Thomas Hanbury: letters to the Comerford Caseys and collected papers (catalogued)

Scope and Content

The archive comprises 19th- and early 20th century letters, mostly from Sir Thomas Hanbury, to the Rev George Edward Comerford Casey and his family. Hanbury, a businessman and philanthropist, is known for creating the world famous garden at La Mortola, Italy, and for purchasing the garden at Wisley in 1903 and gifting it to the RHS. Hanbury wrote to the Comerford Caseys between the years 1898 and his death in 1907, and the letters suggest he looked for opportunities to assist the family financially. Letters relate to a number of different topics including a trip Olive and Bertie Comerford Casey made to La Mortola in 1901 for the wedding of 'Isabella', visits from daughters of Queen Victoria for tea at La Mortola, and publication and translation of natural history books relating to the Riviera, including 'Riviera Nature Notes' by George Comerford Casey, dedicated to Thomas Hanbury. One letter, dated 27 September 1903, includes a reference to Hanbury's gift of Wisley to the RHS and the opinion of the then director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, William Thiselton Dyer: Hanbury describes him as the first strong opponent he has met of the RHS having the Wisley garden, Dyer arguing that the garden is 'expensive, inconveniently located, and no use when Kew supplies every want'. Hanbury showed Dyer the trust deed, where it is stipulated that the estate would pass to Kew if the RHS fail to keep it up; Dyer responded, to Hanbury's amusement, 'let us pray they will not keep it up'. Other papers in the archive include black and white photographic prints, mostly 1901, press cuttings, 1907-1965, and printed sheet headed 'In memoriam Thomas Hanbury', 1907.

Administrative / Biographical History

Thomas Hanbury:

Thomas Hanbury (1832-1907) was born on 21 Jun 1832 in Clapham, Surrey, the fourth child of Daniel Bell Hanbury, a pharmaceutical chemist, and his wife Rachel Christy. The family were Quakers, and Hanbury was educated in predominantly Quaker schools and was a practising Friend all his life. His eldest brother, Daniel Hanbury, was a botanist and pharmacognosist. Hanbury worked for William James Thompson & Sons, tea brokers, in Mincing Lane, London, from 1849. In 1853 he went to Shanghai, China, and, financially backed by his uncle, and in business with three partners, he started Hanbury & Co, merchants in silk and tea. In 1857 he entered into a new partnership, Bower, Hanbury & Co, which in time moved into currency trading and cotton broking. Hanbury's success made him the largest property owner in Shanghai. He learned Mandarin and travelled in China, and became highly respected by the local inhabitants, helping set up a hospital and creating gardens in the European settlements. He left Shanghai in 1871 and was inundated with gifts from Chinese friends and acquaintances.

Between 1866 and 1869 Hanbury visited Europe, travelling to the Cote d'Azur, France. He purchased an uninhabited villa at Mortola, Ventimiglia, Italy, owned by the Orengo di Roccasterone family. Hanbury and his brother Daniel planned to create a botanical garden there. Hanbury married Katharine Aldam Pease in 1868. In December 1868 Hanbury appointed Ludwig Winter, botanist and garden designer, as head gardener, and Daniel worked on the garden while Hanbury and his wife went to China. They returned to live at La Mortola in 1871. The villa was restored, and the garden, later called the Giardini Botanici Hanbury, extended over 18 of the whole 45 hectares of land. Hanbury appointed a series of curators of the garden from 1873. The gardens were visited by many prominent individuals, among them Queen Victoria in 1882, members of her family, and J.D. Hooker.

Hanbury and his wife carried out many philanthropic acts, setting up two local schools and purchasing a second villa to create the Hanbury Botanical Institute, comprising a laboratory, herbarium and museum, dedicated during the 1892 International Congress at Genoa. In 1901, in recognition of his overseas services, he was created Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. In 1903 Hanbury purchased George Fergusson Wilson's experimental garden at Wisley and gifted it to the RHS, ending the Society's long search for a larger garden away from the pollution and constrictions of London. He was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour in the same year.

Hanbury had four children, Cecil, Horace, Daniel and Hilda. He died at La Mortola on 9 Mar 1907, and was buried in the garden under a pavilion.

