Herborising and the High Church – the story of the Reverend Richard Thomas Lowe (1)

This year Lambeth Palace Library and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Library, Art & Archives have been engaged in a collaborative project looking at the role played by clergymen in the study and progress of natural science. The intimate links between members of the clergy and the development of science may to some seem unexpected, but the significant role of clergymen has been both influential and far reaching. With potential postings to far flung locations, time between pastoral duties and reverence for the natural world, these educated men were well placed to undertake scientific investigations. It is these links which the collaborative project has sought to explore, focusing primarily on the complex and intriguing character of the Reverend Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874). Lowe’s achievements as a naturalist have been obscured as a result of the controversies he caused on Madeira in relation to his clerical practices during his time as chaplain on the island in the 19th century. This series of blogs posts will examine this tale of ecclesiastical intrigue – it is a story of suspicion, principles and unwanted innovation which is revealed through our respective library and archival collections.

IMG_1240 Lowe edited
Photographic image of Richard Thomas Lowe, courtesy of the National Archives (J 121/2416).

Lowe first journeyed to Madeira as a Travelling Bachelor in 1826 following his graduation and ordination as deacon (on Christmas Day 1825) in Christ College Cambridge. He arrived on the island’s shores in company with his ailing mother, Susanna Lowe (his father having died when he was an infant). The trip was to be cathartic, spiritual and educational – a heady mixture. For Lowe’s mother the island offered comfort from the ravaging symptoms of consumption (tuberculosis or TB). Madeira was effectively an island sanatorium; its temperate climate offered respite and comfort from the debilitating disease. For Susanna’s son, however, Madeira presented an opportunity. Although it had been explored by the likes of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), Lowe was convinced that fresh discoveries lay waiting to be made by an intrepid naturalist.

View of Madeira from 1807 (The English Church in Madeira by H.A. Newell, 1931, plt. 3. Lambeth Palace Library, H5697.M2).

After many months of exploring the island’s natural riches, Lowe decided to remain on Madeira (he had return to England briefly to receive his MA and be ordained as a priest in September 1830). He was soon presented with an opportunity which would boost his professional prospects. In 1831 the chaplain on the island, the Reverend William Deacon, offered Lowe the position of temporary chaplain to the flock of residents and visitors who attended the little English Church on the island (now known as the Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity). Deacon was to return to England for a time and was in need of a reliable and capable locum. Lowe had made a favourable impression both with Deacon and the congregation – he was the natural choice to fill the position. The temporary role was fortuitous, but Lowe may well have had his sights fixed upon more. It was generally known that Deacon was amid a wrangle over his salary. This was to be reduced by £100 a year and in protest he was to remove himself to England until the matter was resolved.  There were, however, suggestions that Deacon’s sojourn would become a permanent move and his position would fall vacant – Lowe, was in a prime position.

Lowe fulfilled the role of locum with care and diligence. He preached to his receptive congregation and the established pattern of worship continued without aberration. The only difficulty for Lowe, was the limited time he was left with for his botanising over the course of the season (the sheer volume of the sick who resided on the island kept the chaplains of Madeira very busy, offering succour and comfort where they could), but he was a dedicated clergyman and continued to minister to the best of his ability. All seemed to be going well, but his spell as spiritual leader was put to an abrupt end – Deacon returned early and Lowe stood aside.

Exterior view of the English Church on Madeira as it appeared in 1844 (The English Church in Madeira, by H.A. Newell, 1931 plt. 5. Lambeth Palace Library, H5697.M2).

For the time being Lowe could dedicate his time solely to his natural history research (find out more on Kew’s Library, Art & Archives blog). Soon, however, the foundations laid during his temporary position yielded fruit. Around 1832/33 Deacon retired and Lowe was once again in a position to step neatly into his shoes. He wrote excitedly to his great friend Sir William Hooker (1785-1865) (who had been Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and then famously Director of Kew from 1841) to tell him of the “comfort of a permanent provision and employment in my profession”:

I am sure you will be glad to hear I am likely to succeed at the end of the year to the Chaplaincy of this place, under circumstances peculiarly gratifying…the Brit[ish] Residents have unanimously & of their own accord entirely, come forward, drawn up and submitted a memorial in my favour to the Government (Directors’ Correspondence 58/179).

All did not quite commence without incident. Lowe refused to assume the position of chaplain until he had officially received word from the Government and the Bishop of London – much to the fury of Madeira’s consul Henry Veitch (1782-1857) who held sway on the island. He withheld Lowe’s salary and threatened to appoint another chaplain if the current nominee was unwilling. Lowe backed down and settled into his role, being officially recognised as chaplain on 31st December 1833.

For the time being the skies seemed clear and life resumed its tranquil rhythm, but storm clouds were brewing.
A5 leaflet HerborisingYou are warmly invited to come and view our collaborative exhibition “Herborising and the High Chiurch…” which runs until 20th July 2015 in the Reading Room at Kew.


Charles Blomfield, Correspondence between the Lord Bishop of London (1846) [ Lambeth Palace Library, H5133 472.11]
Herbert Andrew Newell, The English Church in Madeira (1931) [Lambeth Palace Library, H5697.M2]
Foreign chaplaincies: three letters to the Lord Bishop of London (1853) [Lambeth Palace Library H5150 12.13]
RBG Kew: Library, Art &Archives, Directors’ Correspondence 58/179
RBG Kew, Library, Art & Archives: Directors’ Correspondence 58/171
Patrick H. Armstrong, The English Parson-naturalist  (2000)                                                               Roy Nash, Scandal in Madeira: the story of Richard Thomas Lowe (1990)

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