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What has the little village of Mareham-Le-Fen in Lincolnshire got to do with New Zealand? Why is Horncastle of interest, and whoever heard of Revesby? Yet all these names have a direct bearing on New Zealand as we know it. But it’s not only a story of the district, it’s a story of a man who was an avid collector of “bugs” and “weeds” and who had a huge impact on the world around him.
In September we stayed with our daughter’s family at Mareham-le-Fen, a village of 600 people 10 miles from Horncastle and about the same distance from the even smaller village of New York (the real one, not the cheap American copy). I’m guessing this is the area the American founding fathers came from, names like “Boston”, “New York”,“Bunkers hill”. If you play a musical instrument, you too can play for “The Boston Orchestra”.
Figure 1. Main Road, New York
There is not a lot to do in the village, there is a general store and post office that looks like a set from the 1980s sitcom “Open all Hours”, a 14th century stone cross and the pub (a free house) dates from the 17th Century. Nice timbered cottages nestle alongside horrible 1980’s brick housing estates and a church that was 13th century until it had a ghastly Victorian rebuild. In the church graveyard is an interesting tombstone to a certain James Roberts who died in 1826 and who had sailed in the Endeavour with Captain Cook.
So – who was James Roberts and how did he end up in the Mareham-le-Fen cemetery? A check of the ships complement shows that he was a civilian on the voyage listed as “servant” to Joseph Banks.
Figure 2. Tombstone of James Roberts
A bit more digging revealed that the Banks family estates were in Lincolnshire, and the house that Joseph Banks grew up in was Revesby Abbey, literally a mile or so away. Many of the family retainers, it seems, lived in Mareham-le-Fen, which explained the presence of the tombstone. No doubt of an evening Mr Roberts told many tales of his voyage to locals at that 17th century pub.
But where was Revesby Abbey? There are nice Victorian gates on the A155, but they front an empty field. The current Abbey was built at the same time as the gates, in1845 and like so many English manor houses was acquired by the military during WWII, trashed by troops and never repaired.
But it’s not the Revesby Abbey that Banks knew, it’s not even in the same place. It turns out that the Abbey lived in by Joseph Banks was left empty after his death, and by the time his will was settled was deemed uninhabitable and demolished. However, the “long pond” built by Joseph’s father and subsequently renamed the “kangaroo pond” still remains.
But traces of Joseph Banks are everywhere, once you start looking. Banks had a townhouse in Horncastle (as far as we know he never lived there but it must have been useful as a base.
Figure 3. Joseph Banks house in Horncastle, ground floor now shops.
He was instrumental in getting legislation passed that alienated the “commons” lands around Horncastle, much of the land ending up in his estate. The reason was “to increase productivity of the land” though I’m not sure the people of Horncastle, who lost their grazing lands, would have been impressed. He was also on the committee that drained the Fens (peat bogs) to produce arable land for sheep “Lincoln longwools”. Today, though, there is hardly a sheep in sight – all the land is devoted to market garden crops, picked by migrant workers and destined for the tables of the EU. He built mills along the coast to process the wool, and dredged the river so that it was navigable from the sea to Horncastle which then became a port. He also had a town house in London and every November he would pack up his household and travel to London for the annual meeting of the Royal Society.
The young Banks was an inveterate naturalist. Schooled at Eton (his school nickname was “Shanks Banks”), he was home in August and September, exploring the local Fens (peat bogs), chains of shallow meres with reeds, birds and fish. As a 14 year old he was already paying the local women 6 pence for every example (with explanation of properties) of the medicinal plants they collected in the Fens for sale in markets. His key text at the time was a battered copy of Gerard’s Herbal or The Generall Historie of Plantes” *(1597 )
He collected and described everything he found – insects, plants, shells and fossils. There are stories of him, laden with collecting gear, being chased off lands by angry farmers little realising that the teenage with the jars and net was actually son of their landlord. Sons of gentry just didn’t do that sort of thing! He struggled at Latin until he realised it was necessary for describing his plants, then embraced it afresh but he never took to ancient Greek.
He was, in 1760 when he was 17, “sent up” to Oxford University. University then was far different from the degree factories of today! The Professor of Botany there, one Dr Sibthorp had given only one lecture in 36 years so Joseph arranged for (and paid) the botanist Israel Lions from Cambridge to be his private tutor Israel Lions was not only a botanist but an astronomer, which no doubt further broadened Josephs interests. During his first year his father died, and Joseph inherited the lands, titles and an income of 6000 pounds – which put him into the top 5% income.
In 1763 he became a reader at the British museum, working in partnership with Dr Carl Solander. He was still active in Lincolnshire though. In 1764 he was elected a General Commissioner for the 4th District(West and Wildmore Fens) charged with “maintaining the dykes and ditches, retaining water for cattle, regularly hooking, roding and scouring them (i.e keeping them free of weeds and mud) and building oak horse bridges over them”. It would seem that the Commissioners bankrolled the maintenance themselves and levied the landholders to recoup the money. No doubt Joseph’s extensive knowledge of the area and its flora and fauna was put to good use.
In 1776 he met up with an old school friend from Eton, Constantine John Phipps – then a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, as a consequence Joseph, then 23, obtained permission to sail on HMS Niger on the Newfoundland Fisheries patrol from April 1766 to January 1767, taking with him his 19 year old servant Peter Briscoe. Joseph was often seasick but while away he collected in Newfoundland and Labrador – not only plants. He collected a scalp off the Indians, he wrote accounts of the English and French Fisheries, the habits of the fishermen, recipes for chowder and for spruce beer. Nothing escaped his interest – he was also learning the Guitar as we learn from his letter to his sister “How do you think I have spent my Leisure Time since I have been here Very Musically I can assure you I have learnt to Play upon a new Instrument as I have Forswore the Flute I have tried my hand upon strings what do you think it is now not a fiddle I can assure you but a Poor innocent Guittar which Lay in the Cabbin on which I can play Lady Coventries minuet & in Infancy &c: with Great success”
During his absence he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, nominated by Dr Charles Lyttleton, Bishop of Carlisle and Lord of the Manor of Horncastle, and Richard Kay, Later to be Bishop of Lincoln, who was a fellow botanist. Banks was described as “versed in Natural History and Botany and other branches of literature and likely (if chosen) to prove a valuable member”). Prophetic words! He was admitted on 12Feb 1767. That year he also wrote requesting his horses to be sent from Revesby to London, as soon as the roads were clear of snow. A young 14 year old James Roberts came down with the horses, and was to remain in service with Joseph for the rest of his life, including accompanying him on the voyage with Cook in 1768.
Brian Jones, Vice-President of the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch.
*And still available to read at: https://archive.org/details/cbarchive_121370_theherballorgeneralhistoryofpl1597
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