The Joy of Botany #4

The story in the picture: Arthur G Tansley (1871-1955), H. Stuart Thompson (1870-1940) and the Sharpham Moor Plot

Plate 1. Arthur G Tansley recording the flora and vegetation at the Sharpham Moor Plot, North Somerset, 23 June 1923. From the Natural England Archives courtesy of Steve Parker. Photograph by H Stuart Thompson. The negative may be in the Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. Tansley’s notebook may be in the Cambridge University Library. ‘I very much enjoyed my visit’ Tansley wrote to Thompson some years later.

Arthur G Tansley (1871-1955)

At the Somerset Rare Plant Group’s AGM on Saturday 18 January 2020, Steve Parker, our Chair, delivered one of his now traditional ‘pumpkin-head’ quizzes, in which teams divided by affiliations to the north (the half that looks like a pretty snail shell according to one member) or west of the county (the slimy foot of the snail) vie to identify each other on images taken at field meetings from their particular clothes, field bags, or bodily posture, their heads and headgear being covered by a strategically placed pumpkin, which is later electronically erased to the great amusement of all.

As part of this quiz, though without the necessity of disguise because it was so long ago, Steve introduced the image above, later explaining that it was taken on the Sharpham Moor Plot, one of the reserves owned by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. At this point, knowing the story of Stuart Thompson’s interest in the site I was able to deduce that the man in the gabardine recording the plot was no less than the great Arthur G Tansley, variously: lecturer at Cambridge and Professor of Botany at Oxford; founder of the New Phytologist Trust and the British Ecological Society and editor of both of their journals; editor of Types of British Vegetation in the heady days of 1911 and sole author of the genuinely monumental The British Islands and their Vegetation (1939); the issuer of an invitation to Clapham, Tutin and Warburg to write a new British Flora (published 1952), and finally a founder and first Chair of the Nature Conservancy.

Oh yes, and Tansley was also the author of The New Psychology and its Relation to Life (1920). By 1923 it had sold over 10,000 copies – almost seven times the print run of his Types (1911). Between late 1923 and 1925 he visited Vienna for two several-month periods as a student of Sigmund Freud and on his return, he became a full member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. Indeed Tansley had a dream ‘Out of Africa’ (which he had visited) involving a gun, Africans in the bush with spears and a ‘Woman in White’, perhaps his wife but according to Freud, representing Tansley’s undying love of botany – personified as Flora herself.

So how was it that Stuart Thompson, a quite different character, came to know Tansley? And what is the significance of what they were doing here?

H. Stuart Thompson (1870-1940)

Thompson, who never married, was a Quaker from Bridgwater and is buried with his father (also a plant collector) and two sisters in the Friends’ cemetery on Wembdon Road near there. He seems to have gone up as an undergraduate to Christ’s College Cambridge in 1889. He was secretary of the Cambridge University Botanical Club in February 1891 but, for reasons that are not yet wholly clear, he did not complete his degree; by mid-May that year he was ‘now engaged in Land Surveyor’s work’. He pursued that employment as a Land Agent in Birmingham until about 1902, before becoming fully engaged in British and Continental botany. After much moving about, by 1918 he had settled in Clifton where he remained, in a succession of at least six flats, for the rest of his life.

Plate 2. H. Stuart Thompson in his older years from a newspaper obituary in 1940. A striking series of three professional photographs at intervals of 10 or 15 years, one probably contemporary with his photograph of Tansley, is in the archives of the Linnean Society of London. This one would be not long after Tansley and Thompson’s last meeting in 1935.


Thompson was a keen photographer and thousands of his negatives, together with a mass of botanical correspondence are deposited in the Special Collections of the University of Bristol Library. In 1917 he took a picture of JW White, the author of the Flora of Bristol (1912), who had earlier (1901) acknowledged Thompson’s ‘great gift or enviable faculty of turning up rare plants in unexpected places’. In his photograph below (Plate 3) he shows us his botanical study.

