29 November 2023

Hidden histories in Kew's Archives: Eryl Smith

Uncover the fascinating story of an early 20th century plant collector from within the Kew Gardens Archives.

By Alice Nelson

A collage of items relating to Eryl Smith, including plant lists, letters, and photographs.

Kew's Archives hold vast collections on our history as a global centre of plant information and renowned botanical garden. 

Alongside original sources from prominent botanists, including William and Joseph Hooker – the first two Directors of Kew – Marianne North and Charles Darwin, the Archives also hold records of many unknown or relatively unresearched figures in the field of botany.

One such figure is Eryl Smith.

A passion for plant collecting

Eryl Smith was born Eryl Glynne in Glyndyl, North Wales, around 1893. Smith completed medical training at the London School of Medicine for Women and the Royal Free Hospital, qualifying in 1918.

A few years later, Eryl married Dr Malcolm Arthur Smith. Malcolm was a herpetologist (specialised in the study of reptiles and amphibians) and physician who had been practicing in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Eryl and Malcolm moved to Thailand (then known as Siam), in 1921, where they lived together until 1925. It was during this time that Eryl’s passion for plant collecting and botany flourished. 

Eryl travelled across Thailand, Cambodia, Hainan, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indo-Australian Archipelago – also called the Malay Archipelago or Nusantara – studying native flora. She collected numerous plant specimens, specifically pteridophytes – a group of plants including ferns.

Two black and white old photographs of mountainous landscapes
'Photograph album of an expedition to Miang Gardens and Chiengdao, October to November 1922'. Catalogue reference: KER/2/1/4 © RBG Kew

In the mid-1920s, Smith returned to England, where she studied the numerous plant specimens she had collected during her time in Southeast Asia. 

She corresponded with several other prominent Western botanists who studied Southeast Asia, including Richard Eric Holttum and Arthur Francis George Kerr. The personal papers of both Holttum and Kerr are held in the Archives at Kew. 

Within the personal papers of Kerr are numerous photo albums, covering the same areas explored by Eryl Smith. The faded and shadowy pictures still manage to convey the beauty of the landscape, over a hundred years later. 

It is likely that Eryl and her husband travelled in Thailand, plant collecting, with Kerr. A man, ‘Dr Smith’, presumably Eryl’s husband Arthur, features in several pictures from Kerr's ‘Photograph Album of Kao Tao, 1927’.

In 1929, Smith published On a collection of ferns from Kaw Tao, Surat, in the Journal of the Siam Society. She aimed to complete a comprehensive publication on the ferns of Thailand but was tragically killed in a motor accident on the 25 January 1930, aged 36.

Excerpt from 'On a collection of ferns from Kaw Tao, Surat' by Eryl Smith on brown paper
A copy of Eryl Smith’s publication, 'On a collection of ferns from Kaw Tao, Surat', held within Kew Archives. Catalogue reference: KER/4/6 © RBG Kew

Her legacy

Kew's Archives do not hold an Eryl Smith personal papers collection; rather, some of her correspondence and scientific notes are held within the Arthur Francis George Kerr personal paper collections. There are also two notebooks, in Eryl’s hand, listing plants she identified. 

It is not certain how some of Eryl’s papers came to be held within Kerr’s, but it seems plausible that, upon her death, her husband passed these to Kerr in case they had any scientific benefit to him. 

Smith’s absorption into the legacy of another botanist seems an accidental and unfortunate side effect of her tragic early death, yet it remains true that female botanists of the 19th and early 20th centuries remain underrepresented in the Archives.

A handwritten and typewritten plant list
Two pages from Kerr's personal papers. On the left, a plant determination list handwritten by Eryl Smith. On the right, a typewritten plant list presumably by Smith. Catalogue reference: KER/4/6 © RBG Kew

In the 10 years Smith was active in botany, she accomplished a significant amount. Her legacy, whilst somewhat obscured, is evident across Kew’s collections. 

