Picture of hedges sent to John Lowe
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Yew, Me and Dr. John Lowe: Cataloguing the John Lowe Papers

Francesca Mackenzie shares her week in Archives cataloguing the fascinating papers of John Lowe
28 July 2017
Francesca Mackenzie


Cataloguing week

As the Archives Graduate Trainee, my task for the past week has been to complete a cataloguing project. This involved appraising a small collection of papers and researching, repackaging, cataloguing and creating entries on our database so that readers will be able to access the papers in the future. I was fortunate to be given the fascinating papers of John Lowe (1830-1902) to catalogue. 

The man behind the papers

It appears that Dr. John Lowe typified the Victorian gentleman in being a master of all trades. This is what really stood out when researching the life of this man. A slip of paper in one of the files proudly proclaims his numerous achievements and titles.

Biographical slip of paper

Having trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, he then moved to Norfolk and set up a practice which quickly became popular. He was appointed Honorary Surgeon and later a medical attendant at Sandringham. Under this employment he was cited in several sources as being the first to diagnose the illness of the then Prince of Wales, and later became one of the Physicians Extraordinary to Edward VII.

Photograph of John Lowe by Waverly, Photographer to the Royal Family

If these achievements were not enough, Lowe also wrote prolifically on botany in several journals. He won a gold medal for the best herbarium of 'Scotch' flowers at Edinburgh and was an honorary member of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society. Other subjects upon which he wrote include ornithology and zoology; for example he wrote several articles on the fishes of the Norfolk area.

Yew-trees of Great Britain and Ireland

Lowe’s annotated copy of his book Yew-trees of Great Britain and Ireland along with relevant papers were given to Kew in 1910 by his executors. These comprise the majority of the John Lowe Papers and relate to reviews of the book and improvements and corrections to be made to the work. These papers are so detailed that it seems that Lowe would have wished to publish a further edition of the book. This part of the collection contains not only extensive notes but also correspondence, photographs and images sent from across the country. These letters are often from country estates or vicars as many of the yew trees discussed in his work are planted in churchyards.

This image of a yew tree is a particular favourite as the positions of the men with the yew tree is reminiscent of a game of hide and seek

There are also less botanically relevant letters regarding the yew tree in poetry and etymology.

One letter from Emmanuel College, Cambridge states "I gather that the botanists are not much better at etymology than the etymologists are at botany".

Letter from the Modern Language Association regarding the etymology of the word yew

Mystery recipients

Several of the letters within the collection are dated up to eight years after Lowe’s death. These are addressed to a variety of recipients: Madam, Mrs Lowe, A. Henry and Mrs Henry. Lowe had two wives: Annie Gamble with whom he had two daughters and Isabel Rawson. The identity of A. Henry and Mrs Henry is open to speculation.

These letters, whilst not to John Lowe, do contain information about yew trees pertinent to his work and the editing of his book. The theory that a wife and daughter were silent voices in the writing of this work is a personal favourite of mine, however there may be many other ways these letters can be interpreted within the context of the collection.

Letter addressed to Mrs Henry

Members of the public are more than welcome to come to Kew and view items from the John Lowe collection in our Library Reading Room. For further information please contact the archives.

The Reading Room is open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm.


Francesca Mackenzie 

- Archives Graduate Trainee -