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 collection contains many letters written by botanical collectors sent out by Kew to far flung parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The romance of the intrepid explorer
There is a certain romance to the idea of the intrepid explorer striking out into the unknown and collecting all manner of exotic plants and objects. However, some of the letters in our collection reveal that travelling in remote parts of the world was often far from romantic or idyllic, and could sometimes be downright grizzly.
Photo of arrangement of skulls by the Atayal people, from James Davidson's 1903 work 'The Island of Formosa, Past and Present'. This is how he describes the sight: "After exposure to the rain and ravages of insects and rats the trophies are soon reduced to glistening skulls; and to the stranger are the most striking objects"
The challenges of plant hunting
In the past, botanists often wrote back to Kew to inform their colleagues about why they were being prevented from doing their collecting work. Many of the challenges they described were similar to the sort of every day troubles we might encounter on our own modern travels. Money is tight, the transport is poor, the weather is causing delays – sound familiar?
Richard Oldham was frustrated by all of these mundane difficulties whilst collecting for Kew in China, Japan and Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the 19th Century - when these regions had still only relatively recently been opened to foreigners. But he also encountered a more unusual impediment in the form of the amorous practices of the Taiwanese indigenous people.
The perils of headhunting
In a letter to Kew dated 19 March 1864, Oldham explains why he cannot explore the mountains near Tamsuy (now called Tamsui or Danshui):
"As the spring is the season at which the young savages marry, it is yet unsafe to go as they always fight either with other savages, or Chinamen in order to get heads with which to celebrate their marriages, and it is possible they might take particular liking for the heads of foreigners. It will perhaps be safer to go during the summer".
Headhunting, the practice of taking someone's head after killing them, was a ritualistic part of life for most Taiwanese aborigines until the 1930's. In his 1903 account of the island, James Davidson says that the northern tribe, the Atayals, were the most active head hunters. Oldham was also staying in the North and it may have been these people he feared.
At this time, headhunting practices and their significance varied between peoples, but Davidson records that to the Atayals it was a prominent, essential and honourable part of society and served many functions - such as gaining favour with unmarried women, obtaining rank and bringing luck and protection. The heads themselves were kept in the open air on a narrow platform and never removed.
As Valentines Day approaches, we can be glad that our romantic rituals are more likely to involve displays of flowers and candles than dismembered heads.
- Virginia Mills -
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1 comment on 'Roses are red, violets are blue...and human heads are sign of good luck!'
About Augustine Henry
The Directors' Correspondence team has recently digitised over 100 letters from the botanist Augustine Henry (1857-1930). Henry typifies a certain category of correspondent that we often come across in the collection: men who are sent out to unfamiliar lands in some official capacity, be it military, governmental, engineering, surveying etc. who find themselves amongst strange new flora and so develop an interest in botany and plant collecting.
Henry originally became interested in the sources of medicinal plants passing through his customs house in Yichang, China. Botany was a leisure activity for him but through his letters we can trace his development from amateur enthusiast to botanical heavyweight who, with the help of local officials and native collectors, amassed a collection of over 150,000 specimens representing 6000 species. Some 1700 of these were new to science and some are named after him.
Henry's first letter to Kew, dated 1885.
Writing from Yichang, Henry tells Kew's Director Joseph Hooker that: "a good number of medicines are grown about here, and there seems to be a fair number of interesting plants. As this part of China is not very well known to botanists...interesting specimens might be obtained." [archive ref: 151/578]
Documenting plant uses
As research material, Henry's letters are interesting as firsthand accounts of the plant hunting adventures of a prolific collector venturing into largely unexplored territory. But they also open a door to research within other Kew collections.
Henry sent seeds and specimens to Kew and many of those mentioned in his letters can be found in the Herbarium collections. As we were reading through the letters, however, we also came across numerous references to other material Henry was sending to Kew: items relating to commercially significant plants and the ways in which local people made use of them in their everyday lives.
Searching for such items in Kew's Economic Botany collection catalogue we found that many of the things Henry describes in his letters are still part of the Economic Botany collection. For example Henry writes of a "Morus sp. a wild Mulberry, the root bark of which produces a most excellent strong fibre, which is woven into cloth: & made into handsome game bags" [archive ref: 151/665-670]. Henry sent specimens of the bark, the fibre and the cloth made from it as well as one of the game bags he admired, so we can actually see the progression from raw material to useful product.
