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Correspondence

Find out about the scope and content of the Joseph Dalton Hooker Correspondence Project.

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If you wish to proceed directly to search or browse the letters please follow the link:  Explore the Letters

For more information about the content of Joseph Dalton Hooker's letters and tips on searching and reading the letters online please consult the information below, which includes a summary of each of the series of letters currently online:

About: Indian Letters (1847-1851)

About: Correspondence chiefly with Asa Gray

or download our guide, inlcuding a full listing of the letters:

 


About the project

The Joseph Hooker Correspondence (JHC) project is making available, online, the personal and scientific correspondence of Joseph Hooker, an important but often overlooked 19th century botanist and explorer. The formation of this online repository, comprised largely of previously unpublished archive material, is intended to facilitate academic research in such fields as botany and other natural sciences, horticulture, British imperialism, garden history, the history of science and the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Kew also hopes to bring knowledge of Joseph Hooker to a wider audience and to extend awareness of the extent and significance of his work.

The JHC project was conceived by staff of The University of Sussex and Kew's Library, Art and Archive directorate. In partnership, Kew and University of Sussex's Centre for World Environmental History produced digital images and full transcriptions of Hooker's Indian letters. Staff at Kew are continuing the project with the digitisation of further series of Hooker's correspondence which are being added to the website. In its current incarnation the site should be considered a pilot and the design and layout will undergo considerable redesign during the course of the project's development. This will include improvements to the search functionality.

The JHC project has been extended beyond the initial digitisation of the Indian correspondence thanks to funding from the Stevenson Family's Charitable Trust and will now proceed to digitise, and publish online, further Joseph Hooker letters held in the archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and other institutions. The project funding also makes provision for important conservation work to be carried out on the correspondence, ensuring these historic letters, chronicling Joseph Hooker's life, work and achievements will be safely preserved, both digitally and on paper in the Kew archive, for the future enjoyment and enlightenment of scholars and the public.


Indian letters

Hooker's Indian correspondence (1847-1851), also including letters from other regions in the Himalayas.

This series includes letters to Joseph Hooker's father, Sir William Jackson Hooker. William Hooker was at the time Director of Kew himself. Joseph addresses long treatise to his father on the flora he has seen and the latest regions explored. He also writes about specimens of local plant products, procured for the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew which was established by William Hooker. His letters discuss such items as poisons, medicines, edibles, natural fibre cloth, utensils and many curiosities observed and collected as he travelled.

Sketch map of Sikkim by Joseph Hooker
Sketch map of Sikkim by Joseph Hooker
Hooker addresses Charles Darwin on geology and on variation and distribution in Indian animals. He also discusses his exploration of plant distribution; for example explaining, with a rather professional scientific tone, how he has divided the Himalayas into zones according to characteristic vegetation. At the same time Darwin is already 'old friend' to Hooker and so he also gets stories about riding elephants to entertain his children with and gossipy letters about fellow naturalists. If you are interested in the friendship of Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker their full correspondence can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project website and through the Cambridge Digital Library.

To his fiancée and to his mother Hooker writes letters about how he has spent his days, and complains rather ungallantly about the weather, accommodation and food, perhaps to reassure them he is missing home, or at least its comforts. His letters to his family also reveal another side to Hooker: he tells whimsical tales of his misadventures and his mischievous canine travelling companions.Other scientists also feature in the Indian letters. For example Hooker wrote a letter to Professor Charles Wheatstone, an early pioneer of spectroscopy, describing his own observation of the rare occurrence of an aurora in the tropics.  Hooker's friend Brian Houghton Hodgson, noted zoologist and expert on Nepalese culture also features in the correspondence and frequent reference is made to prominent naturalists including Bentham, Lyell and Henslow.

The Indian letters volume also includes several hand drawn maps prepared by Hooker, the majority of these maps can be found at the end of the volume. Chiefly the maps are of Sikkim and show Hooker's route through the territory from Darjeeling to Tibet. There are also smaller maps and diagrams scattered amongst the text of the letters, many depict the terrain Hooker was exploring but illustrations of interesting artefacts, plants and Hooker's dogs can also be found throughout.

We have also chosen to include a number of letters addressed to Hooker's family by other individuals. These concern Hooker's capture and detention by the Rajah of Sikkim and are important records in the narrative of Hooker's Indian expedition.