Plate 3. ‘Plant Press and Cabinets’, in one of Thompson’s Clifton flats c. 1922, with vasculum, an easy chair, a bookcase and paintings including an alpine scene. Photo by HS Thompson from the negative in the Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. The painting below the alpine scene, Caltha palustris by Gulielma Stephens of Bridgwater, one of Thompson’s lady relatives, was given in 1938 to the Botany Department at the University of Bristol, held by CML for many years and then passed on to Kay Ungless, who has family connections with the Bridgwater Thompsons.

Aside from a long involvement with the Watson Botanical Exchange Club in two spells as Secretary and Editor, Thompson was, like Tansley, a botanical author. Alpine Plants of Europe (1911) has this as part of one of its selected quotations: ‘The sense of independence, of self-confidence, induced by the great precipices and vast silent fields of snow is something wholly delightful. Every step is health, fun and frolic. The troubles, cares of life … are left far below’. This is all highly reflective of Thompson’s frequent state of anxiety. His second book, Sub-alpine Plants of the Swiss Meadows was published in 1912. (Thompson’s parents were, unusually, married in Switzerland.) No wonder that White, who had by then known him for over 20 years, wrote to him, ‘what a literary man you have become’, adding that he would never touch another once his Flora of Bristol was off his hands.

Tansley and Thompson: Cambridge, the Continent and Conservation

There is a possibility that the Tansley and Thompson might have encountered each other as undergraduates. Tansley read Natural Sciences at Trinity College Cambridge, but being a year older than Thompson, went up to in 1890. His biography (Ayres 2012, see below) indicates that ‘student societies and gatherings dominated his first year’ – when as indicated above, Thompson was secretary of the University Botanical Club. Although for different reasons neither might have much wanted to talk about those days, it could have helped the two alumni to form a bond.

Tansley, who was by then a Cambridge lecturer, indicated that he and Thompson met in ‘about 1910’ (Rix 1973, see below). However, it was not until around May 1911 that Thompson returned to live in Cambridge. He was perpetually trying to get work as a herbarium assistant as he had briefly been at Kew some years earlier, but on this occasion he was clearly finishing off his Sub-alpine Plants:the Preface dated May 1912 thanks the Cambridge Botany School’s Professor and the herbarium Curator who allowed him to ‘freely consult’ the herbarium and library.

Though this time there is no Cambridge acknowledgement in its preface, Thompson clearly had in mind his next book: Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914). In his copy, Thompson kept various mementos, so many that – as he wrote on the Boots the Chemists envelope in which they were later packaged and deposited in the archives of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society – it made the book bulge.

One of the items thus preserved is an invitation from Tansley in March 1912 for Thompson to dine with him (and his wife, Edith) ‘to discuss the Maritime Alps’ – part of the area covered by Thompson’s Riviera book (Plate 4). The two of them might have simply bumped into one another in the tearoom or corridor but equally might have been introduced by Charles E Moss, a fellow member of the Watson Botanical Exchange Club (which had less than 60 members), a sometime Somerset schoolmaster who had published an account of the Geographical Distribution of the Vegetation of Somerset in 1907, and who was now in charge of the Cambridge herbarium.

Plate 4. An invitation from Arthur G Tansley to Stuart Thompson, dated 14 March, to dine with him to discuss the Maritime Alps, suggesting it was a place familiar to both of them. Although Thompson has added the year 1911, the reference to ‘tomorrow (Friday)’ makes it clear that it was in 1912. From the Archives of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society.

In the Preface to Thompson’s book (Plate 5), dated 12 January 1914, he notes that he had taken many photographs of Riviera vegetation in 1912 and 1913 (November 1912 to June 1913 according to his photographic diary) and he thanked Tansley ‘not only for help and encouragement but [also] for his kindness in writing an introduction on Riviera Vegetation’. There is a letter from Tansley dated the following day, returning a draft of the preface after review, and adding how pleased he was to see as many as 80 grasses covered (BNS Archives).

The Riviera Vegetation account is nine pages long and is plainly written with a personal knowledge of the habitations, gardens, wild plants and vegetation –  and of travelling by train. This gives a flavour:  ‘A little away from the actual coast, up among the hills … it is easy to walk for a day amongst the pine woods and flowering shrubs with no let or hindrance, and without meeting anyone but an occasional peasant’.

