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Colenso’s collections
including the unpublished

work of the late Bruce Hamlin

on William Colenso's

New Zealand plants

held at Te Papa

compiled by Ian St George

Published in 2009


The New Zealand Native Orchid Group Inc.

22 Orchard St



St George, Ian Michael

Colenso’s collections

including the unpublished work of the late Bruce Hamlin

on William Colenso's New Zealand plants held at Te Papa

ISBN 978-0-9597931-4-7

Cover design
Colensoa physaloides (A.Cunn.) Hook.f.
Described by Allan Cunningham as Lobelia physaloides and renamed by

Joseph Dalton Hooker in honour of the Rev. William Colenso,

(Hooker JD. 1853: The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage of H.M. Discovery Ships Erebus and Terror in the Years 1839-1843.Vol. 2. Flora Novae-Zelandiae Part I. Flowering Plants. London, Lovell Reeve)

Painted by

Sarah Featon:

Watercolour 310 x 254mm, Gisborne, about 1885.

from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection, purchased 1919.

(Published in Featon EH & S.1889:The art album of New Zealand flora. Wellington, Bock & Cousins).

Printed by Securacopy, Wellington.


Introduction 4

Obituary: Bruce Gordon Hamlin 11

Part 1

Colenso’s herbarium at Te Papa, Wellington

Historical summary by Bruce Hamlin 13

Catalogue of the vascular plant herbarium 16

Specimens sent to Kirk 58

Supplementary list 59

Bound volume of ferns 60

Cryptogamic herbarium

Hepaticæ “a” series 62

Fungi “b” series 63

Musci – lists 64

Musci – transcriptions of wrappings 65

Colenso’s travels

Travels in the missionary period (1834-52) 66

Travels in the later period (1853-1899) 102

Place names

Foreword by Bruce Hamlin 103

Formal place names with dates of visits 103

Colloquial names 129

References 143

Part 2

Introduction by Bruce Hamlin 134

Letters and lists of the missionary period

1 March 1839 to Allan Cunningham

with specimens 1-36, and Cunningham’s
identifications 136

27 May 1839 to Allan Cunningham

with specimens 1-32, and Robert Heward’s
identifications 138

12 July 1839 to Allan Cunningham 140


January 1840 to Captain Philip King 141

14 February 1840 to WJ Hooker with
specimens named in the body of the letter 142

20, 26, 29 July 1841 to WJ Hooker with

specimens 10-134 and unlisted mosses etc 143

August-September 1841 to JD Hooker 150

26 July 1842 to WJ Hooker with seeds 151

1 September 1842 to WJ Hooker

with “more than 600 different specimens”,
some numbered in the letter, later published
as the Journal in 1844 151

1 December 1842 to WJ Hooker 171

10 May 1843 to WJ Hooker
with specimens 1-70 174

17 May 1843 to JD Hooker 177

7 and 26 March 1844 to WJ Hooker 177

12 April 1844 to JD Hooker 181

20 May to 30 July 1844 to WJ Hooker with specimens (“Lot pr. Mr. Busby”) 1-265
and 320-436 182

19 November 1844 to WJ Hooker

with specimens 1-20 193

19 January 1846 to WJ Hooker 195

31 July 1846 to WJ Hooker
with specimens 1-659 196

6 August 1846 to JD Hooker

with specimens 661-905 210

14 September 1846 to WJ Hooker 216

22 December 1846 to JD Hooker
with specimens 907β-921β 216

20 September 1847 to WJ Hooker 217

21 January 1848 to WJ Hooker
with specimens 907-1506 and
repeating 907β-921β 217

29 September to 20 October 1848

to WJ Hooker with specimens 1507-2318 230

4 September 1850 to WJ Hooker 244

22 January 1851 to WJ Hooker
with specimens 2319-3938 245

24 November 1851 to WJ Hooker 272

3 February 1852 to JD Hooker 273

31 January 1853 to WJ Hooker

with specimens 3939-6190 275

Part 3

Letters and lists of the later period (1854-1899)

28 August 1854 to JD Hooker 298

23 February 1855 to JD Hooker 305

13 September 1862 to JD Hooker 307

8 June 1863 to JD Hooker 307

26 October 1863 to JD Hooker 308

7 December 1863 to JD Hooker 309

9 April 1864 to JD Hooker 310

30 November 1864 to JD Hooker 311

3 January 1865 to JD Hooker 311

3 March 1865 to JD Hooker 313

3 June 1865 to JD Hooker 314

11 September 1865 to JD Hooker 315

3 November 1865 to JD Hooker 316

29 November 1865 notes
on Hooker’s Handbook 316

6 December 1865 to JD Hooker

with specimens 6191-6563. 319

5 January 1866 to JD Hooker 321

3 March 1866 to JD Hooker
with specimens 6564-6572 322

30 July 1866 to JD Hooker 322

29 June 1867 to JD Hooker 323

14 November 1867 to JD Hooker

with specimens 6574-6582 323

29 November 1867 to JD Hooker 326

22 October 1869 to JD Hooker 326

23 November 1869 to JD Hooker 327

11 November 1877 to JD Hooker 327

24 February 1882 to JD Hooker 329

22 January 1883 to JD Hooker 329

11 May 1883 to JD Hooker 331

18 May 1883 to JD Hooker 332

22 May 1883 to JD Hooker 332

15 June 1883 to JD Hooker 333

30 June 1883 to JD Hooker

with fungi b1-b28 334

13 July 1883 specimens b28-b30 337

7 September 1883 to JD Hooker 337

29 October 1883 to JD Hooker 338

27 February 1884 to JD Hooker 338

12 July 1884 to JD Hooker with seeds 339

10 August 1884 to JD Hooker 342

12 September 1884 to JD Hooker 342

31 December 1884 to JD Hooker 343

12 February 1885 to JD Hooker 345

8 April 1885 to JD Hooker 345

21 May 1885 to JD Hooker 346

16 June 1885 to JD Hooker 346

9 October 1885 to JD Hooker 347

14 October 1885 to JD Hooker
with lists, including fungi b31-b419 347

23 July 1886 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 359

10 January 1887 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 360

14 July 1887 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 360

4 March 1888 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 360

24 June 1888 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 361

4 March 1890 to JD Hooker 361

4 March 1890 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 363

13 September 1890 to JD Hooker 363

12 July 1891 to JD Hooker 365

6 January 1892 to JD Hooker 366

18 January 1892 to WT Thistelton-Dyer

with specimens 367

17 May 1892 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 367

30 January 1893 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 369


... it would be a really good thing if every plant – however useless or noxious, or insignificant, – could first be known, and accurately described, before it gets polished off!”

