The Director's Correspondence Project Katherine Harrington & Helen Hartley

Since 2004 through the generous funding of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have been engaged in the digitisation of one its largest collections, the Directors’ Correspondence (DC). The collection is comprised of incoming letters to Kew’s senior staff from the 1840’s to the 1930’s, as well as correspondence to Kew’s first official Director Sir W.J. Hooker whilst Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow. To date we have completed the digitisation of the African, Latin American and Asian correspondence collections and will shortly complete the North American correspondence, making over 29,000 primary sources available online for the first time.  

Through the JSTOR Global Plants website, high quality images of the letters are provided alongside summaries of their content. The essential information within this vast collection is being unlocked through the availability of free text searching for key information such as people and plant names, publications, and localities.

Fig 1. The geographical origins of the Directors’ Correspondence Collection

Whilst the letter content varies as much as its authors, a significant proportion concerns the complex narratives surrounding the plant commodities of Empire. A few examples are touched on here, which I hope will inspire you to investigate this exciting resource in relation to your own studies.

Countless letters in the DC comprise requests for the identification of plant material and a series of letters from C.R. Dodge, of the United States Department of Agriculture, focus on his work on fibres and the identification of false sisal. Rather unusually for the DC collection, Dodge sent photographs to Kew’s then Assistant Director, Sir Daniel Morris.

Fig 2. A photograph of false sisal from C.R. Dodge, near Miami, Florida 1892. DC 196/247-251[KH1]

Dodge states that false sisal is deficient in strength and quality compared with Agave sisalana and, having purchased machinery, he hopes to produce fibres for test and manufacture. Dodge’s correspondent, Morris, is an especially important character in the DC collection as a whole and we have digitised letters spanning his many appointments including: Director of the Botanic Department in Jamaica; Imperial Commissioner, West Indian Agricultural Department; and Scientific Advisor in Tropical Agriculture to the Colonial Office. In an 1899 letter to Kew’s then Director, Sir W.T. Dyer, Morris describes the Antigua Botanic Garden as a ‘ghastly failure’ and proposes using the garden as a nursery and headquarters for a curator whose chief work will be to improve the fledgling pineapple industry. Morris reports having interested one of the leading merchants in the subject: Sturge’s Lime Juice Company, who are ‘prepared to spend a good deal of money in properly organising suitable means for packing & shipping the fruit’. Searching JSTOR Plant Science reveals 27 letters to Kew from Joseph Sturge, including a letter to Morris asking him to recommend a gentleman to be employed as the Montserrat Company Limited gardener. Sturge also seeks advice on growing or securing plants for trial from Kew of rubber, coca, cardamoms, Japanese peppermints and guinea grass, following the collapse of the sugar industry in the West Indies. The company would become the largest landholder on the island of Montserrat

Fig 3. Sturge’s requirements for a gardener for the Montserrat Company Limited include preference for a married man and a “total abstainer” DC 212/501

When the expertise of Kew’s staff could not be employed directly to answer a query the gardens would act somewhat indirectly as a facilitator, introducing individuals across the globe. For instance in 1897, Sir W.T. Dyer sent J.J. Hummel of the Clothworker’s Department of the Yorkshire College, specimens of Caesalpinia bicolor in order to examine its commercial value on behalf of Robert B. White of Colombia. White went to Colombia to work as an engineer, but wrote frequently to Kew reporting on all aspects of his travels, especially concerning his investigation of useful plants. Hummel compared White’s specimen with the commercial dyes Sapanwood and Peachwood, most often employed in calico printing and wool dyeing respectively. Sadly in this instance, he found the species had no commercial value but amazingly his letter contains the very fruits of his analysis in the form of the dyed fabric.

Searching JSTOR Plant Science we found that Hummel also examined plant dye specimens sent from China by Augustine Henry, an employee of the Imperial Customs Service, who was especially interested in medicinal plants. Henry’s vast herbarium collections contributed immensely to our understanding the Chinese flora.

Fig 4. The results of Hummel’s examination of the dye qualities of Caesalpinia bicolor (far left column) in comparison with Sapanwood (centre column) and Peachwood (far right column), DC 215/450

Kew worked extremely closely with various government ‘arms’ to strengthen and expand markets for plant commodities. In the 1850’s, concerns regarding the cost and quality of Cinchona bark and the desire to find new plantation crops resulted in several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate Cinchona in Asian colonies. In an 1860 letter from Ecuador, the intrepid Amazon explorer Richard Spruce reports that he is sending a little over a 100,000 seeds of Cinchona to Kew’s then Director, Sir W.J. Hooker.

Spruce’s work led to the widespread planting of Cinchona in British India, Java and in colonies such as Sri Lanka, Jamaica and East Africa. In his detailed letters Spruce describes the difficulties he encountered being “literally a prisoner – shut up in the Cinchona forests between two revolutionary armies”. The DC also contains a plethora of letters discussing the trials and tribulations of Colonial Botanic Gardens as they attempted to cultivate different kinds of Cinchona under their varying climates.

Fig 5. Extract of a letter from R. Spruce to Sir W.J. Hooker concerning Cinchona seeds. Text reads “it will be for you (consulting with the India Board) to decide whether they shall be sown in England, or sent at once to India, which to me seems the preferable plan”. DC 65/352

These few examples highlight just some of the fascinating narratives that can be traced through the DC collection; the work of individual botanists and the importance of Kew in an expansive knowledge network. For more insights into the DC collection visit Kew’s library, art & archives blog or follow the team on twitter @kewDC. For tips on searching JSTOR Plant Science for DC material download the handy help sheet from our Kew page.