I know Monty may be the only Don you’ve heard of but this is not a post about him. Instead its about some of his 18th and 19thc ancestors who were also well-known horticulturists and botanists. The family came from the county of Angus, then known as Forfarshire, in eastern Scotland where George Don had a nursery and what he called a botanic garden, before rather unexpectedly ending up as Superintendant of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.
He had five sons who all followed him into gardening, and two of whom became celebrated in their day. The eldest, George junior, went plant hunting for the Royal Horticultural Society before becoming a botanical writer. David, the second eldest, after working in a nursery became the Librarian at the Linnean Society and then Professor of Botany at Kings College.
Read on to find out more about this extraordinary family and their legacy.
Lets start with George senior. He was born in 1756 on a farm near Forfar but instead of staying to work there he was sent off to be a clockmaker‘s apprentice. However by the time he was 15 he was working in the gardens of Earl of Kinnoull at Dupplin Castle in Perthshire. All his childhood he must have been interested in plants and went on botanic rambles at first around his home and then further and further afield becoming the first botanist to seriously explore the Highlands.
About 1780 George took the high road to England and, like so many other Scots, became a jobbing gardener on various estates for about the next eight years. One of these was Hewell Grange in Worcestershire where the park had been developed by both Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. The house Don would have known is now a ruin in the grounds of a prison.
But Scotland obviously had more long term appeal. He returned in 1788, taking up his former trade as a watchmaker and marrying Caroline Stewart the following year. However botany was clearly his natural passion and friends, including John Mackay who worked at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, encouraged him to return to it. In 1797 George leased 2 acres at Doohillock in his home county, where he built a house and opened a market garden which soon evolved into a commercial nursery. It quickly earned a high reputation for stocking unusual plants and had one of the finest collections of hardy plants in Britain. By 1801 he was conducting lengthy correspondence with Sir James Edward Smith, one of the founders of the Linnaean Society who had already compiled a long list of herbarium specimens from plants he had received from Don.
The list and correspondence, some of which included glued-in specimens, has recently been conserved and can be seen at: http://linnean-online.org
Don produced a catalogue of plants for sale and his account books which are now in the Royal Botanic gardens in Edinburgh, show that he had a flourishing trade in plants, sending them all over Britain.
Most commentators have been surprised that in 1802, when John Mackay died, despite having no recognised training or qualifications George Don was recommended for his late friend’s job as Superintendent of the Royal Botanic garden in Edinburgh. [Incidentally the Superintendent was not the ultimate boss, but only the principal gardener, and answerable to the Regius Keeper]. The recently digitized correspondence of Sir James Smith makes it abundantly clear why. Don was seen to be hard working, with boundless energy, and practical plant knowledge.
One correspondent even told Smith that “if Sir Joseph Banks were to give him but £100 pr ann he would make more new and valuable discoveries than in Botany [Bay].” Another, Sir James Brodie, MP and chief of the Clan Brodie, called Don “our indefatigable friend” when he wrote to Smith telling him of Don’s appointment.
Despite this level of support Don was initially reluctant to accept the post since the salary was only £40 pa, and it meant leaving the nursery. But accept he did and he moved into the gardener’s cottage at the gardens which were then in Leith Walk.
Later abandoned and in danger of demolition, the cottage has recently been saved by public appeal, dismantled stone by stone and reconstructed for use as a teaching space in the current Botanic Garden site.
In Edinburgh George Don met Dr Patrick Neill, who, although he ran a printing business, was also an amateur botanist and founder member of the Caledonian Horticultural Society and then its Secretary for 40 years. Together they searched for new species of plants, particularly lichens, mosses and fungi. I love the way they were preserved by being stuck to playing cards!
There is an enormous list of those they identified and named, including Seligeria donniana, compiled by bryologist Mark Lawley.
Neill also encouraged George Don to write Herbarium Britannicum, which was dedicated to Joseph Banks and published between 1802 and 1813. Each of its 9 volumes contains dried, pressed and mounted specimens with a printed label with a scientific name, references and a description of where it was found. Not surprisingly it is now extremely rare. For more information see: W.E.Evans, Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. v.18 1934, pp.167-172.
Don was obviously a success at Edinburgh. Sir Joseph Banks even wrote to Smith in 1804 saying that he would have recommended Don to George III to take over Kensington Gardens.
George Don stayed in Edinburg for 5 years but seems to have had a difficult relationship with the Regius Keeper, Daniel Rutherford who was primarily a medic and chemist rather than botanist. So he returned to Doohillock, and to plant hunting around ‘Angus-shire’.
