanded well beyond the formal empire. Look at the particular interest in South America during the first few decades as an example. We know economic botanists helped identify and transfer numerous South American plants, such as cinchona and rubber, so they could be grown on British plantations in places like Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Visualising locations from 24,000 letters, however, provides new insights into the scale of this project. (It will look best if you expand the video) 

Bringing Kew's Archive alive from Jim Clifford on Vimeo.

Liberian Coffee

The second video focuses in on coffee and Liberian coffee. When coffee rust disease started to spread between coffee growing regions in the world during the second half of the 19th century, economic botanists worked to find alternative crops. In this video we see the letters mentioning Liberian coffee appear frequently after 1873, after the identification of this alternative type of coffee. While this example only confirms the history of coffee production we already know, it does demonstrate the potential of using text mining to explore large collections of documents. 

Two Coffees from Jim Clifford on Vimeo

Future developments

In the near future historians and interested members of the public will be able to explore the TRADING CONSEQUENCES database through a dynamic visualisation website. The following screenshot is a sneak preview for this website, which is currently being developed by visualisation experts at the University of St. Andrews. In TRADING CONSEQUENCES, we process a number of different historical collections. The visualisation shown in the image below is limited to the Kew Gardens’ Directors’ Correspondence Collection. The image shows a map with bubbles in locations associated with the commodity Liberian coffee. The Seychelles and Sri Lanka are the most significant locations for this commodity. A timeline with the distribution of relevant documents per decade is shown underneath the map.

LAA Liberian Coffee

Locating Liberian coffee and related commodities in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection

Download larger image

Similarly to the information shown in the video, the commodity Liberian coffee appears around 1870. Any commodities related to Liberian Coffee, i.e. ones that appear in the same summary of the original letter, are listed on the righthand side of the page. The title of the the top 50 most relevant documents containing mentions of the commodity Liberian coffee are listed in order of relevance at the bottom of the screen. Each document title links back to the original images on JSTOR Global Plants.

- The Trading Consequences team: Bea Alex, Jim Clifford and Uta Hinrichs -    



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4 comments on 'Bringing Kew's Archive Alive'

The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs

By: Kiri Ross-Jones - 24 Apr 2013
Read about Kew’s latest publication, which draws on our Library, Art & Archives collections
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Photo of visitors sitting outside the Orangery on the Broadwalk

Visitors enjoying the sunshine outside the Orangery, which was a wood museum at this time

Over the last year, Lynn Parker, our Assistant Illustrations Curator, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on a book showcasing over 250 rare and remarkable black and white photographs from across our collections. Having spent some time searching through boxes in our stores, we found a number of photos, each revealing their own story – images of a man with a penguin in the Gardens, land girls in clogs and women harvesting beetles from cacti in Antigua. Never before has the history of Kew been told through its photographic collections and so it was decided that this would provide a good opportunity for a publication, as well as a chance to promote parts of our collections never previously seen. 

Photo of a woman spinning cotton in India
Woman spinning cotton in India

The story begins in the 1840s, with our earliest photographs (daguerreotypes), which are of the Palm House being built. We look at the building projects under the Hookers and how they formed Kew, Victorian Kew’s imperial inks, drawing on images of plant products and other botanic gardens around the world and life in the field for plant hunters. We then return back to Kew, to explore behind the scenes and the untold stories of staff, our long history of welcoming visitors and the visitor attractions around the Gardens, wartime Kew and finally the emergence of the Kew we know today, in the period 1940s-1970s. Images of giant plants and seeds, Edwardian visitors enjoying the scenery, unknown corners of the Gardens and key personalities can all be found in the book. 

Photo of staff working in the Tropical Pits

Staff working in the Tropical Pits

Get Involved

Through working on the project, Lynn and I found that we learned a great deal about the history of Kew, as well as discovering previously unknown images. If you appear in the images yourself or can provide us with any further information, we would love to hear from you! Please contact us at

Without the generosity and photographic skills of many of our previous members of staff and visitors, this book would not have been possible. If you have any images of the Gardens that you are happy to share with us, particularly images from pre-1970, you can upload your photos to our Flickr group, or email them to

Win postcards of historic images

To celebrate the publication, postcards are being given away daily via our twitter feed – All you need to do is follow us @KewDC and retweet.

Buy a copy of the book

The Story of Kew Gardens In Photographs can be purchased for £15 from Kew’s online shop


Further Information


1 comment on 'The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs'

The self-taught naturalist - Alfred Russel Wallace and Kew

By: Marc Muller - 15 Apr 2013
Our library trainee, Marc, blogs about the display he and Elisabeth Thurlow have curated on Alfred Russel Wallace, and looks at some of the connections between this eminent naturalist and Kew
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To commemorate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death, we have a new small display in the Wolfson Rare Books Room prepared by this year’s Library and Archive Graduate Trainees. Showcasing material held in Kew’s collections, the display charts the long relationship between the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, providing a view of this distinguished and hard working self-taught naturalist.

