Mystery 19th Century botanist tracked down following appeal

·3 min read
The book contained a sticker captioned, " La Botaniste"
The book contained a sticker captioned " La Botaniste"

A mystery 19th-Century botanist has been found, thanks to sleuthing work by the public.

Isabella Anne Allen had been known only by the secrets she left behind, tucked between the pages of an old book.

But following an appeal for information, on the BBC News website, she has now been traced to the village of Madresfield, Worcestershire.

Her story came to light when clues such as pressed flowers, poems and doodles were found inside The English Flora.

Donated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) decades ago, the botanical text was rediscovered by staff sorting through boxes ahead of a move to a new library.

And libraries and exhibitions head Fiona Davison said the clues within revealed its original owner "would have been a figure in the local society and in public".

"She is a gardener as well as a botanist - it has become part and parcel of being an intelligent, well-to-do, well respected pillar of the community," she said.

View of the Malvern Hills
Allen lived close to the Malvern Hills

Within hours of the story's publication on the BBC News website, there were several suggested leads, from Cornwall to York.

But one individual cropped up several times.

The United Kingdom Census of 1851 confirmed spinster and landowner Isabella Anne Allen, born in 1810, lived with her parents, John Henry and Susannah Rebekah, and several servants at Rhydd House, Madresfield.

The property, with its gardens and woodlands at the foot of the Malvern Hills close to the River Severn, offered plenty of opportunities for plant collecting.

And an article in the Worcestershire Chronicle, from July 1860, revealed "several excellent roses were sent to the [Malvern Horticultural and Floral Show] by Miss Allen of the Rhydd".

Allen died five years later and was buried in Madresfield, leaving her personal possessions to her sister, Ann, who in turn bequeathed her "old set of books and wild flowers" to her niece Maria Alice Empson.

It may have been Empson who donated the four volumes of The English Flora to the RHS library before her death in 1948.

And further scrutiny of the book, given to Allen at the age of 18 by her friend Mrs Green, revealed the words "The Rhydd, Worcestershire" pencilled next to an entry for Vinca major (greater periwinkle, a trailing vine with violet flowers).

Pressed plant
The book has numerous wild-plant specimens inserted in the pages

Ms Davison is delighted the jigsaw pieces have finally fallen into place.

"A big thank you to everybody who responded to the call," she said, "as soon as the story went up we were, within hours, getting a steady stream of emails coming into the library inquiry inbox - and from all over the world."

Preserved plants

Allen lived at a time when botany was a popular scientific subject for women in the higher social classes.

Many contributed to herbaria, the collections of preserved plants that form the cornerstone of botanical study, while others were skilled botanical artists.

Later in the 19th Century, botany became regarded as a professional activity for specialists and experts rather than amateurs - and women's contributions to the field were belittled.

But women continued to participate in botany, especially by writing for other women, children, and general readers.

Little clues

Allen's copy of The English Flora is in a fragile state but will be sent off to conservators and, once in better repair, take pride of place at the new library at RHS Hilltop, Wisley, where it will be used to inspire a new generation of naturalists.

"One of the really fascinating things about gardening books and botany books is that they were often owned by women - and these little clues get left in them," Ms Davison said.

"Looking for women in the margins is a thing we will be doing a lot more of."

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