Stephen Harris


I contacted Stephen Harris, curator of the Druce Herbarium, asking if we could reproduce his article on George Claridge Druce. He kindly agreed to allow us to do so.     Brenda Pittam.

 Druce and Oxford University Herbaria

George Claridge Druce (1850-1932), the illegitimate son of a Northamptonshire housekeeper, rose through an apprenticeship at Philadelphus Jeyes in Northampton to become a retail chemist in the High Street, Oxford in 1879. He retired from business in 1905, and continued to increase his wealth through canny investment and lending money to individuals, companies and Oxford colleges. However, there was more to Druce than merely a local shopkeeper and moneylender, although his background in trade often coloured others perceptions of him. He was a prominent character in Edwardian Oxford and even got a walk-on part in Beerboh’s Zuleika Dobson. As a local Liberal politician, Druce was Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1897, Mayor in 1900 and an active member of the local council for 39 years. Druce was also active in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and as a freemason. In botanical circles, Druce is perhaps best known for his imperial rule of the Botanical Exchange Club and as the most prominent British amateur botanist of the first three decades of the 20th century. Within the University of Oxford, Druce is remembered as one of its great benefactors; on his death he left his herbarium and the bulk of his fortune to the University.
Druce began to make use of the University’s botanical collections soon after his arrival in Oxford, especially in the preparation of the first edition of his Flora of Oxfordshire (1886). The herbarium was much smaller than it is today, comprising the Fielding herbarium, a British herbarium and six pre-1796 herbaria. However, in Druce’s own words, these first contacts were dramatic; … When … I first saw these volumes … , they were placed on the top shelf in what was little more than a loft above the lecture room at the Botanic Garden. There were no facilities for warming, and the place was damp…. The immense mass of the Morisonian (Bobartian), Dillenian, and Sherardian collections were in loose unarranged sheets, often unmounted. Even the Fielding Herbarium was mostly unnamed and roughly sorted into the different families. Druce was to transform these collections over the rest of his lifetime.

In 1885, just six years after taking up residence in Oxford, the botanical autodidact Druce had ambitions to become Professor of Botany, and even had the support of the Cambridge Professor of Botany, Charles Babington (1808-1895). Druce did not get the post; it went to Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922), who ‘came like a tornado’ and left Oxford in 1888 for Edinburgh. Balfour’s successor was Sydney Howard Vines (1849-1934). In 1889, Druce appears to have taken on voluntary responsibility for the herbaria and in 1895 was made Special Curator of the Fielding Herbarium, a post for which he was paid an honorarium. Druce got on very well with Vines and they produced two detailed studies of the herbaria of Robert Morison (1620-1683) and Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747). However, it is unclear what control Vines exercised over Druce, other than that of superiority of rank. There seemed to be no formal decision making processes, with Druce acting as complete master over the herbaria, especially in his later years. One must remember that Druce, as a man of private means, was wealthier than most of the university academics and this appears to have caused some resentment within the University.

The evidence of Druce’s curatorial activities is to be found throughout the Herbaria today and his characteristic scrawl covers many sheets and folders. It was Druce who undertook the immense task of arranging the Sherardian, Du Bois and Fielding herbaria into their current arrangement according to the then vogue system of Durand. Druce also arranged Sibthorp’s herbarium according to Sibthorp and Smith’s Prodromus and the herbaria of Morison and Dillenius. Much of the curatorial work was funded out of Druce’s own pocket, including the provision of mounting paper and genus folders. Druce did not have an introspective character but there was one thing that he did regret; the splitting up of the Du Bois herbarium; … the advent of Prof. I. B. Balfour … all the old things had to be changed, the herbaria sorted in ‘ Alas, Balfour, accustomed to other ways and to the use of modern methods, issued an edict to cast all these old collections into one general herbarium. ‘ I could only try to induce Balfour to leave the collections intact until they could be carefully examined, and to concentrate upon the modern plants which could be sorted into the Fielding Herbarium. This suggestion did not prove acceptable, and in order to save the dispersal of the Morisonian, Dillenian, Sherardian, and Sibthorpian collections the Du Bois plants were sacrificed – as at the time I did not realise what light they threw upon the Raian plants. So these 80 volumes were cut up, and the plants in them were mounted by not very careful or competent hands, losing fruits and seeds in the disposal. Then, too late, it was brought home to the Professor that as they only had pre-Linnean names, they could not be sorted into the general collection as they were tied up in bundles, in the process of which much damage was done, and put in a storeroom where they remained for many years.

Druce was not above self-publicity and exaggeration; he knew what his audience wanted to hear. Clokie, in her account of the Oxford Herbaria, casts some doubts on Druce’s account of the state of the herbaria in the 1880s, since the Sherardian specimens are mostly mounted on early eighteenth-century paper, and the Morisonian specimens may have been unordered but they are mounted on original sheets. However, Clokie’s most damning criticism of Druce’s work was his great hurry and inattention to detail; features which are particularly found in his personal collection of British material (c. 200,000 specimens), which he left to the University on his death.
Druce was eager to try and please as many people as possible, if they were his intellectual or social superiors. Help and perhaps patronise his intellectual or social inferiors and be at logger heads with his peers. He won a great deal of praise and loyalty from the amateur field botanists in the early 20th century, and the admiration of some professional botanists. However, among other professional botanists he was regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. One reason for this, in addition to his social background and financial independence, was Druce’s intolerance of criticism, as illustrated by his feud with James Britten (1846– -1924); even the death of Britten in 1924 did not alleviate the bitterness. In the Introduction to The Comital Flora of the British Isles (1932), written no more than two months before Druce’s death, he complained of the … many years of misrepresentation which I suffered at Mr Britten’s hands.
During his life, Druce continually made wills and considered how he might best dispose of his personal library, herbarium and considerable fortune. The University was one place that he considered, although he had some qualms about this, as cryptically observed by his friend Frank Bellamy (1863––1936); ‘for some years he [Druce] was uncertain as to what course to take; certain circumstances concerning the University, to which I had better not refer in precise words, caused him to hesitate about making an absolute and munificent gift to the University’. However, in the end Druce did leave the bulk of his fortune to the University but this was not without controversy and probate was not obtained until 1934. Druce’s bequest to the University effectively enhanced the herbaria through the addition of his personal collection of primarily British herbarium specimens, his extensive library (with included a copy of the Flora Graeca and, most importantly, the original landscapes prepared by Ferdinand Bauer for sketches made on John Sibthorp’s first journey in the eastern Mediterranean) and much of his property.
The herbarium as Druce knew it has been transformed. However, Druce’s influence remains, whether it is the arrangement of the Fielding herbarium, the academic work he undertook on the Dillenian and Morisonian herbaria or the money that he left to ensure the continued curation of the collections that occupied so much of his life.
Stephen A. Harris
Curator of the Druce Herbarium


DrucesOxfordHouseGeorge Claridge Druces Oxford House; Yardley Lodge drawn by Rosemary Wise, botanical artist with Dr Stephen Harris. Inserted here with her kind permission.