University intern Hannah Clynes explores the history of the University Herbarium, which is now located at Winterbourne.
During my 20-day internship as part of the University of Birmingham’s Experience Arts scheme, I had the opportunity to catalogue the historic documents of the University Herbarium, which was relocated to Winterbourne House in March 2021. This major collection of dried plant specimens dates back to the early days of the University, and was a learning resource for the Botany Department when it was based at Winterbourne.
Letters being catalogued for the first time led to the discovery of unexpected and previously unknown early connections between the Nettlefold family and the Herbarium. Several letters dating back to 1907 highlight the interest of the Nettlefolds and their relatives in the advancement of botany and education in the local area. At this time, both the University of Birmingham, which formally gained royal charter in 1900, and Winterbourne, built in 1903, were in their infancy. Before these letters were catalogued, the only definite known links between Winterbourne and the Herbarium dated from around 1944, when the University gained ownership of the house and grounds and fittingly situated its School of Botany at Winterbourne. Subsequently, between the 1950s and 1980s, Winterbourne was a highly valued research garden for students and academics of botany and the natural sciences. It was therefore very exciting to discover links between Winterbourne and the Herbarium dating back to a much earlier period.
Notably, a letter dated 23rd March 1907 from T. H. Russell to Professor Hillhouse at the University of Birmingham demonstrates these connections. Hillhouse is a frequent correspondent within the Herbarium’s archives. He encouraged horticultural education and societies in the West Midlands, emerging as the University’s first Professor of Botany, having also been an academic at its predecessor, the Mason Science College, between 1882 and 1909. The letter itself contains a list of donors, many of whom were prominent figures in the Birmingham area, who had all pledged to contribute funds towards the purchase of a collection of mosses belonging to Mr Ernest Charles Horrell for the University’s botanical department.
Named amongst the sixteen subscribers are members of the Nettlefold family, including ‘Mrs Nettlefold’, referring to Margaret Nettlefold, who designed Winterbourne’s garden and along with her husband, John Sutton Nettlefold, commissioned the house to be built. Also included are close family relations and friends, such as ‘Mr Neville Chamberlain’, and ‘Mr. G. H. Kenrick’ (George Hamilton Kenrick). Neville Chamberlain was the son of the renowned Birmingham Mayor and municipal reformer Joseph Chamberlain, who was the paternal uncle of Margaret. Neville, the cousin of Margaret and a dear friend, would later serve as Prime Minister between 1937 and 1940. Similarly, George Hamilton Kenrick was the brother of Margaret’s mother, making him Margaret’s uncle. We know from surviving letters that George Kenrick also contributed towards other collections, including the University’s purchase of E. M. Holmes’ Library, in which he “should be very pleased to add £50.00 towards the sum required”, a substantial amount in the early twentieth century. Amongst the Nettlefold, Chamberlain and Kenrick families, in addition to a shared desire to improve the Birmingham area, there was much intermarriage as George Kenrick’s own sister was the second wife of Joseph Chamberlain. The families were closely linked by their industrialist involvements in the local area, notably co-working on projects including the ‘Nettlefold and Chamberlain’ company based in Heath Street, Birmingham, which later became part of ‘GKN’.
While this letter only includes the donors’ names, its implications are huge as it creates a far longer shared history between the Herbarium and its new home at Winterbourne. Such revelations also demonstrate the families’ long-standing interest in improving the Birmingham area not just through social reform, but also by enriching its culture as shown through their commitment to contribute philanthropically to the advancement of education. Their donations to secure Mr E. C. Horrell’s moss collection represent a highly valuable gift to the University of Birmingham’s botanical department, including its academics, students, and outside researchers. It helped to put Birmingham at the forefront of new botanical knowledge on moss species native to Britain and to the rest of the world. As T. H. Russell writes to Professor Hillhouse on 23rd March 1907:
The collection comprises almost every recorded species, and many varieties and forms; and in addition to a complete set of British plants, there are numerous specimens forming a nearly complete collection from Italy and France, and a fair one for Germany, Norway etc. There is also a small collection of non-European species, including numerous forms from New Zealand, Australia, North and South America, India etc.
In addition to the above the gift comprises about a thousand microscopic slides, illustrating the essential points in structure of almost every British species and most varieties which should form a most valuable adjunct to the dried specimens.