Few people with a family in Norfolk will be unaware of the beauty, strangeness and interest of the natural history collections of the Castle Museum in Norwich. But how many also know that there is a Rare Books Room at the John Innes Centre in Norwich? Or that it houses an important collection covering natural science, horticulture and botanical art across five centuries? This blog celebrates the John Innes Centre’s unique treasure house of knowledge about our natural world, the rare botanical books in our collection, and some of the local botanical authors represented on the shelves. Norwich has had more than its fair share of celebrated botanists – you can read more here…
The oldest book in the John Innes collection was published in Venice in 1511 (during the reign of Henry VIII). Called Ortus sanitatis, this Latin text is studded with woodcut illustrations speaking to us about the early modern world view of the natural world. From the ordinary to the fabulous, the book records the plants, animals, birds, and insects that fascinated (or sometimes plagued) people. The plant section, like most early herbals, is focused on the medicinal properties of the plants, and how to prepare the roots, flowers or leaves. But there also traces of old legends if you know where to look:
Apart from individual book treasures like this one (and there are many), the John Innes collection has plenty of local interest, reflecting the fact that Norfolk botanists were at the heart and soul of British botanical science in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, we have the 36-volume English Botany published from 1790-1814. This was the result of a fruitful collaboration between botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828) and the publisher and celebrated illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822).
Because Smith was born and lived in Norwich (in Surrey Street- look for the blue plaque), many of the plants included in these volumes were collected from Norfolk waysides and fields. For example, Smith remarked that the best place to find the lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) growing wild was Honingham Church. He also occasionally included snippets of the local Norfolk folklore of plants. When writing about Holly in 1798 he notes: ‘The branches of this tree laden with berries, and mixed with mistletoe and the spindle-tree, are used in many parts of England to ornament churches and houses at Christmas, and hence the holly is in Norfolk vulgarly called Christmas‘. Smith achieved national recognition after acquiring the entire collection of books and specimens belonging to the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788 and became its first President. For many years the Linnean collections were housed in Surrey Street and were visited by entomologists and botanists from all over Europe.
Smith spent the last thirty years of his life writing books and articles on botany. Many of his books are in the John Innes Rare Books library today and there is a monument commemorating his life in St Peter Mancroft church.
Another key Norwich botanist was William (later Sir William) Jackson Hooker (1785-1865). William was educated at Norwich School and took up natural history as a hobby. Smith encouraged him to specialise in botany. Hooker soon established a reputation as an excellent botanical draftsman. One of his early books is Pomona Londiniensis (1813), a collection of 49 hand-coloured aquatint engravings of rare and beautiful fruit varieties found in the markets, private gardens and nurseries of Regency London.
The colour ‘Hooker’s green’ is named after him. Later William became the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, an important position that placed him (and his son Joseph who succeeded him as second Director) at the top of a network of botanical gardens around the Empire. Again, his books are well-represented in the John Innes Historical Collections.
A final local ‘celebrity’ botanist from this era is John Lindley (1799-1865), who became the first Professor of Botany at the University College London, from 1829-1860. He was born in Catton, the son of a nurseryman. It is his report on the royal gardens at Kew which is said to have led to the creation of the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of my favourite Lindley titles is his two-volume Ladies Botany, a testament to the growing market for botany books among women. He has some wise words to encourage botany teachers: ‘We have only to begin with the beginning, and never take one step till that which precedes it is secured; afterwards the student may advance to what point he pleases. This appears to me to be the only secret in teaching Botany’.
Altogether the John Innes Historical Collections cover plant sciences, horticulture, ornamental plants, gardening, plant breeding, entomology and agriculture. Included is a fine collection of floras with illustrations both of the native plants of Britain and Europe, and of the rare and exotic plants discovered around the world. Some of the plants brought back on long sea voyages we now take for granted, like the potato, a novelty in the 1600s. Others remain exotic and are still only seen in the hothouses of botanic gardens. Whatever their story, some traces of their history will be recorded somewhere on the shelves of this remarkable room. In this Library you can make endless unexpected discoveries when you spy the book next to the one you originally wanted, or when you open a book up and find out who used to own it, or glimpse a lost social history as you read down the list of advertisements in the end papers. There is so much more to reading books in a physical library like this than internet images of books can convey!
This special collection of rare books belongs to the John Innes Foundation and is open to the public by appointment. It is closed at weekends and for public holidays. Group visits can be booked and we also run outreach events.
To find out more about the collection explore our website; to book a visit contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more:
James Edward Smith’s archives and specimens are preserved at the Linnean Society of London
John Lindley’s contribution to botanical science is commemorated in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London. His archives are held in several major libraries and archives. To find out more about his interest in orchids (his particular passion) read my Innes Lecture blog
The archives of William Jackson Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker are preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The correspondence of Joseph Dalton Hooker is in the process of being conserved, digitized, transcribed and made available online. At the centre of Britain’s botanical empire, and best friends with Charles Darwin, Joseph’s letters are a fascinating window onto the world of Victorian botany.
Read more here about how in 1999 the team led by John Innes Centre’s Professor Enrico Coen unravelled Linnaeus’s 250-year old mystery of peloric or ‘monster’ flowers in toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) by showing that the abnormal toadflax flowers are caused by a naturally occurring mutation of a single gene that controls flower symmetry.