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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Council of the Royal Horticultural Society   11 April 1864


April 11, 1864.


We beg respectfully to represent to the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society that serious injury will be caused to the native plants of England by the prizes recently offered by the Society for collections of wild specimens of English plants. But, at the same time, we desire to thank the Society for having shown a wish to promote a knowledge of scientific Botany.1

The value of land, and the advanced state of agriculture consequent therefrom, has caused many wild plants to be now confined to few or even to single localities, often of small extent.2 It is feared that such species will be extirpated by collectors for prize herbaria, who are desirous of obtaining every plant known to grow in their county, and are greatly tempted to destroy what they do not gather, in order to prevent other candidates from finding as many species.3 The plants liable to be thus destroyed are mostly not such as gardeners would wish to obtain for cultivation: they possess no beauty nor interest to the common eye, but are of much value in the estimation of scientific botanists. There is scarcely a county in England in which one or more plants will not be in danger of extirpation by the collectors for these prizes. Neither will the prizes promote scientific botany amongst the class for whose benefit they are intended,4 for there is nothing to ensure the recipient of a prize himself knowing the names or localities of the plants in his collection, or that he has examined a single botanical book, gathered any of the specimens, or even seen any of them. But supposing the case not to be so bad as this, the objection will probably apply, in some degree, to every collection sent to the Society; for no attempt is made (indeed it would be next to impossible) to ensure the collection being really formed, named, mounted and arranged by the candidate himself, without the help of other persons.

As it seems nearly certain that these prizes cannot be of much use in promoting scientific Botany, and must seriously threaten the rare, curious, and botanically interesting plants with extirpation, we venture to express our hope that the Council may be induced to withdraw them before the season has arrived for the destruction to commence.—5

We have the honour to be Gentlemen, your most obedient servants, | Charles C. Babington, Prof. of Bot., Cambridge. | Churchill Babington, B.D., F.L.S. | C. Darwin, M.A., F.R.S.6


On 15 January 1864 the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society announced that it intended to offer prizes for the best collections of dried specimens of wild plants from each county of the United Kingdom. Specimens, which were to be delivered to the Society before 31 December 1864, were to be mounted, classified with the natural system, and labelled with the name of the locality in which they were found. To encourage ‘the study of scientific botany amongst all classes’, the Council stipulated that the collectors of the specimens should follow the classification systems of standard text-books on British botany, including Bentham 1858, W. J. Hooker and Arnott 1860, and C. C. Babington 1862, in preparing their submissions (Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society 4 (1864): 2, 17). For an account of the competition, see Kent 1986.
In the middle decades of the nineteenth century agricultural rents in England rose by about a quarter as a consequence of the rising demand from a rapidly rising population for agricultural products ( M. E. Turner et al. 1997, pp. 149–50, 246–7, and 257). This was a period of increased agricultural investment; draining activity, for example, was at its most intense between 1840 and 1869 (A. D. M. Phillips 1989, pp. 118–20, 165–6). This was also the period in which the extent of arable land in England reached its maximum (Kain 1986, pp. 458–9). Local field naturalists were among the first to observe the effects of changing habitat on wildlife populations, and natural history societies began to generate concern about rare plant species at this time (see Lowe and Goyder 1983, pp. 18–19, and n. 3, below).
The popularity of botany in early Victorian Britain, and particularly the development of the practice of exchanging herbarium specimens amongst members of botanical societies (Allen 1994, pp. 97–101; A. Secord 1994, pp. 393–5), had given rise to fears that over-collecting would lead to the disappearance of rare species in many localities. Additionally, the depredations caused by the mid-century craze for collecting and growing wild ferns (Allen 1969) had begun to turn opinion in favour of the preservation of rare plants. For a discussion of the role of opposition from field botanists to the Royal Horticultural Society prizes in advancing the cause of protection, and the botanical contribution to changing attitudes to nature conservation in general, see Allen 1980 and 1987, and Kent 1986. The Royal Horticultural Society received a number of other written protests against the scheme, including a letter from William Jackson Hooker on behalf of botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a ‘remonstrance’ from the ‘Amateur Botanists of the city of Norwich’, and two memorials forwarded by John Stuart Mill on behalf of ‘twelve botanists’ and ‘five Manchester botanists’ (see Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society 4 (1864): 91–4).
The Royal Horticultural Society had offered the prizes without reference to a particular social class (see n. 1, above), but its intended audience was composed of horticulturalists and gardeners. For a contemporary appraisal of the social composition of those likely to enter the competition, see Journal of Botany 2 (1864): 124).
In deference to the protests against the prizes, the Royal Horticultural Society instructed competitors not to collect more than 200 plants per entry, advising that rare plants were not desired and would not enhance the competitor’s chances of winning, and adding that each plant was to be prepared to show its various stages of development, with its structure displayed at each stage. The Society also invited botanists to make suggestions for any useful measures that could be taken by them, working together with the Society, for the protection of rare plants in the United Kingdom. Miles Joseph Berkeley, one of the petitioners against the prize, was appointed chairman of the committee of judges. The Society awarded forty-five medals to thirty-seven competitors on 7 March 1865 (Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society 4 (1864): 90–1 and 5 (1865): 52–3).
The petition carried a further 124 signatures following CD’s. Charles Cardale Babington was one of the organisers of the petition, which included botanists with positions at British and Irish universities, authors of local floras and other works of British botany, members of Cambridge colleges, and presidents and officers of natural history societies. Babington noted that ‘many more names might easily have been obtained if I had chosen to receive the signatures of parties who collect plants, but are not known to have much scientific knowledge of botany’ (Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society 4 (1864): 91). He may have been assisted in the collection of signatures by Alexander Irvine, editor of the Botanists’ Chronicle (see Botanists’ Chronicle 5 (1864): 34). Babington’s campaign against the prizes began with a letter to the Journal of Botany in February 1864, in which he argued: ‘It seems to be properly the object of this Journal to defend the rare plants of Britain, not to help in their extirpation.’ The letter stressed the role of ‘high cultivation’ and over-collecting in endangering rare plant species (Journal of Botany 2 (1864): 124).


The signatories warn the RHS that in offering prizes for collections of specimens of wild English plants, the Society will cause serious injury to varieties already threatened without any real promotion of scientific botany.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin; , and 126 others
Royal Horticultural Society Council
Sent from
Source of text
Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society 4 (1864): 91–3

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4459F,” accessed on 18 September 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 12