Gallery of contemporary images from the time of Peter Collinson
Peter Collinson - Modern Gallery
Peter Collinson FRS (1694 – 1768)
Peter Collinson traded in textiles from an office in Grace Street in the city of London. He is remembered for his contribution to the British landscape and generally described as a leading eighteenth century botanist. A man of great integrity and an insatiable interest in the natural world; a friend to many of the great figures of his age, his memory is particularly revered in the United States for shaping the early career of Benjamin Franklin and opening the world of science to John Bartram. He used his commercial links with the world to introduce many new species of plants to Britain, sharing his knowledge and his collection generously in the Quaker spirit in which he was brought up. His gardens at Peckham and, later, Mill Hill became sites of pilgrimage for men of science and horticulture.
Ridge Way House, Mill Hill
Peter Collinson inherited this house from his father in law in 1749 and created his garden on the surrounding hill, ten miles from his office in the city of London. Purchased in 1807 by a group of non-conformist benefactors, it became the first Protestant Dissenters School known then and now as Mill Hill School. Ridge Way House was demolished as the school grew in size to be replaced by the rather grand building designed by Sir William Tite which exists today.
Peter Collinson kept copious notes of his plant collection but a formal catalogue of his garden was not produced until 1843 by Lewis Weston Dillwyn FRS (1778 – 1855) whose father, William was a Pennsylvanian Quaker and vigorous anti slavery campaigner. Dillwyn was born in London but moved to Wales where he established the production of Swansea Pottery. He was also known for his published works on natural history.
Peter Collinson’s city office in Gracechurch Street was a short walk from the north bank of old London Bridge, a structure much modified and repaired since its completion in 1209. The narrow highway and high volume of traffic had made it an unbearably busy point of entry to the city of London by Collinson’s time and the dangerous currents between the narrowly spaced old starlings made river passage into a life threatening event.
It was replaced in 1831 by a new bridge, built by John Rennie some 30m upstream and this, in turn was replaced by the current structure in 1973. An old pupil of Mill Hill School, Ivan Luckin, was responsible for the sale of Rennie’s bridge for reassembly in Lake Havassu City, Arizona. The blocks of stone were carefully numbered and transported to America, all except one which is displayed still at Mill Hill School.
Pool of London
Peter Collinson would wait anxiously for the arrival of the vessels on which his international trade (and exchange of plants!) depended, going down to these dockside quays so congested, it was said, that one could walk across the river simply stepping from ship to ship. In the mid eighteenth century this short stretch of river from Rotherhithe to London Bridge handled more than 2000 ships.
West India Dock
In 1799, a new dock with it’s own entrance and security was built to accommodate the exploding trade with the West Indies, still known as the West India Dock.
Regents Canal Dock
Ships bearing coal for the new industries accounted for two thirds of the congestion in the pool of London. This was greatly relieved by the building of the Regents Canal Dock which gave access to a new canal network.
William Hogarth (1697 -1764)
William Hogarth was three years younger than Peter Collinson and lived and worked in the same London Streets. He knew better than many the underside of city life; his father was imprisoned in Newgate for five years and many of his sketches, like this one entitled ‘Gin Lane’ illustrate the sheer unpleasantness of it. Best known in his day for his very fine, formal portraiture, his sketches from the streets reflected a serious intent for social reform.
He was a very active supporter of charitable works and served with Peter Collinson, Hans Sloane and others on the first governing body of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739.
Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine
Peter Collinson lived in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, an age of science and invention. Thomas Newcomen (1664 – 1729), a Baptist lay preacher from Dartmouth was, by day, a skilled ironmonger and brilliant inventor. This engraving shows the first piston and cylinder steam engine he developed in 1712 which came into common use in tin and coal mines in the 1720s. Fuelled by coal, it was housed in specially constructed buildings outside the mine entrances, powering pumps at various levels to extract water and lessen the extreme danger of flooding. James Watt (1736 – 1819), like Collinson, a Fellow of the Royal Society worked to develop improved versions of this mechanism producing the Watt engine in 1774.