Unfortunately in his enthusiasm for botanizing he let the business side of his Botanic Garden – the nursery and market garden – slip to the point where there was almost no income and his family became destitute. Eventually he was taken ill on one of his trips and died in January 1814 of “a suppurating throat”! Of his family of 15 children only 6 survived him, but all 5 of his sons had careers in horticulture.
The Doohillock nursery went into the hands of creditors who refused to let George junior take over, thinking him, at the age of only 16, as too young and inexperienced. The stock was sold, Caroline left for the town and the nursery ground was let to Thomas Drummond who later also turned plant hunter in North America. Later, after Drummond left, the ground was divided up, the house became a pub and the last traces of the nursery soon disappeared. Apart from the memorial in Forfar there is also a small plaque on Don Street which marks the former site.
Young George, rejected in his attempts to run Doohillock went to work instead at Dickson’s Nursery in Edinburgh, before moving to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London as foreman gardener.
He had not been there long before he had a lucky break.
In November 1821 Captain Edward Sabine led an expedition to Brazil and the Caribbean, by way of west Africa, to carry out experiments at different latitudes to help accurately determine the shape of the earth. Sabine was persuaded, presumably by his elder brother, Joseph, who just happened to be secretary of the Horticultural Society, to make room for a botanist, and it was young George who was chosen. The West African Coast was the ‘White Man’s Grave’ and George fell seriously ill with fever while the marines who were his escort ashore both died. He continued collecting as the expedition headed to Ascension Island and then along the Brazilian coast and the Caribbean before finally heading home via New York. They arrived back in Britain in February 1823 – accompanied by a Royal Vulture and a Harpy Eagle!
If that sounds a bit too strange to be true then take a look at this RHS Lindley Library blog to find out more:
Although few of Don’s tropical specimens survived the journey home, he had also been dispatching boxes of seeds, bulbs and even plants back to the Horticultural Society and enough of them survived to make the trip count as a success – initially at least.
Longer term it was not such a happy trip. George fell out with the Horticultural Society. This might have been over money, since he had been poorly paid for his work, but also because he seems not to have wanted to write up his journals for them to publish. Instead he published an account of Sierra Leone in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, which was seen by the Horticultural Society as a breach of contract so he was sacked. They obtained an injunction against further publishing – but of course the injunction was issued under English law so he ignored them and published A Monograph of the Genus Allium with the Natural History Society which was based in Edinburgh.
It was to be George’s only plant hunting expedition. However he became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1831 and commissioned by them to compile the encyclopedic 4 volume General History of the Dichlamydeous Plants between 1830 and 1838. With a title like that it was not a financial success and never finished.
Don also assisted John Claudius Loudon in the preparation of several of his books and wrote the botanical entries for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana which was published in 1843. Around the same time he was also employed to survey and identify the plants in Kensington Gardens.
George died in Kensington in 1856 whilst working on a new edition of Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Plants. He has been honoured in the naming of Memecylon donianum, Polygala donii and Oncidium donianum.
His younger brother David also started his botanical career at Doohillock, and after his father’s death in 1814 followed George junior to work at Dickson’s Nursery in Edinburgh. He too moved to London where he got a job, through connections of his father, as Herbarium Keeper and Librarian for Aylmer Bourke Lambert, a wealthy amateur botanist, and another founding member of the Linnean Society. This gave David an entrée into the scientific elite of the day, and at the age of only 23 he became Librarian to the Linnean Society as well.
Unlike his father and brother David Don was not a collector but a describer and cataloguer of plants. This is demanding work if not very exciting to the outsider. He also seems to have been something of a workaholic, publishing the first descriptions of the many new North American conifers that were being discovered and imported, as well as Prodromus Florae Nepalensis, a catalogue of all the known plants of the Himalayas. He was appointed Professor of Botany at King’s College, London in 1836 but died 5 years later leaving his library and herbarium to the Linnean Society.
The three younger boys, all named after patrons of their father all headed south and settled in England as gardeners, “but were not so fortunate, although they all held good appointments in their calling.”
Patrick Neill Don (1806-1876) was working at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire in the 1830s, and ended up as gardener to Sir Alexander Beresford Hope MP at Bedgebury Park in Kent. He was presumably particularly knowledgable about conifers as the Beresfords had begun a collection particularly of the newly imported north American species, and which in 1919 on the sale of the estate, was to become the National Pinetum. His younger brother Charles Lyell Linnaeus Don [named after the father of the science of geology] worked with him at Bedgebury, but apparently he was killed in trying to stop a runaway horse. The third son, James Edward Smith Don (1807-1861), became gardener to Earl Amherst.
To discover more about the family There is a VERY lengthy article by Claridge Druce about the family, particularly George Senior in the January 1903 Notes from The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. There are also 2 books about George Don and an excellent website highlighting the families connections with other botanists in Scotland.