William Colenso (letter to David Balfour 30 November 1886)

July 1892 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 368

24 January 1893 to JD Hooker 368

21 February 1893 to JD Hooker 370

14 October 1893 to JD Hooker 371

16 November 1893 to JD Hooker 372

24 November 1893 to WT Thistelton-Dyer 372

8 February 1894 to JD Hooker 373

28 March 1894 to JD Hooker 375

10 July 1894 to JD Hooker 375

13 September 1894 to WT Thistelton-Dyer
with specimens 376

7 January 1895 to JD Hooker 377

15 April 1895 to JD Hooker 377

7 January 1896 to JD Hooker 378

2 June 1896 to JD Hooker 379

19 August 1896 to WT Thistelton-Dyer

with specimens 380

23 September 1896 to JD Hooker 382

1 February 1897 to JD Hooker 384

7 May 1897 to JD Hooker

from JH Holder 386

7 June 1897 to JD Hooker

from Seymour Fannin 386

2 July 1897 to JD Hooker 386

2 August 1897 to JD Hooker 387

13 August 1897 to JD Hooker 387

16 January 1898 to JD Hooker 389

14 February 1898 to Lady Hyacinth Hooker 390

1 March 1898 to JD Hooker 390

25 May 1898 to JD Hooker 391

19 June 1898 to JD Hooker 392

30 August 1898 to JD Hooker 392

24 September 1898 to JD Hooker 393

11 October 1898 to JD Hooker 393

21 February 1899 to JD Hooker
from Henry Hill 393

17 April 1899 to JD Hooker

from R Coupland Harding 394

Who’s who

Names mentioned in the letters, lists and labels 395

Colenso’s collectors 401

Index of genera and higher groups mentioned
by Colenso


William Colenso was New Zealand’s Mungo Park, our intrepid white explorer into the dark interior, but Colenso is also the most important figure in the story of our early botany, with a natural and eventually highly developed eye for the key elements that differentiate between plants, and an indefatiguable compulsion to write about them.

Bagnall and Petersen1 traversed the many aspects of Colenso’s genius in their classic work. His life, 1811-1899, coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, with its Pax Brittanica, its colonial wealth, and the great flowering of science. At the start of the Victorian age, Christian faith and the sciences were generally seen to be in beautiful accord. By the end, the authority of the churches had diminished, scientists had become specialists, and the sciences and religion were seen as divorced and distinct. A thinking theologian might thrive in a climate like that.

Colenso left a huge legacy of published papers on many subjects, but also an extraordinary amount of unpublished work that has been difficult to access. A recent experience will illustrate that.

The New Zealand spider orchid Nematoceras trilobum is now regarded as an aggregate of taxa, and I was recently trying to determine just which one was the Type. Hooker has two separate collections on the type sheet at Kew, but one has been lectotypified, a Colenso specimen numbered 161 and dated 1847.

Colenso sent numbered plant lists to the Hookers, but those lists (kept at Kew) have never been transcribed, and only imperfect copies of some of the original longhand lists were available at Te Papa. His list sent with letters dated July-December 1846 (which arrived at Kew in 1847) includes no.161 with the annotation, “161?Acianthus, found at last… in flower, shaded damp spots, wood, with Nos.154 and 159”. No.154 is annotated “?Melycitus… from… between Ẁareama, & the head of the Wairarapa Valley. No.159 is a Clematis, found in “woods, with 154”. Furthermore, no.162 was collected “on the banks of the River Kahumingi, near the wood whence preceding”. We know that Colenso referred to Te Kaikokirikiri (Masterton) as the “head of the Wairarapa Valley”, so he found Nematoceras trilobum near the Kaumingi Stream on the track between Whareama and Masterton – i.e., near the Masterton-Riversdale road today.

Colenso wrote detailed records of his journeys in his reports to the Church Missionary Society, only parts of which have ever been transcribed, and again, faded photocopies of the originals are at Te Papa. Colenso relates therein that he arrived at Whareama on 29 October 1845, halted at a wood near Kahumingi on 30th, and arrived in Masterton on 31st. On his return from Wellington he spent another night at Kahumingi on 24 November. These are the only times he could possibly have collected specimen 161.

The only November-flowering member of the Nematoceras trilobum aggregate found nowadays in that region is one tagnamed Nematoceras “Trotters” after it was found at Trotters Gorge in Otago. And indeed, small specimens of that taxon do match the Type.2 Problem solved, but how

much easier it would have been if Colenso’s lists and letters had been readily available in published form.

Actually that was the intention of Bruce Hamlin, Curator of Botany at the National Museum Herbarium, before his early death in 1976.

Bruce Hamlin, Colenso and Kew

Hamlin had written, five years before he died,3

“The botanical collections of William Colenso have a double signifi­cance for New Zealand botanists. First, they represent a considerable proportion of the North Island plants which were available to Hooker for the Flora Novae Zelandiae, and many of the specimens now in Dominion Museum are isotypes or duplicates of collections cited in that work. Furthermore, of the ‘species’ which Colenso described in various volumes of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, a high pro­portion are represented in the herbarium by specimens named in his handwriting.

“His cryptogamic herbariurn, as received in 1949 from Hawkes Bay Museum, consisted of thousands of packets, some in bundles, but the majority jumbled, torn, dirty and at first sight a curator’s nightmare. Until five or six years ago they remained so. The great majority bore numbers, and frequently very little else. When they were sorted into numerical order, the collection became more comprehensible.

