Perter Collinson Mill Hill
...seeds across the sea

An Introduction to Peter Collinson 1694 - 1768

There have been some great books written on Peter Collinson and so our short introduction to him here seems somewhat 'lighweight'. We can do no worse than start with an extract from the American Philosophical Society web site Memoirs: Volume 264:

"Peter Collinson’s life is a microcosm of eighteenth-century natural history. A London Quaker, a draper by trade, and a passionate gardener and naturalist by avocation, Collinson was what we would now call a facilitator in natural science, disseminating botanical and horticultural knowledge during the Enlightenment. He influenced men such as Comte de Buffon and Linnaeus. He found clients for the Philadelphia Quaker farmer and naturalist, John Bartram, at a time when the English landscape was evolving to emphasize trees and shrubs, and the more exotic the better. Thus, American plants populated great estates like those of the Dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, and Bedford, as well as the Chelsea Physic Garden, and nurseries of James Gordon and Robert Furber. Botanic painters such as Mark Catesby and Georg Dionysius Ehret painted American plants in Collinson’s garden. His membership in the Royal Society enabled him to broaden his scope: he encouraged Franklin’s electrical experiments and had the results published, he corresponded about myriad natural phenomena, and he was ahead of his time in understanding the extinction of animals and the migration of birds. Though a man of modest Quaker demeanor, because of his passion for natural science, he had an unprecedented effect on the exchange of scientific information on both sides of the Atlantic."

Peter Collinson, born in London the son of the Quaker and London cloth merchant Peter Collinson and his wife Elizabeth Hall, was a partner in his father's London trading business, and remained a merchant throughout his life. However, at a young age, he also developed a passion for botany. He eventually wrote numerous essays on natural history topics for the Gentleman's Magazine, and he contributed many reports to the Society of Antiquaries and to the Royal Society, of which he was a member. His extensive network of correspondents in Europe and North America placed Collinson at the nexus of the community of eighteenth century European and American natural scientsts. Collinson's interests in North American matters also included the promotion of crop experiments in the colonies. In addition, he was an early patron of the American Philosophical Society, though not a member, and for many years served as purchasing agent for the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Peter Collinson was brought up in Peckham. The Family business was in Grace Church Street near the old London Bridge. In 1724 he married Mary Russell (1704-1753) and they had two children. Later he moved to Mill Hill, in north London, to live in fathers house after his death in 1749.

Peter Collinson  introduced over 200 plant species into England during the eighteenth century and through his business skills and his willingness to share resources, he made these plants accessible to the ordinary gardener.  The ‘brotherhood of the spade’ expanded in America as Collinson’s model was taken up by Franklin and Bartram. At the same time there was a sweeping change in taste for garden design favouring naturalism over formality. What was common on one continent was recognised as exotic on another and the international community had a new and universal botanic language.He left behind a legacy, which cannot be measured simply by the number of horticultural and arboreal introductions.

Benjamin Franklin wrote of Collinson..,

“If we may estimate the goodness of a man by his disposition to do good,
and his constant endeavours and success in doing it,
I can hardly conceive that a better man has ever existed”.