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Kew under Hooker

Joseph Hooker was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for twenty years, from the death of his father in 1865 to his own retirement in 1885. His directorship was characterised by the expansion of the Gardens' imperial role and the struggle to further and protect their scientific function. The most significant attack on the scientific role of Kew came in the 1870s in the form of the 'Ayrton Controversy'.

Kew at home and abroad

Black and white photograph of Henry 'Rubber' Ridley next to a tapped rubber tree

Henry 'Rubber' Ridley, pictured here alongside a tapped rubber tree, was Director of the Singapore Botanic Garden from 1888-1911.

In 1865 Hooker’s father died and Joseph succeeded him as director of Kew. Hooker was by this time a highly-regarded botanist with a worldwide reputation, nevertheless he might not have secured the position without his father’s constant assistance. William Hooker had even offered to leave his vast private herbarium to the nation as long as Joseph were appointed to succeed him. 

Hooker remained Director of Kew until his retirement in 1885. These twenty years were marked by the continuation and expansion of Kew’s imperial role. In 1859–60, William Hooker and Kew had provided essential assistance in the ‘transfer’ of Cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was made) from South America to India. This enabled this crucial crop to be grown in a British colony with plentiful supplies of cheap labour, resulting in cheaper, more reliable supplies of the drug that was essential to combating the malaria endemic to many tropical colonies. The success of the Cinchona transplantation was emulated under Joseph Hooker’s direction in the 1870s when rubber seeds (Hevea brasilensis) were removed to be grown in British colonies, especially in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore and Malaya.

As well as expanding the imperial role of Kew by transplanting commercial plants throughout the British Empire, Hooker also grew the Gardens' assets on the home soil of Kew.  During his travels Hooker had contributed to the improvement of Kew through the donation of plants to the collections: his dried plant specimens helped swell the herbarium collection and the many new species of Rhododendron Joseph sent back to his father from the Himalayas were added to what had previously been the 'Hollow Walk', transforming it into the Rhododendron Dell. In 1850 Kew's annual report listed '21 baskets of Indian orchids and new species of Rhododendrons', and today the Rhododendron Dell still puts forth a breathtaking spring display.

The Rhododendron Dell at Kew

The Rhododendron Dell at Kew

As Director, Hooker continued to grow the dried and living plant collections at Kew through his network of collectors. So much so that it became clear additional space was required to house the herbarium collection, and in 1871 Hooker's request for a purpose-built extension was granted. Under his aegis the Garden and Arboretum was laid out according to the Bentham-Hooker classification, which he had developed in collaboration with George Bentham. Other notable built additions included the first Jodrell Laboratory and the Marianne North Gallery, donated by the Victorian artist and traveller, to house 800 of her botanical paintings.

The public function of Kew

The public function of Kew became a source of controversy in various ways during Hooker’s tenure as Director. He asserted that the Gardens' ‘primary objects are scientific and utilitarian, not recreational’ and complained about the need to create elaborate floral displays for those he regarded as ‘mere pleasure or recreation seekers … whose motives are rude romping and games’ (Desmond 1995: 230, 234). Given these views, it is hardly surprising that he continued the tradition of allowing only serious botanical students and artists to enter the Gardens during the morning, and resisted all attempts to extend the Gardens' opening hours for the general public. 

Behind this opposition to admitting the public and providing better facilities for them lay an anxiety about the scientific standing of Kew and of botany more generally. Botany continued to enjoy enormous popularity with non-professionals and was associated in the public mind with respectable middle-class activities, such as gardening and flower-painting. It was also particularly popular with women – at a time when the world of Victorian science was almost entirely dominated by men. 

Cartoon representing the controversy over Kew's public opening hours, July 1877

Cartoon representing the controversy over Kew's public opening hours, July 1877.

Hooker’s long struggle to find a paid botanical appointment may have made him peculiarly sensitive to issues about the status of his studies. His concern to transform botany into a properly ‘philosophical’ study, one concerned with the laws of distribution and the origin of species, helps explain his opposition to the pleasure seekers and 'rude rompers'.