Plate 5. The title page and frontispiece (behind an aged tissue guard) of Thompson’s Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914), clearly showing that the book included an account of Riviera Vegetation by Tansley, accompanied by Thompson’s photographs.

It does not appear that Tansley joined Thompson in the Riviera to write this account. From a recent biography, Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley by Peter Ayres (2012), there were various pioneering University ecology field courses which Tansley was involved in: several in Brittany (1904-1906) and at least one in the Provence (1914). However, the one occasion mentioned by Ayres when Tansley was in the Riviera was in February 1904, on his (delayed) honeymoon. The couple stayed for two weeks in Cannes in the warm sunshine, and, before moving on to Pisa (where Tansley had been before as an undergraduate), Rome, Naples and Sicily, they spent ‘two delightful afternoons’, even though in less clement weather, at the well-known tropical garden of Sir Thomas Hanbury at Menton, close to the Italian border. Clearly impressed and recalling the visit, Tansley writes, on the first page of his account of Riviera Vegetation: ‘The variety of trees and flowers from all parts of the world which can be and are cultivated in the Riviera gardens is immense, as may be realized most vividly by a visit to the famous garden founded by the late Sir Thomas Hanbury at La Mortola near Menton’. Tansley’s notebooks are extant (Cambridge University Library) and begin in 1901; and they are evidently full of detail concerning plants, soil, topography, vegetation patterns and at least some have details of travel and travelling companions. If there is relevant material it might be usefully compared with the printed account of Riviera Vegetation with its sections on: woods of maritime pine and cork-oak; maquis; Aleppo pine-woods; garigues; stone pine-woods; sandy shore vegetation, vegetation of shady ravines; and montane and sub-alpine vegetation.

In 1916 the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR; eventually to become the Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts, now known as The Wildlife Trusts, and serving as an umbrella organisation for the county trusts) printed a list of 284 sites they believed worthy of protection and which were proposed as nature reserves. It can be no coincidence that Tansley and Thompson are (separately) credited with having suggested some of these sites, now known as Rothchild’s Reserves (see the book of this title, by Miriam Rothschild and Peter Marren, 1997).

Tansley’s sites were of course, grander and less parochial than Thompson’s, and two became National Nature Reserves, the first-named under Tansley’s own watch in 1952: Kingley Bottom (Vale), Staffhurst Wood (Surrey), and Wistman’s Wood. Thompson suggested two, both allocated to SPNR’s second league: Burnham and Berrow dunes, and Pitts (or Pills) Wood, which was in suburban Birmingham where Thompson used to live until late 1902. It was a hardly bigger site (3 acres) than the Sharpham Moor Plot (1.4 acres). But here we learn that Thompson had written to local councillors and alderman deploring the misuse of the wood and published a note about its merits in the Journal of Botany. Not just ‘Mr Angry of Clifton’ as I have earlier termed him, but an early campaigner for the preservation of small but special wild places.

Over the years Tansley and Thomson exchanged correspondence about how the sales of their respective books were doing and in August 1922 Tansley wrote about his plans to go to Vienna, explaining, ‘I want to be analysed by Freud’.

It is likely that what had brought them back into touch was Thompson’s paper, Changes in the Coast Vegetation near Berrow, Somerset, published in 1922 in the Journal of Ecology where Tansley was still the editor. It was a study which has much in common with the work of the pioneers of ecology in Britain and it must have been appreciated by Tansley. Two of Thompson’s Berrow photographs appear in Tansley’s heavyweight 1939 book, on Plate 140 showing ‘Glycerietum’ – stabilised saltmarsh turf above the muddy Salicornia zone, dominated by Puccinellia (then Glyceria) maritima.

The Sharpham Moor Plot: the story in the picture

Like the home of the Badgeworth Buttercup in Gloucestershire, the Sharpham Moor Plot is an SSSI, owned by the county Wildlife Trust, small, well-studied, and was acquired by private subscription in the early days of the nature conservation movement with the preservation of one particular plant in mind. That the two reserves have taken a different historical trajectory surely owes as much to the relative charisma of the plants involved as to the contrasting accessibility of the sites: one has been maintained as a species reserve, whilst the other became a place where ecological succession, which as we now appreciate, can lead to the disappearance of the specialist or niche plants, could be studied.