With the help of Collection Curator Mark Nesbitt we also found tools Henry sent which were used by the indigenous people to harvest a varnish from the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum); a knife to incise the bark, spouts to tap the varnish and mussel shells to collect it.
Tools used to collect sap from the 'Chinese lacquer' or 'varnish' tree', sent to Kew by Henry and now part of the Economic Botany Collection
Reuniting letters with their objects
It was our desire to bring together these items and the original letters that inspired us to put on a display where they could be seen side by side. The roots of Coptis teeta (a traditional Chinese medicine) that Henry sent to Kew stored in tiny woven baskets can now be seen alongside his letter describing the traditional method of cultivating the plant:
"A rude staging about 400ft x 400 feet is erected on the mountain side, (6000 to 9000 ft alt.) composed of trunks and branches of trees driven into the ground about 4ft high & across the tops of these poles other branches are laid horizontally – so that the sun will only glimmer on the plants growing beneath - After 8 years growth the root is large enough and is then dug up and exported to all parts of China." [archive ref: 151/624-625]
You can also see the game bag and a pair of traditional Taiwanese sandals which Henry sent back to Kew in the Plants and People exhibition in Museum No.1. The sandals are made of fibres obtained from an Alpinia species.
Having chosen examples of useful and commercial plants from the Economic Botany collection we set about looking for more varied material. Henry was also a linguist and writes in his letters about the language of the 'Lolo' or Yi people:
"The composition of words is ingeniously simple. A gun is 'fire-kit', gunpowder is 'fire-rice', a snare is a 'take-get', a bucket is '2 ears projecting', lightening is 'the sky winks'." [DC 151/725-730]
In Kew's archive we found Dictionaries of Chinese characters compiled by Henry as well as extremely long plant lists detailing the species he had collected and recording their various local names as well as scientific ones.
Final touches to the display
To bring some colour to the display the Illustrations team helped us to find beautiful figures of some of the plants Henry and his local collectors had gathered. We chose to display two, which also bear the name of their discoverer: Lilium henryi and Rhododendron augustinii.
Part of Augustine Henry display - book containing an illustration of Lilium henryii alongside a letter about Coptis teeta and some samples of the roots
This display shows the research trails which are being opened by the digitisation of the DC and how they allow one to follow in the footsteps of plant-hunters-past as well as leading into explorations of the other diverse collections at Kew.
The library is open to bona fide researchers by appointment. A written application to visit is usually required. See here for full details about visiting the Library. The digitised Augustine Henry letters will soon be available to view online at the JSTOR Plant Science website.
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In October 2011, I attended a five day oral history conference in Denver, Colorado, USA. My reasons for going were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how things were done on the other side of the Atlantic. Academics in American universities have recognised the value of oral history to such an extent that it has become a widely available academic subject there. In Europe, it still has its sceptics, although it is becoming more widely respected here. My other reason for wishing to go was to further my skills and information base for my current project, ‘Hidden Memories’, which involves interviewing retired members of staff here at Kew.
Extract of an interview from Kew's oral history project
Oral History Association
The conference was organised by the Oral History Association. Speakers came from all over the United States and the rest of the world. The programme was themed around the topic 'Memories of Conflict and Disaster: Oral History and the Politics of Truth, Trauma, and Reconciliation', and offered space for a variety of oral history subjects. Workshops provided attendees with professional development options for every level of oral historian. Topics ranged from an introduction to the field of oral history, to learning about new technologies in publishing and how to apply the law to an oral history collection.
Social evening and film show
On the social side, Wednesday night consisted of a lively evening of short films, digital stories, poetry and previews with a special bourbon tasting sponsored by the Buffalo Trace Distillery! A number of oral history films were shown. ‘Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery', provided an insider’s look at life in the distillery and how world-class bourbon is made. ‘Mosaic: Voices of Women’s Suffrage’, was a filmed version of a play featuring the accomplishments of three American suffragists, in which a conversation is imagined comparing their experiences from the 1860s until 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed granting women the right to vote. The last film shown was ‘Packed: A Film About Fire, People, and Possessions’ about a fire in the Colorado mountains in 2010. It included interviews with the evacuees, in which they explained what they had chosen to take with them, not knowing if the possessions left behind would survive the massive blaze.
