*… the natural world.
This is the story of Norwich-born James Edward Smith and his involvement with the way we describe and classify the living world … but beneath this lies an important sub-text about the role of dissent in the advance of knowledge.
James Edward Smith (1759-1828) was son of James Smith (1727-1795), a wealthy Norwich wool merchant. This was at a time when Norwich could still claim to be one of England’s major cities, before mechanisation shifted power to the northern towns. James Edward was a shy, delicate child who was taught at home, at 37 Gentleman’s Way. His mother’s love of plants may have stimulated his precocious love of botany .
His continuing botanical education was to be shaped, however, by the family’s religion – Unitarianism. At that time the two English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, only offered botanical studies as part of a medical course since physicians were required to prepare drugs from medicinal plants. But such studies were closed to non-conformists like Smith since only members of the Church of England were allowed to receive a degree. Against this rising tide of dissent (and by 1829 one in seven of Norwich adults were dissenters ) those who could afford it had to be educated elsewhere, at dissenting colleges or universities in Scotland and the Continent. So James Edward Smith went to Edinburgh and, rather prophetically, started his studies on the day that the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, died  .
The Enlightenment of the C17th and C18th saw free-thinkers looking beyond the rigid views of the established church and embarking on a more tolerant examination of ideas through scientific enquiry and philosophical reasoning. The C18th was a period of great exploration, not only mapping the world but collecting as many examples of its flora and fauna as possible. After the gathering phase came the sifting stage in which naturalists tried to understand the underlying plan. At Edinburgh, Smith was a student of Dr John Hope, who was one of the first to teach Linnaeus’ (1707-1778) system for classifying plants and animals. Decades later, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), a fellow Unitarian, was also to study medicine at Edinburgh where he was exposed to debate about creation and whether species were God-given (i.e., fixed) or changeable.
The Linnaean system of classification placed plants into groups based on the number and arrangement of their reproductive organs.
The sexual basis of this system was not without controversy. Johann Siegesbeck called it ‘loathsome harlotry’  and Linnaeus’ revenge was to give the name siegesbeckia to a small, useless weed. (Later, Smith was cautioned not to copy Linnaeus’ foul use of “scrotiforme and genitalia”).
The original system based solely on the arrangement of sexual organs was imperfect but two key parts survive in the improved version used today. The first was Linnaeus’ method of placing organisms into hierarchical groups based on shared similarities, from kingdom down through class, order, genus, species (other groups were added later). The second survival was his binomial system in which the two names – genus and species –were sufficient to identify a plant or animal. Before this, plants were referred to by long, imprecise Latin descriptions whereas the binomial system could tie down a specific plant. For example, there are many roses in the genus Rosa but addition of the specific or species name canina distinguishes the dog-rose (Rosa canina) from the red rose (Rosa rubra). Hierarchical classification and the relationship between species can be seen as an important precursor to Darwin whose Tree of Life added an extra dimension by showing that species were not fixed at the time of the Creation but mutable, evolving over time.
Linnaeus died in 1778; his son Carl inherited his father’s collections and when he died only five years later they were offered to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who had befriended Smith in London. The Empress of Russia had tried to buy the collections as had the King of Sweden who is said to have sent a ship to intercept them.
Banks could not afford the 1000 guineas himself but persuaded Smith to borrow the money from his wealthy father and so James Edward Smith became possessor of Linnaeus’ 3000 books and 26 cases of plants and insects. Smith was rewarded by being elected Fellow of the Royal Society within two years: three years later he founded the Linnean Society of London, remaining President for the rest of his life [1, 4].
But metropolitan life did not agree with Smith so he returned to Norwich for nine months each year. Ill health is often quoted as a reason but he was known to be fed up with the “envy and backbiting” of London life ). In 1796 he married a Lowestoft woman, the letter writer and literary editor, Pleasance Reeve. Lady Reeve was painted as a gypsy by fashionable portraitist John Opie when she was 24: she was to live another 79 years.
