Archival serendipity

Since the early 2000s, our archives have received different donations, including items related to the history of the Gardens, but also, more generally, to botany and horticulture.

After Salomea, the Gardens’ Archive officer, started working on the Archive, she came across a book with New Zealand ferns from 1882, generously donated to the Archive by Rita and Ray Coughlin. The book is opened with a dedication: “New Zealand Ferns from Samuel Reading to his brother William Reading 27th January 1882” and contains 70 mounted ferns collected in New Zealand.

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Image: Cover and dedication page of the New Zealand Ferns, T. Cranwell, courtesy of Archive of Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

These ferns were collected during the Pteridomania – the great Victorian fern craze that spread across the British population between the 1840s and 1890s. Fern collectors and enthusiasts spanned across social classes and their pursuits very quickly became commercialised. Pressed ferns were put on display in homes and live collections became extremely popular for both outdoor and indoor cultivation. Moreover, the fern motifs started appearing in homes, adorning everyday objects, and gardens, and featured in art and literature.

Salomea’s attempts to find out more about a collector called Samuel Reading were unsuccessful, however, her visit to the Winterbourne House and Gardens brought about a serendipitous encounter with ferns coming from the same collector. When admiring one of Winterbourne’s exhibitions, ‘The Dry Garden: Treasures from the University Herbarium’, Salomea’s attention was drawn by a mounted fern presented on the display:

When I saw a New Zealand silver fern mounted beautifully on the loose page together with the creative calligraphy of the label, Samuel Reading’s New Zealand ferns came to my mind immediately. They shared the same artistic mounting of the specimen, and very similar plant’s labelling technique, I decided to meet with Winterbourne’s curator, Henrietta Lockhart, to confirm my suspicions – and there we had it! Henrietta said that the ferns definitely came from the same collector and that his name was Thomas Cranwell.

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Images: New Zealand Ferns, T. Cranwell, courtesy of Archive of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Winterbourne House became a home for the University of Birmingham’s Herbarium in 2021 and ferns mounted by Thomas Cranwell were found amongst other Herbarium specimens, however, at the time no information would indicate the name of their collector. Just like the Gardens, Winterbourne had had serendipitous encounters related to their fern collection. In 2023 University of Tennessee tweeted a picture of a New Zealand fern specimen collected and mounted by T. Cranwell, whose mounting style and labelling resembled the specimens found in the University of Birmingham collection. University of Tennessee’s Collections Manager confirmed that the University of Birmingham’s ferns must have been collected by Thomas Cranwell as well and mentioned that other similar specimens can be found on several online auctions and in the collection of the National Library of Australia.

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Images: New Zealand Ferns, T. Cranwell, courtesy of Winterbourne House and Garden

Whilst the 19th-century fern craze caused some species to be threatened by extinction, nowadays you can satisfy your love of ferns by visiting our Fern Garden at Birmingham Botanical. Some of Thomas Cranwell’s New Zealand ferns can be found on a permanent exhibition at Winterbourne House and you will soon be able to see our New Zealand Ferns digitised on our website.