Steve Parker has kindly sent me copies of two documents about the Sharpham Moor Plot from the Natural England archives, a management plan 2009-2019, and ‘a stimulus to its study’ made in 1973 by Graham Rix – and so it proved for he became the voluntary reserve manager. I haven’t seen his paper on the site’s history in the SANHS Proceedings for 2001 (145: 195-199) but, like an art historian explaining the context and content of a mysterious canvas, I am here more concerned with the story in the picture (Plate 1) and the relationship between Tansley and Thompson and how it might have facilitated the establishment and survival of this early nature reserve.

The discovery of Carex x evoluta at the Sharpham Moor Plot

On 8 July 1915, Thompson discovered a hybrid sedge, then regarded as new to Britain, whilst collecting specimens of Carex lasiocarpa (Slender Sedge) at the eastern end of the peat moor between Edington and Street. Thompson explained that he was botanising ‘where it was known’ to his great-uncle Thomas Clark, whose herbarium Thompson possessed. Specimens gathered in 1857 and 1859 can be seen on the Herbaria at Home website, the first ‘by a fir plantation of Cousin James Clark’s near the eastern end of the moor’ (Plate 6 below) and the other ‘about a mile north west of Sharpham Park’. As it happens, these locations tally at ST452381, a mile south-west of the Sharpham Moor Plot (ST465389). As usual, as well as expertise, a little serendipity can be attached to the discovery.

Plate 6. Carex lasiocarpa, Slender Sedge, collected on 23 June 1857 by Thomas Clark, from an image on the Herbaria at Home website, part of Stuart Thompson’s herbarium donated by him to Birmingham University. The specimen seems to have inspired Thompson’s visit to the area when he found Carex x evoluta at the Sharpham Moor Plot. Though Thompson found Carex lasiocarpa there, Clark’s specimen of this rare sedge in Somerset was from a mile away.

More recently an 1833 specimen of the hybrid from Cambridgeshire has been identified as the first British record. At the Sharpham Moor Plot, it was last seen in 1955 but it was later found on Street Heath which was used to source a reintroduction at its original site in 2006, though it ultimately failed to survive there (Steve Parker pers. comm.). It has only been found in two other sites in Britain and Ireland.

Although both the initial report in the Journal of Botany for 1915 (53: 309) and the report in the Watson Botanical Exchange Club for 1916 (when a second set of specimens were sent out) lists it as a species (C. evoluta), the detailed accounts make it clear that it was identified as the hybrid between the Greater Pond-sedge Carex riparia and C. lasiocarpa. It grew in quantity with the latter, though not within a hundred yards of the former.

Rix (1973), who saw letters from Thompson to Tansley in the latter’s (or site) archives, states that Thompson’s ‘concern about the probable future destruction of the habitat of this [hybrid] sedge was communicated to … Tansley’. It is this that lay behind the subsequent acquisition of what was to become known as the Sharpham Moor Plot.

The Carex evoluta fund for the purchase of the Sharpham Moor Plot

The Sharpham Moor Plot was the first designated nature reserve in Somerset. The southern part of Leigh Woods on the Somerset side of the Avon Gorge was given to the National Trust in 1909 but more for landscape and archaeology; at Brean Down in 1912, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bought out the shooting rights and land was not acquired until later.

The following is from Rix’s (1973) account. ‘Tansley and Thompson visited the plot on 23 June 1923 and listed about 100 species in two to three hours. Tansley saw the plot as containing a rich variety of peat habitats in which ecological investigations could be carried out over a period without disturbance if this were to become a nature reserve. In August 1923 he offered £20 to help in its purchase for the National Trust. Thompson found 31 other donors who contributed from 2 guineas to 10 shillings each to raise the £45 for the purchase. The National Trust suggested the plot was more suitable for the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves. They accepted on condition that the local committee agreed to pay the upkeep and the Society could dispose of the plot if they should default’. SANHS, Rix also explained, provided 10 shillings a year for upkeep for at least the next decade.

