The Perfect Plant Hunting Companion?

By: Katherine Harrington - 04/04/2013

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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