LAA_A R Wallace portrait
Portrait of Wallace from Kew's Art collections

Alfred Russel Wallace was born 8th January 1823, and eventually become apprenticed to his brother as a surveyor. Whist working as a drawing master at the Collegiate School in Leicester, he befriended noted entomologist Henry Walter Bates . They later exchanged letters, discussing the works of travelling naturalists, and developing a desire to make their own journey of exploration.

Deciding on the Amazon as a destination and carrying a letter of introduction from William Hooker, Wallace and Bates set out to explore the area. After parting ways with Bates in 1849, Wallace’s expedition from 1848-1852 allowed him to amass a large collection of material, assisted at times by botanist Richard Spruce. A shipwreck whilst on the return journey home destroyed all of it, save a few small items. Upon his return, Wallace spent two years recovering from the ordeal before leaving for another expedition to the Malay Archipelago. While there, he independently came up with the idea of natural selection, providing a mechanism for evolution, giving him an equal standing with the other author of the theory, Charles Darwin.

To mark the centenary of his death in 1913, we have created a display to detail the connection between Kew and Alfred Russel Wallace. The collection Kew holds of Wallace material, covering a period of 65 years, spans the leadership of four of Kew’s earliest directors. Wallace was a constant visitor to the Gardens and even corresponded with Kew for help in developing his own garden, once he had settled back in England. Whilst on his expeditions, Wallace sent many botanical specimens to Kew, including some from the Amazon, which were dispatched prior to Wallace’s return to England.

LAA_Wallace display 2
Kew's display, showing one of the fern specimens collected in Borneo

We hope you can find the time to come visit us in the Library and have a look at our display, which is on until the 20 May 2013. The display includes rare letters and publications, photographs, plant artefacts and specimens, including one of the few surviving Amazon specimens. The Library is based in the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives building on Kew Green. Entry is free and we are open Monday-Friday, 09.00-17.00. Afterwards, should you wish to know more, Kew holds a number of his publications and 135 letters from Wallace to Kew in its Library and Archive collections. The letters were sent along with many botanical specimens, which are now held in the Herbarium. Some objects are also held in Kew’s Economic Botany collections.

Photo of items in the Wallace exhibition

Some of the publications in the display

This display joins many others as part of the  Wallace100 events being run this year in association with a number of other organisations. An events calendar  can be found on the Natural History Museum’s Wallace page.

LAA_Wallace display image 1

Letter, portraits and publications in the display

- Marc -


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Kew Gardens Archive Talks and Tours - The First 'Friends of Kew'

By: Lorna Cahill - 10 Apr 2013
Details about upcoming free talks at Kew Gardens Archives, involving original historical documents and behind the scenes tours.
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The First 'Friends of Kew': The global friendships that built Kew Gardens 

Photo of Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray in Colorado

Joseph Hooker, Director of Kew (left), and eminent American botanist Asa Gray (sat on the ground) on a plant hunting expedition in the Rocky Mountains in 1877 


Join the Archivists and Digitisers at Kew Gardens to hear stories of the great friendships that developed between botanists, explorers and the Directors of Kew, as told through their diaries and correspondence. You will be able to see original documents up to 200 years old relating to such figures as Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks and Alfred Russel Wallace. The events will also include a behind the scenes tour of the Archives and a chance to see some of our treasures.

Dates are as follows:
14 May 14.30-16.00 – fully booked!
16 May 18.30-20.00
18 May 11.00-12.30

This event is free, but places are limited and booking is essential. To book a place, please e-mail

- Lorna Cahill -

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The Perfect Plant Hunting Companion?

By: Katherine Harrington - 04 Apr 2013
Discovering 'man's best friend' in the Directors' Correspondence collection, part of Kew's archive.
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Black and white photo of George Forrest 

Plant collector George Forrest, one of the first explorers of China's then remote south-western province of Yunnan (and friend). [Courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh]

Charlotte's last blog about the digitisation of letters from the remarkable plant collector and explorer David Douglas, held here at Kew in the Directors' Correspondence (DC) collection, reminded me of a number of great accounts we've uncovered relating to botanists and their dogs! I imagine such pets were invaluable in warding off wild animals, helpful in collecting game and provided very welcome companionship in what could at times be a lonely profession.

