Britten, James

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Britten, James

(b. London, England, 3 May 1846; d. Brentford, Middlesex, England, 8 October 1924)


Britten was very clearly interested in botany as a child, and for many years he continued to be a keen field botanist, contributing notes on various flora of English counties. He has acknowledged the pleasures he derived from Anne Pratt’s Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges and Ferns of Great Britain (1855). He was educated privately and for five years, until he reached the age of twenty-three, he resided with a doctor at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, as a preliminary to entering the medical profession. During that period he was secretary to the local natural history society and editor of its magazine. But he abandoned his medical studies when, in 1869, he was appointed assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The following year he attended a course of lectures at University College, London, given by Daniel Oliver, who at the time was also keeper of the herbarium at Kew. Oliver befriended Britten and greatly encouraged him in botanical field pursuits, which they often shared. On Oliver’s advice, Britten applied for a post in the department of botany in the British Museum, then still part of the main establishment at Bloomsbury. Much to the resentment of Sir Joseph Hooker, he left Kew, after only two years, to begin what was to be an industrious and somewhat tempestuous career at the museum, where his irascible, controversial temperament was often an embarrassment to his colleagues.

Britten’s most important contributions to botany concerned historical, literary, and biographical aspects of the subject; and his long obituary notices, notes, and anecdotal comments, occasionally caustic and vituperative, are most valuable reference sources. With G. S. Boulger he produced in 1893 the invaluable Biographical Index of British and Irish Botanists, to which three supplements were published before his death and of which a second edition, revised by Dr. A. R. Rendle, appeared in 1931. His interest in old English dialects and folklore was manifest in many of his writings, especially in two works published by the English Dialect Society: the important Dictionary of English Plant Names (1878–1886), compiled in cooperation with Robert Holland, and his reprint, with notes, of William Turner’s The Names of Herbes (1881). He also published a number of articles of ephemeral importance in the popular scientific press of the day.

The herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane, probably the most extensive collection of plants in existence in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, was purchased when the British Museum was founded in 1753. Britten’s historical bent led him, throughout his service in the museum, to accumulate a mass of data, written on slips of paper, that until recently were the only commentary to the contents of Sloane’s 265 bound volumes of exsiccatae. They formed the basis of The Sloane Herbarium, an annotated list of the horti sicci composing the herbarium, with biographical accounts of the principal contributors revised and edited by J. E. Dandy; it was published by the trustees of the British Museum in 1958.

Britten’s first published work was a short note on locations of rare plants, mostly in the Thames Valley in Irvine’s The Phytologist (November 1862). In the following year he contributed the paper “Rare and Exotic Plants at Kew Bridge, Surrey” to the first volume of the Journal of Botany, which he later edited for almost forty-five years. He used his editorial prerogative in a highly individualistic manner, and never missed an opportunity to express his candid criticism, deserved or not. This attitude caused resentment, and he was quick to pounce on any apparent shortcomings of the authorities and publications of Kew, which became a constant target for his pungent comments. Relations between his department and Kew were severely strained after an official committee recommended in 1901 that the herbarium collections at the museum should be transferred to Kew. Britten did not conceal his malice toward Kew, particularly criticizing the administration and making personal attacks on members of the staff. His indiscretions led to legal action, and he was obliged in the same year to make a public apology to the Kew authorities and to pay a donation to an agreed charity. His wit was always evident and perhaps one of his best efforts concerned the supposed demise of the regular numbers of the Kew Bulletin in a period when four appendices appeared and he surmised that the main publication had developed appendicitis!

Britten was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1870. He was admitted to the Roman Catholic Church when he was twenty-one, and with his characteristic energy threw himself with zest into the propaganda activities of his adopted church. He was particularly prominent in the work of the Catholic Truth Society, and for this and other religious causes he was made a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory in 1897 by Pope Leo XIII and promoted to Knight Commander in 1917.


Among Britten’s writings are “Rare and Exotic Plants at Kew Bridge, Surrey,” in Journal of Botany, 1 (1863), 375–376; Dictionary of English Plant Names (London, 1878–1886), compiled with Robert Holland; editing and notes for a reprint of William Turner’s The Names of Herbes (London, 1881); Biographical Index of British and Irish Botanists (London, 1893), written with G. S. Boulger, 2nd ed., rev. by A. R. Rendle (London, 1931); and “The History of Aiton’s ‘Hortus Kewensis,’” in Journal of Botany, 50 (1912), supp. 3. A bibliography accompanies the obituary notice by A. B. Rendle, in Journal of Botany, 62 , 337.

George Taylor

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