William Purdom: papers relating to work in China

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive comprises three volumes of William Purdom's notes relating to his work in China, c.1912-c.1921, and one volume, 1909-1920, recording seeds received by James Veitch and Sons (co-sponsors of Purdom's 1909-1912 expedition) from William Purdom in China, and later from Reginald Farrer and George Forrest in 1920. Purdom's notebook entries relate to his travels and business in China, as he assessed suitable areas to establish nurseries, and examined the potential of different trees. Entries include tales of travel on donkeys, areas closed off due to plague, unease caused by rumours of fighting, descriptions of landscapes, communities and crops, collapsed bridges and comments such as ‘Frogs croaked all the night’, ‘This whole question of river conservancy could easily be tackled if the authorities would make up their minds’ and ‘Crossed river on foot, a very nerve racking business’.

Administrative / Biographical History

Biographical note taken from the catalogue of William Purdom papers at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard Universityand used by kind permission.

William Purdom was born in Heversham, Westmoreland, England on April 10, 1880. His early horticultural training began at Brathay Hall Gardens, Ambleside, Cumbria where his father, William, held the position of head gardener. Purdom then worked at the 19th-century nurserymen Low & Sons in Enfield and later for James Veitch (1868-1907) at Coombe Wood, Kingston, Surrey, the original site of the Veitch family’s famous nursery. In 1902, Purdom became a sub-foreman of the Arboretum Nurseries at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in 1905 enrolled at Kew as a two-year student.

In 1909, Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, was intent on having as many plant collectors as possible engaged in exploring China’s flora. With the Arboretum’s primary explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), about to return from southern China and an agreement in place with David Fairchild, Chairman of the Foreign Plant Introduction Section of the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture], stating that the ornamental plants collected by Frank Meyer (1875-1918) would be shared with the Arboretum, Sargent was eager to dispatch yet another collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces of China.

William Purdom, whom Sargent had only met early in 1909, embarked on his first plant expedition in February of that year. Sargent’s goal for the young Purdom, the most inexperienced of Arboretum explorers, was to ‘bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.’ The Veitch Nursery cosponsored the 1909-1912 Purdom expedition as they had the first of Wilson’s for the Arboretum. Although Purdom’s expedition did not measure up to the successful exploits of Wilson in numbers of new plant introductions, in 1913 a new rhododendron, Rhododendron purdomii, was named after him by Alfred Rehder and E. H. Wilson. Purdom did collect seeds and herbarium specimens of many plants and he did take a substantial number of photographs.

While he often recorded individual plants, he favoured wide vistas of the mountains and valleys of China. Purdom was also interested in the anthropological and ethnographical aspects of the regions he visited, and took many close-up shots of the people he encountered, documenting their dress and their hairstyles. Especially noteworthy is his series of images capturing the “devil dancing” at the now-destroyed monastery in Chone.

Purdom’s collection techniques improved and he is now respected for his later success in China with Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) with whom he collected and introduced many new alpine plants. However, his quiet demeanour was again overshadowed by another’s energetic personality. Unlike Purdom, but like Wilson, Farrer was also a prodigious author eager to share his exploits. In his books, On the Eaves of the World: A Botanical Exploration of the Borders of China and Tibet (1917) and The Rainbow Bridge (1921), Farrer recounts the adventures of the Kansu Purdom and Farrer expedition of 1914-15.

At the conclusion of the expedition in 1912, Purdom remained in China while Farrer returned to England to work under John Buchan in the Department of Information. That same year the Chinese government established a Forest Service. Nang Han returned from his studies at Cornell University to be China's senior secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and codirector of the Chinese Forest Service. Forsythe Sherfesee, from the United States, served as the other the co-director of the Service, and William Purdom became a division chief within the service.

In addition to his other duties Purdom established tree nurseries to aid in the reforestation of China. In "The House of Veitch" (2002) Shirley Heriz-Smith recounts this era of Purdom’s career: "He was asked to organize a tree planting programme for the Chinese railway and spent much of his time living in a converted railway carriage in remote places. It is said that he established a particularly flourishing forestry station at Kin Han (Isah?) in southern China." Following a minor operation, Purdom died at the French hospital in Beijing on November 7, 1921.

© President and Fellows of Harvard College. Arnold Arboretum Archives.

Conditions Governing Access

Open for consultation. Readers are asked to take care due to the fragile nature of the original material. It is essential to check opening hours and make an appointment. Please email library.london@rhs.org.uk

Acquisition Information

PUR/1/1-3 were donated by Dr Hugh R. Dingle in Nov 2013. PUR/2/1 was donated by Fred J. Chittenden in Nov 1939.

Other Finding Aids

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

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Volume ref PUR/2/1 is fragile. The binding is weak and one page is detached, and it is awaiting conservation. In the meantime please handle with care.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Liz Taylor, RHS Lindley Library archivist, in Oct 2014. Packaging carried out by Annie Johns, RHS Lindley Library volunteer.

Conditions Governing Use

Please contact the Lindley Library for conditions governing reproduction.

Custodial History

PUR/1/1-3 were purchased by Dr H.R. Dingle from Watch House Rare Books, Hampstead, in 1976. PUR/2/1 was donated to Fred J. Chittenden, Wisley Director, by H.J. Veitch between 1920 and 1924 [Veitch died in 1924].

Related Material

Photographs, correspondence, and financial statements from Purdom’s expeditions, 1909-1912, are held at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Cambridge, United States of America. Purdom’s personal notebook recording seed samples he collected for Veitch and Sons, 1909-1912, is held at the archive of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. The latter encloses miscellaneous letters and notes including a photograph and letters from Kew confirming the identification of seed samples sent to Kew by Veitch from 1911-1912.

Personal Names