27 July 2010

Princess Alexandra Unveils Blue Plaque for Former Directors of Kew Gardens

Sir William and Sir Joseph Hooker, the father and son who transformed Kew Gardens in the nineteenth century, to be commemorated for their work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and their contribution to botanical study.

Blue Plaque for Willian and Joseph Hooker

Darwin's contemporaries, Sir William and Sir Joseph Hooker, Botanists and Directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, will today (Tuesday 27 July 2010) be commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at 11am at their former home, 49 Kew Green, Kew.  The plaque, which will be unveiled by Princess Alexandra, celebrates the contribution of these men, who were largely responsible for the establishment of the magnificent botanical gardens at Kew that we know today.

On 15 December 1851 49 Kew Green became the official residence of Sir William Hooker; he was the first Director to inhabit the house. Since then 14 Directors and their families have lived here, including his son Sir Joseph Hooker. Among the historic features of the house is an elegant fireplace with a Wedgwood medallion of Sir William Hooker, appropriately flanked by two Wedgwood plaques of ferns, his favourite group of plants.

Born in Norwich in 1785, William Jackson Hooker demonstrated a passion for botany as a young man.  By the time he had turned twenty, he had already discovered a previously unknown moss, which strengthened his conviction that he was ‘determined to give up everything for botany'.  This commitment was sealed by his election to the Linnean Society in 1806. By 1820 Hooker had been appointed Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, where he proved a popular lecturer and a prolific author, publishing several important studies including Flora Scotia (1821) and British Flora (1830-38); he also edited the Botanical Magazine and founded the Botanical Miscellany in 1830.

In 1841 William Hooker was appointed Director of the newly nationalised Botanic Gardens at Kew, which had fallen into neglect since the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820. During Hooker's twenty-four years at Kew Gardens, he dramatically increased their size – from eleven acres to seventy-five acres of botanic garden and 270 acres of arboretum and pleasure grounds – and transformed their appearance by forming the lake, laying out the avenues and vistas, and building over twenty new glasshouses, including the Palm House. His most lasting innovation, however, was the opening of the Gardens to the public, from one o'clock to six o'clock each day; 9,000 people visited in 1841, and by 1865 the number of visitors had risen to over half a million. At his death, Hooker had published over a hundred volumes of botanical works, specialising in ferns, and had formed an unrivalled herbarium and botanical library, which he bequeathed to Kew.

Joseph Hooker was born at Halesworth in 1817, and followed in his father's footsteps.  He demonstrated a keen interest in botany in his early years and attended his father's lectures from the age of seven. Between 1839 and 1843 he travelled as assistant surgeon and botanist aboard HMS Erebus, exploring the southern oceans, a journey that fuelled a lifelong preoccupation with the geographical distribution of species, and produced six volumes cataloguing the plants he had observed. Shortly after his return Hooker was asked to classify the plants Darwin had gathered in the Galápagos; it was the beginning of a lifelong collaborative friendship, with Hooker becoming a valuable, though not un-critical, defender of Darwin's theory of natural selection. In 1847-49 he made an expedition to the central and eastern Himalayas, surveying the fauna and sending back about 7,000 specimens – which he later classified and named – to Kew. Hooker's greatest botanical work, the Flora of British India, appeared between 1872 and 1897.

In 1855 Joseph Hooker was made assistant to his father and, on Sir William's death in 1865, succeeded him as Director. In 1873 he was elected President of the Royal Society, through which he promoted wider public participation in science.  Hooker died in 1911, having continued his father's project to transform Kew Gardens into the beautiful, fascinating place that people from across the world enjoy visiting today.

Esther Godfrey, English Heritage's Historian, said; "We are delighted to commemorate the formidable partnership of this father and son with an English Heritage blue plaque at their official Kew residence. The Hookers made important contributions to science, and to public interest in botany, both through the pursuit of botanical enquiry, and in furthering the interests of Kew Gardens.

Whilst Sir William Hooker's role in the establishment and organisation of the Gardens was invaluable, Sir Joseph Hooker was of crucial importance to Kew's scientific work; each man stamped his identity on the Gardens, and together they established the template for future developments at Kew."

Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said "We have an enormous amount to thank William and Joseph Hooker for, and are incredibly proud that they are so closely associated with Kew.  Without their dedication and foresight, Kew would not be the globally renowned organisation it is today – offering beauty and tranquillity to visitors, while also delivering first-class plant science research and conservation world wide."