Thursday, 17 January 2013

Skirmish at school leaves its mark on Joseph Hooker's father William


"I saw him no more, for sleeping on the floor by his bedside that night, under an open window, I was suddenly prostrated by rheumatic fever. Meanwhile he sank...and died from exhaustion, Saturday, August 12, in his eighty-first year."

This is how William Hooker's son, Joseph, describes his father's demise in 1865. These words come near the end of 'A sketch of the life and labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker' by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, first published in 1903.

William was Director of Kew Gardens from 1841 to 1865, Joseph from 1865 to 1885 (when he was replaced by his son-in-law William Thiselton-Dyer). Together they resurrected Kew Gardens from the moribund years following the death of George III and Sir Joseph Banks in 1820.

Joseph chronicles his father's journey from Norwich to Kew, with journeys to Iceland and greater Europe and a stint as Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. The poignant statement above is delivered in perfect Victorian style, with no emotion attached to the fact that he missed the death of his father due to illness.

Earlier in the week Joseph and William had visited Battersea Park, a work in progress then. He left his father to walk part of the way back to Kew Gardens where he was due to meet the Queen of the Sandwich Islands and the Reverend Berkeley. William was a vigorous pedestrian, as Joseph puts it, walking 60 miles a day 'with ease': in summer he walk the 22 miles from Helensburgh to Glasgow on a Sunday to get there in time for his 8 am Monday class.

That week in 1865, though, his constitution was not so strong. The day after his trip to Battersea Park, William was unable to swallow and there was no remedy London doctors could provide. He 'gradually sank, suffering no pain nor feeling the want of nourishment', but Joseph was not there.


Today their remains both lie outside St Anne's Church in Kew Green, and they both have plaques in their honour within the church. On the weekend I visited the church, taking the picture of the plaque above (the top picture of St Anne's is after the snowfall on Monday). As Joseph describes, this 'handsome tablet' consists of a 'central medallion profile by Woolner, and spandrels of groups of ferns in the corners, all in Wedgewood ware'. The Wedgewoods and Hookers were family friends, and similar spandrels circle a medallion in the Director of Kew Gardens' residence, which I've featured before.

Joseph describes William's profile in life thus: 'forehead broad and high, but receding, hair nearly black, complexion sanguine, eyes brown, nose aquiline - had been broken in a school fight'; his mobile face, and especially the mouth, was the despair of artists'. This portrait is taken from Kew's website.


Joseph, on the other hand, had an apparently less aquiline nose, as you can plainly see in this image from Westminster Abbey (where of course one can't take photographs) which I visited  for the first time also on the weekend. The image sits next to ones of Wallace and Darwin, a fitting tribute to the discovery of evolution of natural selection in the late nineteenth century. It's followed here by Joesph's plaque from St Anne's.


Joseph, his father William, and William's father Joseph of Exeter, all rest beneath this stone in St Anne's graveyard. Lying with them is one of Joseph Dalton Hooker's daughters, Marie Elizabeth, who died at age 6, and his first wife Francis Harriet. There may be others beneath the snow but I think I have them all.


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