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Lindley, John (1799–1865), botanist and horticulturist, was born on 5 February 1799 at Catton, near Norwich, the first of the four children of George Lindley (c.1769–1835), a nurseryman of Yorkshire extraction, and his wife, Mary (née Moore). He was educated under Dr Valpy at Norwich grammar school, where he collected wild plants for pleasure. He had wanted to seek a military career but his father could not afford to buy him a commission. Instead, in 1815, he travelled to Belgium as the agent of Wrench, a Camberwell seed merchant. By 1817 he was befriended by William Jackson Hooker, in whose Suffolk home Lindley completed his first botanical publication, Observations on the Structure of Fruits and Seeds (1819), a translation of Louis-Claude Richard's Demonstrations botaniques, ou, L'analyse du fruit. Hooker introduced Lindley to Charles Lyell (1769–1849) of Kinnordy and to Robert Brown, through whom Lindley met Sir Joseph Banks. Banks promised Lindley that he might be sent overseas as a naturalist, either to succeed the late Joseph Arnold in Sumatra, or to Madagascar. However, in 1819 Banks instead decided to employ Lindley in his library and herbarium at Soho Square as an assistant to Robert Brown. Lindley grasped this opportunity with both hands, and by Banks's death had completed important work on roses, Digitalis, and apples. The acuity of his taxonomical judgement may be gauged by the survival of many genera which he defined when he was barely twenty-one. Lyell, to whom Lindley had dedicated his monograph on roses, presented him with £100, which Lindley used to purchase a microscope and to begin the herbarium, which at his death contained some 58,000 sheets. He was elected to the Linnean and the Geological societies in 1820, to the Imperial Academy of Natural History in Bonn in 1821, and to the Royal Society in 1828, and his work was honoured in the genus Lindleya (1824) by Humboldt, Bonpland, and Kunth. In 1829 Lindley became the first professor of botany in the University of London, a post he held until 1860. In 1832 the University of Munich conferred on him an honorary DPhil.

On 1 November 1823 Lindley married Sarah Freestone (1791–1869), of South Elmham, Suffolk, the only daughter of Anthony George Freestone and Sarah, née Doggett, his wife. They had five children, of whom three grew to adulthood, including , and Sarah, the future Lady Crease. He was not perhaps a close husband, arranging to be away for most of each week, and while at their home, 5 The Terrace, Acton Green, he tended to retire to his study or garden. There he was often accompanied by Sarah Drake, his botanical artist, one of the greatest of all orchid painters, whom he installed in the family home from about 1830 until 1847. He was adored by his children and, in later years, it was his daughter Sarah, rather than his wife, who accompanied him on social engagements.

Lindley was an early and enthusiastic partisan of Jussieu's ‘natural system’. In his 1829 inaugural lecture at London and his lecture to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1833) he declared that botany should become a philosophical subject, using every aspect of anatomy and physiology to order plants in their natural families. From this commitment came his Synopsis of the British Flora (1829) and the Introduction to the Natural System (1830), of which Asa Gray, reviewer of the 1831 American edition, exulted, ‘No book, since printed bibles were sold in Paris by Dr Faustus, ever excited so much surprise and wonder’ (quoted in Stafleu and Cowan, 3.54). It was expanded and revised into A Natural System of Botany (1836) and his monumental The Vegetable Kingdom (1846). Lindley, in the former, was responsible for an enduring reform of botanical nomenclature, arguing that taxonomical divisions of the same hierarchical standing should wear names which shared a common suffix. The subsequent practice of ending the names of all families with ‘-acae’, or of all orders with ‘-ales’, for example, derives from this initiative. Of one family, the Orchidacae, Lindley remains considered the most distinguished of all students. In the Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants (1830–40), Sertum Orchidaceum: a Wreath of the most Beautiful Orchidaceous Flowers (1838), Orchidacae Lindenianae (1846), and Folia orchidacea (1852–9), he laid the foundations of modern orchidology, establishing some 120 genera. At that time increasingly rapid transportation and the development of artificially heated greenhouses led to orchid-collecting crazes in Britain. Both transport and heating depended on coalmining, and it was finds in the coal measures which, in part, urged Lindley, with Hutton, to prepare the pioneering Fossil Flora of Great Britain (3 vols., 1831–7). By the time of his retirement from University College he had more than two hundred publications to his credit. In 1853 the Institut de France elected him a corresponding member, and in 1857 the Royal Society awarded him its royal medal.

