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On George Hibbert

George Hibbert, of Clapham - 18th Century Merchant and "Amateur Horticulturalist"

By Ken Cozens

George Hibbert (1757-1837), MP, lived on the north side of Clapham Common in a house called The Hollies. (Note1)

Here he indulged himself in the gentlemanly fashions of the time as an eighteenth century book–collector and amateur horticulturalist, when not engaged in his City career as a City Alderman, MP and a prominent West India merchant.

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All his pursuits were typical of the rich merchant classes of the time, but Hibbert, who shared an interest in scientific enquiry, had a thirst for greater knowledge, and became engrossed with the cultivation of exotic plants for his large garden where “he brought together a unique collection of botanical exotica. (Note2)

This was to become such a passion of his that he was to employ gardeners of some renown, such as Joseph Knight, and James Niven. He also corresponded with eminent men such as Sir Joseph Banks on the subject. Although an “amateur” horticulturalist, this did not stop Hibbert from financing plant-collecting expeditions for exotics for his London garden, which according to some reports was larger than Kew at this time.

Hibbert was also able to assist others, such as Banks, with their collections, with the transportation of specimens through his shipping expertise, and the use of mercantile networks.

George Hibbert (1757-1837) was the son of Robert Hibbert, a Manchester merchant. His uncle Thomas Hibbert was one of the leading planters and merchants in Jamaica. After moving to London in 1780, George became a junior partner in Hibbert, Purrier, and Horton, a West Indies house which was headed by his elder brothers, Thomas and Robert. After the death of his father, he married Elizabeth Margaret Fonnereau, on 30 August 1784; the daughter of Philip Fonnereau, a prominent Huguenot merchant and a director of Bank of England.

Later, Hibbert became a director of the West India Dock Company. “Several times chairman, he became the leading proponent, alongside Robert Milligan, of completing the new dock scheme. He manoeuvred for a seat in parliament in 1802, but to no avail; he was luckier in 1806, when he was selected without opposition for Seaford, Sussex. (Note3)

George Hibbert also supported the provision of free labour from the East Indies to the West Indies in 1811. This may have had something to do with his connections to the London merchant firm Camden, Calvert and King, and their associations with Peter Isaac Thellusson, a Huguenot, who was related to Hibbert through marriage. Thellusson's uncle was Sir Ralph Woodford, Governor of Trinidad, who was a leading exponent of “free labour” from the East Indies.

Thellusson was a merchant, sugar refiner, and a director of Bank of England, as well has being a director of the New Fire Assurance Company. He was also associated with the merchant group Camden, Calvert and King, who had a diverse range of business activities including slaving, and other operations focused on the nearer Pacific region, such as provisioning at the Cape, convict transportation to NSW, whaling, quite apart from their being involved in the East and West Indies trades. This was a useful circle which both Hibbert and Sir Joseph Banks could tap into for acquiring new horticultural specimens, particularly from areas which at that time were still being newly explored by Europeans.

After his retirement from parliament in 1812, George Hibbert acted as the agent for Jamaica until 1830, and headed the West India Committee as its chairman. In both capacities, he ardently argued the case of Caribbean planters and merchants. He also was a founder member of the London Institution.

In the following extract from Alice Coates's book, The Quest for Plants, we can gauge some idea of the stature of just one of George Hibbert's plant collectors:


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James Niven (I774?-I827), arrived at the Cape in 1798, three years after Francis Masson's departure. Niven was a Scot who came south about 1796 and was employed by the Duke of Northumberland at Syon House, till engaged by the wealthy amateur George Hibbert of Clapham to collect in South Africa. His first visit lasted five years, during which he mastered the Dutch and Kaffir languages, and he sent home many new plants and a valuable herbarium of native specimens. He returned home in 1803, but within three months was re-engaged by a syndicate whose members included the firm of Lee and Kennedy and the Empress Josephine - regardless of the fact that the Napoleonic Wars, temporarily concluded by the Peace of Amiens the previous year, had broken out again. This time Niven stayed at the Cape for nine years, but he had difficulties to encounter and embarrassments to contend with which quite deranged his intended excursions into the interior. The colony, restored to Holland in 1802, was again taken by the British in 1805; but there followed wars with the Kaffir nations on the borders, and the experienced Niven was pressed into service as interpreter and guide, having to submit to all the inconveniences and privations of a soldier's life and receiving in return many encomiums, but few emoluments. On his return to England in 1812 he gave up botany and gardening and went into business with his brother in his native Pennicuik, where he died in 1827, aged about fifty- two.

