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Darwin Correspondence Project

To W. E. Gladstone   [before 16 January 1873]1

Memorial presented to the First Lord of the Treasury, respecting the National Herbaria.

To the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, First Lord of the Treasury.


The undersigned persons engaged in the pursuit of botany, or in instruction therein, desire to call your serious attention to a subject that deeply concerns the progress of Natural Science, and that of those branches of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and manufactures that largely depend on Botanical Research.

The First Commissioner of Works, in a Memorandum presented to Parliament before the close of last Session, clearly raised the question whether it is desirable to transfer to the branch of the British Museum about to be constructed at South Kensington, the Scientific Collections and Library now existing at Kew, and further stated that, pending the decision on that subject, he considers it his duty to take care that no new expense shall be incurred at Kew which will embarrass the Ministers of the Crown or the House of Commons in arriving at a decision.2

The Lords of the Treasury, in their Minute of the 24th July, decline to refer to that portion of the above-mentioned Memorandum, and no statement on that subject has since been made by any Minister of the Crown which shows whether it has received the attention of the Government.

Being strongly of opinion that the proposed measure would be highly detrimental to the progress of Science, and injurious to all those interests that depend upon it, we beg to urge upon you that the subject is not one merely of Departmental Interest, and that it would not be unfitting your position, as First Minister of the Crown, to give your consideration to the following reasons, which we beg to urge in opposition to the proposed measure:—

1. That it appears to us that it is absolutely necessary that a great Botanical Garden like that at Kew, which is confessedly far the most important in the world, should be in close connexion with as perfect an Herbarium and Botanical Library as possible; and that these conditions are now fulfilled as far as circumstances and the present state of science will admit.

2. That such a combination of living and dead specimens is requisite for the complete study of plants, as regards their technical, physiological, and economic characters; and that the removal of the Herbarium would be a retrograde step in a scientific point of view.

3. That the records of the Colonial and India Offices will show of what immense importance the Establishment at Kew has been to the welfare of the entire British Empire, and that weighty questions are constantly submitted to the Director which require immediate attention, and which could not in many cases, be satisfactorily answered without reference to the Library or Herbarium.

4. That every facility for the investigation of the intimate structure and general habit of plants, and the study of them in every point of view, which can reasonably be considered within the scope of pure Botany, is afforded by the Herbarium and Museum of Botany in connexion with the Garden, and that it would be easy to point out important labours in that direction which have been instituted at Kew, while the systematic treatment has always regarded the more minute characters as well as those which are superficial.

5. It has been remarked, indeed, that important works, such as the Hortus Kewensis,3 have been prepared without the aid of an Herbarium at Kew. We would, however, remark that the statement is not correct, as there was an Herbarium, which was dispersed before Sir W. J. Hooker became Director;4 and the conditions of Natural Science are at the present time so completely altered, that it is impossible to institute any fair comparison, the number of known species being enormously increased since the date of the publication in question.

6. That the Museums of Structural and Economic Botany, which owe their existence and importance to the late Sir W. J. Hooker, are often found of great value in the decision of critical points in the study of species, and that the severance of them from the Herbarium and Library would be a serious loss.5

7. That in the principal Botanic Gardens on the Continent, where effective work is done, there is in every case a large Herbarium connected with them.

8. That, in the interest of Botanical Science, we think it highly desirable that, besides the collections now existing at Kew, an Herbarium, or collection of dried plants, as complete as possible, should be maintained in connexion with the Natural History Museum which it is proposed to place at South Kensington, and that the two Herbariums should be in intimate relation with each other.

9. That from the delicate and perishable nature of its contents, and the necessity of referring to numerous specimens, an Herbarium cannot be made use of by many persons at the same time; and while it is desirable that students should have ready means of access at the National Museum in London to collections which may enable them to identify the plants of any particular country, it is still more essential that the authors of important works in Botanical Science should be enabled, as at present, to pursue their labours at Kew without interruption from casual visitors.

10. That an Herbarium is the least costly of all Collections in Natural History, and that which requires the least amount of space for its proper maintenance, in proportion to the number of objects which it contains.

11. That the arrangements of the Herbarium at Kew are so perfect, and the facilities for study so great, that it is resorted to from all parts of the world; and it would, therefore, be unwise to make a change which in the result is almost certain to be detrimental, and which, we are assured, would be especially distasteful to the leading Foreign Botanists.

[54 signatories, including]

Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S.


The date is established from the fact that this memorial was first published in Nature, 16 January 1873.
The first commissioner of works was Acton Smee Ayrton. For more on the proposal to move the herbarium at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, to the new Natural History Museum at South Kensington, see Correspondence vol. 20, letter to J. D. Hooker, 27 October [1872] and nn. 3 and 4, and letter from J. D. Hooker, 8 November 1872 and n. 3.
In writing Hortus Kewensis, William Townsend Aiton had relied on his own and Joseph Banks’s herbaria; there was no official herbarium at Kew when William Jackson Hooker became director in 1841 (see R. Desmond 1995, pp. 194–5).
On the museums, which opened in 1848 and 1857, see R. Desmond 1995, pp. 191–3.


Aiton, William Townsend. 1810–13. Hortus Kewensis; or, A catalogue of the plants cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. 2d edition. 5 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Desmond, Ray. 1995. Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens. London: Harvill Press with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.


Encourages the government to keep the herbarium and library of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Ewart Gladstone
Source of text
Fourth report of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science 1874 [C.884] XXII.1 (pp. 31–2)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9206F,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21