“Colenso’s collecting can be divided conveniently into two periods: (1) the missionary years 1836-52; and (2) the years preceding and including his retirement from 1879-99. The lack of activity between these periods is explained by the necessity of his earning a living after he was unfrocked. 4

“The early years are those of the great journeys: to North Cape, East Cape – Bay of Plenty – Waikato,5 6 7 and then, after his move to Hawke’s Bay, the journeys across the Ruahines to Taupo and the bi-annual walks down the Wairarapa Coast to Wellington and back via the Wairarapa valley. 8 In passing, it should be borne in mind that any references to Colenso specimens from the Tararua Mountains are solely attributable to what is now the Rimutaka Saddle, from the Hutt Valley into the Wairarapa. 9

“Specimens resulting from these expeditions were numbered and sent to W. J. Hooker at Kew along with voluminous letters listing the numbers and giving localities and other information. These letters have been bound and placed in the library at Kew. 10 The speci­mens were placed in the herbarium with only their numbers, and to find the provenance of a particular specimen it is necessary to refer to the letters and lists.

“One difficulty in matching a specimen with the lists is that the early collections were sent in batches, each batch starting at No. 1, so it is necessary to check several letters for the correct entry. From 1846 onwards, Colenso numbered in a continuous series; these numbers cover all groups of plants and exceed 6,000 entries.

“Colenso retained duplicates of most of his specimens, especially cryptogams; this is the collection now in the Dominion Museum and sometimes there is a pencil note on the wrapping giving a locality and/or date. This can be a help in matching specimens with the numbers. In the introduction to Colenso’s 1844 ‘Journal of a Naturalist’, W. J. Hooker stated that in his son’s projected Flora, Colenso’s plants would be designated by number. It is greatly to be regretted that this was not done, except in isolated instances.

“Specimens relating to these early journeys can usually be recognised by the black ink used for the numbering, by the style of the figures and by the character of the wrapping papers. The latter were frequently proof papers from Colenso’s own press, or else pages torn from religious journals.

“After his retirement in 1884, Colenso renewed his interest in botany. Collecting was nearly all done in southern Hawke’s Bay, in the old Seventy-mile Bush, roughly from Takapau to the Manawatu Gorge. That area is now completely cleared and is entirely farmland, whereas in Colenso’s day it was very dense bush, although he lived to see much of the clearing accomplished. His collections are the only adequate record of the original flora of that area.

“From 1879 Colenso started publishing his own descriptions, and apparently specimens of all his so-called species were sent to Kew. 11 With vascular plants, specimens of his ‘new species’ only were sent to Hooker, the names apparently being deemed sufficient information. With other groups,12 large quantities of specimens were sent, so numbers were added in ink, duplicates being retained in most instances. Different serial numbers were used for each major plant group. Mosses had a simple number, liverworts were prefixed with ‘a’, fungi had ‘b’ and lichens had ‘c’. The importance of these prefixes has not always been appreciated. Nylander (1888)13 ignored them and consequently there is some doubt as to whether a particular citation refers to a ‘missionary’ collection or to a later ‘c’ collection. From my checking, it would seem that all Colenso numbers cited by Nylander should have a ‘c’ prefix. These later collections can be distinguished from the ‘missionary’ collections in nearly all instances by the presence of a pencilled capital initial: H. (Hepaticae), M. (Musci), F. (Fungi) and L. (Lichenes). The numbering system for mosses has an additional complication in that Colenso sent nearly 900 specimens to ‘Reader’ (possibly H.P. Reader, author of The Hepaticae of Gloucestershire in Witchell & Strugnell, 189214), but gave these specimens a different number series from those sent to Kew. A packet may therefore bear two numbers, one for Kew and one for Reader. I have not, however, found four-figure numbers below 2,500, so it would appear that this is about the starting point for the series to Kew. Colenso does not appear to have regarded these retained specimens as his herbarium. In a letter to Cheeseman (December 25, 1882, Auckland Institute and Museum), he states that he kept ‘no regular herbarium’; his herbarium was at Kew! There is, however, an im­portant aspect of the retained material; it appears that none of the specimens sent away bears more than a name or serial number. The retained material, in the great majority of instances, bears pencil annota­tions, usually with some sort of locality reference. Many of the references are fanciful names which had some meaning to Colenso, e.g. ‘Gottschea Creek’, ‘wood behind Chinese’ and – thoroughly evocative – ‘Lost Knife Gully’. A surprising number of the packets were found bearing in addition to the ‘pet’ locality names a reference such as ‘Dannevirke’, ‘Norsewood’, or their abbreviations ‘Dvk’, ‘Nsd’. Bundles of packets carried annotations on the outside wrapping as, for example, ‘Novr. /87 Hepaticae Dannevirke Nos. 891 to 915 for Kew’. It seems probable that these duplicate bundles carried the same information as was on the wrappings of those sent to Kew, but it appears that the information was not transcribed on to the specimens before they were placed in that herbarium. The localities are consequently lacking on the Kew speci­mens. Another source of information on the ‘pet’ locality names is the protologues of the described species. These are usually the only speci­mens which bear a specific epithet; in addition they frequently bear a ‘pet’ locality name. By references to the protologues, these localities can be placed with greater accuracy. In this way, an index of localities has been built up and a high proportion of the specimens can now be localised with reasonable satisfaction.

“In view of the lack of information on the overseas specimens, it is suggested that, other things being equal, a specimen in New Zealand would be the better and more convenient choice where a lectotype had to be selected.”

I have quoted Bruce Hamlin at some length. In 1976 he had already sorted Colenso’s herbarium, identified the place names and listed the colloquial place names on Colenso’s specimens, transcribed (from Colenso’s Church Missionary Society journals) his journeys to those places, and had started on the lists of plants sent to Kew (he had completed only the 1846 list). Thus a good deal of the work for this book was done by Hamlin, and was left at the National Museum when he died suddenly in 1976. The contents of a large cardboard box at Te Papa form the core of this work.