When this picture was painted in 1733, Handel was 48 years old and one of the most eminent London residents. He settled in Brook St. Mayfair in 1712 as Kapellmeister to King George I and achieved widespread popularity five years later for his celebrated composition of the ‘water music’, which he first performed for the king and his guests as they floated in extravagant procession down the Thames. Another notable royal contract, for George II, resulted in his ‘music for the Royal Fireworks’, attended by 12000 people in London’s Green Park in 1749, celebrating the end of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). He devoted much of his energies to good causes in his latter years. In 1750 the Messiah was performed as the first of a series of annual charity events benefitting the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury and raising money for musicians in need.
George II (1683 -1760)
Whether or not, the 31-year old Peter Collinson was able to catch the strains of Handel’s ‘Zadock the Priest’ coming from the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey in October 1727, he could not but be caught up in the celebrations. He was, but for a few years, a contemporary of the new king, living through a period characterised by tension and warfare, driven at home by the catholic Jacobite Rebellion and abroad by competition with France and Spain for control of the American Colonies. The Jacobites’ aim was to restore James VII of Scotland and II of England who had been deposed in 1688 by his protestant daughter, Mary and son-in-law, William of Orange in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. These hopes were dashed finally by the Battle of Culloden in 1746 leaving scars, however, which remain to the present.
Peter Collinson exported linen and cotton fabrics to North America against a background of sustained aggression between the three colonising powers of Britain, France and Spain. Ships carrying goods from Europe followed the southerly trade wind route to the Caribbean, tracing the Eastern Seaboard northwards and returning with cargoes of tobacco, furs, indigo, sugar and lumber with the aid of the more northerly gulf stream. The normal hazards of ocean and wind, combined with the perils of enemy attack made safe passage and secure trade a matter of chance and good seamanship. The French defeat with the capture of Montreal in 1760 ended the so called ‘French and Indian War’ (the 7 years’ war). Though the terms were less than satisfactory for the hawkish leader of parliament, William Pitt (1708 – 78), the cessation of hostilities would have come as a relief to traders like Collinson, not to mention the one and a half million British settlers. It also brought glory and fame to a young Major called George Washington who served gallantly throughout.
This sketch of the Philadelphia waterfront on the Delaware river was made in the late 1700s It was here that that Peter Collinson’s brother gardener, John Bartram would wait anxiously for the safe arrival of personal goods and botanical specimens from his friend and here that he would load, in return, the crates which carried the precious plant materials to London.
It was in crates like this, that Collinson’s specimens arrived. Precious though they were to him, they had to take their chances at sea being regarded with little curiosity and some irritation by the sailors as they cluttered important deck space. It is easy to imagine that they were amongst the first casualties in heavy seas.
John Bartram (1699 – 1777)
That this self-effacing Philadelphia farmer with no formal education came to be appointed ‘King’s Botanist to North America’ by George III in 1765 is extraordinary and resulting largely from his friendship with Peter Collinson. A ‘brother of the spade’, fellow Quaker and insatiable plant collector, his regular shipments from North America came to adorn the gardens of the great English country houses and the botanical parks of Kew, Oxford and Edinburgh.
Bartram’s House in Philadelphia
Modern Philadelphia bears little resemblance to Bartram’s city but his fame is not restricted to visitors to this house and garden. He is remembered in public spaces and, most notably, in the naming of the John Bartram High School.
This plant arrived in one of Bartram’s boxes and was named to honour Peter Collinson. Like many of the plants collected by Bartram it has medicinal qualities which were known to the native Americans. It improves circulation and is used in the treatment of haemorrhoids.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
No one personifies the term ‘Age of Enlightenment’ more than Benjamin Franklin. Rejecting the life of a Puritan priest, he left his Boston home at 17 for Philadelphia, arrived in London virtually penniless a year later in the first of many Cross-Atlantic adventures. America and the world is indebted to him for his services to science, literature and political philosophy. Not without justification he is known as ‘The First American’. As a friend of John Bartram, he quickly made the acquaintance in London of Peter Collinson. Collinson generously sponsored Franklin’s electrical experiments, facilitated connections with the London scientific community and became his lifelong friend and mentor. Correspondence between them shows how highly Franklin valued Collinson’s advice and guidance on matters both scientific and political.
Franklin’s return to America 1785 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Benjamin Franklin served as Ambassador to France from 1776-85. This painting, now in the Smithsonian Institute, celebrates his return to take up a congressional role second only in status to President George Washington. During these last five years of his life he devoted much time and energy to the anti-slavery movement.