A faithful friend

The relationship between David Douglas and his little terrier Billy is especially touching. In a fantastically detailed letter from the Columbia River, dated 9 Apr 1833, Douglas lists all his personal effects as he sets out to cross Mackenzie's track at Fraser River. Alongside fifty pounds of biscuit, 12 pairs of moccasins (!), and a pair of deer skin trousers, he takes his

"most faithful, and now, to judge from his long grey beard, venerable friend who has guarded me throughout all my journies [sic], and whom, should I live to return I mean certainly to pension off, on four penny worth of cat's meat per day!" [Archive Ref: DC61 f.110]

Tragically, whilst spending the winter of 1833 in Hawaii, Douglas fell into a cattle pit and was crushed to death by a trapped bull. Meredith Gairdner, a young surgeon with the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, had become friends with Douglas. Gairdner wrote to Kew's then Director Sir William Jackson Hooker that Douglas' body

"was only discovered on the suspicions of the islanders being excited in consequence of seeing his little dog Billy sitting alone on his coat which he had put off in order to be free of encumbrance. By this catastrophe science has lost one of his most zealous notaries, & with regard to myself I have to look back upon the hours spent in his society as among my happiest since leaving England." [Archive Ref: DC62 f.82]

Touchingly, Billy actually made it all the way back to England from Hawaii to the care of a clerk in the British Foreign Office.

Extract reads: "P.S. Mr D's little dog has been given in charge to Mr Peter Corney of the Hon. H.B. Company's Brig 'Eagle' to be delivered by him to Mr Bandinel." [Archive Ref: DC62 f.67]

A great spot of orange and 'the goodly company'

We've also previously blogged about the fascinating life of Augustine Henry who went to China to work for the Imperial Customs Service in the 1880s and sent thousands of plant specimens back to England, helping to re-ignite interest in the flora of the east. In a letter from Mengtze in 1897, Henry describes exploring with his companion Jack:

"I find when I go with my pony into the woods, that the wild animals seem less frightened; so I get good glimpses occasionally of deer, weasels, small black[?] ones and large flying ones [sic], of partridges, snakes &c. but the other day I was in a deep ravine with the pony and dog left behind on the side of the hill close. I heard loud & angry barking. I clambered up & through the trees soon discerned a great spot of orange – it loomed so large, I thought it must be a tiger. Further up I saw a beautiful leopard taking a quiet look at the pony. Loud I bellowed – no sign of the dog, the leopard skulked off over the hill. Sorrowfully I rode off, making much melancholy reflexion over poor "Jack" the dog. To my astonishment I found him lying waiting for me near the foot of the hill, in an open place[?] where he could look all around. He had been mauled but not severely by claws and teeth, but in some mysterious way had escaped out of the leopard's clutch. They talk about the spots of the leopard being protective: but there is no such brilliant object in nature, as a leopard on the sunny side of a rocky hill... Wallace is right about the happiness of animals. After such a terrible encounter, the dog immediately was in excellent spirits & had quite forgotten his danger. Curiously enough the pony wasn't a bit frightened either." [Archive Ref: DC151 f.710-713]

So far we have digitised over twenty letters from John Ellerton Stocks from the DC collection. Stocks began writing to Kew shortly after joining the Bombay Medical Service. His letters reveal his growing passion for plant collecting and my personal favourite contains a vivid and rather funny account of his 1848 travelling party in Pakistan:

"You know our Indian mode of marching? I think you would have been amused with the sight of mine – for example on leaving Shah Bilawal... "the goodly company". First and foremost my poodle-terrier (fancying himself the guide & most important person of the lot) as happy as dog can be, looking back whenever he has scrambled to the top of a big block of stone and saying "Why don't you folks get on as actively as I do." Then followed the camels in Indian file... The stone-collectors, two plant-collectors, five camel-men... Last came my servant bearing a lantern (mark of his office) and the Guide, a fine handsome Belooche... With these trots a long fleeced[?] long-horned Scinde goat bleating incessantly... a great pest by the way this same impudent goat who used to watch when I was examining plants & slily (sic) eat the specimens out of my hand- besides hunting out the half dried plants – devouring them & munching the paper." [Archive Ref: DC54 f.473]

Kinchin the thief!

I couldn't conclude without a quick mention of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Kew's second Director, who demonstrates a real affection for man's best - and sometimes rather naughty - friends. In a letter from Darjeeling, possibly to one of his sisters, Joseph describes 'Kinchin' his Tibetan mastiff cross as a great thief who one day demolished half a cheese (a very valuable ration) carelessly left within reach.

"Now he is 6 months old, & a fine youth, very well behaved, but sadly addicted to smelling. Whenever he finds a new plant, he points at it, if it is too large for him to bring, till someone comes up to his assistance, or if it be small, he fetches it to me in his mouth." [Archive Ref: JDH/1/10]   

 Pencil sketch of the head of a Tibet mastiff by J.D. Hooker  Lithograph of the head of a Tibet mastiff after a sketch by J.D. Hooker

A sketch of a 'Tibet' mastiff by Joseph Hooker (left) and the final worked up lithograph, possibly by Walter Hood Fitch (right) [Archive ref: JDH Indian Sketchbook, plate 35]


I'm sure today's plant hunters would appreciate the companionship of a Billy, Jack or Kinchin!

- Kat - 


Related links

'The Plant Hunters' by Carolyn Fry

Kew has published interactive book for iPad "The Plant Hunters" which is featured as new and noteworthy on the Apple iBookstore.

More about the Directors' Correspondence team


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