33: Spring 2014

Author: Andrew Haynes

The Amazing Case of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward

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The Amazing Case of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward
Andrew Haynes

The atmosphere of London’s East End in the 1820’s was worse than that of the Queen Vic before the smoking ban. Coal fired industry produced a soot and sulphur laden environment that made the cultivation of ferns particularly challenging. Doctor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was a physician, practicing in the East End, who liked to study botany and entomology after surgery hours. His ferns failed to thrive under their coating of soot – had he grown roses, black spot would not have been a problem!

The Doctor’s interest in moths led him to save a pupa, covered in damp soil and kept in a sealed glass jar; after a time a fern and a grass germinated in the jar, we do not know what became of the moth, but to his surprise the plants continued to grow within the sealed jar. Further study revealed that the jar had its own little rain-cycle going on, with water vapour condensing on the lid and running back down to the soil. Furthermore the fern flourished, protected as it was from the polluted air.

A carpenter was commissioned to construct a glazed, hardwood case, for the Doctor to grow his ferns in. The tightly sealed case worked a treat and was to lead to the 1970’s craze for those hideous bottle gardens! Much more importantly Dr. Ward concluded that the cases (later known as Wardian Cases) would provide protection for plants during long sea voyages.

Two cases were constructed and planted with British ferns and grasses, which though innocent of all crime, were transported to Australia. The plants survived a six month voyage and were exchanged for Aussy species, these survived a stormy eight month return passage, only to choke to death when removed from the case! But truly the experiment had been a resounding success. The Wardian Case was to have a profound influence on British colonial trade, enabling the establishment of the tea plantations in Assam, India and of rubber plantations in Malaya and Sri Lanka. The last shipment of plants in a Wardian Case was in 1962, now superseded by polythene bags, not nearly so elegant.

So there you have it, neither the potting shed cuppa nor our wellies would have been possible without the amazing case of Doctor Nathaniel Ward 1791-1868.

First published in the Dorset Group Newsletter 2012 / 2013
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 33.
© Copyright for this article: Andrew Haynes

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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