Three East Anglians who made Kew a world-beater

PUBLISHED: 11:09 31 May 2018

Another view of the now-restored Temperate House at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Picture: Gareth Gardner/ RBG Kew

Another view of the now-restored Temperate House at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Picture: Gareth Gardner/ RBG Kew


Last month the greatest glasshouse in the world re-opened at Kew Gardens - and today we honour three wise men from Norfolk and Suffolk who played a leading role in shaping the gardens for future generations. Derek James reports.

Norwich-born botanist and artist John Lindley.Norwich-born botanist and artist John Lindley.

It was the largest restoration project in its entire history, making this magnificent structure the true jewel in Kew’s crown.

On May 5 the doors of its spectacular Temperate House opened, revealing 10,000 breath-taking plants, an architectural wonder, horticulturalist’s haven and the most captivating of classrooms.

Halesworth-born Joseph Dalton Hooker who took over from his father at Kew and was one of the most important botanists of the 19th century.Halesworth-born Joseph Dalton Hooker who took over from his father at Kew and was one of the most important botanists of the 19th century.

The world’s largest Victorian glasshouse, first opened in 1863, is home to some of the world’s rarest and most threatened plants and as Sir David Attenborough officially opened he summed up why it is so special: “It is a breathtakingly beautiful space. These plants are wonderful and they are safe from peril.

“Kew does all sorts of things that nowhere else does. If you want to identify something, this is the ultimate authority worldwide.

Norwich-born William Jackson Hooker, who saved Kew Gardens for the nation.Norwich-born William Jackson Hooker, who saved Kew Gardens for the nation.

“It’s the most important botanical institute in the world,” said Sir David.

And that, in part, is thanks to three brilliant men we can all be so proud of - John Lindley and William Jackson Hooker from Norwich and William’s son Sir Joseph Jackson Hooker, who was born in Halesworth.

They were ground-breaking scientists and botanists from very different times, pioneers who travelled the globe and did so much for the Kew Gardens we know, love and can be so proud of in the 21st century and were three of the most important botanists in the world.

John Lindley. Born in 1799.

The flower boy from Catton, near Norwich, who grew up to be a world-famous professor of botany whose forthright report on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew saved it from destruction and provided a view of its potential leading to its development into a world-important institution.

John’s father, George, ran a nursery. He never made much money out of it but he did raise enough to send his boy to Norwich Grammar School (now Norwich School) where he received a sound classical education. He was also taught French and how to draw from a French refugee in the city.

He left Norwich in 1819 to work for botanist Sir Joseph Banks and then moved on to work for the horticultural Society moving through the ranks to become secretary. By then his fame was spreading. He was elected Professor of Botany at the new University of London.

He travelled far less than the Hookers. He could have been too busy at home.

His work led him to setting up the Royal Botanic Gardens and the first-ever botanist to work out a classification of orchids. John Lindley was known and respected as “The Orchid Man.”

He was also a very talented illustrator and he played a leading role in a successful campaign against a tax on glass which crippled those with conservatories trying to run a business.

Another son of Norwich, artist Charles Fox, taught his daughters how to paint.

The Royal Horticultural Society library in the heart of London – one of the most famous in the world – is named after him.

Sir William Jackson Hooker. Born 1785.

He and Lindley became great friends. His father Joseph was a businessman who arrived in Norwich from Exeter and fell in love a local girl, Lydia Vincent.

William was born in Magdalen Street and also went to Norwich Grammar School. At the age of 20 he made his mark on the scientific world by discovering a rare moss in Norfolk.

His godfather left him enough money that young William could jump at the opportunity to travel the world, collecting plants and having adventures.

Mind you he nearly died much closer to home, at Great Yarmouth, when he was bitten by a snake. He was nursed by Dawson Turner and eventually married one of Turner’s daughters, Maria.

Before that he visited Iceland and on the way back his ship caught fire and he lost his collections and possessions.

After getting married in 1810 the couple moved to Halesworth where their son, Joseph Dalton Hooker, was born seven years later.

William went on to become Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. In 1836 he was knighted and later appointed director of the Royal Gardens at Kew.

He worked alongside John Lindley and set about transforming the neglected gardens from 72 acres to 270 acres of arboretum and pleasure gardens, adding a museum, palm house, and opening them to the public.

William Hooker and John Lindley, two quite extraordinary Norfolk men both died in 1865. There are roads named after them in the city.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Born 1817.

If anyone followed in his father’s footsteps with giant strides young Joseph did.

He became one of the most respected scientists of his day and one of the leading botanists of the 19th century. A close friend of Charles Darwin, he become Kew’s most illustrious director from 1865 to 1885.

Joseph began his career as a surgeon in the navy and used his medical qualifications to get a job as a surgeon on expeditions to the Antarctic in 1839. It sparked a burning love for travelling, exploring and collecting and studying plants.

He went to New Zealand, the Sikkim Himalayas, British India, toured the Rocky Mountains, and wrote outstanding books. The Genera Plantarium, with co-author George Brenthan, which took 25 years and was finally published in 1883, is regarded as the most outstanding botanical work of the century.

He was a truly outstanding man with a passion for plants which was born at his father’s knee.

In 1855 he was appointed assistant director at Kew and ten years later took over as director. While working to expand the gardens and overseeing the construction of the first Jodrell Laboratory he couldn’t stop travelling, visiting Morocco and America where in 1877 he covered 8,000 miles.

Joseph died in 1911, aged 94, and is buried alongside his father in St Anne’s churchyard on Kew Green.

In June of 2017 the people of Halesworth held a number of events to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of their famous son which included guided walks starting from Hooker House in Quay Street.

We have much to thank them for and I think they would approve of all that the world-famous gardens offer today... and especially that glasshouse.

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