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Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Elwes, Henry John (1846-1922)


Reference code(s): GB 0068 ELW

Held at: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Title: Elwes, Henry John (1846-1922)

Date(s): 1865-1920

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 2 notebooks, 19 folders

Name of creator(s): Elwes | Henry John | 1846-1922 | traveller and botanist


Administrative/Biographical history:

Henry John Elwes was a noted traveller and naturalist. Born on 16 May 1846 to John Henry Elwes (d 1891) and Mary Elwes (d 1913), he was the eldest of eight children at Colesborne, Gloucestershire, which had been the Elwes family estate since its procurement by John Elwes, great grand father to Henry.

Elwes devoted himself to following his twin passions of travel and natural history. In 1871 he travelled in the Himalayas, including a trip to Tibet. His observations on this expedition led to his 1873 paper 'The geographical distribution of asiatic birds'. Throughout his life, he would continue to travel extensively in Asia, where many of his botanical collections were made. India and the Himalayas were the places he returned to most on his travels, although he visited and collected from a remarkably diverse range of areas. He became a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1874.

Having married Margaret Susan in 1871, his naturalistic interest turned form ornithology to botany, or at least to the collection and propagation of plants from his travels. In 1880, he published his highly regarded Monograph of the genus lilium. Significantly, Elwes collaborated on this treatise with J G Baker, who handled the explicit scientific aspects of the work. Elwes himself had no in depth scientific training, and as a result he focused more on the practical aspects of specimen collection, which he could combine with his enthusiasm for travel. Several species, which he was first to collect and bring to flower, were named for him, one example being the snowdrop Galanthus elwesii.

In addition to this enthusiastic collection of botanical samples, Elwes was also a keen lepidopterist. He recorded fifteen new species of butterflies and moths, and collected a vast number of specimens for his own edification. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1897, he himself attributed his success to his aforementioned 1873 paper. The same year he was awarded the inaugural Victoria Medal of Honour by the Royal Horticultural Society.

In his later life, Elwes became renowned for his study of trees. He was regarded not only as a fine observer and collector of specimens but also as an especially proficient propagator of those he brought back to Britain. He took many photographs of trees, as well as making numerous observations. He was acclaimed enough in this field to be appointed President of the Royal Arboricultural Society in 1907. Between 1906 and 1913, Elwes produced The trees of Great Britain and Ireland this time in collaboration with Augustine Henry. This was possibly is most significant work at least in scope, running to seven volumes in length. One of his great frustrated ambitions was to found a world class arboretum at his Colesborne estate. Although he created splendid gardens there, his plans for planting trees were limited by the soil quality.

Henry John Elwes died on 26 Nov 1922 at Colesborne. He was survived by his wife and his son, Henry Cecil Elwes (born 1874). His daughter Susan Margaret Elwes (born either 1870 or 1871) had died the previous year in 1921.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Henry John Elwes, 1865-1920, comprising notes and notebooks; photographs of trees and furniture and assorted press cuttings and additional papers.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

Arranged in three series as follows:
ELW/1 Notes and notebooks
ELW/2 Photographs of trees and furniture
ELW/3 Assorted press cuttings and additional papers.

Conditions governing access:

Unrestricted - surrogates to be used where available.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Found in archives basement and archives room, 1992 and 1996.



Archivist's note: Entry transcribed by Sarah Drewery, March 2011.

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: March 2011

Horticulture | Agronomy
Trees | Plants | Flora | Vegetation | Botany

Personal names
Elwes | Henry John | 1846-1922 | traveller and botanist

Corporate names