Generally, modern narratives of the acquisition emphasise Tansley’s involvement as a man of national importance, and without doubt underestimate the initiatives and involvement of Thompson, ‘the local man on the ground’. Thompson’s obituary in the Bristol Naturalists’ Society Proceedings for 1940 was written by the Professor of Botany at Bristol University, Macgregor Skene, who around that time had become the site manager on behalf of the SPNR. Skene wrote that Thompson ‘took the chief part in securing the purchase of the Sharpham Moor Plot’.

Thompson’s appeal also preceded the visit by Tansley. There is a letter dated 11 May 1923 in Thompson’s correspondence from TB Blow, a fellow Quaker, known as a collector of Charophytes from many countries, who sent half a guinea (ten shillings and sixpence) for what was referred to as the ‘Carex evoluta fund’. The date of August 1923 (after the visit) which Rix gives for Tansley’s contribution rather makes it clear, as well as does Thompson’s pre-existing interest in creating small local reserves, that the motivator was Thompson, not Tansley – contrary to the assertion appearing on the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s website. That they approached the National Trust first seems surprising, but it could well have arisen from their mutual knowledge of the good intentions but limited follow-through of the other organisation and a hope that the National Trust might meet the management costs.

More or less coinciding with moving to a new Clifton address, and a loss on his investments, Thompson was thinning out his books and collections of paintings and drawings, both before and after photographing Tansley at the Sharpham Moor Plot. This would all have been a concern on his mind at the time. In April 1923: ‘If your means are smaller than ever are you being fair to yourself in exhibiting such generosity?’ wrote someone at Birmingham Museum, and then ‘Why give away pictures when you ought to turn them into cash?’

Thompson was by nature generous, but on his own admission in 1924, ‘I have been quite a poor man since the war’. Tansley too was renowned for his financial generosity but was wealthier. I assume Thompson made one of the smaller donations – Rix rather suggests there may be a list rather than just a count. Another report mentions 33 donors, and as Rix mentions Tansley, then says ‘Thompson found 31 other donors’ we may well take it that ‘other’ means, ‘other than Thompson himself’.

The Tansley/Thompson Survey of the Sharpham Moor Plot

Tansley’s book Practical Plant Ecology (1923, the preface signed in April) was written ‘as a guide for those who are attracted to ecological work but are uncertain of how to set about it’ so it is quite helpful in showing how basic ecological work was practiced at the time. There are sections on the primary survey and on notebooks and note-taking in the field which give a ‘feel’ to the approach being followed by Tansley in the photograph. Tansley knew, ‘it is always essential to make notes on the spot’ and that facts should be clearly separated from hypotheses or preconceived opinions.

The term ‘primary survey’ (as opposed to reconnaissance) recalled the surveying style of the first ecologists who had been working on British vegetation, covering huge swathes of land 20 years earlier, ‘recognising and describing the larger vegetation units, …, making lists of their floristic composition, studying their relationships and the general nature of their habitats, and recording their distribution on topographical maps … ’. As to note-taking, Tansley urged a systematic approach, lest the worker having departed the site found that they had omitted to record some important detail. ‘But’, he added ‘no system, of course, can be a substitute for the activity of an alert and imaginative mind’ (which Thompson is known to have possessed). Head bowed in concentration, Tansley would have been oblivious of sinking into the mire. Another year (1925), Thompson would be forced to walk on hedge trimmings to traverse the plot.

But of course Tansley was not alone: the photographer was a co-worker in the enterprise. Thompson always considered that ‘habitats’ was one of his ‘strong points’. Tansley was aware that his skills in plant identification in the field might not be as expert as someone whose primary expertise was that of a field botanist, and consequently in his academic life he liked to have what he called a ‘florist’ on hand. The early ecological excursions he had been on in Brittany put the students in groups of three: a surveyor, a diarist and a collector. One has to be alert to the context because someone writing in a notebook may be taking notes, or taking dictation, or taking possession of the data.


