Naturalists of the Three Counties

It is an article of (my) faith that the ‘Three Choirs Counties’ – Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire – are the most beautiful and amazing part of England. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered quite by chance all sorts of things connected to each other in that area (and beyond) of which I had no idea …

I was looking up (as you do) what Lord Brougham had to say about the death of William Huskisson, famously run over by Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ as he was trying to get into the Duke of Wellington’s railway carriage in Liverpool on 15 September 1830.

‘The Duke of Wellington’s train being prepared for departure from Liverpool to Manchester, 15 September 1830.’

Brougham, it turns out, relegates him on this occasion to a footnote explaining the context of a letter from Lord Melbourne, who, like Brougham himself, had not been able to attend the fatal meeting at Liverpool where all sorts of political machinations were due to take place.

William Huskisson, the first victim of a railway accident, by Richard Rothwell. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

What I had no idea of (since I have to confess that early nineteenth-century politics, or indeed any sort of politics, is not really my best thing) is that Huskisson was an extremely competent and extremely influential politician, especially on the financial side of things; but much more interesting to my own range of interests is that he was born on 11 March 1770 at Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire, south-east of Malvern Wells, a wonderful moated manor house (Grade-1 listed) which dates from the mid thirteenth century (though the manor existed at the time of Domesday), and has been rebuilt, subtracted from and added to at various times in the eight or so centuries since. (It is now a wedding venue – quite tempting, were I looking for one.)

Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire.

His mother having died in 1774, Huskisson was sent away to various schools at quite a young age, and when he was thirteen, his father despatched him and his brother to Paris, to be educated by their great-uncle, a physician who had settled there. (This may have been not unconnected with his father’s second marriage.) It is not clear whether he ever returned to Birtsmorton, as his education, and the beginnings of his career as a diplomat, continued entirely in France until 1792, when he returned to London and was immediately found a government post. But his family home has another claim to fame, as the setting for Malvern Chase: An Episode in the Wars of the Roses and the Battle of Tewkesbury, published in 1881 by the Revd William S. Symonds. He wrote a second novel, Hanley Castle (also set in a local great house, at the time of the Civil War), published in 1883, but fiction was something of a sideline for him.

William Samuel Symonds. (Credit: the Woolhope Club)

William Samuel Symonds was born in 1818, in Hereford, of which his father was deputy lieutenant, as well as lord of the manor of Elsdon. In due course, he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge. According to the ODNB, he (most unusually, as an undergraduate?) was married in 1840, while still a student, to Catherine Hyacinth Kent, of Upton-upon-Severn. Kew (in the context of J.D. Hooker’s correspondence: see below) gives the date of birth of his daughter (also Hyacinth) as 1842. (On the other hand Venn  gives a different trajectory: admitted as a pensioner to Christ’s in 1837, taking his B.A. and being ordained deacon in 1841, and priest in 1842, and marrying Hyacinth in 1849. Has Venn misread 40 as 49?)

Symonds obtained a curacy at at Offenham (Worcs.) in 1843, and two years later became rector of Pendock (also Worcs.), where, handily, the rector was lord of the manor; he was also a justice of the peace. As the ODNB remarks, ‘His clerical duties were not great, and this enabled him to devote himself to the study of local history, archaeology, and particularly geology.’ It appears that a parishioner at Offenham was a collector of fossils; through this person he met Hugh Strickland (1811–53), who apparently mentored him, but whose own devotion to geology caused his premature death in another railway accident. Through Strickland, Symonds’ circle of acquaintance broadened considerably, to include Lyell, Murchison and J.D. Hooker; he was an early adopter of Darwinism at a time when quite a number of his fellow clergy (including Darwin’s own mentor) were not.

Pendock church, now in the care of the CCT.  (Credit: Saffron Blaze Photography)

He published many learned articles, but was also a great populariser of science, with such books as Stones of the Valley (1857) and  Old Bones (1860). He was a private tutor to young people, among whom was Caroline Alice Roberts, who made the index for his 1872 Records of the Rocks, but who is better known for having married Edward Elgar. However, perhaps his greatest claim to fame is as an encourager of local natural historians. In 1853 he was a founder of the Malvern Naturalists’ Field Club, and presided over it for eighteen years. He was a member of the Cotteswold Field Club (founded in 1846), the Worcester Natural History Society (1847), and the famous Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, of which he was a founder member in 1851.