'Correspondence chiefly with Asa Gray'

In 2008 the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew acquired a collection of correspondence described & catalogued as 'Joseph Hooker correspondence principally with Dr Asa Gray'

The letters in this collection penned by Hooker have now been digitised and transcribed as part of the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project. These letters fall into three main categories

  • letters from Hooker to Gray during the period 1854-1887
  • Letters from Hooker to his second wife Hyacinth Hooker. Primarily dating from his trip to America with Asa Gray in 1877, but also including later letters and some rare correspondence predating their marriage in 1876.
  • Letters from Hooker to various other correspondents: Lecomte, Strachey, Hodgson & sundry other long-standing personal and scientific correspondents as well as letters to extended family members such as the Gunn and the Symonds families.

Letters to Gray

Asa Gray (1810-1888) was one of the pre eminent American botanist of his day thanks to his publication of several accessible text books on Botany, authorship of a Synoptical Flora of North America, and his tenure as Professor of Natural History & overseer of the botanic garden at Harvard University (1842 - 1873). He also had an international reputation, being a correspondent and confidant not only of his botanical colleagues across America but of many of the prominent European naturalists of the 19th Century, including Sir Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Gray's global network of botanists and collectors allowed him to burgeon the Harvard University Herbarium into one of the foremost herbaria in the world. But Gray did not just import plants he also became a conduit for the latest theories in natural history, introducing and critiquing ideas from Europe for the elucidation of American botanists. Darwin himself characterised Gray as a 'hero' defending the theory of natural selection on American turf.

Gray first met Joseph Hooker in 1838, during a trip to Europe to reconnoitre botanical libraries and herbaria in Europe. The earliest correspondence in the volume of letters digitised dates to 1854 continuing to 1887. This represents a period of flourishing in the study of natural history, including but not limited to the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in November 1859. Gray and Hooker were both significant figures in this flourishing and their correspondence has much to reveal about their own expert opinions on the publications and emerging doctrines of the day.

For example, in the earliest letter from this volume, dated 26 Jan 1854 we immediately see Hooker debating with Gray on the subject of how to delimit species, something Hooker knew had to be addressed to standardise classification & naming of plants & facilitate distribution mapping

There is not a single argument that will no cut both ways, & may not be turned pro & con species, specific centres &c...You say that we are not to pronounce species the same because they are united apparently by certain forms of each...This is no good argument & a better is that we do not know which is the originally created state

Hooker to Gray 26 Jan 1854, JHC136

It is important to note that questions surrounding the origin of species were much debated pre as well as post Darwin's proposal of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. Hooker of course, and later Gray were privy to Darwin's theory through their correspondence long before On the Origin of Species was published. There has also been a great deal of speculation about when and to what extent Hooker fully embraced Darwinism and these letters contain a great deal of commentary from Hooker to add to the evidence from his previously known letters and publications.

Going beyond the species question Gray and Hooker communicate on topics including: The (un)likelihood that the formation of land and seas has remained static throughout history, reaching tentatively towards something like the theory of continental drift, a debate that would continue until plate tectonics was proved in the 1950s.  Darwin's theory on mechanisms of heredity 'Pangenesis', of which Hooker is rightly sceptical. Plant distribution, a consistent shared preoccupation. Effects of glaciation. Botanical education. Systems of government, and class politics.

Other's whose work is critiqued in the correspondence include: Louis Agassiz, Charles Lyell, Miles Joseph Berkeley & Thomas Malthus to name a few.

Letters from Hooker to his wife Hyacinth

15 letters in the 'Asa Gray' series were written from Hooker to his wife Hyacinth during his 1877 tour of America with Asa Gray, during which they covered 8,000 miles from Boston to California. Fewer journal materials either published or manuscript survive from this excursion than from Hooker's other botanical explorations so these letters are a valuable resource. His letters, accounts of up to 16 pages of densely written script, describe the country travelled through and the party's latest activities, both botanical and personal.

There is much of socio-historical interest in Hooker's correspondence from America. He describes frontier living, mining and the 'silver rush' settlements, Boston Society, lynch law, Small Pox, the Mormon community in Salt Lake City and a meeting with famous Mormon leader Brigham Young.

A further 15 letters to Hyacinth span the period from 1878-1890.

Letters to other correspondents in the 'Asa Gray' series

Comprised of 39 letters from Hooker addressed to the following correspondents: Hyacinth Catherine Symonds (nee Kent), Reverend William Samuel Symonds, Reverend John Gunn, Harriet Gunn, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, Sir Richard Strachey, Paul Henri Lecomte, Karl Theodore von Heigel Brian Houghton Hodgson and Susan Hodgson. In addition to discussion of his botanical work subjects include Hooker's honeymoon, his children, his knighthood and his 1877 trip to America.


Joseph Hooker letters in the Kew Archive

Kew's Joseph Hooker collections are some of the most frequently consulted documents in Kew's archive collection and have long been a priority for conservation and digitisation.