Lindley was forthright to the point of appearing brusque. He was fearless when he felt in the right, entering into public disputes with powerful figures such as Sir James Smith (over Linnaeus), Lord Brougham (for the right of professors to choose the books used in the University of London), and Brown (over the natural history collections of the British Museum). His energy and drive were famous: his working day often began at dawn and continued into the evening, and he could give as many as nineteen different lectures a week while also undertaking a range of extra-curricular responsibilities. His regular diet of overwork may well explain his sometimes difficult manner.

Lindley's material circumstances led him to take on this punishing schedule. He had, to his lasting regret, agreed in 1822 to stand as a guarantor of his father's liabilities. He himself was respectable enough to have to keep up appearances, but too poor to do so without borrowing. Lindley thus lived his life under the shadow of debt to both bankers and such friends as Sir Joseph Paxton. Money was a preoccupation of his correspondence, and it is under its pressure that Lindley, accepting duty after duty, became an ubiquitous administrator and lecturer, and a prolific author and editor for an amateur audience, perhaps the most important figure in the public life of Victorian horticulture.

In 1821 Lindley agreed to superintend the construction of the Chiswick garden of the Horticultural Society, and from 1822 was its garden assistant secretary, rising in 1826 to full assistant secretary, and in 1841 to vice-secretary. In 1830, with George Bentham, he rescued the society from bankruptcy, organizing at Chiswick the first annual flower show in Britain. He was at its centre from 1841 until 1858, when he retired to the council and the title of honorary secretary, ending his association only in 1862. His rich collection of botanical works forms today the core of the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library. From 1836 he was also lecturer on botany to the Apothecaries' Company, and praefectus of the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Lindley's sumptuously illustrated works, such as Victoria regia (1837), of which only twenty-five were printed, and his studies on orchids, were available only to wealthy subscribers. But Lindley wrote vastly more for a popular readership, preparing descriptions for 16,712 plants for John Loudon's Encyclopaedia of Plants (1829), and many entries for the Penny Cyclopaedia, the Dictionary of Science, Literature and Art (1837), and Paxton's Pocket Botanical Dictionary (1838). He became the principal botanical author for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, at about £30 a volume. His Ladies Botany (2 vols., 1837–8) sold well, but his most successful work was Elements of Botany (1841), a textbook, which went through seven English editions within his lifetime, and was translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Swedish. He was an untiring editor, responsible for the Botanical Register (1826–1847), the Journal of the Horticultural Society (1846–55), and the Gardeners' Chronicle, which he had founded with Charles Wentworth Dilke and Joseph Paxton. He was editor of the last from 1841 until his death.

By the 1830s official bodies had begun to seek Lindley's counsel. He advised the Board of Ordnance on vegetable sources of carbon for gunpowder, the Hudson's Bay Company on botanical exploration, the Colonial Office on appointments to botanic gardens, the Admiralty on the cultivation and reforestation of Ascension Island, and the Inland Revenue on coffee and its adulterants. In 1838 he prepared for the Treasury the influential report on Kew Gardens which recommended that it should become a national centre for botany, and an instrument for the management of colonial economies. Peel sent Lindley to Ireland to report on the potato blight, entertained him at Drayton Manor, and used information from him to stage a prime minister's question in the House of Commons in February 1846. In 1858 Lindley became adviser on botanical matters to the India Office. He played a key role in organizing the agricultural aspects of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and the colonial department of the 1862 Paris Universal Exhibition.