Hamlin left various undated versions of his introductions, and of the lists of placenames: I have chosen what appeared to be the most recent. Furthermore, it is clear from his introduction that he intended to edit the plant lists to include only those plants represented in Colenso’s herbarium in Wellington (about 10 percent of the total). In my view Colenso’s entire lists are of interest, so I have opted to reproduce them fully. But to indicate Hamlin’s intention, I have reproduced in bold type, the names of plants in the Kew lists that are represented in Herb. Colenso.

Probably Hamlin would not have done so, but I have chosen to republish the letter published as Journal of a naturalist in the London Journal of Botany in full – for two reasons. First, it is the only record of the 600 plants sent in 1842,15 but second, it is (despite recent cynicism)16 one of New Zealand’s most important historical documents – the prose as over-decorated as a pre-Raphaelite painting or a piece of late Victorian furniture – but the content simply extraordinary. The Journal is the only part of the present work that has been published.

Colenso numbered his missionary period specimens sent to Kew for one reason: so that the Hookers could identify them for him. He wrote to Sir WJ Hooker, “The specimens that I either believe to be new, or have some remark to offer on, I have numbered, that I might the more easily refer to them in my Letter, and that you, also, might be the better enabled kindly to give me your opinion on each, Seriatim.” (20 July 1841).

Predating Colenso’s correspondence with Kew are the letters and plant lists17 to Allan Cunningham in 1839, and the notes to JD Hooker when he was aboard the Erebus in the Bay of Islands in 1841. Hamlin had not intended to reproduce these in his book, but I have chosen to do so. Robert Heward (who inherited Cunningham’s herbarium) later identified the plants Colenso sent to Cunningham (in a letter to Colenso dated 7 December 1841), so it seems appropriate to include these lists too.

(As a consequence of Heward’s letter, Colenso wrote admonishing WJ Hooker, “…Mr. Heward has adopted the very manner of sending me seriatim, the names of the plants I had sent to A.C. which I should be most happy to receive from you. I mean, in reference to unknown species and especially with regard to Mosses and Algæ, &c. for which purpose I have even numbered all specimens sent.” [Letter of 1 December 1842]).

William Colenso and Joseph Hooker

JD Hooker was 24 years old and Colenso 30 when the two met at Paihia on 19 August 1841.

Hooker wrote from the Bay of Islands to his father,18 “Colenso has been extremely kind to me and has taken me several excursions. He is a very good fellow in every respect and has shown me the greatest attention; his time, however, is too much occupied at present with the printing establishment and with the other higher duties of a Missionary’s life. Of this class of men Mr. Colenso is among the most superior; for I regret to say that I was much disappointed in the high opinion I had previously formed of them, – derived from some of their own narratives which I had read at home. Among them there are indeed many most exemplary characters and Mr. Colenso is especially so.”

He wrote again,19 “Two days ago I bid adieu to my most kind and amiable friend, Colenso; for sincerity and true Christian feeling he reminds me of the good Mr. Neilson; and I am sure a warmer-hearted, happier-minded parson never came my way. We formed an intimacy which shall never be forgotten by me. His entire time is occupied in endeavours to improve the Natives; for he is the most zealous servant of the great cause in the whole Island…. Since I left Paihia some bottled Porter and Claret have reached me as a present from him, for which I am sorry, as I am sure his poor cellar could ill afford such a diminution…. I should mention that a most kind note accompanied the wine.”20

Though they never met again, they had formed a close personal attachment that was to endure through their sometimes quite intimate correspondence (and exchange of photographs), until Colenso’s death in 1899. Personally they were friends and equals; scientifically, although Colenso had greater local knowledge than anyone else, it was Hooker who had the botanical credentials. 21

At times Colenso’s mode of addressing the Hookers seems fawningly sycophantic to our plainer, egalitarian 21st century sensibilities, but such obsequiousness was customary in the correspondence of the time.22 Furthermore his repeatedly referring to his precious specimens as scraps, and remarks such as “May my few, and poor, remarks be of some service to you” (following July 1846 list), or “And now, my dear Sir William, I must end this almost worthless epistle”, or “my voluminous scribbling” were self-deprecating hyperbole. He was obviously mortified when an exasperated JD Hooker took him at his word, rounding on him with “I assure you that miscellaneous scraps such as you sent and all so carefully numbered are not worth the time and trouble of looking over,” and again: “literally ¾ are seedling mosses & Hepaticæ, dead and decaying Lichens, bleached imperfect Seaweeds, mycelia of fungi, &c., &c., – do spare yourself the trouble and expense of collecting such things.”23 The correspondence continued, however, surviving even the carefully crafted sarcasm in Colenso’s letter to “My dear Dr Hooker” of 28 August 1854, and his criticism of Hooker’s Handbook in 1865.

Many letters to Hooker post-date his retirement from the Directorship of Kew, and during that period there is another series from Colenso to Hooker’s successor, his son-in-law WT Thistelton-Dyer. There is a great deal of botanical interest in all of them, and they are reproduced here.24

Hooker’s replies to Colenso’s letters have not survived – neither among extant Colenso correspondence, nor as copies at Kew.25

Colenso the taxonomist

Bagnall and Petersen acknowledged Colenso’s genius, but also his faults, accepting the conservative view of Cheeseman and others since,26, 27 that he consistently imagined distinctions between plants, differences that did not really exist.

In the letters and plant lists of the missionary years to the Hookers, Colenso frequently suggested manuscript names for plants he regarded as new, and often expressed his exasperation later, that his names (and thus his observations on the distinctness of the plants) had not been accepted. He was, after all, the only European to have seen the plants alive, and the only person to observe the different uses Māori put them to – for instance, “2468. Calystegia tuguriorum, Forst. I send you this, that I may the better call your attention to the fact, that the roots of this species were formerly eaten commonly by the Natives, and are now eagerly sought after by pigs. – Now C. sepium is a terrible purgative”. 28

In the later years, he himself formally described the plants he regarded as distinct.29 Many of those names were later relegated to synonymy with plants described earlier by others, but many were accepted, and many, with greater recent taxonomic sophistication, are now being reinstated.

