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Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kingdon-Ward, Francis ('Frank') (1885-1958)


Reference code(s): GB 0068 FKW

Held at: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Title: Kingdon-Ward, Francis ('Frank') (1885-1958)

Date(s): 1891-1985

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 3 Series, 81 files

Name of creator(s): Ward | Francis Kingdon | 1885-1958 | botanist and explorer


Administrative/Biographical history:

Francis Kingdon-Ward was born in Whitington, Lancs. on 6 November 1885. He was the son of Harry Marshall Ward and Selina Mary née Kingdon. His father was a professor of Botany at the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper's Hill in Surrey and was appointed to the Chair of Botany at Cambridge University ten years later. He was first educated at St Paul's School in London, and later as an undergraduate at Christ's College in Cambridge. The death of his father in 1906 and the poor state of the family's finances meant that he was unable to complete the full three years of study at Cambridge and graduated after two years. He accepted the first post offered to him, that of Junior Master at the Shanghai Public School where he taught the sons of wealthy businessmen, both British and Chinese. Having little taste for teaching, he escaped whenever he could to the mountains and forests of Java and Borneo. Less than two years into the post, he was given the travelling opportunity he had been waiting for. Having been granted leave of absence from the School, Kingdon-Ward joined an American zoological expedition which was to travel six hundred miles in central and western China, up the Yangste to Wuhan, and then to Tibet. Because of the financial backing provided by the Duke of Bedford, the expedition became known as the 'Bedford Expedition', with the aim to collect animal specimen. Although inexperienced, Kingdon-Ward made himself useful and collected a small collection of plants which he later presented to the Botany School at Cambridge.

A year later, he returned to his teaching post in Shanghai, having gained some experience in conducting an expedition. He also learnt how to deal with the indigenous inhabitants of the country he travelled in, being appalled with the way westerners behaved towards local inhabitants and vowed not to follow their example. During his own expeditions, Kingdon-Ward was known to respect local laws and customs even if he did not agree with them. The Bedford expedition had given him a taste for travelling and he soon sought a mean to take part in another expedition. His chance came with an offer from Arthur Kilpin Bulley, a wealthy Cheshire cotton merchant with a passion for plants and gardens and keen to introduce exotic hardy plants to Britain. Bulley was also the owner of a seed company, Bees. He commissioned Kingdon-Ward, as George Forrest, the botanist whom he had previously used, was unavailable.

Kingdon-Ward's assignment was to collect hardy alpine plants from the mountains of Yunnan and in the wild Tibetan marshes. Without any regrets, he resigned from his teaching job in Shanghai and set off for his first solo expedition on 31 January 1911. This expedition is narrated in his book 'The Land of the Blue Poppy - Travels of a Naturalist in Eastern Tibet' which he published in 1913. Although he felt lonely and depressed at times during his first expedition, these feelings disappeared as he progressed in beautiful surroundings. He returned in December with two hundred plants, twenty two of them being new species and he had also recorded other botanical and geological information.

He returned to England in 1912, where he was re-united with his family in Cambridge. He spent much of his time lecturing about his travels, writing a series of articles and working on his first book. He was also elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), the latter being impressed by his original observations of the regions he had travelled in. This made him the youngest man awarded with this honour. The RGS also offered to supply him with equipment in his next expedition. Despite unrest in China, Kingdon-Ward set off once again in 1913, after having undertaken an intensive short course at the RGS in surveying and map making.

The next three years were spent on various expeditions, including a trip in 1914 to Hpimaw in the frontier region of north east Burma with the intention to travel onwards into Assam. However, he had to abandon the latter part of the expedition due to ill health. He enlisted in the Indian Army for the duration of the First World War, reaching the rank of Captain.

After the War, he returned to England and attempted to set up his own nursery with a partner. But he was no businessman and in 1921, his business having failed, he returned to the Yunann province of China. In 1923 he returned to England, after having had to abort his expedition and married Florinda Norman-Thompson, the latter setting out to promote her husband's career. Meanwhile, he was planning another expedition, which was going to prove to be the most outstanding expedition of his career, botanically as well as geographically.

Early in 1924, he set off for the gorges of the Tsangpo, a Tibetan river flowing south into China and India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra. Kingdon-Ward was in search of legendary waterfalls as well as botanical specimen, and was accompanied by Lord Cawdor who partly funded the expedition, the other part being funded by Bees and other seed share investors. They travelled through virgin lands and collected many specimens as well as dispelling the myth of the giant waterfalls. This was to be the first of several visits to Northern Burma. An expedition in 1926 was funded by a group of wealthy gardeners, and in 1927 Kingdon-Ward climbed Japvo Peak in Assam. There were several other expeditions, in Laos in 1929 and in the Ajung valley of North Burma. Now funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, he returned in Tibet in 1933 where he travelled north to the source of the Po-Yigrong River in the mountains. After a round trip of 1,000 miles he returned with hundreds of species.

