10 November 2017

Censors in the Archive: Redaction in Joseph Dalton Hooker's correspondence

Who has been censoring Joseph Hooker’s archive? Archivist Virginia speculates on a collection of Joseph Hooker’s letters that have been heavily redacted and have piqued curiosity in the archive.

By Virginia Mills

Sketch showing JD Hooker in his office

Joseph Hooker’s letters

The digitisation of the correspondence of Kew’s illustrious past Director and premier Victorian botanist, Joseph Hooker, has been ongoing since 2013. My colleagues and our team of volunteers have come across lots of interesting stories in our time working with the letters. We have highlighted some in the past, from Christmas spent on an iceberg (see below) to meetings with Mormon leaders.

From big scientific expeditions to personal opinions on friends and acquaintances, the letters are full of unpublished material, private thoughts, scientific exchange and criticism, and intimate details shared with friends and family. They have revealed so many stories and insights into the life of Joseph Hooker, a central figure in the history of Kew Gardens. But perhaps most intriguing of all, to those of us who have got to know the collection, are the stories that remain obscured. A collection of letters that have been heavily redacted have piqued our curiosity in the archive.

Correspondence with the Reverend La Touche

The volume in which the redacted letters were found is correspondence between Hooker and noted geologist the Reverend James Digues La Touche. The correspondence between La Touche and Hooker is fascinating for its frank exchange of views both on science and nineteenth century social concerns. They discuss their thoughts on everything from reconciling religion with the geological record and the age of the earth to womens’ education (Joseph Hooker was of the opinion that women were in no way intellectually inferior but did not see the point of educating them to a high academic level when the ‘purpose for which they were created’ was to be wives and mothers). Opinions such as this were not necessarily controversial for their time but other information in the letters is quite sensitive. Socially, Hooker is critical of the Government’s treatment of indigenous populations in the colonies. Scientifically forthright is Hooker’s view on fellow naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace whose work he writes he admires but ‘would not give a farthing’ for Wallace’s opinion on general scientific matters as he is not ‘trained or educated’. He is also dismissive of Wallace’s ‘extreme views’ presumably referring to his belief in spiritualism, which was not uncommon in the Victorian era.

With such forthright material remaining in the letters for all to read we in the archive can’t help but wonder what it is that might have been thought worthy of redacting from the letters.

Why redact?

We have no documentation as to who donated the letters to the archive or why, when, or by whom they may have been redacted. The redaction which has been done by hand using a black marker is so thorough that almost no part of the covered text can be read. In the archive office we have all suggested theories. It seems most likely that the redaction occurred during preparations for the publication of the biography of Hooker in 1918 ‘Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’ at which time many typed copies of the letters were created for research purposes and these copies also omit the redacted sections, so the redaction must have taken place in or before 1918. Though we do not have the sort of light spectrum scanning technology that might allow us to reveal the hidden text properly, we have been able to make out the names of some of Joseph Hooker’s children underneath the blacked out sections. At least three of Hooker’s children were privately tutored by La Touche. It would make sense if personal information about their education and ability had been obscured as information about his children who were still living and forging careers could have had an impact on them. Given this possible personal familial nature of the redacted passages we speculate that perhaps it was Hooker’s second wife, who survived him, and was mother to his youngest two children educated by La Touche, that carried out the redaction before allowing researchers access to the letters.

However we are only speculating. The exact nature of this mystery information remains obscured and could contain concealed insights into Joseph Hooker’s scientific reasoning and beliefs.

Joseph Hooker's letters to La Touche are available to view through the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project website.

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