Aiton, Williom Townsend

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Aiton, Williom Townsend

(b. Kew, Surrey, England, 2 February 1766; d. Kensington, London, England, 9 October 1849)


Aiton was the eldest son of William Aiton, who was in charge of the living collections in the Royal Botanic Gardener, Kew, and who described himself as “Gardens to His Majority,” He entered school at Chiswick, and when he was thirteen transferred to one at Camberwell. He remained there until, at the age of sixteen, he entered Kew as assistent to his father. Apart from gaining practical knowladge of horticulture and experience with a wide range of living plants, Aiton became greatly interested in landscaping and acquired a considerable reputation as a landscape gardener. Indeed, he received commissions from many eminent people, including the duke of Kent and a number of nobleman.

In 1793, upon the death of his father, Aiton succeeded to the control of the gardens at Kew and Richmond, and on the accession of George IV he also had charge of other royal gardens, including Kensington, Buckingham Palace, those around the bizarre Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and certain areas at Windsor. He was styled director-general of the royal gardens, but there is evidence that he was more concerned with improvements elsewhere. He left the cultivation of the rich assemblage of plants at Kew to his subordinates (particularly John Smith, the first Kew curator), although he assiduously continued his father’s close association with Sir Joseph Banks and sought his advice and support on how best to enrich the Kew collections by sending suitably trained men overseas.

Aiton was one of the seven gentlemen who, on the initiative of John Wedgwood, son of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, assembled “at Mr. Hatchard’s House for the purpose of instituting a Society for the improvement of Horticulture” on 7 March 1804. The Royal Horticultural Society was founded at this meeting.

Largely through the encouragement of Banks, a second and much enlarged edition of the senior Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis was published. Nominally the work of the son, who certainly had considerable knowledge of botany and its literature, it was in fact knowledge of botany and its Dryander, who was mainly responsible for the botanical matter in the original edition, and by Robert Brown, who become Bankes’s libraian upon the death of Daniel Carl Solander. An epitome of the Hortus was published in 1814, but neither this nor the parent work enjoyed the success of the first edition. Aiton prepared a second edition of the Epitome but the manuscript was probably destroyed with his voluminous collection of letters, although James Britten states in the Journal of Botany (1912) that two versions appeared in 1814.

Aiton’s responsibilities were drastically curtailed when William IV became king and his authority was restricted to the gardens at Kew. After Banks’s death in 1820 cut off invaluable patronage, royal funds for Kew’s maintenance were severely restricted. In spite of the efforts of Aiton and Smith, the collections and the gardens suffered from so much neglect that in 1838 the Treasury was obliged to appoint a committee of inquiry to investigate the condition of the Royal Gardens at Kew. The report, signed by Professor John Lindley on 28 February 1838, noted “That it is little better than a waste of money to maintain it in its present state, if it fills no intelligible purpose except that of sheltering a large quantity of rare and valuable plants.” Lindley suggested that Kew might become a national botanic garden, so the garden was transferred to the nation in 1840 and William Jackson Hooker was appointed the first official director in 1841. For a time Aiton remained in charge of the pleasure grounds at Kew, but he resigned in 1841, taking with him his library, records, and drawings. When he died, apparently unmarried, his enormous and rich correspondence, containing a vast amount of information on Kew affairs over a period of nearly fifty years, was burned by his brother John. His collection of drawings and plant record books were retrieved for Kew after John’s death.


I. Original Works. Aiton’s writings are Delineations of Exotick Plants Cultivated in the Royal Gardens at Kew (Londen, 1796); Hortus Kewensis; or a Catalogue of the Plants Cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, 2nd ed., enl., 5 vols. (London, 1810–1813); and An Epitome of the Second Edition of Hortus Kewensis, for the Use of Practical Gardeners; to Which Is Added a Selection of Esculent Vegetables and Fruits Cultivated in the Royal Gardens at Kew (London, 1814).

II. Secondary Literature. Writings on Aiton are Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 2 (1850), 82–83 (anon.); W.T. Thiselton-Dyer, in Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (1891), pp. 304–305; ibid., (1910), pp. 306–308 (anon.); J. Britten, in Journal of Botany, 50 , supp. 3 (1912), 1–16; and E. Nelmes, in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Dedications (1931), pp. 7–8, with a portrait. R.G.C. Desmond, “John Smith, Kew’s First Curator,” in Kew Guild Journal (1965), pp. 576–587, has many references to Aiton. See also John L. Gilbert, “The Life and Times of William Townsend Aiton,” ibid, (1966), pp. 688–693.

George Taylor