Victorian botanists

My Dear Whitehead… …I remain yours very respectfully Thomas Whitelegge

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Having looked through our archives, I found one letter from Thomas Whitelegge.  It was written to his old friend from The Ashton Linnean Botanical Society, John Whitehead.  It is dated March 23, 1885 and shows Whitelegge’s address as 537 Crown St, Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales.

Having discovered last week that Whitelegge had corresponded with Darwin, I was a little disappointed to only find this one letter, however it is such an interesting letter I soon cheered up.  Considering Whitelegge left school at 8 years old, his handwriting is remarkably easy to read.  Working in the herbarium and doing my History degrees, I have spent many hours transcribing Victorian handwriting so I know how difficult it can be to read.  I’ll try and find time to transcribe the letter fully and post it up here, but in the meantime here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite…

“…I  think it is now time I gave you some hint as to how I like this country.  I like it better every day and never regret coming out here but I have been very fortunate in getting a government billet, which is a fine thing out here there are no broken weeks or paydays although there is some 10 public holidays in each year, and the hours are only school hours 9 to 4 with 1 hour for dinner so that when I leave off I can jump on our steam tramway cars and go mossing and have 3 or 4 hours out before dark.  The trams go at such a speed to that is a wonder there is not more accidents then what there is.  The cars are double deckers ugly looking things appearing top heavy so that you would think they would topple over…”

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Thomas Whitelegge and Bog Rosemary

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We had an exciting morning in Herbarium last Tuesday.  It began when Andrea Winn, the Curator of Community Exhibitions, called to see if we could supply some specimens to put in a ‘Museum Comes To You’ box linked to the Manchester Gallery.  Andrea had already collected some cotton samples but now wanted either some Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) or a specimen collected by one of our working class, Victorian botanists.  I decided to see if I could combine the two requests and find some Bog Rosemary collected by a working class botanist.  In our British collection I found a lovely sheet of specimens collected from Lindow Common in Wilmslow by Thomas Whitelegge in 1877.

I didn’t know much about  Whitelegge but a quick look in Desmond’ (Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists: Including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters and Garden Designers, Ray Desmond, 1977) revealed that Whitelegge (1850-1927) was indeed a workingman naturalist.  The short entry showed that he was born in Stockport, was Secretary and President of the Ashton Linnean Botanical Society and that he moved to Australia in 1883 where he joined the staff of the Australian Museum in Sydney until 1908.  Whitelegge became an authority on ferns and mosses and to top it all, he corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Andrea and I immediately started looking through our archives for any correspondence to or from Whitelegge.  Meanwhile Leander had found a more detailed biography of  Whitelegge in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.  We discovered that he had been born into poverty to an illiterate brickmaker, leaving school at just  8 years of age.  He went to work in a factory before becoming apprenticed to a hatter.  We were then shocked to find that he broke his indentures and lived as a fugitive for 2 years on a farm in Hurstbrook, Lancashire.  It was whilst working on this farm that Whitelegge developed his interest in natural history.

Andrea and I are both following some leads to see what else we can discover about Whitelegge.  We will keep you posted of any news.