They include letters from Hooker's time as Director of the Gardens but also correspondence pre- and post-dating his Directorship. The bulk of Joseph Hooker's letters in the archive are classified as 'personal papers' . As well as letters to family members the personal papers section covers 'private' letters between Hooker and many eminent scientists, including Charles Darwin, and cover a broad range of scientific subjects. By and large they do not relate to the matters of administration carried out by Hooker in his capacity as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Copies were, perhaps surprisingly, not routinely made of the official correspondence sent out by Hooker or the Director's office, at least no such copies survive. There is of course still much discussion of Kew within Hooker's letters, especially those to his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker, who preceded him as director of Kew and to his son in law Sir William Thiselton-Dyer who was his successor.

The official papers relating to the institutional history of Kew contain an extensive amount of material relating to Joseph Hooker and the pivotal role he played in expanding and defining the role of Kew as a public institution. This material is most often reports, memorandums and press cuttings. It does also contain inward and outward correspondence, but as this part of the collection is not generally as rich in correspondence from Hooker as the personal papers, it is not one of the first priorities for inclusion in the correspondence project.

A full list of the volumes contained in the Joseph Hooker personal papers collection, with information on their provenance, can be found in this

 

For further information about Kew's archive holdings you can consult the online catalogue.

The next volume of letters from the archive to go online will be Hooker's letters to his friend and fellow botanist Asa Gray, who was based at Harvard University. If your are interested in reading more of Hooker's letters his correspondence with Alfred Russell Wallace is featured in Wallace Letters Online.


The letters online

Each letter featured on the website has an asset page which comprises:

  1. Images of each page of the letter
  2. Metadata which records the letter date, recipient, originating address etc.
  3. A fully searchable summary of the contents of the letter.
  4. A transcription of the letter (available as a document download).

Care has been taken to ensure that the letters are transcribed accurately but some of the early work still needs to be corrected to comply with the project's current standards. We welcome any information about mistakes and corrections. Corrections will be made as part of the next website update and there may be some delay before they appear. If you would like to know more about the transcription standards you can download the project's

 

The letters held in the archive are sometimes copies rather than Joseph Hooker's original version written in his own hand. In the case of the Indian correspondence series, copies are in the form of letters written out by Hooker's mother or one of his sisters. Either the copy or the original would then have been circulated amongst Hooker's friends and relations whilst the other was retained by his immediate family. Where the only version of a letter held in the Kew archive is a copy, the copy will be digitised for inclusion in the project. If an original version ie written and signed by Hooker himself is later found it will be added to the database.

The current mandate of the JHC project is to digitise only letters from Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. The decision has been taken to initially include only letters authored by Hooker, meaning the website does not feature letters which he received - with the occasional exception of those he enclosed with his own correspondence. As he held a prominent public position as Director of Kew for 20 years (1865-1885) Hooker's incoming correspondence is too extensive to include in the project at this stage. A pre-existing digitisation project at Kew - the Directors' Correspondence Project - has digitised some of this material and it is hosted online at Jstor Global Plants. The Directors' Correspondence (DC) comprises official letters to all the Directors of Kew up to the 1920s, including Joseph Hooker. We may integrate the relevant incoming DC material with the JHC project at a later date.

In the future, the JHC project also hopes to collaborate with other projects and institutions both in the UK and abroad so as to bring together as much of Hooker's correspondence as possible within one online database. We are already indebted to the staff of the Wallace Correspondence Project, based at the Natural History Museum London, for their generous advice and assistance with the early stages of the JHC project


A Broad JHC Project Outline

Project phase 1 (2011-2012):

  • digitisation of Joseph Hooker's Indian letters by Kew
  • pilot programme for transcription of Indian letters by University of Sussex 

Project phase 2 (2013-2015):

  • appointment of a dedicated project officer based at Kew for a period of two years
  • completion of outstanding transcription required for Indian letters
  • creation of website to host letters online
  • identification and digitisation of further Joseph Hooker correspondence held at Kew
  • conservation of letters as required in preparation for digitisation and also to repair damage
  • instigation of volunteer programme to assist with transcribing letters

Projected phase 3 ( 2015-2017):

  • continued digitisation of Kew's Joseph Hooker holdings
  • extension of project to include material held in other repositories in the UK and abroad
  • preparations to mark the 2017 bicentenary of Hooker's birth

Copyright

Copyright for all letters written by Joseph Hooker lies with his descendants. Those descendants that are known to Kew have been informed of the JHC project and have given their permission for the letters to be published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. We would be glad to hear from any relations of Joseph Hooker who have not previously been contacted. The digitised images are under copyright of Kew and should not be reproduced without permission. If you would like to get in contact about copyright or with reproduction queries please email the Project Officer.