Banks in Britain: the British plant collections of Joseph Banks | Botanical Collections

The private herbarium of the eminent eighteenth-century naturalist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks became one of the founding collections of the Natural History Museum’s herbarium following his death 200 years ago this year, in 1820.

The legacy of Banks’s voyages overseas – and particularly the Endeavour voyage with James Cook – has been well documented. This post, by Fred Rumsey, looks at the British specimens Banks collected, or was gifted, and considers the significance of those collections today.

We have learned from an earlier blog post that in 1766 and at the tender age of 23, Joseph Banks became a traveller, in pursuit of scientific facts, plants… and a reputation. His travels over the next seven years took him across the world and they indeed established his credentials as a leading natural historian of the day. He was a prolific collector during those voyages and amassed more than 30,000 botanical specimens.

From the perspective of British botany, however, Banks is rarely thought of as a plant collector. Indeed when John Gilmour penned his descriptions of eminent British Botanists for the Britain in Pictures series he chose to open his chapter on Banks with the comment “ in the history of science the patron, as well as the practitioner, has a place”.

So Banks is generally remembered as the “dictator of British botany” dominating the botanical scene; a facilitator who understood the value of natural resources in an age of imperial expansion. What then can Banks’ British collections tell us of his personal interests and observational acuity, or the effects that his growing sphere of influence and changing roles would have? Why did the young botanist who collected 340 species in less than 9 months in Newfoundland, many new to science, go on to apparently gather far less than twice that, in the country of his birth, over the span of his long life?

Putting the British collections in the Banks herbarium in perspective

Stellaria media
British collections made by Banks are to be found throughout the herbarium often as snippets on other herbarium sheets as with this Chickweed (Stellaria media) – the small specimen in the bottom left was collected by Banks on his Revesby estate.

Since its gift to the British Museum in 1827, the constituent parts of the herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks have resided in many locations and under different custodians, from Robert Brown to the present curatorial team, having been divided and reconstituted according to changing demands and personal whims. British and Irish specimens have been held separately from those from the rest of the world since 1859.

This is true too of the Banks material, which for much of its time at the Natural History Museum had been incorporated into the main British collection, the identity of its illustrious origins known only to the cognoscenti, the graphologists, turning herbarium sheets to see the tell-tale inscriptions on the rear (which has made their digitisation a little more challenging!). Banksian scraps, acquired by means fair or foul, appear in the collections of other acquisitive herbarium collectors, now donated and once more re-united in this the national collection. Some of these proudly boast of their origin “Ex Herbarium Banksianum”, while others sit anonymously, filling a gap on a typically well stuffed Victorian herbarium sheet.

In attempting to understand Banks legacy and better document our holdings the collections have recently been assiduously searched for those British & Irish specimens collected by him, or gifted to him and which formed the basis of his herbarium at the time of his death in 1820.

To date we have identified 681 specimens of British and Irish flowering plants, just over 460 of which were probably collected by Banks himself. They have been databased and are available on our data portal. Of these 166 have collection dates explicitly stated. Almost all of these specimens are localised to some extent and it is thus possible to tentatively assign dates to some of the many undated examples and to trace Banks’ excursions and collecting habits throughout his life.

The earliest dated specimen is rather enigmatic – Downy Woundwort (Stachys germanica), in Britain an extremely rare and threatened species which still survives in the Witney area of Oxfordshire where Banks collected it. However, this is a summer-flowering species and in the summer of 1766, the date given on the specimen, Banks was busy on his first voyage (April to November) to Newfoundland!

The only specimen collected the following year is also of botanical interest – Holosteum umbellatum (Jagged Chickweed). First recorded in Britain only two years earlier, from Norwich where Banks gathered it, this species was last seen there in 1887 and was to become extinct in this country before the second World War. Its collection perhaps gives some indication of the young Banks as a twitcher.

Before departing on his epic trip on the Endeavour with James Cook, Banks collected on the Sussex coastal shingles and from the adjacent downlands, where he collected Phyteuma orbiculare, still its British headquarters.

The World traveller still bitten by the collecting bug

Arabis scabra
Arabis scabra (Bristol Rock-cress) first gathered in the Avon Gorge by Newton and Ray in the 1680s and re-found by Banks and Lightfoot in 1773; this remains its only British locality.

In August 1772, Banks, accompanied by Daniel Solander, embarked on his final voyage that would take him to the Hebrides and Orkneys before travelling on to Iceland. The purpose of the six-week trip was primarily geological as evidenced by the very few botanical specimens made, an undated specimen of the British endemic Coincya monensis (Isle of Man Cabbage) from Iona the sole flowering plant specimen surviving from the British portion of the trip. Interestingly the species now is to be found no further north than the Clyde Islands.

Botanical collection was however still very much on Banks and Solander’s minds, as, with the botanists the Rev. John Lightfoot ,Dr Robert Greville and the artist Paul Sandby, a grand tour of south-west Britain and Wales was made in the summer of 1773. This trip was to provide the greatest proportion of the British specimens in Bank’s herbarium, nearly a fifth, with material collected by both himself and Lightfoot. Lightfoot writing to Banks after their return said “we certainly were most remarkably successful, tho’ we did not find every individual Plant we wish’d; for I believe it may without vanity be said, that few, if any, Botanical Excursions in Great Britain have exceeded our Collections either in Number or Rarity of Plants or Places.

The party had travelled deliberately in the footsteps of the great British naturalist John Ray, and also followed on the heels of Samuel Brewer, the itinerary of whose trip in 1726 and later observations Banks had had copied. Botanical meccas were visited and their known rarities collected: Brean Downs for Helianthemum appeninum, Cheddar Gorge, where Saxifraga hypnoides still grows at its southernmost British station (although surprisingly its greatest treasure, the Cheddar Pink, seems to have eluded them) and the Avon Gorge where a particularly fine haul included the Bristol Rock-cress (Arabis scabra) that is known nowhere else in Britain  and one of the earliest records of Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) as a naturalised plant.