Kingdon-Ward undertook three more journeys in the 1930s, to Upper Burma, the Burma-Tibet border and Assam. Two of these expeditions were organised by two leading American naturalists, S Cutting and A Vernay, in 1935 and again in 1938. When war was declared in 1939 he joined up and was given his previous rank of Captain and attached to S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive). He was sent on missions to establish safe military corridors through Burma to avoid the Japanese, and later trained pilots in jungle survival at the School of Jungle Warfare at Poona in India (1943-1944). At the end of the War he was commissioned by the USA to search for fallen planes between India and China. It was during one of these trips that he found the Manipur lily.

In 1948, he returned to the remote state of Manipur, between Assam and north west Burma, with his second wife, Jean Macklin, having divorced Florinda fourteen years earlier. This was the first of six trips together during which they collected several species of the pink Manipur lily. In 1952, Jean wrote her first book 'My Hill So Strong', in which she narrates the journey to the Lohit Valley in Burma, where they had just escaped with their lives after being caught in a massive earthquake. In 1956, at the age of seventy one, Kingdon-Ward climbed Mount Victoria in Central Burma (10,016ft) and travelled to Sri Lanka in 1956-1957. He was planning another trip when he fell ill, lapsed into a coma and died in London on 8 April 1958 at the age of seventy three.

Kingdon-Ward's work was recognised during his lifetime by the Royal Horticultural Society, who also awarded him with the Victoria Medal of Honour in Horticulture in 1932 and the Veitch Memorial Medal in 1933. He was awarded an OBE for his services to horticulture in 1954. Altogether, he wrote twenty five books and numerous articles.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Francis Kingdon-Ward, 1891-1985, comprising two series; the first consists of travel diaries written during his expeditions in South East Asia and contain observations on the fauna and flora of regions visited as well as other information. Some of the diaries relate to his activities during the Second World War. The second series contains correspondence and various papers, including photographs.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

As outlined in the scope and content.

Conditions governing access:

This collection is subject to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew�s standard access and reproduction conditions. Access is unrestricted and by appointment but will be subject to the conditions of the Data Protection Act. Reproduction information is available on request.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

Detailed catalogue available, contact the archives for more details.


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:


Related material:

Related Material in the Archives: F.C. Stern: Miscellaneous Letters Vol. 4 (Kee-You); Miscellaneous Reports 6.21: Singapore Botanical Gardens (26); F.C. Stern: Kingdon-Ward Miscellaneous Letters (103-220); F.C. Stern: Miscellaneous Manuscripts Vol.2 (76-79); F.C. Stern: Lilium Letters Vol.3 (615-616); V.S. Summerhayes: Miscellaneous Correspondence (214-215); F.C. Stern: Kingdon-Ward Plant Lists; the Papers of Kate Pickard-Smith (PrP 97-0015), contain lists of Kingdon-Ward’s seeds he proposed to collect during the 1935 Assam-Burma Expedition, and a subscription list of plants to be collected during the 1936/7 Chinese Himalayas expedition. Registered File 4/S/7 'Major F C Stern 1929-1953' contains correspondence from Kingdon-Ward to Stern relating to seeds. Registered File 2/IND/60 'A S Vernay' 1930s contains correspondence to and from Kingdon-Ward relating to the Burma expedition. Registered File 4/B/28c contains a letter from the Keeper of the British Museum (Natural History section) Dr G Taylor concerning Kingdon-Ward’s return of a rhododendron specimen which had been borrowed (June 1952). See also HMW Harry Marshall Ward's Papers (Frank's father) and in particular file HMW/1/22 which contains letters and other items from Frank.

In the Main Library: printed editions of field notes (1924/1925 onwards); books and pamphlets written by Kingdon-Ward and various biographies.

Related Material held elsewhere:
• Letters to Sir George Taylor are held at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscript Division in File 4.
• Correspondence, press cuttings and photographs are held in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh.
• Photographs of his expeditions are held at the Royal Geographic Society, London.


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

Scientific expeditions | Field work | Research work
Travel abroad | Travel
World War Two (1939-1945) | World wars (events) | Wars (events)

Personal names
Balfour | Sir | Isaac | Bayley- | 1853-1922 | Knight | botanist
Ward | Francis Kingdon | 1885-1958 | botanist and explorer

Corporate names
British Museum (Natural History) x Natural History Museum

India | South Asia
USA | North America
South East Asia