Two unavoidable discursions:
- The wife of portraitist John Opie – Amelia Opie the novelist and abolitionist – lived at the corner of Castle Meadow, Norwich and is commemorated by a statue in nearby Opie Street .
- Pleasance, who was childless, was evidently close to her niece Lorena Liddell (née Reeve) who gave her daughter the middle name ‘Pleasance’ after her aunt. This child, Alice Pleasance Liddell, was of course the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. .
When Smith married Pleasance, her father gave them the tall Georgian town house, 29 Surrey Street, Norwich, as a wedding present. The garden that once contained Smith’s beloved plants was sold in 1939 to the Eastern Counties Bus Co ; No 29 itself was bomb damaged during WWII while the adjoining part of the terrace was worse hit and replaced somewhat unsympathetically after the war.
The row of houses had been designed by local architect Thomas Ivory (1709-1779), who contributed much to Georgian Norwich . Not only did he design The Assembly House and the terrace in Surrey Street but he built the elegant Octagon Chapel in Colegate. Smith was deacon there when in 1820 the ownership of the chapel transferred from the Presbyterians to the Unitarians.
For as long as he lived in Norwich the house in Surrey Street, and not the Linnean Society, was the private museum in which Smith housed the Linnean collection. This included Linnaeus’ three herbarium cabinets arranged so that ca. 14000 specimens – plants dried on sheets of paper – could be easily referenced . Attracted by Linnaeus’ own type specimens “Norwich (became) the centre of the biological and natural history study of the world” . In 1938, two of the cabinets returned to Sweden but the Linnean Society retained one plus all contents.
Smith maintained a prodigious output. Between 1790 and 1823 he published 36 volumes of English Botany . The series, which was issued by subscription, contained over 2,500 hand-coloured plates by illustrator James Sowerby: indeed, the work was sometimes called Sowerby’s Botany because Smith – unsure about being associated with a popular illustrated work in English – left his name off the first edition .
Smith also wrote Flora Brittanica (1800-1804) and The English Flora (1824-1828). At the time of his death Smith had also edited eight and half of the 12 volumes of John Sibthorp’s survey of Greek flowers, Flora Graeca  – a beautiful publication, each with 100 plates illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer (the final volume by Sowerby having 66 plates).
At one time, Smith instructed Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, and her daughters; he taught the elements of Botany and Zoology but this relationship was cut short after he criticised the French court and mentioned the republican Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The dissenting mind once again confronted the establishment when Smith tried unsuccessfully to become Professor of Botany at Cambridge University – his non-conformity, support for the abolition of slavery and of Greek independence, did not help his cause .
Perhaps surprisingly, Smith did not bequeath his collections to the society he had founded and of which he had been President for life. Instead, he left instructions that they were to be sold as one lot to a public or corporate body, causing The Linnean Society to purchase the very reason for their existence for the vast amount of £3150 – a sum that took them over 40 years to pay off .
There is a memorial plaque to Sir James Edward Smith on the north side of the nave in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, but his body was interred in his wife’s family vault in the churchyard at St Margaret’s Lowestoft.
©2017 Reggie Unthank
Thanks to archivist Sarah Wilmot for providing access the rare books in the John Innes Historical Collections. Visit http://collections.jic.ac.uk/. It is an amazing resource and Sarah encourages visits and invitations to talk (email@example.com).
- Rawcliffe, C., Wilson, R. and Clark, C. (2004). Norwich since 1550. Pub: A&C Black.
- Gage, A.T. (1938). A History of the Linnean Society of London. Pub: Linnean Society London.
- Do read Joe Mason’s fascinating blog on this house, where his family had lived. https://joemasonspage.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/the-story-of-a-house-1/
- http://www.nnns.org.uk/sites/nnns.org.uk/files/imce/user11/publications/natterjack/NJ108.pdf Quote from Tony Irwin page 20.
- White, P. (1999). The purchase of knowledge: James Edward Smith and the Linnean Collections. Endeavour 23: 126-129.
The Norwich Society helps people enjoy and appreciate the history and character of Norwich. Visit: www.thenorwichsociety.org.uk