Joseph Banks FRS (1743 – 1820)
Joseph Banks was a wealthy young land owner from Lincolnshire, well connected and able to enjoy the very finest things in life. From his early years he had a passion for natural history, spending time at the Chelsea Physic Garden and the newly established British Museum. It was at the museum that he met a protégé of Peter Collinson, Daniel Solander who had been appointed curator. Banks paid for his new friend to accompany him on the historic voyage to the Southern Ocean aboard HMS Endeavour, a trip which brought them both much success in later years. Banks is remembered for his exploration and his collection of plant, animal and geological specimens, also for Kew Gardens where he was King George’s principal adviser, a life-style legacy taken up by Charles Darwin fifty years later.
Endeavour off the coast of New Holland by Samuel Atkins 1794
In August 1768, Peter Collinson died and HMS Endeavour sailed out of Plymouth harbour, Captained by James Cook on a voyage of scientific discovery. Its mission was to track the transit of Venus in Tahiti (1769) and to chart the unknown lands of the Southern Ocean. Due to the unparalleled excellence of Cook’s navigation, both were accomplished and Australia and New Zealand became new British Territories.
Sir Hans Sloane FRS (1660 – 1753)
Hans Sloane was born to a wealthy family in County Down, Ireland and trained as a physician. An incurable collector, on an early a trip to Jamaica as personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle he returned with over 8oo specimens (and a recipe for milk chocolate which he introduced to Cadburys!). His skill as a physician was matched by his promotion of science and an insatiable curiosity in the natural world, an interest which his wealth enabled him to pursue vigorously. Smallpox and TB were major causes of early death so it is a testament to the level of confidence in his skill and his own intrepid scientific nature that, as the King’s physician, Hans Sloane was allowed to inoculate the children of the Princess of Wales with smallpox, an ancient Chinese method of variolation.
He was elected to the Royal Society in 1685 and later succeeded Isaac Newton as its president for 20 years. He was a mentor and friend to Peter Collinson and greatly interested in the promotion of horticulture. He sponsored the Fellowship of Collinson and the Jussieu brothers (of Jardin de Plants, Paris) and donated 4 acres of his land in Chelsea to house and extend the collection of medicinal plants known as the Chelsea physic Garden and appointed Philip Miller in 1722 as its curator.
Hans Sloane fully deserves recognition as one of London’s greatest residents and benefactors. Other than the underground station and square which bear his name, he is best known for his massive collection of books, manuscripts, objects and specimens bequeathed to the nation and housed, with George II’s support in a new ‘British Museum’ that in 1753, by act of law, became the first national museum freely open to the public.
Thorndon Old Hall was purchased by Sir John Petre, (later made a baron) who owned the neighbouring estate of Ingatestone in 1573 from his friend the 3rd Lord Mordaunt. Over the next 20 years he redesigned the house and garden. Successive generations of the Petre family lived there until the 6th Baron decided to move back into the old residence at Ingatestone. The house and garden fell into disrepair until Robert James Petre, 8th Baron (1713 – 1742), a young man brought up by his grandmother to love plants, decided to create a garden there ‘to equal no other’.
He started the work as a sixteen-year old, commissioned a plan by the French Architect, Sieur Bourgignon and became a major contributor to the transatlantic plant ‘brotherhood of the spade’ established by Peter Collinson with John Bartram. He moved into the Hall with his new wife in 1733 and assisted by a massive inheritance started to build great stove (glass) houses for tropical plant species, the biggest being 30 feet high. By 1739 he was offering bananas, guavas, pawpaws and plantains to his illustrious friends. Given the religious divide between them (the Petre family were staunchly Catholic) a great friendship developed with Peter Collinson (a quaker) the closeness of which is revealed by the latter’s devastation by Lord Petre’s untimely death from smallpox in 1742. Collinson notes, “Oh, Friend John …. I loved him and he me more like a brother than a friend.” At his death it is recorded that there were 219,925 plants in his garden including 60,000 trees of which many were from North America. Collinson continued to visit the garden to see the developing trees and pay homage to his great friend and it was on one of these visits that he died in 1768. The old Hall was partially destroyed by fire and replaced by the existing building by the 9th Baron in 1763. The estate is now run commercially but some of the old trees remain as a witness to James Robert Petre.
Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778)
Born and raised in rural Sweden, the son of a Lutheran minister and amateur botanist, Carl Linnaeus was always a naturalist. He trained as a physician in the university of Uppsala but like his academic fellows in the late 18th century was able, at the same time, to follow many and varied scientific interests. In his early twenties, he practised medicine and lectured in botany at Uppsala, corresponding with those of like interest in other parts of Europe, including Peter Collinson, Philip Miller and Hans Sloane. In 1729 he published a thesis on plant sexual reproduction, a topic which led him to develop his Latin binomial naming system. Concentrating on the sexual organs of flowering plants for the purpose of taxonomy along with nomenclature which was thought by the prudish to be unduly suggestive did not win much support from a world accustomed to descriptive regional names. He spent a formative period in the Netherlands between 1735 and 1738 during which he distilled his ideas into a volume, ‘Systema Naturae’ which in terms of scientific importance is no less significant than Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ published over a hundred years later.
He spent just over a year in England between 1736 and 1738 and visited all the great gardens including those of Lord Petre at Thorndon and Peter Collinson in Peckham. His mission was to persuade members of the Royal Society and others of the benefits of his naming system. In this he was greatly encouraged by Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden who had devised his own ‘Gardeners’ Dictionary’. Miller later adopted the Linnaean nomenclature. Peter Collinson was anxious to catalogue his collection and persuaded Linnaeus to send him a young student from Uppsala named Daniel Solander to help him, a momentous visit as it turned out as Solander remained in England working on Sir Hans Sloane’s collection making a life-long friendship with Joseph Banks and travelling with Captain Cook on the Endeavour.
The entire collection of Linnaeus’ books, manuscripts and specimens were purchased after his death for the sum of £1000 by Sir James Edward Smith who founded the Linnaean Society of London.
Cedrus Libani – plaque and tree
In 2009 the Mill Hill Preservation Society, as part of their celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of their founding in 1949, agreed with the then Headmaster Dr Dominic Luckett of the Mill Hill School Foundation, that a Cedrus Libani tree could be planted in the area known to the school as the Peter Collinson Garden. The tree replaced the one destroyed in a storm that raged in recent years, and was believed to have been planted originally in 1737 at Ridgeway House when his father lived there.
The tree planting was commemorated by a plaque the words of which say… “In commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Mill Hill Preservation Society. This tree replaces a cedar, the bole of which is nearby, traditionally held to be that planted during a visit to the botanist Peter Collinson by Carl Linnaeus, inventor of the binomial system of plant nomenclature. 24th April 2010.
Website co-author John Living
John Living, an architect and Chair of the Mill Hill Preservation Society is seen here labelling trees in the grounds of the Mill Hill School Foundation estate in London NW7. This was done in 2012 as part of the work for the Peter Collinson Heritage Garden project (2011-13) that failed to materialise due to various complications with funding and access of visitors to the school grounds. Many of the trees were either directly planted by Collinson or were sons and daughters of his specimens.
Because of the failure of the Heritage Garden Project the idea was formed by the Committee of the Mill Hill Preservation Society to build a web site dedicated to Peter Collinson – our most famous local botanist. John Living and Trevor Chilton took on the task. Funds were obtained from MHPS members and Adam Collis of Baobab IT Services was appointed. Much of the work on this website was put together at the time of the school project entitled ‘Seeds across the Seas’.
Website co-author Trevor Chilton
Trevor Chilton has long cherished the heritage of Peter Collinson having taught at Mill Hill School and lived on the site for over 30 years. He has mapped and labelled the trees remaining from Peter Collinson’s garden and planted many more, selected to match the original collection and ensure continuity. Trevor was a member of the ‘Seeds across the Seas’ committee, and has also been a member of the Mill Hill Preservation Society for many years.
The trees were labelled with a system developed for Kew Gardens and was meant to be part of a labelled walk through the grounds – the walk never transpired but the labelling is still there. Trevor’s love of the trees can be appreciated by reading his article on the ‘The Remaining Peter Collinson Trees at Mill Hill’ under the plants section of this website.
John Bartram garden in Pennsylvania
Bartram’s Garden is a 45-acre National Historic Landmark, operated by the John Bartram Association in cooperation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. The John Bartram Association’s mission is to protect and enhance the landmark Bartram’s Garden and House; advance the Bartram legacy of discovery, gardening, and art; and inspire audiences of all ages to care for the natural world. The garden is situated on the banks of the Schuylkill River – and our image is taken from the garden, over the river with the city of Philadelphia in the distance.