The Woolhope Dome from a distance. (Credit: C. Harris on the Ledbury Naturalists’ Field Club website)

Based in the city of Hereford, and still active today, the club is named after the Woolhope Dome, an outcrop of Silurian hills near the city, which is today a wildlife reserve.  Its membership (including honorary members) in the nineteenth century was quite startling for an apparently unpretentious local club in the heart of England: Sedgwick, Lyell, Murchison, Leonard Horner, Sir William Jardine (father-in-law and biographer of Hugh Strickland), and, among botanists, John Lindley and George Bentham.

Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. (Credit: Rept0n1x at Wikimedia Commons)

A wealthy member, Sir James Rankin (1842–1915), timber merchant and for many years M.P. for Leominster, offered to pay for a headquarters for the club in Hereford, which would also be a library and museum. This Victorian Gothic building is now the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, at which I tried (virtually) only a few weeks ago to find Epiphanius Evesham’s sundial. (Everything is connected to everything else.)

One of Worthington G. Smith’s handy guides to poisonous fungi. (Credit: Cornell University)

Another pioneering feature of the club was its interest in mycology. In 1868, a field meeting in October set the precedent for, and indeed gave the name to, subsequent ‘fungus forays’ by natural history clubs all over the country. The members had a fungus dinner at the ‘Green Dragon’ in Hereford after the first foray, but as it was led by the expert mycologist and plant illustrator Worthington G. Smith (1835–1917), it may be assumed that all participants survived – and indeed the tradition continued for the next 24 years.

Smith in old age, with a friend.

Smith was another all-rounder: having trained as an architect, his interest flagged when he was put on designing drains, and he turned instead to freelance illustration, both for The Builder and for the Gardener’s Chronicle, of which he became the chief illustrator in 1869, remaining in this post for 40 years. He  published widely on fungi, and also produced Illustrations of the British Flora: a series of wood engravings, with dissections, of British plants, in 1880, with co-illustrator W.H. Fitch; this was intended as an ‘illustrated companion to Mr Bentham’s handbook and other British Floras’.

A page from the Illustrations.

But he also became interested in archaeology, after reading Sir John Evans’s 1872 Ancient Stone Implements of Great Britain, subsequently undertaking many excavations in north London and Bedfordshire himself, and assisting in other digs in mid-Wales, where he did the surveying and drew the finds for publication.

‘Old House at West Gate, Pembroke’, by Worthington G. Smith. (Credit: The National Library of Wales)

However, perhaps the greatest achievement of the club at this period is the breathtaking Herefordshire Pomona. Dr Henry Graves Bull (1818–85), local physician, pioneering anaesthetist, co-founder of the club, and effective ‘pre-founder’ of the British Mycological Society, was also very keen to record the local varieties of apples and pears, many of them used in the cider and perry industry. He established a yearly ‘Apple Day’, to which horticultural experts were invited in order to identify the specimens brought for display, and he then set up a ‘Pomona Committee’, which commissioned his daughter Edith Elizabeth Bull and another local artist, Alice Blanche Ellis, to paint the fruit, together with its blossom and potential blights. (He was presumably inspired by Thomas Andrew Knight‘s Pomona Herefordiensis : containing coloured engravings of the old Cider and Perry Fruits of Herefordshire : accompanied with a descriptive account of each variety (1811).)

A page from the Herefordshire Pomona. (Credit: Bonham’s)

Robert Hogg, the pomologist, who was by now vice-president of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked to write the text of a book, which was issued in parts between 1878 and 1884, and eventually contained 441 hand-painted lithographs (created by the Belgian firm of G. Severeyns) based on the paintings. Only 600 copies were printed (by the Hereford firm of Jakeman and Carver) of the Herefordshire Pomona, Containing Original Figures and Descriptions of the Most Esteemed Kinds of Apples and Pears, and I have had the privilege of looking at one of them, still inside its original green morocco covers, not unlike this one.

I could go on – but returning to Symonds, where we sort of began, he died in Cheltenham (still in the Three Counties!) in 1887. His daughter, Hyacinth, extraordinarily enough, had married first the widowed Sir William Jardine (many years her senior), and after his death, the widowed Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, whose first wife, of course, had been Frances Henslow, daughter of his and Darwin’s great mentor.

The best view in the world? (Credit: Malvern Hills AONB)

I am not likely to visit the Three Counties again any time soon, what with cononavirus … the RHS has already cancelled the Malvern Spring Festival, though I see that the Three Choirs (this year in Worcester) appears (so far) to be going ahead. But I’m looking forward to unravelling (in isolation) much more information about Symonds, his friends and colleagues, and the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club.


This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Naturalists of the Three Counties

  1. Delighted, as an Elgarian, to hear about the Three Counties and their festival, so associated with the man himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Colonel!


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