Cheeseman wrote of Pterostylis banksii, for instance, “Mr. Colenso has made no less than 5 species based upon what appear to me to be exceedingly slight and inconstant differences. After a careful study of his descriptions and specimens I must confess my inability to distinguish any of them, even as varieties”.30 Colenso’s species were Pp. patens, emarginata, auriculata, subsimilis, speciosa. Two, P. patens and P. auriculata, are now accepted species, and others appear to be so.

Neither did his friend JD Hooker accept many of Colenso’s new species. He wrote, “… you have described as new, some of the best known Ferns in the world.”31 Some of Hooker’s blunt notes on Colenso’s plants survive in the Kew volumes, for instance, “Earina flaccidilobata Col. This is E. mucronata Ldl. of Kew Herb.”

Colenso himself was well aware of these criticisms – he wrote to Cheeseman, “Of one thing I am pretty certain, that if you knew those plants I have laboured to describe, you would, I think, alter your judgment concerning, at least, some of them: and further, that even in those instances in which I may be wrong, (although I am not conscious of any,) I shall not have laboured in vain; because I have brought forward in every case certain characters that had not been noticed in the descriptions originally given of the species to which such may belong, and therefore will be of service to working Botanists in assessing their specific descriptions hereafter.”32 He had written much earlier to Hooker, “I think you do me injustice in supposing (believing?) that I desire to multiply species – as I have ever disliked it. I am well aware that I know very little indeed (save from books) of the Botany of any Country except N.Z.; still, I fancy, I know the specific differences of many N.Z. plants; but there I stop.”33

The Kew fern specialist JG Baker would not accept many of Colenso’s names, and Colenso repeatedly referred to him in his later letters (including those to Cheeseman) – for instance, “I am pretty certain that Mr. Baker will (again!) not allow of some of my Ferns being sp. nov. I suppose, we (two) will always be opposites. I bear in mind, however, Mr. Baker’s former errors re some of my early described ferns, (e.g. Lindsæa viridis, Polypodium sylvaticum, Dicksonia sps, &c) which he afterwards, slowly acknowledged to be valid sps. And (as I have not infrequently said, and written,) I consider my knowledge of our N.Z. ferns – fully examined in a living state – to be superior to Mr Baker’s knowledge of them from examination of them (or, it may be parts only) in a dried state at Home, – that is, in comparing them with other known N.Z. species. And, while I say this, I readily acknowledge that, as to Ferns of other countries, I know little or nothing, and am not worthy to carry Mr. Baker’s shoes in this matter. Please tell him this, with my compliments. I would rather that he too, could have condescended to read my descriptions of spns. nov., for I generally give also their differential characters from their allied species.”34

In one letter he anticipated Hooker’s reaction when he told him he had been writing “A Paper for Linnaean Society, (don’t start!) containing descriptions of a few new plants”.

It is tempting to defend Colenso the amateur against the weight of his professional critics, and to a large extent such a defence now appears justified; but in truth he did too often claim differences on evidence that was simply too slight. If “Objectivity resides in recognising your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny, and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail,”35 then Colenso was perhaps not always entirely objective.

Colenso’s herbarium

Colenso wrote in 1863 that he had “the best Herbarium, & best Botanl. Library in the Colony”.36 Yet later he famously claimed to Cheeseman that he had never kept an herbarium, and indeed JD Hooker cut Colenso down to size with the words, “From having no Herbarium, you have described as new, some of the best known Ferns in the world”. 37 Earlier Colenso had written to WJ Hooker, “… my Herbaria have been so culled over by one friend and another, that I had not many Duplicates remaining”. 38

In 1891 he wrote to RC Harding, “(Kirk) wants spns. of all my newly-descd.-plants! which (if I have them, which is doubtful, as I only cared to have spns. to send to Hooker/Kew,) will cause me to go through all my bundles of plants, & really would occupy a week or 10 days – close at it!!!” – And again in 1893: “... at Home, & wkg. hard; – at last! putting up all my plants, of years collecting into bundles, & marking them – but it is still ‘pye’ – unsorted!! I got Slater up to put up a lot of shelves for me in all 3 rooms & have stowed away those bundles!”

Soon after his death in 1899 his specimens were sent to Cheeseman for classification. Colenso’s old friend Henry Hill was the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute’s representative on the Board of Governors of the New Zealand Institute, when “The botanical specimens of the late Mr. Colenso, which had been lent to Mr. Cheeseman, of Auckland, were returned by that gentleman properly classified and arranged. Mr. Hill was authorised to communicate with the Government with a view to the specimens being placed on deposit in the Colonial Museum, where they would be of considerable use for scientific purposes. Acting on the recommendation of the Council, Mr. Hill communicated with the Premier, with the result that the specimens have been forwarded to Wellington and placed on deposit as suggested”. 39 A letter from the Colonial Secretary dated January 1905 survives in the Dominion Museum letter record book, and gives “authority to take charge of Bot. collections of the late Mr. Colenso”.

Victor Zotov enumerated the specimens in Herb. Colenso in 1937, with a separate list of type specimens. Zotov wrote to Hamlin that “The specimens were loose on sheets taken from a magazine with or without numbered tickets and with or without Cheeseman’s annotations. In some instances the written matter was on edges of strips of newspaper”. 40

Then, on 26 November 1947, HP Hole, the Honorary Secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand, wrote to Dr WRB Oliver, offering the collection for sale to the Dominion Museum “at a nominal valuation of ₤1 per type with a minimum of ₤100”. Oliver was in Christchurch, and instructed his deputy WJ Phillipps, “I would suggest you offer ₤100 for the Colenso collection of plants”. The museum Management Committee minutes of 11 February 1948 record “The Director reported that action was complete, the herbarium now having been purchased.”