The main link to the work of John Bartram in the UK is Painshill Park and various references and articles can be found on this site to the work they have done including the collection of North American trees and shrubs that formed the basis of the John Bartram Heritage Collection, which was awarded national collection status by Plant Heritage in May 2006.
Hydrangea 1746 sign Mill Hill School
The Mill Hill School Foundation acknowledges the importance of Peter Collinson in the history of English Botany. There is a ‘Collinson House’ for boarders, the area where Ridgeway House used to stand is called the ‘Collinson Garden’, portraits of him hang in the school buildings, and a series of lectures is occasionally run called the ‘Collinson Lectures’. The spot where the first Hydrangea flowered in the open in this country in 1746 is marked with a small plaque. Currently there are plans afoot to celebrate his work with a bed planted with his original introductions and Painshill is involved with this project.
The book by Raymond Taylor “Plants Of Colonial Days” (ISBN 0-486-29404-8) states the following…
Painshill – 18th Century landscape garden
Painshill Park joint principal gardener Kath Clark died on 5th September 2013
Painshill is a beautiful award-winning landscape garden in Surrey. The 158 acre wonderland has something for everyone and if you visit you can discover the mystical follies, historic plantings, the John Bartram Heritage Collection of North American trees and shrubs (Plant Heritage, NCCPG), and some of Surrey’s amazing wildlife. Our contact with Painshill was first through the passionate and committed principal gardener Kath Clark who died aged 57 on 5th September 2013. She was awarded the Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society, which she received on behalf of Painshill for the John Bartram display at Hampton Court Flower Show in 2007.
One of the boards displaying Bartram’s work in the Painshill Gardens.
Everything that is planted at Painshill would have been available to Charles Hamilton in the 18th century. One of Hamilton’s main sources of ‘exotic’ plants for Painshill was North America, where he received seed boxes from John Bartram in Pennsylvania. It was this history trail that Kath followed and she travelled to the east coast of North America to locate plants of the right provenance. Kath was instrumental in researching, collecting and propagating the North American trees and shrubs that formed the basis of the John Bartram Heritage Collection, which was awarded national collection status by Plant Heritage in May 2006. The staff were rightly proud of her achievements but said Kath was modest in accepting the many comments of congratulations. As our own tribute MHPS has included one her articles in the Articles section of this website.
Parson Street, London NW4 – Borough of Barnet
The Cedar of Lebanon growing proudly on this busy street, one of the a few remaining Collinson plantings, pre-dates the house by about 200 years. It is a lone survivor of an original line of cedars stretching from St. Mary’s Church Hendon to the top of Highwood Hill, Mill Hill along with what would have been the main road in the 18th century. Of the three cedars in St. Mary’s Church yard, only two now remain. The image below is of the tree that fell in 2013.
Peter Collinson Gate & blue plaque
The existing wrought iron gate is believed to be the original gate that gave access to the rear of Ridgeway House where Peter Collinson lived. The gate is in the garden wall of the Mill Hill School Foundation grounds fronting onto The Ridgeway. The house is also marked with a blue plaque that reads… ‘Site of Ridgeway House residence of Peter Collinson (1694-1768) Author, Naturalist and Botanist’.
Peter Collinson house and garden – map from 1796
This reference is included as it is the only plan we have managed to find that shows Ridgeway House and the extent of the Peter Collinson garden in Mill Hill. The orientation of beds or trees on a north-south alignment is clear as is his pond in the bottom right hand corner to the south. The plot marked 157 is where we believe he had a greenhouse. The triangular area to the right of his house labelled The Clock House is where Peter Collinson would have taken the horse-drawn carriage to his office in the City of London – about 10 miles away.
Queens Diamond Jubilee Tree Oct 2012 – plaque and tree
The Mill Hill Preservation Society made a planting to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and took the opportunity to plant an Acer X Freemanii which is a 20th Cultivar derived from trees introduced into England in the 18th century by Peter Collinson F.R.S. The planting was in the Mill Field where the windmill that gives Mill Hill its name was known to have been sited.
School garden May 2005
This view of top terrace in winter shows the Mill Hill building, designed by Sir William Tite in 1827, on the site of Peter Collinson’s garden. Many of the trees remaining are from the original garden and can be read about in the plants section of this website. The school website reads as follows…