Loudon, to whose obituary notice in the Gardener's Magazine we owe most of the foregoing particulars, says that his wife died at the instant her husband's corpse left the door of the house, leaving five orphans !; but the pathos of this incident is diminished by the reflection that one of the orphans (Ninian, b. 1799) was then twenty-eight years old. Niven seems to have been an industrious and efficient collector - as well as being "a most affable and friendly-hearted man", and he served his employers well.”

Hibbert was particularly interested in proteas, of which he possessed the most extensive collection of living plants that had ever been formed; Niven must have been responsible for introducing most of these to Britain, besides also adding five new species to the genus.

Niven had found thirty ericas not previously known to science (including elegans, pellucida, blandfordiana, hibbertii and nivenii) which, considering the thoroughness with which Masson had already combed the area, was no inconsiderable feat. His miscellaneous introductions included Gazania pavonia,Lobelia gracilis, Moraea longiflora and Nivenia corymbosa, named by Robert Brown in 1809 in honour of this intelligent and indefatigable collector. (Note4)

Nivenia is named after James Niven, Hibbert's gardener and plant collector. Niven had been sent to the Cape Town in 1798, where the seed of N. corymbosa was collected by him and raised on behalf of his patron at his Clapham estate. (Note5)

Plants flowered there for the first time in 1805 and were described as Witsenia corymbosa. Ker Gawler placed the species in the genus Witsenia in 1805 and only in 1808 were they described as Nivenia. The species name, corymbosa, refers to the corymbs, which are flat-topped flowerheads. Nivenia stokoei was only properly documented in 1924, after it was collected by T. P Stokoe (hence the species name).

But it was Joseph Knight, the author of Cultivation of the Plants Belonging to the Natural Order Proteae, in 1809, which had excited Hibbert's passion most with the exotically-colourful species, proteae, found in South Africa and Australia.

Joseph Knight was also the founder of the well-known Exotic Nursery in Chelsea, later bought by the famous Veitch dynasty. Another species, the Diminutive Powderpuff - Sorocephalus tenuifolius - which describes the runt of the Powderpuffs (or Clusterheads), is not only a species difficult to see in the wild, but it can also be easily mistaken for Palmiet Unispoon - Spatalla prolifera. It was first collected by James Niven in about 1800 in alpine, moist places near the Breede River, and was subsequently grown in George Hibbert;s garden, Clapham. (Note6)

There is another reference in Alice Coates, The Quest for Plants, (p. 98), which refers to George Hibbert buying Chinese plants in 1794 that had been collected by James Main for Captain Gilbert Slater of Essex, another avid gardener, and a director of the East India Company, who unfortunately had died before Main returned.

The plants had been shipped aboard Triton, an East Indiaman owned by Slater, which after an uneventful voyage from China, was involved in a collision with a navy frigate in the Channel, which wrecked much of the plant collection before she was towed up the Thames.

The remaining specimens were purchased by Hibbert. Gilbert Slater was another keen collector, like Hibbert, who introduced the "Crimson Rose" to Britain, later named “"Slater's China Rose". He also had connections in East London (Mile End) with the nursery-man, James Gordon, who was growing plants commercially, and would have already been well-known to City merchant collectors, such as George Hibbert. (Note7)

Merchant involvement in eighteenth-century voyages of exploration is something worthy of consideration, particularly as there was also an economic angle operating via the commercial development of British horticulture and nurseries, and the transplanting of economic crops. A prime example here was the famous Breadfruit voyage of Captain Bligh, an expedition mounted as a means of transplanting the Breadfruit tree to Jamaica, to produce crops which would provide an inexpensive food source for plantation slaves in the West Indies.

British expansion in the Pacific was another factor which attracted merchants such as Hibbert and Slater, where their scientific interest was aroused by then-unknown exotic flora and fauna. Practically anyone who wanted to travel to New South Wales, in almost any capacity, consulted Sir Joseph Banks. Banks was the one constant throughout the first 30 years of white settlement in Australia, through changes of ministers, government and policy.

