What those Victorians did for us…

Updated Tuesday, 10th March 2009
Explore the life of Victorian naturalist William Newbould with his great-grandson, the OU's Dominic Newbould

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Naturalists, and especially botanists, are a strange breed. In Kew Gardens there is a well-known Victorian tropical plant collection and the largest tree in there is named after my great-grandfather, the Reverend William Williamson Newbould.

The tree is a genus of Bignoniacea, named Newbouldia, but my ancestor never set eyes on it. It is well known to the staff in the Palm House at Kew and, indeed, it is a bit of a favourite – especially in February each year when it flowers with long, purple, trumpet-shaped flowers. It is a beautiful and colourful plant and can be found in the tropical rain forests of Central Africa or South America – or in garden centres in Florida, USA.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens
The Palm House at Kew

William Newbould interests me, not just because I am descended from him, but because he and his great friend and collaborator Babington, were contemporaries of Darwin at the University of Cambridge and in the various scientific circles of the time. Looking at how they worked and how they did science then is a case of “what the Victorians did for us”.

Newbould’s interest in botany, dating from his time at a preparatory school near Doncaster, deepened when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1838, the year after Queen Victoria took the throne. There he attended the lectures of Professor J. S. Henslow, and became friendly with Charles C. Babington and Frederick Townsend, who were to be among the leading field botanists of his generation. After graduating in 1842 he embarked on a series of plant-hunting trips to various parts of the British Isles, five of them with Babington. During these he consolidated his expertise as a taxonomist.

Babington, also known as “Beetle” Babington, because – like Darwin, he had an obsession for collecting beetles – was involved in a dispute with Darwin when both used the services of a beetle collector to provide them with samples for analysis. Clearly, it was a highly specialised role in nineteenth-century Cambridge! Darwin retained the services of “his” beetle collector and went on to other things, as we are celebrating this year.

Newbould and Babington collaborated for nearly half a century. There had been, since around 1845, a Cambridgeshire Naturalists’ Club of which John Stevens Henslow, the only senior man from whom Charles Darwin had got any encouragement and who was Professor of Botany till 1861, was a mainstay. To this Club, which seems to have been small and informal, Babington in his Journals constantly refers in regard to the meetings and expeditions organised by it and which he regularly attended, along with W. W. Newbould, then curate of Comberton, described as the “father of Huntingdonshire botany”.

Despite a growing family (eventually five sons and a daughter), he nevertheless refused at least one living on conscientious grounds and about 1860 resolved to take advantage of his private means to leave the service of the church and devote his days to his scholarly interests. He moved to London and thereafter spent almost all of each winter in the botanical department or reading room of the British Museum, where his lithe, spare figure was a familiar sight. In 1863 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society.

According to his biographer, D. E. Allen,

“Newbould now made a unique role for himself as a disseminator of early plant records to the increasingly numerous botanists who were compiling local or county floras. Every one of those issued in the years 1860–91 owed far more to his editorial and scholarly assistance than he allowed their authors to acknowledge; in the words of one of his obituarists, he was

‘the very incarnation of self-abnegation … nothing was to him a source of greater happiness than to place his time, his brains, his critical experience freely at the disposal of some younger man who seemed in need of them’ [Hillhouse].

Deeply averse to having anything published in his name, he insisted on disclaiming all responsibility for the fifth volume of the Supplement to English Botany, which was credited to him on the title-page. He was persuaded in his last years to allow his name to appear on the second edition of H. C. Watson's great compendium, Topographical Botany – on which he had bestowed much labour. The silent presence of a kind of all-pervading ghost was always more to his taste. Eighteen volumes of manuscript lists in the botany library of the Natural History Museum testify to his unwearying diligence, as did his herbarium, later incorporated in that museum’s general collection.”

Allen writes that, at one time, Newbould had contemplated taking up residence at Oxford, but was deterred by the inaccessibility of that university’s early herbaria, which were then housed in a loft reached only by a shaky ladder. In 1886 he was knocked down by a cab and died at Kew on 16 April, aged 67; he was buried in Fulham cemetery on 20 April. The number of obituaries that appeared, several of them of exceptional length, reflected a general wish that the scale of his anonymous services should at last be publicly acknowledged, and how widely he had been revered for his unfailing helpfulness.

Newbould’s altruism and diligence are typical of his time and continue the tradition set by Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selborne was the evidence of a lifetime dedicated to understanding his environment and recording his observations for posterity. As further memorials, his name is borne by two species of blackberry and by the beautiful genus of Bignoniaceae, Newbouldia.



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