13 February

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and his wife Hyacinth

Love letters from botanists and explorers, thought to be over 150 years old, have been discovered at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Personal insight

The letters were found within the Directors' correspondence collection and personal papers written by botanical collectors and explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Click on the image on the right to see a selection of letters and images.

Kiri Ross-Jones, Archivist & Records Manager, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said that the letters 'give us a real insight into the great botanists, enabling us to see the personal lives of the men behind the science.'

Love from abroad

Many of the letters were sent from adventurous expeditions to wives back home. In 1877, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Kew's second public Director and friend of Charles Darwin, wrote letters to his wife while on expedition in North America. He relays his devotion to her: 'I do long to see you again and stroke your face. I am as anxious to be back as you can be and begin to count the days. I am most anxious to hear of you.' (Hooker/Gray letters, former reference JDH/2/22).

Missionary and explorer David Livingstone (1813-1873) wrote to Sir William Hooker of the despair of being separated from his wife Mary Livingstone when she returned to England after contracting fever during a South African expedition (see digitised records in DC 60/179) and Frank Kingdon-Ward, one of the great plant hunters of the 20th century, wrote of his second wife Jean who also accompanied him on many of his expeditions.

Frank alludes to his fondness for his wife in several of his letters: 'my 63rd birthday. Darling Jean had a lovely birthday surprise for me…' (former reference FKW/1/21). Jean also gave her husband a letter after they returned from one of their expeditions: 'Thank you so very much sweetheart for a lovely three weeks plant hunting ..I love you with all my heart for ever and ever, oh so much darling if I could only tell you how much' (former reference FKW/1/38).

Romantic rituals..?

Letters in the archives also reveal that botanists such as Richard Oldham, a Kew Gardener, gathering exotic plants abroad often encountered romantic rituals of indigenous people, including Taiwanese aborigines who obtained severed heads to gain favour with unmarried women or celebrate their marriages.

Find out about the history and heritage of The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.