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Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Ball, John (1818-1889)


Reference code(s): GB 0068 JBA

Held at: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Title: Ball, John (1818-1889)

Date(s): [1840]-[1889]

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 6 volumes, 1 folder

Name of creator(s): Ball | John | 1818-1889 | scientist and politician


Administrative/Biographical history:

Glaciologist and politician, born in Dublin on 20 August 1818, the eldest child of Nicholas Ball (1791-1865), judge and politician, and his wife, Jane (née Sherlock) of Butlerstown Castle in co. Waterford. Until the age of eleven he received little formal education, but from his earliest years he displayed a precocious interest in science. In his seventh year he was taken to Switzerland, where he was deeply affected by the view of the Alps from the Jura. The following year he began to measure the heights of hills barometrically and to construct geological sections, and before his twelfth year he had completed the manuscript of what he termed his 'Elements of chemistry'.

Ball's parents were Roman Catholics, and in 1831 he was sent to St Mary's College at Oscott near Birmingham, whence he was admitted into Christ's College, Cambridge, on 23 June 1835. That summer he participated in the Dublin meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (he attended many of the association's subsequent meetings), and in Cambridge, over the next four years, he joined the classes of John Stevens Henslow in botany, and Adam Sedgwick in geology.

On 13 April 1840 Ball was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and in Trinity term 1843 he was called to the Irish bar at the King's Inns. He never practised at the bar, and between 1840 and 1845 can have spent little time in Ireland. For much of that period he travelled in Europe, visiting the mountain regions (for which he felt a deep affinity), botanizing, and communing with kindred scientific spirits. During 1845 he was at Zermatt seeking to develop the glaciological studies pioneered by James David Forbes, but that was the year when a failure of the Irish potato crop marked the beginning of the great Irish famine, and Ball felt duty-bound to return to his distressed homeland.

While in the Dingle peninsula, co. Kerry, during 1846, Ball recognized that many of the landforms were analogous to features which he had seen being shaped by modern glacial processes within the Alps. Clearly, he reasoned, there must once have been glaciers in Ireland, and the paper on this subject which he presented to the Geological Society of Dublin on 14 November 1849 is the earliest published study of Pleistocene events within any region of Ireland.

In July 1848 Ball stood, without success, as a parliamentary candidate for Sligo borough, but on 26 July 1852 he was returned (by a majority of only two votes) as the member for Carlow County. In February 1855 the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, named him as assistant under-secretary of state in the colonial department. In this office he took the opportunity to further the cause of science in several ways. His energetic representations were largely responsible for ensuring the adequate financing of the expedition led by John Palliser for the exploration of western Canada, and he was instrumental in inducing the home government to support the efforts of Sir William Jackson Hooker towards the publication of colonial floras.

At the election on 11 April 1857 he was heavily defeated when he stood for Sligo County, and on 15 February in the following year he was again defeated when he contested Limerick City. Although subsequently offered several parliamentary seats, he resolved henceforth, as a man of independent financial means, to devote himself exclusively to travel and to natural history.

Following the foundation of the Alpine Club in December 1857 he served as its first president (1858-60), and he edited Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers, the club's earliest publication (two editions in 1859). The three volumes of his Alpine Guide (first editions 1863, 1864, 1868) are classics among the literature of mountain travel. In 1856 he married Eliza Parolini, daughter of the naturalist and traveller Count Alberto Parolini (there were two sons of the marriage), and between 1861 and 1869 he lived much in Italy, where, on his wife's death about 1867, he inherited an estate near to Bassano and at the foot of the Venetian Alps. By 1863 he had crossed the main chain of the Alps forty-eight times by thirty-two different routes, being accompanied upon some of his journeys by his close friend William Edward Forster. In 1869 Ball married Julia O'Beirne, the youngest child of Francis and Winefred O'Beirne of Jamestown, co. Leitrim.

