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Babington, (Charles) Cardalelocked

  • D. E. Allen

Babington, (Charles) Cardale (1808–1895), botanist and archaeologist, was born on 23 November 1808, at Ludlow, Shropshire, the son of Joseph Babington (1768–1826), at that time a physician, and Catherine, daughter of John Whitter of Bradninch, Devon. The historian Lord Macaulay was his first cousin. His father having taken holy orders, Babington's early years were punctuated by frequent family moves, initially round the midlands and later in Wessex, moves reflected in frequent changes of school. A short, probably unhappy spell as a boarder at Charterhouse School was succeeded by four years as a day boy at a school in Bath, whose good teaching, he later held, was responsible for equipping him for his university career. His father passed on to him his own fondness for field botany and fed that by introducing him to the chief works of identification then in vogue, and he spent much of his time in his teenage and undergraduate years exploring the local countryside for plants, an activity which was to culminate in a slender Flora Bathoniensis, written only after he had graduated and published later still, in 1834. At that period a parallel keenness for entomology had meanwhile developed into a passion for collecting and studying Coleoptera. These were to be the subject of more than half of his earliest published papers and so dominated his leisure hours at university as to earn him the nickname Beetles. After building up a collection of some 4000 specimens, however, he gradually lost that interest and after 1840 botany increasingly monopolized his scientific attention.

The year before Babington went up to Cambridge in 1826 John Stevens Henslow had been appointed professor of botany, a subject newly necessary for medical students, and his Easter term lectures, field excursions, and evening parties in his rooms were quickly winning a large and enthusiastic following among naturalists in the university. Henslow's college, moreover, was St John's, where Babington now followed his father and three of his father's brothers. He and Henslow soon became friends, and in time he became Henslow's de facto assistant and eventually deputy during the latter's absences after 1839 for much of each year tending his Suffolk parish. Although Babington could look forward to no university appointment in Cambridge until the chair of botany fell vacant, he had no need to train for a profession, his father having meanwhile died and left him financially independent. After graduating BA in 1830 and proceeding MA in 1833, he kept on his rooms in college and settled into a comfortable bachelor existence there. He was not elected a fellow until 1874 and his freedom from official duties enabled him to give all his time and energy to his personal research, such teaching as he did being purely informal and confined to sharpening the taxonomic acumen of undergraduates whose interest in botany was non-vocational. Many of those who came under his influence later produced county floras or otherwise rose to prominence as amateurs. That influence was exercised especially through the Ray Club, of which Babington served as secretary for fifty-five years and whose weekly meetings filled the role previously played by Henslow's parties. His particular protégés he sometimes took with him on the many tours of exploration he now embarked upon to almost every part of the British Isles. These early took in the Channel Islands, of which his impressively wide-ranging two seasons' fieldwork resulted in his second local flora, Primitiae florae Sarnicae (1839).

Increasingly, though, Babington's focus was more broadly national. The study of the higher plants of the British Isles had lapsed into shameful insularity, partly through the long isolation from the continent resulting from the Napoleonic wars, and there was a pressing need for a new, concise, scholarly handbook which brought British usage into line with that in France, Scandinavia, and especially Germany. Babington's Manual of British Botany, first published in 1843 after nine years in preparation, not only had all those assets but like its eighteenth-century predecessor, the Dillenian edition of Ray's Synopsis, was convenient for field use by being small enough for a pocket. Regularly revised in successive editions, of which eight appeared in his lifetime and two more after his death, it is credibly held to have revolutionized the situation in Britain.

By the 1840s Babington was acknowledged leader of taxonomic research on British higher plants, just as Hewett Cottrell Watson dominated research into their distribution and its causes. Pugnacious and agnostic where Babington was gentle and pious, Watson was temperamentally drawn to the radically inclined Botanical Society of London while Babington identified with its more academic counterpart in Edinburgh, each of them being engaged to overhaul their respective societies' large and chaotic herbaria (to the great benefit of their own personal collections). Babington's bond with Edinburgh was reinforced by election to its quasi-Masonic Brotherhood of the Friends of Truth and, in 1842, appointment as joint botanical editor of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, then the most respected of the specialist journals in Britain and run from the Scottish capital. These moves led the ever-touchy Watson to suspect an emerging Cambridge–Edinburgh axis 'determined … to exclude all works which do not take up their species and names', as he grumbled in a letter to Sir William Hooker in May 1844 (Watson to Hooker, May 1844, RBG Kew, Hooker MSS). Dependent in his own work on checklists and on stable categories, he resented the steady rain of additions and amendments required by the finely discriminating researches of Babington in particular. There were species, there were subspecies and there were 'Bab-ies', he was once moved to quip. Nevertheless the two, while keeping their distance, respected each other and never became estranged.

