The Strange Case of Doctor Ward…

“Wardian Cases”  from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the Wardian case, the method of transporting plants that transformed the world’s gardens and hothouses from the mid-19thc onwards and which were in regular use by Kew for the international transportation of plants right up until the 1960s.

Many will also be familiar with the story of how it came to be invented but what else do we know about the man supposed to have discovered the principles behind it Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward?  Why was he interested, then inspired, by what he found?

Read on to find out if  there more to Dr Ward than finding a fern in a sealed bottle just by chance…

Wardian case of orchids received by Kew from Hong Kong, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, by R.Lane, Wellcome Library no. 9525i

Nathaniel was the son of a doctor in the docklands of  the east end of London, although apparently he showed no interest in following in his fathers footsteps as a child and instead, like lots of small boys wanted to be a sailor. He was taken at his word and in 1804 at the age of 13 sent on a ship that was headed for Jamaica. The rigours of the voyage put a stop to his nautical ambitions but the beauty of the plants in the Caribbean gave him a lifelong fascination for natural history, especially exotic plants.

On his return he decided to follow medicine after all, and then had his second stroke of horticultural luck, because he attended lectures not only at hospitals but also at  Chelsea Physic Garden then the training ground of the Society of Apothecaries.  This gave him the chance to take part in the botanizing expeditions that were organized by the Society’s demonstrator  Thomas Wheeler, who was apparently an inspirational teacher. Nathaniel was completely hooked and even after  he qualified and began work as a doctor in London’s  east end he still  enjoyed getting up in the early hours on summer mornings and heading out to the open fields and commons that still existed around the city to go looking at and for plants.

Wellclose Square, from Smith’s New Map of London, 1830

At the corner of Stable Yard, Wellclose Sq. (London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Bishopsgate Institute)

Just shows that you should never trust paintings – compare that description with this image of the centre of Wellclose  Square in 1845.                                       


Ward settled in Wellclose Square  close to the docks, in a house that was “surrounded by numerous manufactories and enveloped in their smoke” (Ward 25 )  but nonetheless was “conspicuous amongst all the neighbourhood by the vegetation about it.”   It had a little front garden with a vine “running up the face of the house” and “every possible contrivance about the windows for the reception of plants.” There were “saxifrages etc on the roof” and the back garden had “a fig tree and virginian creeper trained over the back of the residence.”  But this was not done easily. Indeed it was almost impossible “to keep up the appearance of verdure in the smoky atmosphere of the east end of London…The soot and dust clogged up [the plants] lungs  and impeded the respiration, the cold dry winds carried off the vapour from their leaves and moisture from the mould in which they were planted, and caused them to shrink and wither; the deliterious gases diffused through the smoke-cloud poisoned them.”

Of course his patients were also suffering the same consequences from the polluted air they breathed, so he recognized both the horticultural and the human cost of dirty air.  So how did he  deal with these problems? He could deal with the plants simply by replacing them  “with a fresh relay of flowers and thus maintaining a fluctuating appearance of freshness and verdure.” But that didn’t help with his human clients!

But another one his other interests helped him save the day. He was fascinated by, other aspects of natural history – particularly insects, and built up a collection of them. In the summer of 1829 he put  a moth chrysalis onto some earth in a glass bottle with a lid, so that when it hatched  he could have a perfect specimen.  What happened is well known. “After a time a speck or two of vegetation appeared on the surface of the mould, and turned out to be  Fern and a Grass.”

Now of course Ward wouldn’t have been the first person to notice something like that, or even to wonder what was happening, but he  was the first to  demonstrate the principle practically on an extensive scale and then disseminate the information. He set up more deliberate experiments under varying conditions, testing for such things as the effects of the size of  the size of the containers and the kinds of plants.

Wardia hygrometrica, Natural History Museum Herbarium

What I hadn’t appreciated is that Ward wasn’t just an amateur who happened to be observant, he was already well known in the botanical world. Not only was he  a Fellow of the Linnean Society with a known interests in ferns and mosses, but in 1834  a species of moss, newly discovered in South Africa was named Wardia in his honour by William Hooker. He described Ward as “an ardent promoter of Botany in all its departments, deeply attached to the study of Cryptogamiae and Mosses in particular.” In fact it was the difficulty of growing ferns in polluted air that made him particularly attentive when he saw the baby fern in the bottle.