In the 1870s, anxieties over the status of Kew – and over his personal standing in the scientific world – drew Hooker into conflict with Acton Smee Ayrton, the first commissioner of the Office of Works (which had taken over control of Kew from Woods and Forests in 1850). Hooker’s notorious irritability – even Darwin described him as ‘impulsive and somewhat peppery in temper’ (Barlow 1958: 105) – probably contributed to the conflict, but the immediate focus of what became known as the 'Ayrton controversy' was Richard Owen’s Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

The new building was to house the natural history collections of the British Museum, including the vast herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks. In 1868, Hooker had proposed that the Banksian herbarium be transferred to Kew, citing mismanagement at the British Museum as his justification. Owen, then keeper of the British Museum’s natural history collections, opposed Hooker’s plan, which would have jeopardised his new museum. Sharp ideological differences lay behind the dispute: Hooker was one of Darwin’s best-known public defenders, while Owen was a vociferous opponent.

Kew is what my father and I have made it by our sole unaided efforts; and the ministers have been...considering  a scheme for mentally altering its constitution...without consulting me

Joseph Hooker on the 'Ayrton controversy'

By 1872, Ayrton had already made several attempts to cut public spending on scientific institutions and had clashed with Hooker several times as he tried to assert his authority over Kew. He now privately consulted Owen as to the future of the rival herbaria and Owen, not surprisingly, proposed that Kew’s collections be transferred to the Natural History Museum – a proposal that would have reduced Kew to a mere public park. Hooker resisted this strongly, calling in every prominent British man of science he knew, including Darwin and Lyell, to protest publicly against the proposed change. After debates in both houses of parliament, Hooker and the Darwinians succeeded in getting Ayrton transferred to the office of Judge Advocate General. Both Kew and the Natural History Museum retained their respective collections and at the general election of 1874, Ayrton lost his seat.

Black and white photograph of the first Kew herbarium extension

The first Kew Herbarium extension

 

Yet despite Hooker’s autocratic opposition to anything he regarded as diluting Kew’s scientific role, he was not opposed to widening public participation in science.

In 1866, he addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), whose meetings the general public were encouraged to attend, and delivered a lecture on ‘Insular Floras’ in which he finally gave up what he now called ‘sinking imaginary continents’ and instead adopted Darwin’s theory of plant distribution by migration. Hooker’s involvement with the BAAS also included presiding over the department of zoology and botany in 1874 and over the geographical section in 1881.

In 1873, Hooker was elected president of the Royal Society where he instituted various reforms designed to broaden public participation in the society, including the ladies soirées. When he retired from the presidency in 1878, Hooker was particularly proud of the £10,000 he had helped raise which allowed the restrictively-high membership dues to be reduced.

In public, Hooker was extremely reticent about his political and religious views. In a letter to Gray, he described himself as a Whig and elsewhere referred to himself as ‘a philosophic conservative, a strong Unionist, but not a Tory’ (Turrill 1963: 197). However, he never expressed much interest in party politics. 

Cartoon satirising the debate over extending Kew's public opening hours c.1876

Cartoon satirising the debate over extending Kew's public opening hours c.1876.

Hooker was similarly discreet about his religious views. He refused to give public support to Sir John Lubbock’s petition in support of the authors of the Essays and Reviews (a collection of essays by liberal clergymen that questioned traditional readings of scripture) because he claimed to be unsure as to the benefits of Lubbock’s campaign. He was similarly cautious in the controversy over the work of John William Colenso, the Bishop of Natal, whose doubts about the historical accuracy of parts of the old testament led to his excommunication in 1863. Hooker gave money to Colenso’s defence fund, provided his name was not published; he told Darwin he was anxious to avoid upsetting his devout, traditionalist mother.

In private, Hooker’s religious views were close to the agnosticism of his friend Thomas Henry Huxley; in a letter to his friend, the clergyman and amateur naturalist James Digues de la Touche, Hooker expressed praise for Huxley’s concept of ‘a religion of pure reason’ (Turrill 1963: 198). 

Huxley and Hooker were among the founders of the X Club, a private dining society that supported Darwinism and opposed those they saw as obstructing scientific progress, especially traditional churchmen. In letters to Huxley, Hooker was forthright about his dislike of theological dogmatism, sacerdotalism and ceremony, but nevertheless remained a church-going Anglican and agreed to act as godfather for Huxley’s son.

 

Text by Dr Jim Endersby. Reproduced with the permission of the author and Oxford University Press. Full biography also available free online on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.