Colenso’s health

Retrospective attempts to diagnose the ills that have beset great men seem vaguely arrogant, but Colenso’s personality has been the subject of a good deal of comment. That he was a conscientious perfectionist there can be no doubt – but so were many of the great Victorians: it was a characteristic of the achievers of that era (including Freud!). Whether his obsessionality reached the point of personality disorder is doubtful – Colenso achieved too much to be regarded as disordered. But definitions of obsessional personality disorder contain features that seem disturbingly familiar to anyone who has studied Colenso. 41

He wrote freely about his physical illnesses, but he was a fit athlete who covered more ground on foot than any New Zealand explorer before him. He was susceptible to winter viruses (influenza – “la grippe” was epidemic annually), complicated by “bronchitis” (possibly bronchiectasis after his whooping cough in 1848), and (in 1891-2) by a weakness of his legs42 that suggests Guillain-Barré syndrome (though one wonders if some of his weakness was self-induced by the hemlock in his remedies).43 He complained repeatedly of “rheumatics” (an imprecise term for almost any musculoskeletal disorder) and lumbago,44 possibly simply the painful osteoarthritic and degenerative conditions that reward a lifetime of long walks45 and hard physical work, but more likely an inflammatory arthritis, for even at age 37 he complained of being “laid aside with severe Rheumatism for 3 weeks in Decr.”46 In 1885 at Woodville he was so crippled he had to take a cab to and from church – but, again, his complaint was of “weakness” of his legs, rather than pain.47 Again, in 1893 he wrote, “I am pretty well: much more free from Rheumatism – I do think, Infl. has lessened that but this, Infl., is at times very bad, especially in feet, soles & toes, so that sometimes I can scarcely walk at all – & very painful, but only while walking,”48 suggesting an inflammatory arthritis involving the small joints of his feet rather than the effects of influenza.

He seems to have suffered a pulpspace infection or septic arthritis of his right forefinger in 1867, complicated by ankylosis of the joints, so that he had to relearn to write. He damaged his right thumb on the train in May 1895, and his next letter was January 1896.

His accident near Woodvile in 1897 at age 86 was serious: he was being driven in a gig when his “horse fell on side as if shot and I thrown high w. a somersault came down on right side, &c &c stunned”.49 He lost blood, damaged his right arm, and was very weak in the legs, slowly recovering during 63 days of care by his Woodville friends, and then at his Dannevirke hotel. (His wise doctor, no doubt noting the post-traumatic depression – he “had no heart! no desire to read!... w. other [feeling]s akin” – had suggested the move from Woodville to Dannevirke, where he would be less socially isolated). He lost his “strength – power in my legs for walking” because his “muscles seem to be so grossly degenerated – contracted, & all from the shock”.50 The head injury probably exacerbated an already failing memory.51

In late life too, he suffered paroxysmal tachycardia: “my heart has lately (during 2-4 months) bumped away at a terrible rate – not fast but loud & strongly, regular in its rhythm! but kicking-up such a row as almost to stop my reading or writing, – or even to my hearing the rain or the rustling of the leaves of the trees outside; such lasts about an hour, or less, then it subsides – goes to sleep! Like that famous Geyser in Iceland, of which your honoured Father wrote so eloquently. Some folks, I fancy, would be frightened at such erratic & abnormal movements and visit a Doctor’s Surgery! May I ever be kept from that!”.52 In January 1898 he noted “feet & ankles swelling much – painless – anasarca begun.”

Despite often dwelling on his illnesses, Colenso only occasionally mentioned doctors, sometimes disdainfully: his early years as a dispenser taught him to make up his own medicines – for instance “anodyne pill (of my own) at night” (14 May 1883) and his recipe for it (14 October 1885) – and he wrote to Balfour,53 “I am pretty (or very) well again. A great change with me, for the better took place on Sunday last, & yesterday, electricity clinched the nail. I have for 50 years been a great believer in electricity, – & am of the opinion, that future ages will make wondrous uses of it, & also find it a great curative power.” Belief in Victorian black-box quackery was a symptom of fin-de-siècle madness.

This material has been transcribed from a range of primary and secondary sources; I sighted originals of the Colenso/Cunningham correspondence. Hamlin had typed his introduction, the herbarium lists, itineraries, and place names; the Alexander Turnbull Library had a few of the letters available as typed copies. The rest of the letters, as well as the plant lists, were transcribed from photocopies of microfilm copies held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.54 The microfilms form part of the the Australian Joint Copying Project of the National Library of Australia and the Library of New South Wales. Colenso’s letters are bound into several of the volumes of correspondence to Kew Directors – Volumes 1-76 being letters to WJ Hooker, and 77-218 to the later Directors – and other volumes of private correspondence to Sir Joseph and Lady Hyacinth Hooker; there is a two volume index compiled by Lady Hyacinth.

In many places words and whole lines are indistinct or obscured in the microfilm copies, and in these instances I have (with the support of a Winston Churchill Fellowship) consulted the originals at Kew. The letters herein are referenced with the Kew volume numbers and most of the page numbers (not all: some are obscure) and the Alexander Turnbull Library reference and microfilm reel numbers, and the photographic exposure numbers on the reels (e.g. Kew Vol. LXXIV: p38; ATL Micro-Ms-Coll-10 Reel 27: E265).

It is tempting to analyse and interpret, but except in overly cryptic passages and references, I have tried to curb the urge, and to let Colenso’s expressive prose speak for him.


I have retained authors’ footnotes as plain text, have shown Hamlin’s comments (where he has identified them) in square brackets in regular type in the text and in his footnotes. I have italicized my own notes and footnotes. Many surnames recur in the letters, so, rather than deal with them as footnotes, I have given a “Who’s who” at the end. It was customary in Colenso’s time to write the name and address of the recipient at the end of a letter: I have moved them to the beginning for the sake of clarity. There are plant names following some entries on the lists – some are clearly Hooker’s identifications, but with some the handwriting is not easily identifiable. Although Colenso’s lists are often referred to as “plant lists”, they also include birds, bones, bats, bark, belts, bread, butterflies, moths, mats, rocks, rats, crabs, eels, shells, leeches, insects, dishes, fishes, fossils, flotsam, fabrics, twine, wood, worms, slugs and other things.


