Reeves Herbarium

This beautifully pressed, preserved and labelled specimen is part of the collection at Scarborough Museums and Galleries, and is contained within a herbarium donated to the collections in 1969, but was originally put together in the 19th century by naturalist, chemist, photographer and microscopist Walter Waters Reeves (1819-1892).

Born in Beckley, Sussex, in the early 1840s Reeves was apprenticed to the surgeon William Newnham of Farnham, Surrey – one of the earliest members of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, now known as the British Medical Association and it’s during this period that he appears to have developed his particular interest in botany, a subject he would have studied as part of his medical training. 

Walter’s interest was shared by two of Dr Newnham’s sons, Christopher Atkinson Newnham and William Orde Newnham, both also highly respected botanists – the latter’s own collection is now the Hull University Herbarium. 

Through the 1850s, Walter was a chemist and druggist in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. In 1852, he submitted many photographs the Society of Arts exhibitions in London, including some images of Tunbridge Wells – perhaps he was introduced to the joys of photography by his customers at the chemists’s shop.

By 1861, his hobby had become his profession – he was living in Greenwich and making his living as a photographer, picture frame gilder and maker.

Reeves was clearly one of those polymathic types for whom one thing just led to another – his photography seems to have stimulated an interest in microscopy. In 1864, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society and in 1868, he was appointed as assistant secretary of the Society, a position he was to hold for many years. In 1865 he was a founder member of the Quekett Microscopical Society, which is still very active today and describes itself as ‘the leading international organisation for all amateur and professional light microscopists’.

In the 1870s, his interest in botany was rekindled, and he collected until his death in 1892, by which time he was living at Middleton, near Pickering, where was being cared for by his niece and sister. His sister Mary was married to the Vicar of Middleton, the Reverend Walter Nathaniel Turner, who himself had at least a passing interest in botany: a number of specimens collected by him are in the Reeves Herbarium.

Reeves seems to be yet another example of a remarkable breed of men and women who marched through the 18th and 19th centuries exploring the world around them and making discoveries which would improve the world for future generations, and all at a time when travel and communications were infinitely more challenging than they are today – we owe them so much, and salute them. 

Collections like Reeves’ may look old-fashioned to our eyes, comprising as they do pressed plant specimens mounted on archival paper and labelled, but they’ve been invaluable in the development of modern science. The herbarium at London’s Kew Gardens looks much the same, but contains no less than seven million specimens, a figure which is being added to at a rate of around 30,000 a year from all around the world. 

The Kew Herbarium is seen as playing a central role in research on plant biodiversity. Reeves’ collection of around 8,000 specimens is hardly in the same league, but it has still played its small part in the advancement of human knowledge.