All his life Lindley took the greatest interest in military matters, following with enthusiasm the fate of British wars in India and the Crimea. He helped organize and drill an armed body of loyal gardeners to oppose Chartist crowds in 1848. His only leisure pursuits, apart from gardening, and the popular novels he devoured on the Acton omnibus, were archery and rifle shooting, and at the heart of his garden was a 100 yard range. He was reputed a good shot, despite having lost the sight in one eye as a child, although on one occasion he missed and hit his servant in the thigh. (Harrington later returned the compliment, striking Lindley on the head, accidentally, with an axe handle.) Lindley was formally an Anglican, and wrote of nature as bearing ‘the living Hieroglyphics of the Almighty’, but he disliked the church, and refused all discussion of religious matters. He was equally reticent on politics, although during the 1830s he had canvassed in Middlesex on behalf of Joseph Hume, the radical politician.

During his last few years, possibly due to accumulated effects of the mercury preparation he had used to preserve his specimens, Lindley had fainting fits, and lost both his memory and his power of work. He died of apoplexy on 1 November 1865 at home in Acton Green, and was buried in Acton cemetery five days later.

Richard Drayton


RBG Kew, Lindley letters, A–K, L–Z · RBG Kew, Dr Lindley's official correspondence, 1832–1854 · private information (2004) [R. M. Hamilton] · RBG Kew, W. J. Hooker MSS · American Philosophical Society, W. J. Hooker MSS · BL, W. J. Hooker MSS · J. Lindley, An introductory lecture delivered in the University of London (1829) · J. Lindley, On the principal questions at present debated in the philosophy of botany (1833) · W. T. Stearn, ‘Lindley, John’, DSB · Gardeners' Chronicle (11 Nov 1865), 1058–9 · Gardeners' Chronicle (18 Nov 1865), 1082–3 · R. Drayton, ‘Imperial science and a scientific Europe’, PhD diss., Yale U., 1993, 207–11, 234–40 · W. Gardener, ‘John Lindley’, Gardeners' Chronicle, 3rd ser., 158 (1965), 386–526 · J. Reynolds Green, A history of botany in the United Kingdom (1914) · UCL, SDUK MSS · F. A. Stafleu and R. S. Cowan, Taxonomic literature: a selective guide, 2nd edn, 3, Regnum Vegetabile, 105 (1981) · d. cert. · W. T. Stearn, ed., John Lindley, 1799–1865: gardener, botanist, and pioneer orchidologist (1998)


Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, papers · NHM, corresp. and papers · RBG Kew, corresp. and papers · RBG Kew, letters · RBG Kew, official corresp. · Royal Horticultural Society, London, description of plants · U. Cam., department of plant sciences, notes on Quercus · U. Newcastle, Hancock Museum, corresp. and papers · UCL, lecture notes |  Archives of British Columbia, Vancouver, Crease collection · BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40576–40602 · NHM, letters to the Sowerby family · RBG Kew, letters to Sir William Hooker · RS, letters to Sir John Herschel · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan · UCL, SDUK MSS, letters


engraving, c.1830, BL · sketch, c.1848, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle · E. Edwards, sepia photograph, c.1860, RBG Kew · Maull & Polyblank, photograph, c.1860, RBG Kew · E. U. Eddis, oils, 1862, Royal Horticultural Society, London · engraving, c.1865, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle · C. Fox, oils, British Columbia Archives and Record Service, Crease Collection · S. Lindley, etching (after C. Fox), BM · T. H. Maguire, lithograph, BM, NPG; repro. in T. H. Maguire, Portraits of honorary members of the Ipswich Museum (1852) · Turner, lithograph (after E. U. Eddis), BM · pencil drawing, Royal Horticultural Society Gardens, Ripley, Surrey · photograph (after an engraving), RBG Kew; repro. in F. W. Oliver, Makers of British botany (1848), pl. XIV · photograph (after sketch by his daughter), RBG Kew · photograph (aged fifty; after lithograph), RBG Kew; repro. in T. H. Maguire, Portraits of honorary members of the Ipswich Museum (1852) · photograph (aged early thirties; after lithograph), RBG Kew; repro. in The Naturalist (4 May 1839) · photograph (after line drawing, repro. in De Puydt, Les orchidées, fig. 19), RBG Kew · portraits, British Columbia Archives and Record Service, Crease Collection

Wealth at death  

under £3000: resworn probate, Oct 1866, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1865)