Babington ventured outside the British Isles only once, to Iceland in 1846. The product was a magisterial paper in the Journal of the Linnean Society bringing together all information on the country's flora recorded up to that time. Usually, though, the challenges presented by British Isles plants were quite enough, and none of those teased him longer and more frustratingly than the blackberries. By no means the first to grapple with that perplexing group, Babington had the disadvantage of living in an area with minimal scope for prolonged familiarization with a wide range of the microspecies in the wild. Overdependent on dried examples, neglecting as a result the key characters offered by the floral organs, he was led to adopt much too broad an approach. Though A Synopsis of the British Rubi (1846) and his numerous subsequent publications, combined with his readiness to name specimens submitted (for he was always the most helpful and untiring of correspondents), made study of the group fashionable, the many years he devoted to it proved largely in vain. The path through the maze was to be discovered only after his death.

Babington's stature by mid-century was recognized by election as FRS in 1851 and president of the botany and zoology section of the British Association in 1853, 1858, and 1861. In 1860, exactly 200 years after Ray's pioneer Cambridge Catalogus had appeared, he filled the gap for a further century with an excellent new flora of the county. The next year, on Henslow's death, he at last succeeded to the chair of botany at Cambridge. His main achievement in that office was a new and larger building for the herbarium, for which he purchased the extensive and valuable collections of John Lindley and Gaston Genevier and donated the no less vast one formed by himself. The department's library also benefited from his personal generosity, for he regularly needed to supplement with his own funds the slender official budget. That budget, however, his younger colleagues would have much preferred spent instead on up-to-date laboratories, for by then experimental botany had come into general favour and left the professor isolated in his interests.

That Babington was almost equally devoted to antiquarian studies cannot have helped. It was said of him and his relation Churchill Babington, the university's Disney professor of archaeology, that each might fill the chair of the other, and to the publications of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, of which he was one of the founders in 1840, he contributed over fifty papers. Through that body he also published in 1851 Ancient Cambridgeshire, an attempt to trace Roman and other early roads in the county, of which a much-enlarged edition was published in 1883. Another favourite was the Cambrian Archaeological Association, the committee of which he chaired for thirty years and whose president he became in 1881.

To his upbringing Babington also owed a lifelong interest in evangelical mission work, an interest that deepened after his late marriage, on 3 April 1866, to Anna Maria, daughter of John Walker of the Madras civil service. A wide range of bodies operating in that field received their strong support, while their commitment also found expression locally in the founding of a home for orphan girls in Cambridge.

Babington's last years were sad. Failing health had already compelled some shedding of activities when in 1891 an acute attack of pneumonia while in Scotland was succeeded by a rheumatic condition which confined him permanently to a wheelchair. This ended his botanical research and his visits to his beloved herbarium. A deputy professor, in the person of Francis Darwin, had to be appointed, to whom Babington voluntarily made over half his stipend, but his tenure of the chair terminated only with his death, at his home, 5 Brookside, Cambridge, on 22 July 1895. He was buried in the churchyard at Cherry Hinton, on the outskirts of Cambridge, on 26 July. His library of some 1600 volumes was bequeathed to the university, of which by the time of his death he had become the oldest resident member. His name is borne by three British plants, two of them, fittingly, blackberries, but Babingtonia, given to a genus of tropical members of the myrtle family by Lindley in 1842, has disappeared into synonymy.


  • A. M. B. [A. M. B. Babington], ed., Memoirs, journal and botanical correspondence of Charles Cardale Babington (1897)
  • J. Britten, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 33 (1895), 257–66
  • S. M. Walters, The shaping of Cambridge botany (1981), 67–70
  • D. E. Allen, The botanists: a history of the Botanical Society of the British Isles through a hundred and fifty years, St Paul's Bibliographies (1986), 9, 35, 183
  • F. O. Bower, Sixty years of botany in Britain (1875–1935) (1938)
  • J. G. B. [J. G. Baker], PRS, 59 (1895–6), viii–x
  • private information (2004)
  • U. Cam., Babington MSS


  • U. Cam., department of plant sciences, corresp. and papers
  • U. Cam., department of plant sciences, herbarium
  • U. Cam., Museum of Zoology, catalogue of insect collection
  • CUL, letters to Charles Darwin
  • CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes
  • NHM, letters to members of the Sowerby family
  • RBG Kew, letters to Sir William Hooker
  • Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Bath, letters to Leonard Blomefield
  • Shetland Archives, Lerwick, corresp. with Thomas Edmonston


  • I. Hoare, pencil sketch, 1825, repro. in A. M. B., ed., Memoirs, journal and botanical correspondence
  • Walker & Boutall, photograph, 1880–1889, repro. in A. M. B., ed., Memoirs, journal and botanical correspondence
  • W. Vizard, oils, 1888, department of botany, Cambridge
  • W. Vizard, oils, 1896 (after photograph?), St John Cam.
  • E. Edwards, photograph, NPG; repro. in L. Reeve, ed., Portraits of men of eminence in literature, science and art, 3 (1865), 51
  • Moull & Co., photograph, RS
  • photographs, RS

Wealth at Death

£36,731 16s. 4d.: resworn probate, Feb 1896, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1895)

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]