32 SOHO SQUARE
Plaque erected in 1938 by London County Council at 32 Soho Square, Soho, London, W1D 3AP, City of Westminster
Historical Sites, Science
SIR JOSEPH BANKS 1743-1820 PRESIDENT OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY ROBERT BROWN 1773-1858 AND DAVID DON 1800-1841 BOTANISTS LIVED IN A HOUSE ON THIS SITE THE LINNEAN SOCIETY MET HERE 1821-1857
The plaque is on rebuilt premises and replaces a blue LCC plaque of 1911 (to Sir Joseph Banks).
The botanists Sir Joseph Banks, Robert Brown and David Don are commemorated with an inscribed stone tablet at 31–32 Soho Square – the site of Banks’s former home. Brown and Don were the protégés of Banks, who achieved fame after joining Captain James Cook on his expedition to the Pacific.
SIR JOSEPH BANKS
Born in nearby Argyll Street, the son of a Lincolnshire landowner, Banks returned to the capital after leaving Oxford, and soon became a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. In 1766 he set sail as the naturalist on an expedition to Labrador and Newfoundland and from 1768 to 1771 accompanied Captain Cook to the Pacific. The voyage brought both men international acclaim.
Banks was behind the infamous mission of the Bounty (1787–9), captained by William Bligh, to transfer breadfruit plants from the South Seas to the West Indies, where they were intended to provide cheap food for enslaved workers. He was, therefore, an enabler of slavery, though he believed that – for economic rather than moral reasons – it would not last.
Banks was behind the global transplantation of many other botanic and live specimens across the globe, all with the ultimate aim of increasing the power and prosperity of the British Empire. Examples are the tea plants that were surreptitiously removed from China and planted in Assam, which became part of British India, and the Merino sheep taken from Spain that formed the basis of the Australian wool industry.
Banks’s attitude to other races was typical of Europeans of his era: he believed that black people had less ‘mental vigor’, and considered the indigenous Australians ‘cowardly’ and therefore unlikely to pose a threat to setting up a penal colony at Botany Bay. Yet he was evidently fascinated by other cultures – he made efforts to learn the Tahitian language, for example, and probably got himself a Tahitian tattoo.
Banks acquired 32 (then 30) Soho Square in 1777, and it was his London home for the rest of his life. Called ‘a virtual research institute’, it housed both his library and his extensive botanical collections, which were substantially gathered by means of the slave-trade routes. Banks lived there with his wife, Dorothea, née Hugessen (1758–1828) and his sister, Sarah (1744–1818), who was also a collector.
While living in Soho Square Banks established himself as the leader of the British scientific community. He was President of the Royal Society from 1778 until his death and his frequent soirées and gatherings at number 32 were attended by men of letters and men of science from all over Europe.
Handsome and free-living in his younger days – in his journal, he boasted that ‘he had tasted Womans flesh in almost every part of the Known habitable World’ – Banks became overweight, gout-ridden and immobile as he aged. He died at his country home in Isleworth, now part of London’s south-western fringe.
Robert Brown, who first met Banks in about 1798, came to attention as a naturalist on the Australian expedition led by Matthew Flinders in 1801–5. On his return, Brown was appointed librarian of the Linnean Society, and from 1810 was Banks’s personal librarian at Soho Square. When Sir Joseph died, he bequeathed Brown a life interest in his collections, which subsequently passed to the British Museum.
Brown lived to the rear of number 32 at 17 Dean Street, where Banks’s library and collections were held. He stayed there until his death, by which time he had amassed one of the world’s greatest herbariums.
David Don was born into a family of botanists and gardeners and succeeded Brown as librarian of the Linnean Society in 1822. He was later Professor of Botany at King’s College, London (1836–41), and died at number 32.
THE LINNEAN SOCIETY
The plaque’s inscription refers also to the Linnean Society, founded in 1788 by James Edward Smith (1759–1828) – a friend of Banks – for the study of natural history. Brown leased the front part of number 32 to the society – of which he served as President in 1849–53 – from summer 1822, although the group had met at the house since May of the previous year. It remained the society’s headquarters until 1857, when it moved to larger premises at Burlington House, Piccadilly.
J Gascoigne, ‘Banks, Sir Joseph, baronet (1743–1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 12 August 2020)
‘Sir Joseph Banks’, Strange Science (2019) (accessed 12 August 2020)
Toby Musgrave, The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, the Natural Historian Who Shaped the World (New Haven and London, 2020)