Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Hooker Family of Kew

By Judith M Taylor

We take it for granted that the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are a permanent institution, part of the fabric of Britain at its best, a place of pilgrimage. Had you been an observant Londoner in 1830 that was not what you would have thought. The brilliant and forceful Joseph Banks , born in 1743, died in 1820 at the age of 77, having built the place into a treasure house.

Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society,
Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

After his death the gardens floundered for lack of leadership. Banks’ energy and drive kept everything going but once he had died no one was sufficiently interested to prevent it all from falling apart.

Everything Banks had done was for the greater glory of king and country. He sent plant collectors all over the world to bring back rare and exotic plants, both ornamental and edible, often paying their expenses out of his own pocket.  As a young man he had sailed to the Antipodes with Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour and brought back some of the first Australian plants himself. Why do you think Australia’s seaboard has a Botany Bay? Ever heard of a Banksia rose, named for his wife?

Without him the royal botanic garden deteriorated into a series of allotments to grow vegetables for the royal table. The government had taken it over and the staff of the Department of Works resented the annual expense for a few potatoes and cabbages. They considered the place to be a nuisance and slated it for closure. Its last minute rescue from the knacker’s yard as it were and its development into a scientific institution of the first order is the reason to celebrate the Hookers’ contributions. If an organization is merely the shadow of its leader, Banks’s shadow was long enough but then came two more, even longer.

Sir William Jackson Hooker

Sir William Hooker and his son Sir Joseph Hooker ran the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for a total of forty four years between them, starting in 1841 and continuing until 1885, a strict but benign dynasty. Then as if to top it off, Sir Joseph’s son in law, William Thistleton-Dyer, took over after he died. Thistleton-Dyer was the first person to allow women to work as gardeners at Kew, even if only very grudgingly. They had to wear long dark brown woolen skirts and must have been extremely uncomfortable in the warm weather.

Great, or even merely able and competent men, seem to have two different types of effect on their sons. In one case the son calmly emulates the father’s accomplishments and may even possibly outdo him.  In the other the son suffers atrociously from the realization that there is no way he can ever please his father yet alone match what he has done.

This phenomenon was clearly on view in the same circumscribed horticultural world inhabited both by the Hooker family on one hand and the Paxton family on the other. Sir Joseph’s son George Paxton was a very sad figure. As men have been in charge for most of history there are fewer examples of women being matched by their daughters. Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst come to mind. An odd note on this theme is that of a daughter outdoing her father, such as Elizabeth 1 and Henry VIII.

William Hooker realized how significant the gardens at Kew could be with even the pathetic remnants of Banks’ collections. Once he took office he expanded the gardens from ten acres to over seventy five acres. His son Joseph later added even more space. Both men recognized Kew’s role in finding and cultivating new economic crops as well as beautiful ornamental flowers. Quinine and tea are just two of the commodities involved. William set up two way interaction with the British Empire’s botanical gardens, supplying scholarly and technical skill to support the remote centres in return for exciting specimens.

The modest palace at Kew in Richmond had originally been renovated for Frederick,  Prince of Wales, and his wife, Princess Augusta of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha early in the 18th century. Frederick died before he could become king.  Augusta spoke no English but she was very interested in gardening. After being widowed she remained at Kew with her nine children, employing James Stuart, the Earl of Bute, as her manager.  Bute was noted for his skill and competence. The gardens at Kew were a model. In 1987 Diana, Princess of Wales. opened the Princess of Wales Conservatory partly to maintain Augusta’s collection of plants.

Princess Augusta, daughter in law of George I

In due course Frederick’s younger brother George became king and then in his turn, his son George III inherited the crown. The gardens remained a purely royal prerogative and thus safe. They had not yet become a political football.

Sir Joseph Banks advised George III informally about Kew for many years but in 1797 he was appointed to be the director. The appointment of Banks, a man of great intellect, drive, and patriotism, was a stroke of genius. After returning with Captain Cook in 1771 he rapidly showed he was a serious scientist. He was elected president of the Royal Society and remained in that office for forty one years.  He devoted his life to serving his king and the botanical garden was his chief way of showing it.

