Assistant Archivist Luke Thorne delves into the recently catalogued correspondence of Nathaniel John Winch, an 18th century botanist, geologist, and merchant
Published on 11th March 2021
In this blog we look in more detail at the life and work of Nathaniel John Winch (1768 -1838), a botanist, merchant, lichenologist and geologist, whose correspondence collection has recently been added to the archive catalogue. The archive (MS/321) consists of 8 bound volumes of correspondence, dating from 1788 to 1839, and details about the contents of the collection are now available to view online.
Winch was born in Hampton, Middlesex, on 20th December 1768, but spent much of his life living and working in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. He started his career as an apprentice under Robert Lisle, a hostman, in 1780 and would eventually go on to run his own business as an iron merchant and anchor smith. He was also elected as the sheriff and member of the common council for Newcastle upon Tyne in 1805 and later became the secretary of the Newcastle infirmary for more than 20 years.
In addition to the positions he held, Winch was a passionate botanist and devoted a lot of his time to studying plants, especially cryptogams like mosses. His studies led to his involvement with the Linnean Society, where he was elected as a Fellow in 1803 and again as an Associate in 1821. Winch was also made an honorary member of the Geological Society in 1808 and co-secretary of the Natural History Society of Northumberland & Durham in 1829. He cultivated a herbarium of around 12,000 species of plants and also published anthologies on plants in Northumberland, Cumberland and Durham and their geographical distribution. However, his devotion to studying botany ultimately led to the failure of his business and consequently becoming bankrupt in 1808. He died at his residence in Newcastle upon Tyne on 5th May 1838, leaving his manuscripts, library and herbarium to the Linnean Society, although many of these were later transferred to the Natural History Society of Northumberland & Durham. The genus Winchia is named after him.
The letters of correspondence in the collection cover a variety of different topics, primarily about Winch’s work, his publications on local flora and geography, requests for and receiving of specimens and colourful illustrations from fellow botanists. As highlighted in the blog about Holmes’s correspondence collection (MS/235), Winch also developed a collaborative network in which he offered his services in assisting fellow botanists with identifying plant specimens. On one occasion this resulted in a new discovery, as Winch had identified some Willow (Salix) specimens sent by Edward Forster, which turned out to be a new species in Britain (MS/321/6, Forster, E., letter 5). Correspondents also presented their opinions on other botanists and zoologists and their work, sometimes even highlighting scandals about certain individuals. For instance, George Walker Arnott reveals that Schleicher, another correspondent of Winch’s, admitted to “inventing plant species in order to have more to sell.” In the same letter he also states that Greville, who also corresponded with Winch, is “an alcoholic” (MS/321/1, Arnott, G.W., letter 7).
Winch’s research and knowledge of Northumberland and Durham geology and of coal and limestone formations was a great asset to men in other industries, as he was often called upon to identify mineral specimens. However, Winch’s studies in geology went further than just academic research as he was also interested in the efforts to improve the working conditions in coal mines situated in the Great Northern Coalfield. Winch was genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of miners and wrote about the dangerous conditions they regularly faced and of the tragic accidents that happened. One incident at the Newbottle Colliery where an explosion killed 57 men sparked a response in Winch who hoped that publicising the event would shock the mine owners and the government into improving the working conditions and supporting the bereaved families (MS/321/19, Winch, N.J., letter 15).
Some of Winch’s correspondents also sent reports, papers and committee resolutions related to coal mines and proposed improvements to them, including from John Buddle, a prominent mining engineer and entrepreneur in the North East of England. Buddle sent a lot of information to Winch about funding, accidents, ventilation systems and his own paper detailing the advantages of using the Davy Lamp in mines (MS/321/2, Buddle, J., letters 3, 4, 6 & 8). Winch followed the development and trial runs of the Davy Lamp closely, and while this safety lamp helped to reduce the risk of explosions, there was an unintended downside as mine owners could force men to work in areas of the mine where the quality of air was poor and the risk of suffocation was high (MS/321/19, Winch, N.J., letter 32).
The wire gauze lamp, however, is in use, and the benefits that it offers to mankind must in time subdue the uneasy sensations of envy and ingratitude it has excited.
Even though Winch’s business failed and he faced bankruptcy as a result, his devotion to botany never wavered and his anthologies of plants in Northumberland, Cumberland and Durham, as well as his geological research, kept him in popular demand with a variety of people and cemented his reputation as a knowledgeable expert. His efforts to shine a light on the terrible conditions that coal miners faced and his resolve to ensure that horrific mining accidents would never happen again show that he was a man who had a great deal of compassion.
To find out more about the life and work of this interesting man, see the newly added summaries of his letters on our archives catalogue.
By Luke Thorne, Assistant Archivist