Its difficult to sort out from documentary sources the exact chronology of how  news of his discovery spread, because nothing appears in print until 1834 when Ward begins  writing ‘formal’ letters to various publications and organizations. The first was probably  to the Secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce which is mentioned by Loudon  in an article in the Gardeners Magazine, Vegetation under Glassses without Change of Air in 1834. Being Loudon he decided to investigate further himself, and the following month went to Ward’s house to see for himself.

from from On the Growth of Plants in Glazed Cases, 2nd ed 1852, 2nd ed 1852

This visit led to another short piece Growing Ferns and other plants in Glass Cases which began: “We lately had the pleasure of seeing the most extraordinary city garden we have ever beheld; viz that of Mr Ward of Wellclose Square, a gentleman enthusiastically devoted to botany.”  High praise indeed. Loudon describes the contents of the garden, particularly the huge array of pots and troughs which contained about 1500 species of plant.  He also noted the range of different wooden and glass boxes, both inside and out, in which Ward had been growing plants for about 3 years. An even larger one, 5 or 6 ft square and about 10 ft high was being built and was intended to contain an entire rockery!  Loudon concludes with a note about “their application in transporting plants from one country to another, in preserving plants in rooms or in towns and in forming miniature gardens or conservatories.” In fact  the largest case Ward built was 24 feet long, by 12 feet wide, by 11 feet high: “My object in this building was to obtain as many varied modifications of the natural conditions of plants as it was possible to procure in the small space to which I was confined” (Glazed Cases p.35).

In the following issue, April 1834,  Loudon printed a letter from Ward which explained things further, and being Loudon with his continual search for things to improve the health and horticulture of the country, he added a footnote about a possible further development.

George Loddiges
Painting by John Renton
© London Borough of Hackney

In order or conduct his larger scale experiments over the previous 3 years Ward had effectively gone into partnership with a commercial nursery. He obtained his plants through “the unbounded liberality” of  Loddiges in Hackney, one of the largest and most innovative nurseries in the country.  George Loddiges was a farsighted entrepreneur and realised the potential of Ward’s experiments. Having seen the results, at the beginning of June 1833 the two of them were ready for the biggest experiment of all.

Writing to William Hooker in 1836 Ward explained what had been done: “I filled two cases with Ferns, Grasses etc, and sent them to Sydney.”  Everything arrived alive and well and the cases were refilled with Australian ferns and grasses and sent back. The return voyage was one of extremes. They left Australia with temperatures of around 100F, rounding Cape Horn was done at 20F, and crossing the equator at 120F and it was only just above freezing when they arrived back in Britain in November 1834. “These plants were not watered once during their voyage, received no protection by day or night, but were yet taken out at Loddidges’  in the most healthy and vigorous condition.” [Full letter in Companion to the Botanical Magazine, 1836]

Ibrahim Pasha,                            Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Most of the story so far I already knew  but I did not know about the next stage. Ward wanted to experiment “with plants of a higher order of development” and an opportunity soon arose. The ruler of Egypt and much of the Middle East  “Ibrahim Pacha being desirous to obtain useful and ornamental plants for his garden near Cairo, and at Damascus, commissioned his agents in this country to send them.  I was requested by his agents to select them, and they were sent out in August 1834, in the Nile Steamer to Alexandria.”  This took two months but they too were received in good order – and Ward enclosed a letter from the Pacha’s gardener to prove it.  “Various other trials have been made to other parts of the world, as Calcutta, Para & &,and with the same success.”

He went on to explain how the plants were packed were usually packed in “moderately moist sphagna” , except for cacti and succulents which were planted in dry sand: “In all instances, the plants require no attention during the voyage; the sole care requisite being to keep them in the light.”

from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

By now Ward was confident enough to be able to extrapolate the findings into more coherent rational form. He argued that plants were as vulnerable to air quality as animals. However  inside a sealed case plants could withstand extreme changes of temperature “because of the quiet state of the atmosphere”, nor did they need watering. He had also done enough work to show that plant growth depended on the size of the container  and that meant the volume of air that supported it.

