Assorted papers from the Herbarium of William Wilson

Scope and Content

The fonds consists of documents belonging to the Herbarium of William Wilson and donated to the Manchester Museum from Warrington Museum.

Administrative / Biographical History

Wilson, William (1799-1871), botanist, was born on 7 June 1799 in Warrington, the second son of Thomas Wilson (d. 1820), a druggist. After attending a dame-school and receiving private tuition, he was educated at Prestbury grammar school and under Dr Reynolds at the dissenters'academy, Leaf Square, Manchester. Intending to pursue a career in law, he was articled to a firm of solicitors in Manchester, but overwork resulted in headaches and debilitating nervous illness. Outdoor exercise was recommended, in the course of which he acquired his love of botany, thus sharing an interest in natural history with his brother Hamlet.

In 1826 Wilson sent new and rare plants to James Edward Smith and to John Stevens Henslow, hoping to enter into specimen exchanges with the latter. Henslow introduced him to William Jackson Hooker, who was of major importance in encouraging Wilson to devote himself to botany. As a devout Congregationalist, Wilson underwent much soul-searching before deciding on a botanical vocation, which he was enabled to do thanks to a modest allowance from his mother. On several occasions he botanized with Hooker and with Glasgow students in the Scottish highlands. In 1829-30 he traveled in Ireland.

From this time Wilson devoted himself to the study of mosses, soon commanding widespread respect for his observational powers. Hooker relied heavily on Wilson's fieldwork. Wilson corresponded with leading European botanists but equally he sought and respected the collecting skills of working-men botanists in Lancashire and Yorkshire, such as Edward Hobson, John Martin, and John Nowell. Although Wilson disapproved of Sunday botanizing by these men, he firmly believed that 'disparity of circumstances' was no bar to 'intimacy' between botanists, as he explained in a letter to Edward Hobson (Wilson to Hobson, 24 March 1828, Hobson MSS). He helped classify and prepare American mosses collected by Thomas Drummond, to be sold in fascicules, and described mosses collected by Joseph Dalton Hooker when on the Erebus voyage and in India.

In 1846 Wilson agreed to produce a third edition of W. J. Hooker and Thomas Taylor's Muscologia Britannica. This work culminated in his Bryologia Britannica of 1855, so substantially a new work that Hooker argued for Wilson's name alone as author on the title page. Wilson sold sets of moss specimens to accompany his book. He never fulfilled his ambition of bringing out a second edition, which would have included over a hundred new species of mosses, and showed increasing impatience with those who challenged his authority in bryology.

Wilson was extremely neat, fastidious, and highly strung. He was pious, easily upset by Sabbath-breakers, and preferred solitude to society, although he did serve as president of the Warrington Natural History Society. He was a Liberal but not involved in politics. An avid letter-writer, he responded generously to the many requests for information and help that he received. His extensive correspondence was saved from destruction by James Kendrick. Though of modest independent means, at various times after his marriage to his widowed cousin Eliza Lane in 1836 he considered applying for botanical posts, and even emigration, to support his family. He suffered from digestive problems and was prone to bronchitis. He died of the latter complaint at his home, Paddington House near Warrington, on 3 April 1871, and was buried in the nonconformist burial-ground at Hill Cliff near Warrington.


Arranged in series by subject matter. Rehoused in archival storage in November 2005. Series are numbered as follows:

  • BWW/1 Correspondence
  • BWW/2 Lists of Botanical desiderata and contributions received (British plants) also of specimens gathered by William Wilson
  • BWW/3 Handwritten botanical notes, mainly concerning mosses
  • BWW/4 Miscellaneous papers

Access Information

Unrestricted access to material, but visits to be prearranged with staff of the Botany Department.

Acquisition Information

Donated to Manchester Museum from Warrington Museum

Archivist's Note

Title supplied in 2005 by S M Grieve on basis of contents of the fonds. Biographical history taken from - Anne Secord, 'Wilson, William (1799-1871)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [, accessed 9 Dec 2005]

Custodial History

Fonds was transferred to Manchester Museum from Warrington Museum in March 1921 as part of a consignment of 40 parcels of plants chiefly belonging to William Wilson (Accession number Kk 892).


Wilson published his work on mosses in Hooker, Sir, William Jackson, Bryologia Britannica; containing the Mosses of Great Britain and Ireland, systematically arranged and described according to the Method of Bruch and Schimper, with illustrative plates; being a new (third) edition with many additions and alterations of the Muscologia Britannica of Hooker and Taylor. By W. Wilson. London, 1855.