Within the papers held in our Archives is a note from 4 July 1930, discussing Eryl Smith’s donation of 4,164 specimens to Kew's Herbarium. It is signed ‘F. B.’ likely referring to F. Ballard, then Assistant in the Herbarium. 

The note ends, ‘There is no doubt that this large collection is quite unique and a most valuable addition to our fern collections. Few areas have been so well worked for pteridophytes alone and few, if any, are represented by so many specimens in the Kew Herbarium. The specimens are all well-collected and preserved and the information on the labels is, in most cases, very complete. Future work on the fern flora of Siam will be greatly facilitated by this fine collection’. 

A typescript note describing Eryl Smith’s collection of ferns to Kew's Herbarium, typewritten on brown paper
A typescript note describing Eryl Smith’s collection of ferns upon their donation to the Kew Herbarium in 1930. Catalogue reference: KER/4/6 © RBG Kew

Numerous specimens which Smith collected and/or identified were named after her, including Adiantum erylliae

The entirety of Kew’s Herbarium is currently being digitised, with cross collection links becoming easier to discover. A number of the specimens Smith donated to Kew have already been digitised, and these, as well as the rest of her Herbarium collection, will become available online upon the completion of the Digitisation Project.

Dried brown, plant specimen
One of Eryl Smith’s Herbarium specimens, Adiantum erylliae; in the bottom right-hand corner you can see her annotations © RBG Kew
Green leaves of a plant growing from moss-like substrate
A living specimen of Adiantum erylliae © RBG Kew

Hidden voices in the Archive

The papers relating to Eryl Smith preserved in Kew's Archives are concerned broadly with her botanic work. There are no diaries, photograph albums, or anything relating to her personal life. 

But there are glimpses of her personality throughout her otherwise formal and professional letters. The initial enquiry about Eryl Smith came from a family history perspective. Being able to catch glimpses of Smith’s voice in the Archives was therefore incredibly resonant.

On 9 September 1922, in a letter to Holttum from Bangkok, Siam, she talks of becoming ill with typhoid:

I hope you will have a successful time up at Bukit Fraser. You cannot help getting a good many ferns. I was convalescing from typhoid during my stay there so was not as energetic in my search as I might have been. It is a lovely place.

In a letter, again to Holttum, on 21 January 1924 from Bangkok, Siam, she references the birth of her son:

I have not yet been over the ferns you refer to again. In fact for the time being I have rather to neglect ferns, owing to the arrival of a young herpetologist or possible pteridologist, anyway some kind of naturalist, whose extreme youth of three weeks requires a good deal of attention. When he is a little older I hope to have more time, and to send you the patani duplicates.

Somewhat amusingly, she asked Holttum for a ‘personal favour’ regarding the naming of specimens after her; writing on 24 November 1927 from London:

Will you as a personal favour refrain from calling any of your new species “Smitheae” however hard pressed you may be for names.'

Typewritten letter saying 'Will you as a personal favour refrain from calling any of your new species “Smitheae” however hard pressed you may be for names'
Section from a letter from Eryl Smith to Holttum on November 24th 1927. Catalogue reference: KER/4/8 © RBG Kew

The aforementioned report about Smith’s donation to Kew’s herbarium also mentions the input of local collectors to Eryl Smith and Arthur Francis George Kerr’s work. 

Eryl Smith’s voice in the Archive was obscured, but the contributions of the indigenous peoples are marginalised even further. Uncovering the often homogenised indigenous voices within our Archives is an ongoing, vital process. 

Unfortunately, there are no records of Eryl Smith’s relationship with local collectors other than cursory references, but elsewhere in the Archives is the potential to unlock yet more hidden voices.

While there were several photographs of her husband in ‘Photograph album of Kao Tao, 1927’, there were no photographs of Eryl Smith identifiable within the Archives. But records of her work and story remain preserved. 

Despite her untimely death, Smith’s legacy on her area of botany remains captured forever within Kew’s Archives and Herbarium.

Paintings from the Illustrations and Artefacts Collection

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