The day to day work of managing the gardens was done by the Aiton family, again a father and son team. The son, William Townsend Aiton, 1766 – 1849, prepared the first ever catalogue of all the plants in the gardens, an important contribution: Hortus Kewensis. He left Kew when William Hooker was appointed.

William Hooker, 1785 – 1865, was born in Norwich but is always associated with Glasgow in the public mind. His own father was a scholar of independent means and dabbled in botany. William rapidly became expert in botany after leaving Norwich School, having briefly tried entomology and ornithology. Through Sir Joseph Smith, a leading botanist of the time, he came to Banks’s attention and took his advice of visiting Iceland to collect as yet unknown plants.

Coming back to live in Suffolk, Hooker devoted himself seriously to taxonomy and writing, building his reputation so that he was invited to become Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow in 1820. His skillful piloting of the department and construction of useful new buildings made him a clear leader for the post at Kew.

We have to skip over the political shenanigans surrounding Kew, with Paxton and Loudon being retained by the Department of Public works to examine the relic and presenting a carefully reasoned, unvarnished report about the condition of the royal gardens there and whether it was worth keeping them.

All the thoughtful scientists of the time believed that Britain needed a central botanical garden as a reference institution just as there were in other major European cities. More than one senior botanist believed he was the best candidate to take charge but Hooker emerged as the strongest. The only thing that concerned him was the pay. He had a growing family and had exhausted his patrimony by some injudicious decisions. Even having a banker as father in law was not quite enough.

Hooker’s second son, later Sir Joseph Hooker, 1817 - 1911, had a prodigious career. He too was a paterfamilias, leaving nine children, seven by his first wife and two by his second. Both women were extremely accomplished. Frances Henslow, daughter of Darwin’s mentor, John Henslow, translated books for him from the French. His second wife, the former Lady Hyacinth Jardine, was elected to the Royal Society, an honour reserved for great scientific achievement. The third generation did not reach the same levels. His connection through Henslow brought him close to Charles Darwin. The men were friends for the rest of their lives.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Joseph Hooker was graduated from Glasgow University in 1839 with a degree in medicine. That enabled him to join the Naval Medical Service and he sailed south with Captain John Clark Ross on a voyage to the magnetic South Pole. Hooker was instructed to collect zoological and geological specimens across the tip of the Southern Hemisphere but also carefully examined the flora. He published the definitive volumes, “Voyage to the Antarctic”, over the next several years.

This was just by way of warming up. In 1847 he left Britain for the Himalayas, eventually spending three years in Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and northern India itself. The most outstanding parts of his collections were the rhododendrons, never seen in the West before.  He made several other important trips and in 1865 was sufficiently renowned to be selected to take over Kew from his father who had reached retirement age.

Every one of his expeditions was recorded in exquisite detail and some were illustrated by Walter Fitch, a botanical artist trained by Joseph’s father. Joseph received a knighthood for his own achievements, not just as the son of his father.

Palm house at Kew Gardens with parterres 

It was not all smooth sailing. In 1853 Sir Richard Owen, essentially the first scientific paleontologist, objected to the way the Hookers were building Kew up. Owen supervised the herbarium at the British Museum and felt his status distinctly threatened by the rise of the herbarium at Kew. For the uninitiated, the herbarium is the core of any botanical enterprise with every plant carefully dried, identified, named and annotated for future reference. It is the gold standard of all botanical work. Whenever someone brings back specimens from an expedition they can be compared with what is already known and thus unequivocally recognized as new or not.

Owen was very well connected politically and made a huge fuss. Even a man as stalwart and immune to minor irritants as Joseph Hooker was seriously disturbed. He finally prevailed but only after some dreadful periods of distress and anxiety.

The work of father and son catapulted the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to world wide prominence. They remain at that pinnacle to this day. Both men are buried in the village cemetery of Kew.


REFERENCES

Allen, Mea  1967 The Hookers of Kew
London        Joseph

Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen  reissued 1978  In For A Penny: Kew Gardens
London  Hamilton

Desmond, Ray  1995    Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens
London    Havill for the Royal Botanic Gardens

Stearns, W.S ed.    1999  John Lindley
London     Antique Collectors’ Club in association with the Royal Horticultural Society

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 Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.




Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is: www.horthistoria.com

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