George Stacey Gibson and the first Flora of Essex

George Stacey Gibson - a forgotten Essex naturalist.

Among the many gentlemen naturalists who flourished during the Nineteenth Century was a quietly spoken Quaker from Saffron Walden, George Stacey Gibson.  He had a keen love of botany almost bordering on obsession, and it is thanks to his work in compiling and writing the first Flora of Essex that we have inherited a scientific understanding of the wide range of plants that grow in Essex and contribute to its natural beauty.

Gibson was born in July 1818 into a prosperous family with extensive interests in brewing and malting.  The family owned the Saffron Walden and North West Essex Bank, in which he became a partner.  They were also important benefactors in the town, contributing to its prosperity.  During his life George Stacey Gibson continued this philanthropic activity and was instrumental in rebuilding the Town Hall, founding the Teacher Training College and providing land that enabled the Friends' School to move from Croydon.  He was also a member of the consortium that built the railway line from Audley End to Saffron Walden.

Gibson developed an early interest in botany, and while still in his early twenties he identified many new plants growing in Essex.  Between 1842 and 1860 he added a total of 15 new species to the list of Essex plants, of which three were previously unknown in Britain.   He also discovered species new to Britain growing in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, and contributed to one of the leading botanical journals of his time The Phytologist.

During his botanical years Gibson compiled an important herbarium, a collection of dried plant specimens carefully mounted, labelled and systematically arranged on a scientific basis.  The herbarium now forms an important part of the collection at the Saffron Walden Museum, which contains over 14,000 plant specimens, providing an invaluable record of the plants found in this region during the 19th century.  In recent years it has been used as a source for the compilation of modern floras for Essex and Cambridgeshire.  Among plants collected by Gibson still preserved in the Museum are several that have become rare in our own time, and are now included on the Essex Red Data list including the Corncockle, Sea Hogs Fennel and Yellow Vetchling.

Gibson corresponded with Charles Darwin, and as a Fellow of the Linnean Society (the world's oldest surviving natural history society, founded in 1788) knew many of Britain's leading natural historians on a personal basis.  Matthew Arnold, one of the best known Victorian poets was also a friend.  Arnold often sent plants to Gibson for identification and, as a school inspector in Essex, frequently visited Saffron Walden, staying in Gibson’s large Italian-styled house.  Gibson had transformed the grounds into a carefully planned “pleasure garden”, with rose gardens, hedge-lined walks, and many unusual plant specimens including a tulip tree and a fern-leaf beech, where the two men would walk.  They would walk in nearby woods, picking oxlips, and sit talking about wild flowers long into the night.

Gibson originally thought of compiling a Flora of Essex in 1843, and wrote to several botanists, including Edward Forster, of Woodford.  Forster replied he was already compiling an Essex Flora.  "Finding the task in such good hands, I gladly made over to him all the information that had come within my reach, and during the latter years of his (Forster's) life we had frequent correspondence on the subject of his intended Flora," Gibson recorded. 

But Forster died without completing his work.  "No manuscript of this description was found among his papers, and I was induced to resume the undertaking, for which materials from various sources were gradually accumulated, till the appearance of the floras of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in 1860, stimulated me to put them into shape for publication."
Gibson began by consulting botanical journals and many older publications including Gerard’s and Parkinson's Herbals in minute detail.  The works of John Ray, the 17th century naturalist from the Essex village of Great Notley were important for furnishing "many Essex localities which are particularly interesting as they show the species that were known at the time of publication".  These antiquarian volumes revealed to Gibson how the flora had been changed by the "progress of cultivation and other causes".  In spite of their age Gibson was impressed by the "care exercised by our early writers, both as regards descriptions and localities...".
Gibson was helped by more than fifty Essex botanists who supplied information about plants growing in different parts of the county.  His most energetic assistant was London botanist William Newbould who consulted early herbaria preserved at the British Museum and at the Chelsea Botanic Gardens to identify plant species mentioned by the early writers.  Newbould also scoured the countryside to check locations where plants might be found, revised Gibson’s manuscript, and corrected the printers proofs before publication.

During his lifetime Gibson built up a remarkable collection of botanical books to support his research.  It included many rare and unusual volumes such as Curtis's Flora Londonensis (1817-26), Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Order of Plants (1849-55), and Warner's Select Orchidaceous Plants (1862-65).  To the modern eye many of these volumes look like 19th century coffee table books with large colour plates flamboyantly depicting exotic plants in full flower.  Closer examination reveals their scientific purpose with the different parts of each plant drawn in minute detail, often as cross sections, to aid identification.  After his death the major part of his library, including all his botanical books, were given to the Saffron Walden Literary and Scientific Institute.   Housed in Gibson's own book cases, they now form the centre-piece of Saffron Walden’s historic Town Library, in King Street.

The Town Library contains two copies of Gibson's Flora.  One is Gibson's own copy complete with working notes jotted in the margins.  The other volume is sumptuously bound in green leather and originally belonged to Gibson’s friend and fellow botanist Joshua Clarke, a key figure in the early life of Saffron Walden Museum.  Clarke has interleaved the pages with numerous hand-coloured illustrations in addition to the four original coloured lithographs by John Edward Sowerby included at the time of publication.

Published at the price of six shillings Gibson’s Flora became the standard work of reference on Essex botany for the next 100 years until replaced by the Atlas of British Flora.  In the Flora Gibson identified 1070 native and naturalized species growing in Essex concluding that agricultural cultivation had resulted in the extinction of less than a dozen species.  In addition to the detailed record of the types and locations of plants in Essex, Gibson added biographical profiles of the County’s most prominent botanists - John Ray, Samuel Dale, Richard Warner and Edward Forster.  

Gibson’s success was followed by sadness when his father died soon after publication of the Flora, and he was forced to spend more of his time on business.  The carefree years as a botanist came to an end.  He became increasingly involved in the life of the town and was twice elected mayor.  Gibson himself died in 1883.  On the afternoon of the funeral every shop in Saffron Walden closed and the shutters put up.  Blinds were drawn in every private house and over 5,000 people followed his coffin to the Friends Meeting House where he was buried. 


An edited version of this article was  published in Essex Life & Countryside, November 2006