Friday, 8 July 2016

Scotney Castle and an eminent Natural Historian

The Scotney Castle Estate in Kent provides a wonderful example of an English Romantic landscape. The original castle was modified extensively in the early Nineteenth Century (below, upper) and a new house, in a quite different style (below, lower), built on the hill overlooking it. The grounds are beautiful, but the old castle and its moat are the dominant features and can be seen from all the best rooms in the new house, completed on the instructions of Edward Hussey III in 1843.

When visiting large houses owned by the National Trust, I always make a point of looking at the titles of the books in their libraries. It is clear that Edward Hussey III, like many of his class in the mid-Nineteenth Century, was interested in Science and Natural History. Among the books in the new house were Jabez Hogg's The Microscope: it's History, Construction and Application (published in 1854), James F. Johnston's The Chemistry of Common Life (published in 1855) and Mrs T. J. Hussey's Illustrations of British Mycology (published in two parts in 1847 and 1855). Hogg's book was very popular at the time, selling over 50,000 copies, and it describes the physics of microscopy; the construction of microscopes; how to prepare materials for microscopy; and descriptions of animals, plants and their parts. It was a comprehensive guide for those indulging in this Victorian passion, and Johnston's work gave some answers to questions about the biology of organisms that were observed, with sections on air and odours; water; soil; foodstuffs and digestion; liquors; and narcotics (!).

However, it was Mrs Hussey's book that most attracted my attention, as she had a family connection to Scotney Castle. Anna Maria was married to Thomas John Hussey, the son of the Reverend John Hussey, who was the younger brother of Edward Hussey, the grandfather of Edward III who built the new house. Maria (the name by which she was known in the family) was the daughter of the Reverend J. T. A. Reed and the Reed family, like the Husseys, were acquainted with many leading figures of the day in science, including Babbage, Herschel, Fox Talbot and Graves. Both families knew the Darwins of Downe and Maria's younger brother George Varenne Reed was tutor to Charles Darwin's sons [1].

Maria had three younger sisters, all of whom were interested in botany and in collecting plants [2], and she wrote a wonderfully personal journal during a visit that she made to Dover with her youngest sister Kate (Catherine) in 1836 [2]. At the time, Maria was 31 years old, with two young children, and Kate 19 years old. In addition to many visits to the shore to observe marine life, the two collected plants, fossils and other geological specimens during walks in the Dover area, some of which required short trips by boat. There is no mention of her interest in fungi in the journal.

In Illustrations of British Mycology, Maria describes fungi (funguses to her) that can be collected in Britain; the means of collecting them; and how to identify them. It is detailed, accurate and scholarly, with many plates that show the skill of both Maria and her sister Fanny (Frances) as illustrators - montages of some of the lithographs in the book are shown below. We learn from Elizabeth Finn that Maria was not happy with the work of the lithographers [1] and one can only wonder at how good the originals must have been:

In addition to its value in allowing accurate identifications, the book also conveys Maria's enthusiasm for the subject. Here are two examples of her descriptions, first of toadstools and then of mushrooms [3]:

This splendid Agaric lifts its head boldly, the "observed of all observers", even the most careless so that it is oftener kicked to pieces, and other attentions of the kind bestowed on it, than most "Toadstools" receive: I have mourned over specimens nearly a foot across, their pure ivory gills and glowing scarlet pileus crushed in the dusty road.

The English "Mushroom" proper takes two different forms, according to soil and other conditions of site. The first case is that of rich cool loam districts, such as the extensive grazing pastures where the dairymen of Bucks herd their cows, and which have not been ploughed or mowed within the scope of the remotest tradition; the herbage is kept down by the cattle, and neither rude gravel below, not rank matted grass above, offers obstacles to the regular development of the fairest and most fragile of mushrooms, the very perfection of the thing! no freckles deface the white silky pileus, no thick cottony screen swathes a clumsy stem betokening coarse over-feeding; a light soft veil is all the protection the gills ever had, and they have expanded so rapidly even that has disappeared, or left only a few lacerated fragments on the stem; tender, succulent, friable and digestible, nourished on pure earth, in air redolent of wild thyme and the breath of kine, by dew which might be Fairies' nectar it is so free from the impurities of city miasma..

I do not know if Maria visited Scotney, but I would like to think that she did, as the estate must have been a splendid place for hunting fungi. The presence of her book in the Library indicates that Edward III was likely to have had an interest in this activity, and perhaps in looking at details of fungi using a microscope, and who better than a relative (by marriage) to act as a guide? Judging from her descriptions in the book and in her journal, she would have made a fascinating companion on Nature rambles and she deserves to be ranked alongside Margaret Gatty, Anna Atkins, and Amelia Griffiths, all eminent Victorian Natural Historians.

[1] Elizabeth A Finn (2009) Hussey, Anna Maria (1805-1853). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Elizabeth Finn Botany, Boats and Bathing Machines: Anna Maria Hussey's Holiday in Dover 1836. Available as an e-book from Kent Archives Service - Ref U3754.

[3] Mrs T. J. Hussey (1847) Illustrations of British Mycology, containing Figures and Descriptions of the Funguses of Interest and Novelty Indigenous to Britain. London, Reeve Brothers.

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