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Displaying the letters of Augustine Henry

The Directors' Correspondence team has just put some of the letters of botanist Augustine Henry on display in Kew's Library Reading Room. Find out why we chose him as our subject and how the display brings together material from many of Kew's behind-the-scenes collections.
Virginia Mills

About Augustine Henry

The 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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