Take a glimpse at the Museum of Economic Botany at the turn of the 20th Century, as discovered by our Archives volunteer in a recent addition to our collections.
My name is Liz and I’ve been a volunteer archivist at Kew since September. Working here holds a magnetic appeal for me, and I’ve been spending two days a week in the Archive, and one day a week with the Digitisation Team.
I’ve just completed my first assignment in the archive, which was to accession and repackage two cardboard boxes of mysterious files. A note on the boxes revealed they’d come ‘From the furniture store’ and the contents had been frozen (to kill any insects), however beyond that nothing was known about them. I love archival detective work, and this challenge was a gift.
A memo from the collection dated 1908, complete with a stain from a rusty paperclip!
A closer examination of the files revealed that physically the records had suffered: they were dirty and every paperclip and staple had rusted, leaving copious, indelible rust marks and a fine sprinkling of rust dust in between pages. Each day as I worked I produced a small pile of twisted decayed metalwork, removed using a specially designed scalpel-like implement. Nicking a finger was an everyday hazard!
It became clear from reading the correspondence and memos that the files had once formed part of the Kew Museum filing system. The only other similar system dates from the 1950s, and as these files spanned 1875-1934, the significance of the collection was becoming apparent. Many memos and letters were from J Masters Hillier, Keeper of the Museum 1901-1926, and by examining his painstaking annotations, it was possible to piece together the relationship between the Museum and the Director’s Office, and establish how different departments at Kew co-operated to answer enquiries.
Many bulletins and newspaper cuttings from the early 1900s were included in the files, mainly relating to economic products (e.g. coffee, rubber, and cotton) from around the world. While some were quite dry, others told tales of deceit and intrigue. An article dated 3 August 1911 suggests that Brazil had intended to monopolise the rubber industry by forbidding the export of rubber plants and seeds. Their attempt was reportedly foiled however by Mr H A Wickham, who in 1876 covertly collected 70,000 seeds from the shores of the Amazon. Due to their perishable nature, he took them straight to Kew, arriving by hansom in the middle of the night, where the seeds were sown at once. A year later, 1700 of these plants were introduced to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where the rubber industry went on to flourish. In another article, barrels of raw rubber were reportedly intercepted as they were smuggled from India, their tops studded with coffee beans to disguise their true contents.
Daily Telegraph supplement on the rubber industry, 1929
With regards to the mango, in 1782 HMS Flora captured a French ship sailing from Mauritius, carrying a collection of named and numbered plants, including a consignment of young mango trees. The ship was taken as a prize to Jamaica, where the trees were planted. All the numbers became mixed up or lost apart from one mango tree which bore the label ‘Number 11’, which flourished and its fruit became a lucrative export and a local delicacy, available from sellers all over the island. It’s still known locally as the Number 11 today.
- Liz -
- If you would like to read more about the history of economic botany at Kew, including the Museum and its Keepers, please have a look at ‘Two centuries of Economic Botanists at Kew’, an article by G E Wickens, available on-line
- To see the collection that Liz describes above (QX 10-0029), or any other archival collection, please contact the archives
- Read more about the history of rubber
- Find out more about volunteering at Kew
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