Some of the language used to refer to Māori would be regarded as offensive today, and for that I apologise in advance – but it was the currency of the time, and is reproduced here simply in context; Colenso is celebrated as a staunch advocate of Māori interests, albeit with colonialist and missionary paternalism. Women, Scotsmen, Roman Catholics, politicians, farmers, clergy and other groups might as justifiably take offence.

Publication in this book should not, in any instance, be regarded as a formal description of a plant as detailed in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The descriptions in Colenso’s letters do not constitute formal publication under today’s requirements for the Code, as they either lack Latin descriptions or do not cite types.

The concept of a book like this was Bruce Hamlin’s, and much of it is his work: I have bundled up his work, tied off some loose ends, filled what I perceived to be gaps, extended the scope somewhat and made a few observations. I did not meet him, but think, now, that I know what he was trying to do, and why. I know he recognised, despite the detractors, Colenso’s genius. Hamlin's unpublished material is held at, and reproduced with permission from, Te Papa.

Hamlin’s obituary, written by his marine biologist friend the late Dr John Yaldwyn, is reprinted in full below. He left no descendants.

A sheet of notepaper in Hamlin’s box at Te Papa acknowledges MK Fitzgerald (now Curator of History at Te Papa), MJH Wyatt, the Hocken Library (M Hitchings), JSB Munro of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, the Turnbull Library, and CI Tuarau.

The material in Colenso’s letters and lists is reproduced with the kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I also acknowledge the National Library of Australia and the Library of New South Wales, directing authorities for the Australian Joint Copying Project, which has made the material contained in the volumes of correspondence and plant lists at Kew available on microfilm.

I thank also the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, which holds the Colenso Cunningham Heward letters, and the helpful and patient staff of the Manuscripts section, where a copy of the Kew microfims (Library reference Micro-Ms-Coll-10) and other Colenso manuscripts were accessed. I acknowledge also the Hocken Library, Uaretaoka o Hākena, which holds the Church Missionary Society journals (Ms-64).

I thank the editor of Te Ara – Journal of Museums Aotearoa, for permission to republish Bruce Hamlin’s obituary; and the Royal Society of New Zealand for permission to quote extensively from Hamlin's bryophyte paper in the New Zealand Journal of Botany.

I thank also Gail Pope at Napier Museum and Art Gallery; Josephine Milne, Manager, Collections, National Herbarium of Victoria; and John Yaldwyn’s son, John Yaldwyn. Patrick Brownsey and Barry Sneddon and staff at Te Papa, and Brian Molloy of Christchurch have been enthusiastically supportive and helpful. Lottery Grants financed the copying and subsidised publication. The Winston Churchill Foundation assisted with funding my visit to Kew.

I reserve special thanks for Nada Harvey, who typed much of this difficult material in her own time, albeit with the considerable reward of increasing empathy for her subject.

I take full responsibility for the inevitable transcription errors, though I hope there are, after so much checking, few of them.

The Rev. James Hamlin, who was missionary at Wairoa in Colenso’s time, and who delivered the Bishop’s sentence of suspension to Colenso on that awful November day in 1852, was not, as far as I can determine, one of Bruce Hamlin’s forebears. The Rev. Georg Kissling, who was the Church Missionary Society man at Kawakawa (now Te Araroa) in Colenso’s time, was, however, one of my great great grandfathers. Colenso knew them both well.

The significance of Colenso’s contribution to New Zealand history has not always been properly valued; for time must pass before we can readily acknowledge the greatness of obstinate and difficult men. 2011 marks the bicentennial of his birth: it should be properly celebrated.

Ian St George


February 2009.

Veronica colensoi
detail from JN Fitch’s lithograph
of Matilda Smith’s drawing
from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine
No. 7296


Bruce Gordon Hamlin, f.m.a.n.z., f.r.n.s.n.z.,

by John Yaldwyn, reprinted with permission from AGMANZ News 7: 52-53 (1976). (AGMANZ News has been superseded by Te Ara Journal of Museums Aotearoa).

Bruce Hamlin, author, museum professional and botanist, died in Karori on Monday 22nd March aged 46 holding two titles he was very proud to have— Curator of the National Museum Herbarium and President of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand.

Bruce was a raconteur, actor and humorist with a well produced voice and an excellent command of English. He loved words and their correct use and there are not many of his professional colleagues who have not asked for his advice on written English at some time or other.

Bruce was born in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, one of a family of ten brothers and sisters. He was educated at Wellington High School so might be said to have had a long association with the institutions on Wellington’s Mount Cook. He joined the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Botany Division on the Terrace (where the Reserve Bank and Guy Ngan’s wall sculpture now are) as a trainee aged 16 and worked as assistant to Victor Zotov, internationally known authority on grasses and allied plants. In 1954 he joined the staff of the Dominion Museum, as the “National” was called then, as assistant in the Botany Department during Dr (now Sir Robert) Falla’s directorship.

I first knew Bruce at Victoria University College in the early fifties. We were not involved in the same classes there, nor in the same aspects and intrigues of student body politics. I do not remember him in extravs, proceshes or demonstrations, but I do remember him in Drama Club and Tramping Club activities, I was in several plays with him, rhubarbing in the crowd or carrying important one-line messages, but he had main parts with his good voice, stagemanship and sense of drama. To see Bruce wearing his silvered papier mache cuirass on his broad chest and carrying his red-plumed helmet under his left arm playing a Roman general in Pat Evison’s production of Coriolanus and Brutus in Wilder’s Lucrece opposite Terry Bayler and produced by Maria Dronke was a sight to be long remembered and a voice image to be long heard. Bruce and I were together in the Dominion Museum in the late fifties and early sixties as junior scientists. He became interested in printing and publishing, changed the format of the Museum’s scientific journal, the Records—not an easy task as anyone involved in changing a periodical’s format will know—and took over its editorship for the next ten years or so. Bruce had a quarter-hour Nature Question Time weekly on the 2YA children’s session in the late 1950s and early 1960s in which he answered queries ranging from “What moth is that?” (usually an Emperor Gum) to “How does a chiton stick to a rock?”, or “What plant is this leaf from?” (sometimes too shrivelled to tell) to “Can we eat this mushroom/ toadstool’ (presumably too late to matter!) In 1962-63 he appeared quite regularly on TV’s Junior Magazine with Peter and Kate Harcourt to talk about natural history items, coins, medals and other curiosities.

