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date: 25 February 2020

Hanbury, Sir Thomasfree

  • Anita McConnell

Hanbury, Sir Thomas (1832–1907), merchant and gardener, was born at Bedford Road, Clapham, Surrey, on 21 June 1832, the third of five surviving sons and one daughter of Daniel Bell Hanbury (1794–1882), pharmaceutical chemist, and his wife, Rachel, née Christy (1802/3–1876). Daniel Hanbury (1825–1875) was his eldest brother. His parents were members of the Society of Friends and Thomas was sent, aged nine, to school at Croydon, then at Epping, where most of the scholars were Friends. He remained a member of Kingston monthly meeting throughout his life, though all his children resigned.

In 1849, after a brief commercial tutoring by Josiah Richardson, Hanbury was employed by William James Thompson & Sons, tea brokers of Mincing Lane, London. Four years later, with funding from his uncle, he and three companions set up as Hanbury & Co., tea and silk merchants, at Shanghai, arriving during the Taiping uprising of 1850–64. The European merchants lived in a settlement outside the city walls, socially isolated from the Chinese residents. Exceptionally Hanbury chose to learn Mandarin. He travelled widely and was soon respected by the Chinese merchant community. As a member of the Anglo-American Municipal Council of Shanghai he contributed to the planting of gardens and the establishment of a hospital. He became a director of the first railway built in China and from his premises sent the first telegraphic message between Shanghai and Hong Kong.

In 1857 the original partnership was dissolved and Hanbury recruited Frederick Bower to a new partnership as Bower, Hanbury & Co., before returning to England in 1858–9 for a holiday. Adding to his business interests, Hanbury traded in currency for Rothschilds; when the American Civil War interrupted exports of cotton, he bought up Chinese cotton to supply the British market. Investing his growing capital, he became the largest property owner in Shanghai.

During a second visit to Europe in 1866–9 Hanbury went to the south of France, where his brother Daniel had sketched and botanized, and in the spring of 1867 he made his first visit to La Mortola, sited on a small promontory midway between Menton and the Italian town of Ventimiglia. Its setting so entranced him that in 1867 he bought the ruined Palazzo Orengo and its surrounding grounds, intending that he and Daniel, whose interest lay in medicinal plants, would create a botanical garden.

In March 1868 Hanbury married Katharine Aldham (1842–1920), eldest daughter of Thomas Pease of Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, and also a Quaker. Daniel began planting a garden at La Mortola while Thomas and his wife returned to Shanghai to settle his business. They chose to make the journey by sea to New York, crossing by train to San Francisco then sailing via Japan to Shanghai where Cecil, the first of three sons and one daughter, was born. They left China in 1871, settling at La Mortola, where they restructured the house and employed gardeners to landscape and plant the 18 hectares of land, regenerating the woodland surroundings by plantings of Aleppo pines and carob trees. Citrus was among their distinctive introductions; over twenty varieties were growing there in 1890. After Daniel died in 1875, Thomas, and later his son Cecil, continued the planting, maintaining the original objectives of scientific experiments in acclimatization, and useful and instructive collections, inspired by their Quaker principles. Hortus Mortolensis, first published in 1889, listed 3600 species growing there. In 1893 Joseph Hooker described La Mortola as 'a garden of exotic plants, which in point of richness and interest has no rival among the principal collections of living plants in the world' (Quest-Ritson, 70). Close links were established with Kew, to which numerous succulents, citrus, and bamboos were sent. Regular reports appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle. As it matured, the garden was mentioned in Baedeker and other guidebooks, attracting many visitors who were wintering in the south of France, among them Queen Victoria, royalty from Germany and Russia, the prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and other members of the British royal family, as well as such gardeners as Canon Ellacombe.