Of course Hooker already knew all about it since he was a friend of Ward,  but it gave Ward the opportunity to spell it all out in print in a prestigious publication, Hooker’s  Companion to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1836.

News of the success of the Australian trip was spread fast by Loddidges. He famously said “whereas I used formerly to lose nineteen out of the twenty of the plants I imported during the voyage, nineteen out of the twenty is now the average of those that survive”. Since he  was also a vice-president of the Horticultural Society the closed case rapidly became ubiquitous both commercially and then domestically.

from The Gardeners Magazine, Sept 1839

from The Gardeners Magazine, Sept 1839

Further write-ups came, notably a very lengthy article by daniel Ellis of Edinburgh  in the Gardeners Magazine for Sept 1839, which described the construction of a portable conservatory for him by James M’Nab, superintendent of the Caledonian Horticultural Society who had “repeatedly visited” Wellclose Square and seen Ward’s collections.  Ellis and M’Nab then experimented with the case,  and wrote up their findings in detail.

Ward was not only visited but asked to lecture and give demonstrations to various learned bodies  but it wasn’t until  1842 that eventually he went into print with: On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.  A second illustrated edition was published in 1852.

Wardian case  in the Economic Botany Collection at Kew

However By the time the book appeared the commercial possibilities of his invention were already being exploited. Of course in the longer term the opportunities for plant hunting and plant moving transformed the world’s agricultural scene.  As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concludes” Rarely has an observation so simple had such far-reaching results.”

An aqua-vivarium from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments 1870

Although none of the commercial cases looked much like the good doctor’s originals, the principle of the Wardian cases was quickly adopted by Kew, with Joseph Hooker using them to send back plant material from New Zealand in 1841.   You can read his account at Kew’s Hooker Correspondence Project.

But there was more. Ward had observed too that the principles that applied to the protection of plants could also be applied to other forms of life.

from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

He created a suitable case for keeping small animals – the vivarium and in 1841 a similar device for keeping fish which  he termed the ‘aqua-vivarium’.

After all this excitement Ward continued to lead what was a busy if less spectacular life – he did after all have a wife and nine children. He was  one of the founders in 1839 of what became the Royal Microscopical Society and also stayed involved with the Society of Apothecary’s, becoming Master in 1854. He didn’t publish anything else but continued his work as a doctor in the east end until his retirement when he moved to a house named  “The Ferns” in Clapham in the cleaner air of south London.

The Fern House at The Ferns, from Gardener’s Magazine 1851

There he continued to garden on a grander scale and built an enormous conservatory – a giant Wardian case – containing a miniature tropical forest. It  was the subject of an article in the Gardener’s Magazine in 1851.

Ward continued to champion plants, particularly in the inner city and places like hospitals, for their therapeutic value, and argued that “closed cases” could “contribute greatly to the relief of the physical and moral wants of densely crowded populations in large cities.”

He cited letters such as these


For other examples  of what he meant take look at the chapter on “Improving the Condition of the Poor” which also includes his own thoughts…

Ward’s carte-de-visite,
Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library


Despite the rather dour  photo on his carte-de-visite by almost all accounts Ward was a jovial, popular man, and the life and soul of the party and most thought him self-effacing.   In 1852 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, perhaps suggests  the DNB because the pivotal part he played promoting science through his his   soirées or  ‘stitching parties’, his   soirées—as he dubbed them dismissively.   Joseph Hooker’s  said these in his obituary in Gardeners Chronicle in 1868 were  ‘the most frequent metropolitan resort of naturalists from all quarters of the globe of any since Sir Joseph Banks’ day’ (Gardeners’ Chronicle, 20 June 1868).

from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

Ward’s wider work would benefit from further research and he’d make a good subject for a thesis! Any volunteers?

For more information about him and his case follow the links in the post to contemporary articles and/or look at

from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

D. E. Allen, ‘Dr Ward’s case’, BMJ (10 May 1975), pp 324–6 ; Margaret Flanders Derby, Unnatural History: Ward’s Glass Cases, Victorian Literature and Culture (2007), 35, pp 635–647


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