Banks also organised Matthew Flinders' voyage on the Investigator (1801-1803) which later helped to define the map of Australia. He had connections with Sir George Macartney's embassy to China (1792-1794) and also with George Vancouver's epic voyage to the north-west coast of America (1791-1795) (associated with the Enderby whalers). Here, merchants were used to provide additional shipping requirements, such as transport ships, or victual exploration vessels. Perhaps, that is why merchants were often at the heart of many of these voyages, some of which had come about through the lobbying of government by scientific society membership(s). The Royal Society had a high proportion of merchants among its membership, including George Hibbert and Sir Joseph Banks. (Note8) Hibbert was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1811, and in the following year, a Fellow of Society of Arts.

Other considerations were merchant finance and investment in voyages of exploration, often as a sideline to the already-lucrative contractual commitments of supply for the [otherwise] government-sponsored expeditions. (Note9)

It is also worth remembering that merchants such as Hibbert had many family connections in the British colonies, and they were also involved with the Chartered companies, such as the East India Company, and West India Co., which often played a part in the development of horticulture, either through the founding of botanical gardens in cities such as Calcutta, or in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad, often as part of some economic development project, or merchant exploitation scheme.

Banks sent botanists to all parts of the world, including New South Wales, often at his own expense. Their collections were added to both Kew Gardens and to Banks' own collections. His collectors voyaged to the Cape of Good Hope (Francis Masson and James Bowie); West Africa (Mungo Park); the East Indies (Mungo Park); South America (Allan Cunningham); India (Anton Hove); Australia (David Burton, George Caley, Robert Brown, Allan Cunningham, and George Suttor); while David Nelson was sent on Cook's third voyage and Archibald Menzies sent on Vancouver's voyage.

Incidentally, Francis Masson had travelled out to Cape of Good Hope aboard HMS Resolution, on Captain James Cook's second voyage of discovery, where plants were also collected on behalf of George Hibbert. (Note10)

George Hibbert, Clapham resident, must therefore be viewed in a broader context than as sometimes portrayed, as a man of some learning and horticultural knowledge, who not only helped found many City institutions through his mercantile endeavours, but he also added to our everyday enjoyment of many now commonly-known, and easily-available plants.

The Hibbert family vault is in the churchyard of St Paul's, Clapham, where several members of the family are buried. There is also a very fine portrait of George Hibbert by Sir Thomas Lawrence which is now on display at the new Museum of Docklands in London.

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1 There is a picture available of the house. Hibbert's name, and approximate position of the house, is also shown on a map in: Gentlemen's Seats around Clapham Common, c 1800, which is reproduced in The Buildings of Clapham, p.19, published by The Clapham Society. The house was roughly where Nos. 30/31 North Side now are. There is also a reference to George Hibbert in a book called Old Clapham, by W. Grover (c. 1890). It refers to some Elm trees on Clapham Common opposite to Hibbert;s house, which were said to have been planted by Mr Hibbert. Another source (The Chronicles of Clapham, 1929), quotes a 1795 record that Mr Hibbert is allowed to fence in a piece of Common, opposite his house, to plant trees for the ornament of the Common. Source: My thanks to Alyson Wilson of The Clapham Society for the above references.

2 See David Hancock's entry for George Hibbert, Oxford DNB.

3 Oxford DNB.

4 My thanks to Dr. Toby Musgrave for his valuable comments on mercantile involvement in plant-hunting expeditions, and the Alice Coates's book reference.

5 Source: Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, (South Africa), website: http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantnop/niveniastokei.htm

6 Source: Website of The Protea Atlas Project based at the National Botanical Institute, Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa, at: http://protea.worldonline.co.za/extinct.htm

7 James Gordon, Seedsman, had a shop in Fenchurch Street in City of London according to London Directories of the time: Source: London Directories, Guildhall Library, London.

8 See: Royal Society Library and Archive Catalogues for details of Hibbert's election to FRS as now available online at: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk. Also see David Hancock's Oxford DNB entry.

9 Vessels were often hired from merchants, who in turn were granted licences by the East India Company to trade in new markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

10 See Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardner and Will Musgrave, The Plant Hunters. London, 1998., pp. 39-52. Also see An Empire of Plants: People And Plants That Changed The World, by Toby and Will Musgrave, (London, 2000), which discusses the importance of economic plants, such as tobacco, cotton, tea, rubber, in the context of Western economic development. Much of which came about through the activities of enterprising merchants such as the subject here during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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