Mystery 19th Century botanist tracked down following appeal

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A mystery 19th-Century botanist has been found, because of sleuthing work by the general public.

Isabella Anne Allen had been known only by the secrets she left behind, tucked between the pages of an old book.

But following an appeal for information, on the BBC News website, she has now been traced to the village of Madresfield, Worcestershire.

Her story came to light when clues like pressed flowers, poems, and doodles were found inside English Flora.

Donated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) decades ago, the botanical text was rediscovered by staff sorting through boxes before a move to a replacement library.

And libraries and exhibitions head Fiona Davison said the clues within revealed its original owner “would are a figure within the local society and in public”.

“She may be a gardener also as a botanist – it’s become part and parcel of being an intelligent, well-to-do, well-respected pillar of the community,” she said.

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Within hours of the story’s publication on the BBC News website, there have been several suggested leads, from Cornwall to York.

But one individual cropped up several times.

The UK Census of 1851 confirmed spinster and landowner Isabella Anne Allen, born in 1810, lived together with her parents, John Henry and Susannah Rebekah, and a number of other servants at Rhydd House, Madresfield.

The property, with its gardens and woodlands at the foot of the Malvern Hills on the brink of the Severn, offered many opportunities for plant collecting.

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And a piece of writing within the Worcestershire Chronicle, from July 1860, revealed: “several excellent roses were sent to the [Malvern Horticultural and Floral Show] by Miss Allen of the Rhydd”.

Allen died five years later and was buried in Madresfield, leaving her personal possessions to her sister, Ann, who successively bequeathed her “old set of books and wildflowers” to her niece Maria Alice Empson.

It may are Empson who donated the four volumes of English Flora to the RHS library before her death in 1948.

And further scrutiny of the book, given to Allen at the age of 18 by her friend Mrs. Green, revealed the words “The Rhydd, Worcestershire” penciled next to an entry for large periwinkle (greater periwinkle, a trailing vine with violet flowers).
Ms. Davison is delighted the jigsaw pieces have finally fallen into place.

“A big many thanks to everybody who skilled the decision,” she said, “as soon because the story went up we were, within hours, getting a gentle stream of emails coming into the library inquiry inbox – and from everywhere the planet .”

Preserved plants
Allen lived at a time when botany was a well-liked scientific subject for ladies within the higher social classes.

Many contributed to herbaria, the collections of preserved plants that form the cornerstone of botanical study, while others were skilled botanical artists.

Later within the 19th Century, botany became considered a knowledgeable activity for specialists and experts instead of amateurs – and women’s contributions to the sector were belittled.

But women continued to participate in botany, especially by writing for other women, children, and general readers.

Little clues
Allen’s copy of English Flora is during a fragile state but is going to be sent off to conservators and, once in better repair, pride oneself of place at the new library at RHS Hilltop, Wisley, where it’ll be wont to inspire a replacement generation of naturalists.

“One of the really fascinating things about gardening books and botany books is that they were often owned by women – and these little clues get left in them,” Ms. Davison said.

“Looking for ladies within the margins may be a thing we’ll be doing tons more of.”

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