A selection of items from Kew's oral history collection
‘Scientists in Difficult Times’
On the Friday afternoon, I chaired a panel entitled ‘Scientists in Difficult Times’ and also presented a paper about the oral history project at Kew ‘Hidden Memories’ with three other colleagues. Rob Perks from the British Library presented ‘Life Stories and the Audio-Video Debate: The Oral History of British Science at the British Library', Dr Peggy Dillon, from Salem State University talked about ‘Preparing for the Scientific Interview’, and Ronald E. Doel from the Smithsonian Institute spoke on ‘Documenting a Research Institution: The Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History and Video History Collections'.
It was an extremely interesting conference and I made some very useful contacts from all over the world, learnt about new techniques and ideas, and exchanged tips and information with other oral historians.
- UK Oral History Society
- American Oral History Society
- Oral History Discussion Network
- To find out more about Kew's oral history project, contact the Archives
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Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to travel to India, China or South America over 100 years ago? What you might have eaten? How you might have travelled? And where you would have slept? Kew’s Archives are full of letters, notebooks and other forms of documentation which can help us to understand what daily life really was like for the adventurers of the past.
The travels of Charles Wilford
Charles Wilford's bill for goods purchased from SW Silver & Co (Archive ref: KCL/13/1)
Some 19th century travellers appear, by modern standards, to have travelled in extravagant style. The Archives contain documents relating to a number of expeditions organised by Kew to collect plant specimens from abroad. One of these expeditions to Japan and China was undertaken by Charles Wilford between 1857 and 1860, and the documents relating to it include an invoice from S. W. Silver & Co., a company who supplied clothing and equipment to travellers. The invoice includes items such as:
- 1 x Best Hair Mattress and Pillow (we are unsure what 'best' means)
- 1 x Enamel Basin
- 2 x German Silver tea spoons
Invoices such as this paint a vivid picture of the style in which collectors like Wilford might have lived whilst they were travelling.
The travels of Francis Kingdon-Ward
Other explorers also clearly enjoyed home comforts on their travels. The papers of Francis Kingdon-Ward, who traveled throughout south-eastern Asia in the first half of the 20th century, include a bill from Fortnum & Mason’s export department for goods sent to Kingdon-Ward for an expedition to India. The bill includes:
- 12 x tins Heinz Baked Beans
- 6 x bottles HP Sauce
- 4 x 10 lb tins Cadbury’s Mexican Chocolate
- 1 x Abyssinian Table [This appears to have been a type of table used for playing bridge!]
Kingdon-Ward continued to travel into the 1950s and, remarkably, the archive contains a collection of material samples sent to Kingdon-Ward for possible use in a tent he was having specially made for an expedition in 1952. It is a rare treat to be able to touch and so closely examine the types of materials used to make the equipment employed by travellers at this time.
Samples of material for Kingdon-Ward's tent (Archive ref: FKW/2/24)
The travels of Charles Darwin
Some explorers, on the other hand, appear to have embraced the native lifestyle in the places to which they travelled. A notable such example would be Charles Darwin . The Archives hold 44 letters which Darwin wrote to his tutor Rev. John Stevens Henslow, who was Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. In one of these letters , written from Montevideo in Uruguay and dated November 12th 1833, Darwin describes how he travelled on horseback from Rio Negro to Buenos Aires. Darwin writes:
“I am quite charmed with the Gaucho life: my luggage consisted of a Hammer Pistol & shirt & the Recado (saddle) makes the bed: Wherever the horses tire, there is your house & home.”
Excerpt of a letter from Darwin to Henslow, 12 Nov 1833 (Archive ref: DAR/1/1/20)
- Steph -
1 comment on 'Travel the world and explore the past at Kew'
I’m Kiri, the head archivist, and thought I would let you know about some events that we are holding in January, which will offer you the unique chance to see inside our Archives! As part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign, join me and the other archive staff in our reading room to hear botanists’ and plant hunters’ stories about their travels and cultural encounters.
Photograph from an album in the Ridley collection (archive ref: HNR/1/4)
You will be able to see original documents relating to figures such as Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and John Kirk and hear about their work. The events will also include a behind-the-scenes tour of our Archives and a chance to see some of our treasures. We are holding three sessions and although the first on the 20 January is already fully booked, we still have places available on the 26 and 28 January sessions.
- Thursday 26 January 18.00 - 19.30
- Saturday 28 January 11.00 - 12.30
The events are free and open to all, but places are limited and booking is essential.
To book a place, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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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