After some years overseas, I became closely associated with him again when I returned to the Dominion Museum in 1969 under the present Director. Dr R. K. Dell, and the rest seems to be recent history. Bruce was Curator of Botany then, giving up his editorship of the botany section of the Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand and shortly to give up his editorial work for the Museum. He was a tower of information for us during the Cook Bicentenary Exhibition held in our galleries in 1969-70 with his special knowledge of the writings of Captain Cook and his associated naturalists. Bruce gave a vivid public lecture, in a series organised by the NZBC, in the Wellington Concert Chamber on Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Solander with colour slides of contemporary political and scientific cartoons dealing with Banks and the First Voyage.

In the fifties and sixties Bruce’s botanical research was mainly on the recognition and classification of sedges of the genera Carex and Uncinia from New Zealand and the subantarctic islands, though he wrote and illustrated popular books on Native Trees (1962) and Native Ferns (1963). In the seventies he began to work hard on a new botanical love the liverworts, or “hepatics” as he would call them. These often overlooked insignificant little plants occur in New Zealand in their hundreds of species but little is known about them.

Bruce has long been associated with the work of AGMANZ and was one of its keenest supporters within the national institutions. He served on Council from 1963-1965 and from 1967-1973, was Vice President (Museums) from 1973-1975 and President for the year 1975-76. He realised that there was a great need to increase the public’s interest in museums of all types and was especially interested in improving display quality and in raising standards within the profession. Bruce always regarded himself as representing the individual staff members rather than the institutional members of AGMANZ and in an article on the role of individual members in the Association (AGMANZ News Vol. 5, No. 2, p.40) he stated his firm belief that “their ideas, their voices and their votes are what can and should direct and control AGMANZ”.

As a member of the museum profession Bruce had strong views on the role of natural history museums and wrote of them as storehouses of “the historical documents which make up museum collections, a stuffed bird, a mounted insect or a dried plant, labelled as being from a particular place and a certain time is as much a historical document” for natural history “as is a written paper or picture” for human history (New Zealand’s Nature Heritage Pt 93, p.2595). Later in the same article (p. 2599) he described the “life of a museum curator” (his life) as a “vastly varied and rewarding one. Not only does he have to acquire a wider view of his field than does a specialist in a purely research institution, but he has the advantage of being in close touch with workers in other disciplines with whom he can discuss problems ... and with the public, to whom he must communicate in readily understandable terms, without resorting to jargon ... The necessity of clarifying one’s own ideas in order to do this can be a valuable exercise ... at the same time contributing to the public’s understanding.” His final point was that “collectively the biologists working in museums represent a remarkable body of knowledge and expertise. They each have their own specialities… Their museums are only part of the network of scientific organisations” which includes universities and government agencies, but “they are the public relations organisations which bring science direct to the public.”

Bruce was made a Fellow of AGMANZ (F.M.A.N.Z.) in 1968 and took the main responsibility while he was on Council for organising the programmes of the extended annual general meetings held every second year at the Dominion-National Museum. During his presidency he was a member of the Minister of Internal Affairs’s advisory committee on the distribution of the art galleries and museums capital grants fund. The loss of much of AGMANZ’s own financial support last year (coupled with financial problems of his own) disappointed him greatly and contributed to his recent poor health. He worked hard on AGMANZ during the year; he did not share this burden, and the problems which AGMANZ suddenly faced during his presidency were a great blow to him and helped in many ways we will never know to bring about his sudden death on the eve of an extended annual meeting he had planned and looked forward to but in some ways feared to address.

Bruce had other interests and some human failings as well. In addition to plants, museums, acting, broadcasting and drama, he loved people, music, writing and humour. He was interested in English as a language, in its grammar and construction, and in scientific names in Latin and Greek. He was interested in publishing, typology, printing and bookbinding. Coins, tokens and medals had a special fascination for him and he had been President of the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand. He was made a Fellow of this Society (F.R.N.S.N.Z.) in 1967 for the work he did during the numismatic exhibition at the Dominion Museum to mark the decimal currency changeover in

New Zealand. Another interest was the botanical history of New Zealand and he did much to document the field work of early botanists such as D. Petrie, T. Kirk, L. Cockayne and W. Colenso. He was interested in Colenso as a man, a missionary and a scientist; he had a manuscript on the botanical journeyings of Colenso through the North Island on his desk almost ready for publication. Bruce did clear and delightfully simple botanical drawings for his books and other publications and had strong views on accuracy and the final printed quality of such illustrations.

Bruce tramped when he was younger, especially in the Tararuas, and did botanical field work in New Zealand, in the Chatham Islands with Dr W. R. B. Oliver, on southern Stewart Island from Alex Black’s research ship Acheron, and visited Australia twice. In 1963 he represented the Dominion Museum at the Golden Jubilee of the National Botanical Gardens of South Africa, Kirstenbosch, followed by a three-week tour of southern African national parks. He had strong political views but he did not often, nor openly, express them.

Above all Bruce loved his work as a botanist in the National Museum Herbarium, internationally known as WELT, and knew what should be done with its huge historical collections of some 300,000 specimens, though he was not always able to do it for a number of reasons. He gardened keenly, worked in a small way on plant conservation and appeared at some local conservation hearings. He might have ended a short talk on his own interests with a two-line Clerihew such as:

Acting is about plays,

Museums are about displays.


Cyathodes colensoi
Detail from JN Fitch’s lithograph
of Matilda Smith’s drawing
from Cheeseman TF. Illustrations of the NZ flora, 1914. Plate 125.

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