The Joy of Botany #3

The Excitement of Research

Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and being unable to get out in the field I have been putting some time on the history of the Avon Gorge flora and local botanists. Research of this type is every bit as absorbing as botanising somewhere you haven’t been. In the same way, if you allow yourself to wander where fancy takes you, you never know what you might find. Here’s a few things that have come to light in the last week or two.

Take first the history of Barrenwort, Epimedium alpinum, a garden escape which grew wild in Leigh Woods for a decade or more between 1830 and 1850. It was last collected by Miss Isabella Gifford (c 1823-1892) of Minehead, a forgotten Somerset botanist important enough at the time to have been paid a visit by Charles Cardale Babington – best known to us as the author of Flora Bathoniensis (i.e. Bath, 1834 & 1839) but more importantly author of the Manual of British Botany (1843, 1847 etc.), a pocket book so carefully observed that a contemporary joked that it included not only species, sub-species, but also Bab-ies. Miss Gifford lived with her mother and they both died of Influenza at Christmas 1892, within a day of each other, during a winter resurgence of the pandemic ‘La Grippe’ or Russian Flu. Take care everyone!  Hopefully by next week I’ll have written her up and opened the opportunity for further research by other SRPG members.

Returning to ES Marshall, it turns out that, his daughter Phyllis had developed an interest in folk song and dance at University and whilst living in the Rectory at West Monkton she collected folk songs from several local residents.

As a result researchers from another direction have studied the Marshall family and their achievements. Songs from Phyllis Marshall’s manuscripts with allegorical references to plants include versions of Cupid’s Garden, the Seeds of Love, and a fragment of the Banks of Sweet Primroses. There is also  the Spotted Cow, a song mentioned by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and resurfacing in the discography of Steeleye Span. One wonders what her parents may have thought of this sort of music, especially in its native unbowdlerised form. Cecil Sharp, the founder of the revival did much of his work in Somerset and is known to have collected in West Monkton (earlier); maybe he would have called in at the Rectory.

We also learn at the time of the 1911 census the Marshall household had four servants, a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid. But more important, it seems that in 1925 Phyllis, who lived on at the house the Marshalls had moved to in Tidenham near Chepstow and where they died in 1919, paid £600 to have a memorial window installed in St Mary and St Peter’s, the Tidenham Parish Church where her parents (and later she with them) are buried. According to the account of Phyllis Marshall the window is inscribed ‘To the glory of God and in loving memory of Edward Shearburn Marshall, priest, and Fanny Isobel Marshall, his wife’ and ‘is a triptych design matching the three windows under gothic arches, with a centre image of Mary and Jesus’. Of course, I have been unable to go and check it out, but the image below matches.

Stained glass window at Tidenham Parish Church, Gloucestershire, believed to be the one dedicated to the memory of ES Marshall, author of the Supplement to the Flora of Somerset (1914) and his wife and companion. Photo attributed to John Wilkes of Cam near Dursley, Gloucestershire.

By coincidence, there’s another stained-glass window I’ve known for over 13 years which is dedicated to a local botanist (Bristol, but he visited N Somerset too). Dr Henry Oxley Stephens is best known to botanists as the discoverer of the Round-headed Leek, Allium sphaerocephalon in the Avon Gorge in 1847, but he went on to be Medical Superintendent at the Bristol Lunatic Asylum, which around 1860 moved to Stapleton. Its Chapel, now a small museum (Glenside Hospital), has another three-piece design, installed by his  wife and children after his death with the rather apt biblical quotation ‘All they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him’.

Photo of the HO Stephens memorial window in the Glenside Hospital Museum, Stapleton, taken by Viv Jenkins, Curator, for Clive Lovatt, then in Malawi, March 2007. In response to CML’s article on Stephens in the BNS Bulletin, Viv responded, ‘No, we don’t have a photo of him, but we do have a stained-glass window’.

In Stuart Thomson’s extraordinarily rich correspondence archive, there is a mention on 25 March 1921 and later of the correspondence of William Whitwell of York, which (from my 40-year old notes – it takes a long time to make a story) he must have bought for 30 shillings.  It  now transpires that in 1936 Thompson donated it to the Linnean Society of London, who have an index of its contents in their online archive catalogue. Whitwell, it seems, had collected autograph letters of contemporary botanists and their photos and amongst them are two of flora-writing Somerset botanists, both unpublished and unreported in Desmond’s Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists. One is of ES Marshall, aged 42, who until they are able to open to researchers again, we’ll have to imagine – I would be guessing that the whiskery Victorian gents were by then the older generation. The other – and I never expected I would find such a relic – is the itinerant tutor of languages and Natural History Dr Gustavus Adolphus Ornano St Brody, who published in 1856 in the form of a monthly calendar, a small Flora of Weston (i.e. Weston-super-Mare), which has both charmed and puzzled botanists ever since. It was given to Whitwell by his wife, then destitute and looking for work as a housekeeper in 1902, after her husband’s death, so it will probably be in the form of a professional carte de visite.

Such are some of the joys of botanical research.

Poet’s Corner

It may not be generally known, but two of our members are published poets of some distinction, both delightfully able to weave the natural world into their works. It was, however another, unpublished member who sent me the short poem below. It was created more as a pass-time than a pastime.

Touch-me-not. A poem for the soapwort days of 2020

The bittersweet pursuit of flowers
Enhances traveller’s joy.
So if you’re getting melancholy
This’ll gloom destroy.
An early dog walk : no cuckoo?
Flowers may be your balm,
Or bird’s foot tracks on a muddy patch
Spring beauty offers calm.
The townhall clock runs slowly now;
The hours with different feel,
Ladies smock to speed well time
And all seed makes self heal.
It’s time to keep your eye bright
And with honesty record.
Not a rueful word or torment
Till the soapwort days are stored.

How many plants? About 22.
Author: Mind your own business.

When I read the puzzle-rhyme, I remembered seeing something similar recently in old copies of the magazine of the Wild Flower Society. 60 English names, taken from Bentham & Hooker, were buried into a story in prose. I hesitate to offer it to members because I don’t have the subsequent issue with the answers, and because Bentham was brought up in France and consequently preferred to invent ‘common names’ by translating the Latin in their scientific names. But I can’t resist a tempter, just to show how difficult it is. To get you going, answer (1) is daisy (day Sy–).

A Botanical Journey

One (1) –dney and his sister (2) decided to take a (3)day in (4). They consulted a (5) –st they should lose their way. They had not (6) so they agreed to (7) w–  –ted bag was to hold their luggage, which consisted of (8) –ings, a (9), a (10) of (11), a cake of (12) –h much to them, and some (13) b – .

(From the Wild Flower Magazine October-November 1910, unsigned.)

A verse by H Stuart Thompson

Amongst Stuart Thompson’s correspondence in the Bristol University Special Collections which I drew on in the last column (#2), I found a poem he seems to have written in Clifton around 1929.

If only more people to Nature would look
Take something themselves from her beautiful book
They would find on the Downs and the fair Avonside
A real satisfaction to fill them with pride.

After the low style of verse, it is signed Jas (James) Doggerel.


There are to my knowledge four Oxford graduates mentioned or alluded to in this week’s column, and four who attended Cambridge University. A small prize (an honourable mention) to anyone who can identify at least seven.

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 3 April 2020