Although Tansley is photographed writing in his notebook (will it prove to be one in the Cambridge University Library?), Rix (1973) describes the plant list as ‘Thompson’s list of vascular plants’ and notes that Thompson increased the site total from 100 in 1923 to 130 in 1924, and to 140 in 1925. Thompson also repurposed a laundry card (a bachelor-like transgression of the systematic recording recommended by Tansley) to jot down various details which Rix was able to superimpose on a modern site map. But as these include information about site clearance and boundary ditch ownership, they cannot, (as Rix was aware) have been made during the visit shown on the 1923 photograph.  

Something the two may have discussed when they met (but how did they travel there and did Tansley ever visit other parts of Somerset?) comes out in a letter from Tansley to Thompson a couple of months later (25 August 1923, Thompson correspondence, but I’ve no note this letter mentions Tansley’s £20 donation that month): what was the status of Hornbeam in the west? ‘Do I understand that Mr White now thinks the Leigh Woods locality may not be a native one? … But still, the Wye Valley may be a genuine native habitat as I believe is true of the Beech at Symonds Yat’. If I may butt in to their conversation, the main area of occurrence of Hornbeam in Leigh Woods is the early 19th Century ‘New Plantation’ on the southern edge of the ancient and embanked woodland, so White’s new belief must be correct.

On 6 January 1927 Tansley wrote that ‘I am very sorry that you are suffering so much financially that you have to resign from the British Ecological Society’. Nonetheless, Thompson’s follow-up paper, Further Changes in the Coast Vegetation near Berrow, Somerset was published in their Journal of Ecology in 1930. Tansley’s 1927 letter added, referring to the Somerset peatmoors  ‘I very much enjoyed my visit some summers ago’. On Thompson’s part, there is a 1933 letter in his correspondence from GW Hedley (the second of the three successive author/editors of the Flora of Gloucestershire 1948) about the acquisition and initial management (fencing) of the Badgeworth reserve. It has the pertinent comment, clearly alluding to the Sharpham Moor Plot, ‘you’ve been through the same thing yourself’.

Last visits

In 1933 Thompson took the great amateur botanist J.E. (Ted) Lousley to visit the site (Rix 1973). Thompson described Lousley as ‘a keen London botanist’ (a draft letter to Hedley in the Thompson correspondence dated 3 May 1937) and took him around the Avon Gorge on 19 July 1933, so that date probably coincides with their visit to the Sharpham Moor Plot. Lousley went on to write Floras of the Isles of Scilly (1971) and Surrey (1976).

According to Rix (1973): ‘Early in 1934 Tansley asked Thompson to write a history of the Plot with plant lists for the Journal of Ecology. The manuscript dated 10 August 1934 seems never to have been published, perhaps because Thompson invited more editing than Tansley had time to undertake’.

‘In 1935 (25 August 1935 according to Rix’s marginal note) the plot was visited by Tansley and Godwin with Thompson. This was the last meeting of the two men responsible for the creation of the reserve’. Harry Godwin, later Sir Harry, was in the 1960s the ‘peat and pollen’ Professor in the Botany School at Cambridge and was author of The History of the British Flora: a factual basis for phytogeography (1956; 1975).

Thompson continued to visit the plot throughout the 1930s, cutting Molinia and scrub. Rix mentions a pencil note by Thompson on a letter to Tansley dated 18 July 1939, ‘it has been terribly overgrown of recent years, impassable in places’. Thompson died some months later on 3 March 1940.

In September 1955, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at the University of Bristol, Tansley delivered his last significant lecture. Tansley died two months later on 25 November 1955. Whilst in Bristol he must have greeted his old doctoral student J.F. Hope-Simpson, who co-authored the chapter on Vegetation in the meeting handbook, Bristol and its adjoining Counties (1955), and H-S, as we knew him, was at the time the warden of the Sharpham Moor Plot. Within a mile of where his old friend Thompson had lived, and a short distance from the Sharpham Moor Plot where the two had twice met, Tansley might have paused, reflective, and in the evening raised a last glass in their memory.

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 16 April 2020