In the company of Joseph Dalton Hooker he visited Morocco and the Atlas Mountains between April and June 1871, and their joint work descriptive of the excursion was published in 1878. Between March and August 1882 he sailed to the Caribbean, crossed the isthmus of Panama, and completed a circumnavigation of South America via the Strait of Magellan, his account of this journey being published in 1887. During the 1880s trouble with his throat caused him to winter abroad in places such as Algeria, Tunisia, and the Canary Islands.

While in the Engadine during the autumn of 1889 Ball was stricken with illness. He was taken home to London where, shortly after an operation and somewhat unexpectedly, he died at midnight on 21 October 1889 at his home, 10 Southwell Gardens, South Kensington. Among his distinctions were the Italian order of SS Maurizio e Lazzaro (1865), fellowship of the Linnean Society (2 December 1856), fellowship of the Royal Society (4 June 1868), and honorary fellowship of Christ's College, Cambridge (3 October 1888).


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of John Ball comprising botanical manuscripts relating to the Southern Alps, Morocco and other parts of Europe including a catalogue of plants on the South side of the Alps, Moroccan plants and more generally notes on plants in other European countries. Also correspondence with Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1859-1896).

JBA/1/1: "Distribution of Plants on the South Side of the Alps". Large volume recording plants in their scientific names and the frequency of their distribution in various European mountainous areas in table format; the geographical areas covered are as follows: S. Alpine distribution, French Alps, Swiss Alps, German Alps, Illyrian Alps (Bosnia, and Herzegovina), Ligurian Apennines (Italy), central Apennines, Neap. Apennines, Pynrenees, Scandinavia and Carpathian mountains. There are also additonal manuscript notes, some with numbers contained within 1 to 50. The very last page of the volume gives a list of Italian geographical locations numbered 1 to 50 entitled 'Districts South Side of the Alps'.

JBA/1/2: "Distribution of Plants on the South Side of the Alps". Small volume of manuscript notes recording latin plant names and locations; some are accompanied by numbers.

JBA/1/3-5: Three manuscript volumes listing Moroccan plants with locations and plant descriptions; the altitude is also sometimes mentioned as well as some observation notes.

JBA/1/6: General bontanical notes with lists of plants from Europe and Morocco. This volume comprises general botanical notes which have been bound together, and an index (Not comprehensive) was produced at a later stage (after binding), situated at the front of the volume. The content ranges from general botanical notes, sketches and memoranda such as description of a new species of Veronica, notes on melaphyre observed near Verona (Italy), notes on other group of plants such as Saxifraga and Sagiona, the genus Polynogon and others. Includes also list of plants: from Olympus and Brussa - an island off the coast of Italy, in the Veneto region; list of plants from Uina, Switzerland, list of plants from Tangier with a tabular view of the mountain flora of the Great Atlas mountains (Morocco), showing th distribution of species and the altitude. Comprises other botanical notes such as an account of an excursion through Portugal and Spain (1850s); folios 125-127 are ink sketches of Hieracium species observed in Italy; folios 128-188 consist of notes entitled 'Genera plantarum Vol I'; folios 188-208 are notes on Alpine and Moroccan flora in table format; folios 209-218consist of notes on the distribution and genera of the Alps and analysis of the 'genera plantarum'; folios 219-228 consist of a 'table showing the georgraphical distribution of the genera in each natural ? distinguishing the monotpypic genera'. Folios 233-234 consist of a list in table fromat of 'Natural orders in European Alps and other mountain regions, warm temperate and tropics.

JBA/2: file of correspondence with J D Hooker.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

All manuscripts are contained within bound volumes. The papers have been arranged according to the titles of the bound volumes. Comprises 2 series, JBA/1 contains botanical manuscripts (18-18) and JBA/2 correspondence with J D Hooker (1859-1896).

Conditions governing access:

Unrestricted - surrogates to be used where available.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

Please contact the Archives for further information and listings.


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:




Archivist's note: Entry transcribed by Sarah Drewery, February 2011. Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Rules or conventions: General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: February 2011

Botanists | Scientists | Scientific personnel | Personnel | People by occupation | People

Personal names
Hooker | Sir | Joseph Dalton | 1817-1911 | Knight | botanist

Corporate names

Morocco | North Africa