Source: Oxford DNB

George Edwards Comerford Casey:

George Edwards Comerford Casey (1846-1912), son of George Casey and Mercy Bourcicault Glenny, was born on 19 Mar 1846 in Wavertree, Liverpool. He attended Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 1869, and was appointed curate of St Mary le Wigford, Lincoln, in 1870. He married Ellen Georgina Alvina Bertram, daughter of Robert Bertram, in Kentish Town, London, on 9 Jul 1874. Casey was appointed assistant master at Nottingham High School from 1874. They had three children; Olive Bourcicault (1875), Alvina Bertram (1877) and Edward Comerford (1880). He was elected a fellow of the Geographical Society in 1878 and a fellow of the Linnaean Society in 1879. In 1881 the family were living at 68 Cromwell Street, Nottingham, Casey's occupation given as school master. The family lived in Nice, France, between 1882 and 1894. Casey's book 'Riviera Nature Notes' was published in 1898. In 1901 the family were living at Lantosca, Madeira Road, Parkstone, Dorset. Casey died there on 4 Feb 1912.

Source: Online census, birth, marriage, death and probate records, British Newspaper Archives.

Olive and Bertie Comerford Casey:

Olive Bourcicault Comerford Casey (1875-1958) and Alvina Bertram Comerford Casey (1877-1953), known as Bertie, were born in Nottingham on 16 Apr 1875 and 16 Jan 1877 respectively, daughters of George Edwards Comerford Casey and Ellen Georgina Alvina Bertram. The 1881 census shows the family living at 68 Cromwell Street, Nottingham. The family lived in Nice, France from 1882 to 1894. The 1901 census shows the family living at Lantosca, Madeira Road, Parkstone, Dorset. In 1939 Olive and her sister Bertie were living at 64 Castle Road, Bournemouth. Bertie Comerford Casey of 64 Castle Road, Bournemouth, died on 3 Jul 1953 at Loreto Nursing Home, Cavendish Road, Bournemouth. Olive Comerford Casey of 3 Beechey Road, Bournemouth, died on 15 Nov 1958.

Source: Online census, birth, death, probate records and National Identity Register.


The letters have been ordered chronologically.

Access Information



Open for consultation at the Lindley Library, London. Uncatalogued material in this archive may also be accessed. It is essential to check opening hours and make an appointment.

Acquisition Information

The papers were purchased on 28 Mar 2019 at Forum Auctions.

Other Finding Aids

The Lindley Library descriptive catalogue, available on-line via the Archives Hub, and as a paper copy in the research room.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Liz Taylor, RHS Lindley Library archivist, in June 2019, with documentation assistance given by Helen Taylor and Annie Johns, packaging assistance by Annie Johns, and research assistance by Ann Thornham, RHS Lindley Library volunteers.

Custodial History

The papers were put up for auction with other lots of Comerford Casey papers including letters from Alfred Russell Wallace and John Ruskin.

Related Material

Material held at the Lindley Library:

For letters from Thomas Hanbury to E.A. Bowles, 1902-1903, see EAB/2/4/8. For references to fruit from La Mortola exhibited by Thomas Hanbury in the minutes of the Scientific Committee, 12 Nov 1895 and 7 Apr 1896, see RHS/minutes/VS/Scientific Committee/2. For Thomas Hanbury's signature in the visitors book relating to George Fergusson Wilson's Oakwood garden at Wisley, 14 Sep 1889, 28 Aug 1895 and 17 Jun 1902, see RHS/WY/Owd/3/1 (please note this volume is unfit for production until it has been conserved). For a letter from Thomas Hanbury to Sir Trevor Lawrence, president of the RHS, relating to Sir William Thiselton Dyer's opposal to the gift of Wisley garden to the RHS, 4 Oct 1903, see RHS/M11/02. For a volume of letters of Thomas Hanbury written mostly to his brother Daniel and his wife Katharine, published by Katharine Hanbury in 1913, see 'Letters of Thomas Hanbury' (London, 1913).

Material held elsewhere:

For a collection of Thomas Hanbury's papers held privately, contact The National Archives, Archives Sector Development