Priceless scrapbook of 19th century botanist and Quaker missionary James Backhouse preserved forever

James Blackhouse Digitisation Father
West Bank Park Heritage Trust commissioned us to digitise and preserve the priceless 19th century scrapbook of James Backhouse
Published date:

"Priceless photos and correspondence have been preserved for everyone to view.”

The problem

The West Bank Heritage Trust was set up to celebrate the legacy of the James Backhouse Plant Nurseries of York, once known as ‘The Kew of the North’. As well as being a talented botanist and nurseryman, James Backhouse, was also a Quaker missionary. In 1831 he set off on a ten-year mission, travelling to Australia, South Africa and Mauritius. On his journey he visited penal colonies, helping to improve prison conditions and encouraging more humane treatment for the convicts. Throughout his travels he also sent plants back to Kew and his nursery in York.

Jane Cullen, Chair of the West Bank Park Heritage Trust was researching a plant named after James Backhouse Backhousia Citriodora. Since the plant does not grow in the UK, Jane contacted Herbie’s, a well-known herb and spice supplier in Australia. Through these conversations, Jane was commissioned to write about Backhouse for a Herbie’s publication. Fortuitously, one of the shop’s customers read the article and contacted Herbie’s to say that her brother-in-law, living in New Zealand, was the great, great, great, grandson of James Backhouse and had a number of documents handed down from his father. As Jane says “It was truly amazing how this all happened, pure serendipity on the other side of the world.”

Backhouse had documented his incredible journey and his botanical studies in a personal scrapbook. Dating back to the 1830s this fragile scrapbook is a rich resource for researchers, botanists and historians alike. The family brought the scrapbook over to York all the way from New Zealand and the Trust successfully raised funds to work with us to get this precious collection digitised.

Scanning the James Blackhouse Memoirs

The solution                                                      

We had multiple meetings with the West Bank Heritage Trust to discuss how best to digitise the scrapbook and any preparation that was needed prior to digitisation. Because of the fragility of the item it was recommended that conservation work took place to stabilise the pages before any image capture commenced. Once this was completed the 200 page scrapbook was then brought to our studio in Yorkshire and we re-assessed the best way to digitise it, discussing our proposals with the Trust.

It took three days to digitise the wealth of letters, drawings, photographs and cuttings. The Library used an A0 size scanner with a flexible bed to digitise the book, ensuring that it was handled sensitively. Our imaging specialist worked alongside the representative of the Trust who was on site during the scanning process at all times to enable a more collaborative way of working. Because of this close working partnership it meant that any queries could be dealt with immediately and techniques could be adjusted if required.  

A digitised letter in the collection

The outcome

As a result of the meticulous and careful scanning, this treasure trove of fascinating photos and correspondence from Backhouse’s travels has been preserved forever.

“Thanks to the British Library and the West Bank Heritage Trust, priceless photos, correspondence and fascinating items from my great, great, great, grandfather’s travels and life have been preserved for everyone to view.” Antony James Backhouse Lambert, James Backhouse family member

The Lambert family and the West Bank Park Heritage Trust are now working together to make the scrapbook available online. “The future of this project is very exciting for both the family and the Trust. It is a great opportunity to use new technology to share this incredible history.” Jane Cullen, Chair of the West Bank Park Heritage Trust

Contact us

Do you have a family scrapbook or personal collection you would like to preserve?

Speak to one of our experts to find out how digitising items from the British Library archives can enhance your collection.

E: businessdevelopment@bl.uk

Key points

  • James Backhouse was a talented botanist and a Quaker missionary who visited every penal colony in Australia, helping to improve prison conditions and encouraging more humane treatment for the convicts
  • Whilst researching an Australian plant Backhousia Citriodora, the West Bank Park Heritage Trust in York chanced upon the precious 19th century James Backhouse scrapbook, held by the Lambert family in New Zealand; an incredible record of his fascinating travels, letters of correspondence and family photographs.
  • The Trust raised funds to digitise this priceless collection and commissioned us to preserve these records for further study and future online access.
  • Having discussed project requirements with the Trust, we advised using an A0 size scanner to digitise whole pages. Individual items were also captured where material was folded over or contained in separate enclosures.

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