The tour continued through south and west Wales, breaking significant new ground in the process, before they turned north to the lofty heights of Snowdonia and its alpine treasures. The Snowdon Lily (Gagea serotina), which Lightfoot had been particularly keen to see eluded them – it would have flowered two months earlier, but again an impressive haul was made, with perhaps the earliest Welsh discovery of the montane sedge Carex atrata, represented in the herbarium by a Lightfoot specimen.

The downy hemp-nettle, Galeopsis segetum, now extinct in Britain, which was to become associated with this area until its demise in the 1970s was first recorded near Bangor. Even in Banks’ time plants that were recorded as frequent by earlier workers were in decline: Brewer had recorded Achillea maritimafor a mile together in great plenty” on the Anglesey shoreline in 1727. Lightfoot, writing to Banks after their trip, says of the plant “I have sent you every bit…that I gathered, except the roots which went to Kew and Bullstrode. There was very little of it to be found…and that no more in flower than you see”.

In this, its northernmost site, it would be lost before 1900 and from the rest of Britain by 1936. It struggles to survive, with conservation efforts, on a sandy shingle bar in Co. Wexford. Interestingly there are no Welsh specimens in Herb. Banks, but there is another Lightfoot gathering of the plant from Abbotsbury in Dorset.

Even as he returned home from Wales, Banks was still collecting, gathering specimens at Sunninghill in Berkshire in September.  The following year Banks would make 35 specimens, primarily in Huntingdonshire and Derbyshire, but this would mark the end of his serious collecting. Subsequent years would see occasional specimens made, perhaps while about other business, or venturing from his various properties, they however are often significant and show Banks keen eye and knowledge.

Banks in Lincolnshire

Lincs specimens
Herbarium specimens collected by Banks in Lincolnshire. From left, Tephroseris palustris, now extinct in Britain; a bomb-damaged specimen of Potamogeton acutifolius, now extinct in Lincolnshire; the Critically Endangered Armeria maritima subsp. elongata, now restricted in Britain to a small area at Ancaster, Lincs (see header image).

Banks had considerable estates in Revesby, Lincolnshire, which he had inherited as a young man and a home in Horncastle – now a museum run by the Sir Joseph Banks Society and home to a contemporary herbarium being developed by a partnership funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Given his connection to Lincolnshire and the time he spent there, it is perhaps remarkable to find fewer than 20 specimens from the county in Banks’ herbarium. These range from the mundane, to the magnificent – the ubiquitous weed Chickweed (Stellaria media) from the Revesby Estate, to the first British specimen of the Critically Endangered Tall-flowered Thrift (Armeria maritima subsp. elongata), now restricted in Britain to a small area at Ancaster, Lincs . and only recognised as distinct more than 250 years after Banks had gathered it on “Lincoln Heath”.

We also find the only ever Lincs. record of the Critically Endangered pondweed Potamogeton acutifolius, gathered possibly while surveying for some of the drainage work he saw as necessary to transform the agricultural and economic potential of his home county. We are lucky still to have this important voucher testifying to this declining plant’s northernmost occurrence – it was damaged by “enemy action” when incendiary bombs fell through the museum roof during the blitz.

The herbarium also contains poignant evidence of the botanical treasures that would be lost from the extensive East Fen at Revesby as a consequence of the drainage Banks promoted: the Marsh Pea (Lathyrus palustris) and, most heart-breakingly, Marsh Fleawort (Tephroseris palustris) – a glorious golden-flowered ragwort relative that would become extinct in the British Isles by 1899. This is the only evidence of it as a Lincs. plant.

Perhaps the oddest specimens, but of considerable scientific significance, are the small partly decomposed leaves which are still identifiably those of Holly gathered from sub-fossil beds, revealed at low tide, on the coast at Sutton.

Other contributors of British plants to Banks’s herbarium

Veronica triphyllos
Veronica triphyllos (Fingered Speedwell). A specimen of this Breckland speciality was sent to Banks by William Hudson. This species survives on one roadside bank in a Thetford housing estate and in arable reserves in the Brecks where it has been introduced.

Excepting Banks himself the greatest contributor to the British Banksian Herbarium was his travelling companion John Lightfoot, who provided just over 50 specimens. He was clearly grateful of Banks patronage, offering “any other Plants in my Collection that you have omitted to take specimens of, or any in my Herbarium that can tend to compleat yours, I shall be most happy to contribute my Mite towards the increase of your glorious Collection”.

Others clearly felt similarly and the collection has material from a broad spectrum of the great and the good of late 18th century British botany: willows and other critical species from Sir James Smith, a newly described Broomrape species from Sutton, nine specimens from William Hudson, who in 1760 had produced the first English flora to adopt the Linnean method, plants from the gardens of Philip Miller and William Curtis, specimens from Israel Lyons, the Cambridge don who Banks had had the temerity to bring to Oxford when a student to furnish him with a better botanical grounding. Of interest too are the five specimens from Robert Brown, Banks’ librarian at Soho Square, who would be the next guardian of Banks’ collections as first Keeper of Botany at the British Museum and who would himself become the new spider at the centre of the British botanical web and inherit the mantle of Jupiter Botanicus.

Banks might not be considered a ‘British botanist’ but his British plant collections, whilst modest in scale, reveal his keen eye and they remain significant today in providing a record of the changing flora of Britain over the last 250 years; from new introductions to species now lost from our flora.

Fred Rumsey is Senior Curator in Charge of the British, Pteridophyte and Historical Herbaria at the Natural History Museum.