‘Will Purdom was a fine and honourable man, who rose from a position of very limited personal agency and overcame formidable obstacles to leave the world a better place for his passage.’
Will Purdom: Agitator, Plant-hunter, Forester
By Francois Gordon
Published by RBGE
Until recently, the sum of wisdom amongst those few enthusiasts of horticultural history who knew anything at all about Will Purdom was that he was the ‘old China hand’ who between 1909 and 1912 collected moderately successfully in north-west China and Tibet for the British nursery of Veitch & Co, and who in 1914/15 accompanied Reginald Farrer to the same region, an expedition described by Farrer in two books – On the Eaves of the World and The Rainbow Bridge – which are amongst the finest travel books of their period. When Farrer returned to Britain in 1916, Purdom stayed on. He died in Peking in 1921.
None of the above is false, but it begs a great many questions about how and why a working-class Edwardian botanist and gardener found himself collecting plants in China and was, a few years later, appointed as a senior adviser on forestry to the Chinese government and playing a key role in the adoption of scientific forestry management to restore and preserve China’s forests. The answers to those questions can only be understood against the background of the political turbulence and massive social changes in both Britain and China during Will’s too-short lifetime, as well as early efforts to reduce the damage done to the environment and climate as a result of human activities and the troubled and deeply problematical history of relations between China and the West in the century preceding the Communist Revolution.
Will Purdom was the son of a head gardener from Westmorland who trained at Kew, joined the Labour Movement (it was not yet a political party) and became Secretary of the Kew Employee’s Union. He was promptly dismissed, but even in 1905 this was illegal and he successfully appealed to the Board of Agriculture to be reinstated, a decision which so outraged the Kew Director that he resigned. Will then organised the only strike to date at Kew, and it’s perhaps not surprising that in 1908 Kew enthusiastically recommended him to the great British horticulturalist Harry Veitch as the very man for a three-year plant-hunting expedition to China on behalf of the Veitch nursery and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston!
Unfortunately, the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, Charles Sprague Sargent, insisted that Will should collect in the region of north-west China, largely unexplored by Western botanists, and the Tibetan border, where Sargent was convinced many new and exciting plants were waiting to be discovered. This was not the case, but Sargent and, to a point, Harry Veitch chose to believe that Will’s failure to send back a flood of ‘novelties’ was due to lack of effort on his part. Worse, for different reasons they both failed to give Will credit for those new plants he did send back. Will had a good eye for a plant and several of his collections – for example that staple of winter gardens Viburnum fragrans, the yellow-flowered Trollius chinensis, Clematis aesuthifolia (also yellow) and a fine Moutan peony – are very popular with British and American gardeners to this day. He also sent some fine trees, his real botanical love, including red-barked birch, several lovely flowering cherries and the Chinese horse-chestnut, an elegant tree which is increasingly planted in Britain as a medium-to-large ornamental.
All this was achieved in conditions of great discomfort and sometimes danger, especially when Will found himself caught up in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution which caused the abdication of the last Ch’in Emperor and replaced the centuries-old Imperial system of government with a Republic which struggled to assert its authority against a plethora of regional warlords. Will was collecting in the most troubled part of China and his survival is largely attributable to his unhesitating rejection of the deeply racist attitudes which were almost universal amongst foreigners in China, his determination to learn to speak Mandarin (which he mastered to a good standard with remarkable rapidity), and his matter-of-fact engagement on a basis of social equality with local officials, priests and farmers. Will was one of the tiny minority of Westerners who formed genuine and lasting friendships with Chinese people, who were able to offer help and advice without which he might well have fallen victim to the violence which swept China in 1911.
One of Will’s closest friends was the junior Ministry of Agriculture official Han An, a trained forestry expert who was determined to create a Chinese Forest Service to restore China’s lost forests, devastated by decades of disastrous logging. (Han is today revered in China as one of the founding fathers of Chinese scientific forestry). Will’s training in the Kew Arboretum made him a perfect fit for a key role in such endeavours, and Will himself was personally strongly committed to restoring and stabilising the eco-systems of northern China. But Han and his colleagues struggled to get their proposals through the labyrinthine Chinese bureaucracy and Will couldn’t afford to sit out what proved to be a three-year wait in Peking. Faute de mieux, he went home, where his past as a trade-union ‘agitator’ made it almost impossible for him to find employment and he retreated to his parents’ home in Westmorland.
Fortunately for Will, the Curator of the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, then as now the premier centre of excellence in Britain for the study of Chinese plants, recommended him to the flamboyant plant-collector and writer Reginald Farrer as the manager of the expedition Farrer was planning to north-west China. Farrer couldn’t afford to pay Will a salary, but offered him the chance to return to China with all his expenses paid. Will agreed, on the express understanding that he would quit the expedition if and when a Chinese Forest Service came into being. He and Farrer botanised quite successfully in 1914 and 1915, collecting inter alios some fine poppies, alpines, primulas and an elegant Buddleai (B. alternifolia), but Farrer’s plan to finance the expedition by selling plant material to connoisseurs at home did not survive the devastating effect on British gardening and horticulture of the First World War.
In the Spring of 1916, the Chinese government at last formally created a Chinese Forest Service and Will was appointed Forestry Adviser to the Chinese government. Will must have been deeply happy at last to have achieved a senior management position in which he could make his mark, and he and Han An began the back-breaking work of training Chinese foresters, develop tree nurseries and plant trees where they would do most good. By 1919, there were estimated to be over 1,000 tree nurseries in China, containing 100 million young trees and in the same year 20 to 30 million trees were planted on over 100,000 acres of otherwise unproductive land. Many of these were timber trees new to China, mostly from north America, which Will knew would do well in different Chinese regions and climatic zones. He organised the importation of many millions of seeds and cuttings, making him the only Western plant-hunter to have imported into China vastly more plant material than he ever collected there.
Will died suddenly in Peking in November 1921 at the age of 41, of an infection contracted following minor surgery. His Chinese friends and colleagues clubbed together to commission a large and elegant memorial stele in the Forest Service plantation at Xinyang, which was re-named the Purdom Forest Park. Remarkably, the stele and the park were both left alone during the violently anti-foreigner Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and they are both carefully preserved to this day. The epitaph is too long to quote in full, but a hundred years later the sorrow felt by those 54 of Will’s friends who subscribed to the stele is still very clear. Perhaps what would have most pleased Will is their description of him as “ a true and loyal friend of the Chinese people who won the admiration and respect of his colleagues, worked tirelessly for the reforestation of China and who, had he lived, would certainly have trained the next generation of Chinese foresters”.
Will Purdom was a fine and honourable man, who rose from a position of very limited personal agency and overcame formidable obstacles to leave the world a better place for his passage. Not only does he deserve to be remembered in his own right, but his life has a good deal to teach us about our place in this interconnected world, as well as reminding us that what we often think of as very recent concerns about protecting local eco-systems were current well over a hundred years ago. Finally, we should in justice remember him when we plant in our gardens or even when when we see, for example, “his” viburnum, buddleia or prunus.
Will Purdom: Agitator, Plant-hunter, Forester by Francois Gordon is published by RBGE, priced by £18.99.