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Eleanor Vachell, Pioneer Female Botanist

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Eleanor Vachell (1879-1948) was a member of Cardiff Naturalists’ Society for 45 years. She was the first female member of the Biological & Geological Section in 1903, going on to become the President of this section in 1932-33 and President of the Society in 1936-37. Eleanor and her father, Charles Tanfield Vachell would have felt proud of Cardiff Naturalists' Society celebrating its 150th anniversary as they had both been instrumental in the society reaching its first sesquicentennial milestone.

Eleanor Vachell. Photograph taken in Cardiff. Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Eleanor Vachell. Photograph taken in Cardiff. Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Eleanor was a botanist. We know from her botanical diary that her interest in plants was well established by the age of eleven as she records finding Sea Aster (Aster tripolium) and Oblong-leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia) on holiday in Scotland. Her father, encouraged this interest. It would be pure conjecture to suggest that the family’s loss of two small girls, younger sisters to Eleanor, in 1888, Cicely at 2 years old and the second, Catherine at just 12 days old, brought the father and his youngest daughter closer together. The result of this shared interest was a nationally important herbarium of 6,705 dried plant specimens, donated to Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales (NMW) on Eleanor’s death in 1948.

This love of plants stayed with Eleanor all of her life and she wanted to disseminate her botanical knowledge. This included encouraging the Junior Section of Cardiff Naturalists' Society. She regularly gave lectures and talks on BBC radio on plants. Quite remarkably Eleanor wrote a weekly column in the Western Mail on the flowering plants of Wales for twenty-seven years. She kept the printed clippings chronologically in albums. To expand her knowledge of plants she set herself the goal of ‘painting the Bentham’ – travelling the United Kingdom searching for plants and then colouring Walter Hood Fitch’s illustrations in George Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora. She then moved on to R.W. Butcher & F.E.Strudwick’s Further Illustrations of British Plants. She died with only thirteen species left uncoloured, from a total of approximately 1,800 species.

From the CTV & EV herbarium we can see that Eleanor’s main period of plant collecting was from 1922 to 1941. Prior to this there was a spike in collecting at around 1906 when she was recording secretary for the Flora of Glamorgan. Work on this flora had started in 1903 with Cardiff Naturalists' Society, on the instigation of Eleanor’s father.

The 1st World War years of 1914-1918 were perhaps a little too busy for Eleanor to do a lot of plant collecting. 1914 not only saw the declaration of war, but also the death of her beloved father. Charles had been on the Management Committee of the National Museum of Wales for many years, much of this time as its chairman. They had appointed the first Keeper of Botany for the museum, the plant ecologist Cyril Mortimer Green. Before starting this role he joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in October 1914 (see http://historypoints.org/index) seeing action in France and Gaza. Sadly, Cyril never took up his position at the museum as he was killed in 1917 and this soldier from Aberystwyth is now buried in Israel. This meant that during the war years the botany collections, housed in Park Place had no curator, until Eleanor stepped in. Like her father, Eleanor always maintained close links with the museum and was appointed to the Court of Governors in 1919.

During WW1 Eleanor was a volunteer at the 3rd Western General Hospital, Cardiff, going on to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) member in 1918. She always divided her time very strictly between the hospital and the museum collections. Eleanor did this work knowing that her younger brother, Eustace Tanfield Vachell, was serving with the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers during the war, seeing action in France and the Dardanelles. Remarkably he survived the war and went on to become a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1922, living into his eighties.

Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) from the CTV & EV Herbarium, (NMW), Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) from the CTV & EV Herbarium, (NMW), Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was chosen to represent Eleanor in the Cardiff Naturalists' Society 150th Anniversary Exhibition (see image), from her pressed plant collection in the Welsh National Herbarium (NMW) as they symbolise WW1 particularly.

Eleanor’s Flowers in the field notebook from 1919, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Eleanor’s Flowers in the field notebook from 1919, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

After the war Eleanor had more time to botanise and she won the Flowers of the Field competition in 1919 for finding the greatest number of flowers in a year, with a total of 492 (see image of Eleanor’s notebook). In 1926 she was asked to investigate the rare Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) by the British Museum. Her diary tells us of the exciting hunt for this rarity and finding it, with the help of George Claridge Druce. (National Museum article)

During the 1930s Eleanor collected Dandelions (Taraxacum) and sent her findings to the Scandinavian Taraxacum expert Gustav Adolf Hugo Dahlstedt. He found one of these plants from Wales to be a new species, which he named Taraxacum vachellii in her honour. Would she be a little peeved to know this is now considered to be a heterotypic synonym of Taraxacum brachyglossum? The 1930s also saw Eleanor studying the Mudworts of Glamorgan with Dr Kathleen Blackburn, particularly hybrids between the then named Limosella subulata and L. aquatica (see image of some of Eleanor’s notes and publications).

Some of Eleanor’s notes and publications, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

Some of Eleanor’s notes and publications, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

In some respects Eleanor Vachell was a pioneer of feminism; she was the first female member elected to the Biological & Geological section of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society and the section’s first female president. She was the first female president of Cardiff Naturalists' Society, and as a result of her work with the National Museum of Wales herbarium was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, only twelve years after the first woman had been elected. She did not record that these were important to her. I am sure she would say that she was a botanist and, even though she collected plants from all over the United Kingdom, she collected over 2,200 specimens from vice-county 41, Glamorgan. We can say that she was a botanist who had her roots very much in South Wales.

References

  • Druce, G.C. (1914) Obituaries: C.T. Vachell. Botanical Exchange Club Reports 4 (3) pp 253-254.
  • Forty, M., & Rich, T. (2005). The Botanist. The botanical diary of Eleanor Vachell (1879-1948). Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
  • Haines, C.M.C. (2001) International Women in Science – a biographical dictionary to 1950.
  • Harrison, S.G. (1982). The collections of the Welsh National Herbarium – National Museum of Wales. Nature in Wales, vol. 1, no 2, p. 39-55.
  • Kane, A., Baker, E., Livesey, K., Carey, J., Tipper, A. & Rich, T. (2001) Catalogue of the C.T. & E. Vachell herbarium, National Museum & Gallery, Cardiff. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
  • Paterson, D.R. (1914) In Memoriam. Charles Tanfield Vachell, M.D. Reports and transactions (Cardiff Naturalists' Society) 1900-1981. Vol. 47, pp 1-6.
  • Vachell, E. (1934). A list of Glamorgan Plants. BEC Report for 1933.pp. 686-743.
  • Vachell, E. (1938). Botanical notes and Limosella plants of Glamorgan. Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society Vol. LXXI, pp 29-35.
  • Vachell, E. & Blackburn, K. (1939). Limosella. Journal of Botany. LXXVII, pp 65-71.

Words and images kindly provided by

Ms Sally P. Whyman
Curadur Botaneg, Gwyddorau Naturiol, Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd
Botany Curator, Natural Sciences, National Museum Cardiff

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