The scant education available in Liguria, only recently amalgamated with a unified Italy, led Hanbury to build two local schools and to fund their teachers until, with the advent of compulsory education, the Italian government assumed this charge. He also provided other buildings to house libraries, and assumed the presidency of the civic hospital at Ventimiglia. His wife played a part in his many acts of philanthropy. For his services to education Hanbury was created in 1868 cavaliere, later commendatore, of the order of saints Maurizio and Lazzaro; in 1885 and 1888 he was created cavaliere, then commendatore of the Cross of the Crown of Italy. He bought another villa, in which he established the Hanbury Botanical Institute, consisting of a laboratory, herbarium, and museum. It was formally dedicated during the 1892 International Congress at Genoa, and the Italian government awarded him a gold medal as a benefactor of public instruction. He donated plants to many towns along the French and Italian rivieras, presented a monumental fountain to the town of Menton, and paid for the Museum Praehistoricum, a small building to house the prehistoric skeletons and stone tools discovered in 1892 and subsequently in the adjacent cave of Barma-Grande. In 1901, in recognition of his overseas services, Edward VII created Hanbury KCVO.

Hanbury was also keen to improve the study of botany and horticulture in Britain. In 1892 he presented his brother's books and collection of materia medica to the recently founded Pharmaceutical Society. In 1903 he presented to the Royal Horticultural Society the 60 acre garden at Wisley, in Surrey, which he had purchased from the estate of the industrial chemist George Fergusson Wilson, who had died in the previous year. This enabled the society to move its experimental garden from the pollution and cramped location of its existing site in the London suburbs at Chiswick. The society awarded him its Victoria medal of honour in 1903.

Even in his last years Hanbury was looking for new commercial ventures. He invested in the Pacific Island Company which traded in guano from Ocean Island. On a trip to Palestine in 1889 he sought in vain to purchase the land containing the reputed tomb of Jesus and he continued to acquire land in Italy. He died at La Mortola on 9 March 1907 after a short illness. Some 7000 local people followed his coffin to San Remo, where he was cremated.

His eldest son, Sir Cecil Hanbury (1871–1937), MP for North Dorset, inherited La Mortola in 1920, and bequeathed it to his widow, Dorothy Hanbury-Forbes (d. 1972), who restored it after the damage and neglect of the Second World War. It was purchased by the Italian government in 1960 and since 1983 has been managed by the University of Genoa, to which in 1998 it was conceded in perpetuity.


  • The Times (2 March 1907), 12b
  • A. Moore, La Mortola: In the footsteps of Thomas Hanbury (2004)
  • K. A. Hanbury, ed., The letters of Sir Thomas Hanbury (1913)
  • ‘Sir Thomas Hanbury’, The Friend, new ser., 47 (1907), 167
  • ‘Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’, Bulletin (1907), 132–6
  • Curtis's Botanical Magazine dedications, 1827–1927 (1931)
  • B. Elliott, The Royal Horticultural Society, 1804–2004: a history (2004)
  • C. Quest-Ritson, The English garden abroad (1992)
  • The Times (11 June 1937), 18e [Sir Cecil Hanbury]
  • A. A. Locke, The Hanbury family, 2 vols. (1916)
  • The Times (10 Sept 1920), 13f [Lady Katharine Hanbury]
  • ‘Italian state buys Hanbury Gardens’, The Times (9 Aug 1960), 7a
  • L. M. Underwood, ‘The International Congress at Genoa’, Botanical Gazette, 17/11 (1892), 341–7
  • The Times (7 March 1972), 16g [Mrs D. Hanbury-Forbes]


  • Istituto Internazionale di Studi Liguri, Bordighera, Italy


  • photograph, 1853, repro. in Letters, facing p. 27
  • Anfossi & Radiguet, photograph, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Hunt Insitute for Botanical Documentation
  • J. D. Hooker, portrait, RBG Kew; repro. in E. Nelmes and W. Cuthbertson, eds., Curtis's Botanical Magazine dedications (1931), 262
  • photograph, repro. in A. A. Locke, Hanbury, 2, facing p. 296
  • photomechanical reproduction, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation; repro. in A. Berger, Hortus Mortolensis (1912)

Wealth at Death

£789,124 9s. 0d.: resworn probate, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

private collection
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew