Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Tuatara: Volume 19, Issue 1, November 1971

William Bell, Early Student of New Zealand Mosses

William Bell, Early Student of New Zealand Mosses

Hitherto all enquiries concerning William Bell, one of our earlier students and collectors of the New Zealand mosses, have failed to bring to light any information concerning either the man or the location of his moss collections. Mrs. Audrey Larsen, who is compiling a history of Pine Hill in Dunedin where Bell resided, has unearthed the missing information, and at my suggestion she has made a precis of the facts for publication in ‘Tuatara’.

—W. Martin

Born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, about 1833, William Bell was one of a family of eight children, his mother widowed early in life. He trained as a journeyman gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, where he developed an interest in alpine mosses and because of this was granted the privilege of attending lectures and field studies under Professor Hutton Balfour. In September of 1860 he accompanied W. Keddie and Professor Balfour on an ascent of Schihillion (Scotland), ‘commissioned from the Botanic Garden to collect ferns’, and later presented some alpine mosses to the Botanical Society herbarium — possibly his first recorded moss collection. In December of 1861 he was elected an Associate of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh which in subsequent years published several items by him regarding Scottish mosses and other plants. In May of 1862, at the age of twenty-nine years, he took up the position of head gardener at the Botanic Garden of Saharanpur in North West India, which was conducting early experiments in tea and cinchona culture. He remained there during the wild, speculative period among the tea companies both in Britain and India, which reached its climax in 1865, returning slowly to a stable position in 1869, by which time Bell was back at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, as assistant to J. Sadler, curator of the herbarium. While in Saharanpur (spelt at the time Saharanpore) he botanised around the district, sending specimens back to Edinburgh in 1863. An orchid which Bell page 2 discovered was named Eulophia campanulata by Duthie, in punning reference to his name. He explored the forest regions of Dehra Dun on the northern side of the Siwalik Hills, sending a description to Professor Balfour (which was published in Trans. Bot. Soc Edinburgh IX, 274-92: 1869), and also the hot springs at Jumnotri, which he communicated to the Botanical Society personally in Edinburgh and which was later published by them. Although his term of work with the Botanic Garden at Saharanpur had been set for four years, he did not return home until 1868, collecting specimens from Gibraltar on his journey back to Edinburgh. In 1869, Bell and Sadler made several excursions around Edinburgh collecting mosses, notice of which was published by the Botanical Society, who also published two items by Bell regarding tea: ‘Notes on the varieties of tea cultivated in India’ and ‘Remarks on tea manufacture in north west provinces of India’ (Trans. Bot. Soc. Edinb X, 162-64 (1869) and XI, 174-87 (1871).

The next venue for Bell was New Zealand, with Dunedin as his mailing address. Here he spent nine weeks in the autumn of 1872, working at harvest and other miscellaneous jobs, travelling as far as Timaru where a three-week-old telegram recalled him to Dunedin to receive a letter telling him to start at once for Dehra Dhoon where the tea company had appointed a temporary manager, the position to be kept open for Bell. However, travel between New Zealand and India was not fast in 1872 and by the time William Bell arrived in Dehra Dhoon the temporary manager had made ‘such a mess of things’ that the company had given the job to Nelson of Saharanpore. Bell was given charge of a china grass (Boehmeria nivea) plantation by a Colonel Thelwell, on the Markham Grant Estate, an industry that was experiencing difficulties with the processing of the fibre for manufacture, and was at that time holding competitive trials at Saharanpur for suitable processing machinery. Bell finally did obtain the position of manager to the Dehra Dhoon Tea Company as a letter to Professor Balfour dated November 25, 1873, records, and remained with it until some time in the 1880's, punctuated by visits to New Zealand on sick leave.

It was during one of these periods of sick leave (congestion of the liver) that the incident occurred that decided Bell, who had presented his collection of Indian mosses to the Otago (then the Dunedin) Museum, not to offer his New Zealand collections to that institution, but to donate the 3,000 New Zealand mosses in his private herbarium to Brotherus in Finland when the time came. He spent two six-month periods of sick leave in New Zealand, based in Dunedin, the first in 1873-74, then again in late 1880-81, but the time of actual residence on retirement from the tea company has not yet been established. However photostat copies from the Botanical Museum, Helsinki University, Finland, of Psilopilum bellii specimens annotated in Bell's own hand give a first date of February, 1887, page 3 continuing through until 1895, during which time he was resident on Campbell Road, Pine Hill, Dunedin. A letter dated January 12, 1895, from Bell to Professor V. F. Brotherus in reply to a request for specimens of New Zealand alpine mosses from Brotherus, records areas over which Bell had collected, giving altitudes, but suggests that ‘so far as my own experience goes, I think it probable that there are yet more to be found between the sea level and 1500 ft, than perhaps above that’. He goes on to say, ‘When you have examined the mosses sent’ (one specimen out of every packet of duplicates) ‘would you kindly send me a list of your determinations, add the locality and date of collecting the specimens, such list would put me right in some things in which I feel sure I have blundered and confirm me in others that I have doubt about.’ Whether Bell had first been in touch with Dr. V. F. Brotherus, the leading bryologist of his day, or Brotherus with Bell, is not known, but possibly the former as during his tea company period Bell had no time to spend among mosses, tea having become ‘such an all engrossing subject’, so his return to his first love in the field of botany would send him seeking reliable information from an authority.

Some time before 1900, Bell returned to India and spent a period as superintendent at the Saharanpur Botanic Garden before final retirement in Christchurch, where in December of 1902 he wrote again to Dr. Brotherus, ‘On account of failing sight I have been unable to do anything amongst the mosses for some time past, hence I have resolved on disposing of the whole of my collection. Should you care to accept it as a donation to your Herbarium, I shall give it with pleasure,’ and on May 4, 1903, this left Christchurch (per Messrs. Heywood and Coy.) for Finland along with a small bundle of Hepaticae from the late Mr. Buchanan, who had given specimens to Bell at a time when W.B. had the intention of making a collection of these.

In all, Bell sent Brotherus 3,000 New Zealand mosses, an account of which was published by A. Palmgren (1927: 126 (Prof. V. F. Brotherus’ mossherbarium forvarfvas till Helsingfors Universitet.—Memoranda Soc. Fauna Flora Fennica 1: 120-27). Not all Bell's mosses, however, left New Zealand, as he was a very large contributor of specimens in the Beckett herbarium lodged with the Canterbury Museum. It would be interesting to know just how many mosses in Scotland, India and New Zealand William Bell collected over a lifetime of interest before his death on March 17, 1916, in Christ-church, the result of an attack of pneumonia in his eighty-fourth year.

The photostat copies of Psilopilum beliii (sent by courtesy of Dr. Pekka Isoviita, Acting Associate Curator of Cryptogams, Botanical Museum, University of Helsinki) show a much wider distribution in the Pine Hill/Mt. Cargill region than was previously thought, no one else other than Bell having at that period located it here. The annotations in Bell's own hand show:

page 4
Pine Hill February 1887 wet shady places upper bound. 1500
Mt. Cargill March 1888 wet places clay 1500
Pine Hill August 1888 swampy places 1500
Mt. Cargill March 1889 swampy ground 1600
Pine Hill March 1889 swampy ground (Brotherus manuscript)
Mt. Cargill Road November 1891 in water on Roadside amongst stones
Mt. Cargill Road November 1891 in water amongst stones
Mt. Cargill January 1895 wet clay banks

If the words ‘upper bound.’ in the 1887 Pine Hill annotation mean upper boundary of Bell's own property, then the figures given at the end of the first four annotations refer to altitude and are correct. The Mt. Cargill road altitudes could be around 1,100 or 1,200 feet, depending on location. This is an area that Bell would have explored thoroughly, his home on Campbells Road being situated close to a sizeable tract of virgin bush, ravined with creeks and waterfall that extended from approximately 300 feet at the northern end of North East Valley to 2,000 feet near the peak of Mt. Cargill, an area now conserved by the Dunedin City Council as ‘Bethunes’ Gully Reserve’. It is not impossible that specimens of Psilopilum bellii could still be discovered here. The last habitat of this moss in the Mt. Cargill area known to K. W. Allison and W. Martin was located on the Leith Saddle, but was destroyed during road construction work for the northern motorway.

The list of altitudes in Bell's letter to Dr. Brotherus of January 12, 1895, to be used in conjunction with the specimens sent to Brotherus give a good indication of the areas of collection covered by Bell up to that date but should not be taken as exclusive as he sent only duplicate specimens. As far as can be deciphered from Bell's crabbed handwriting (result of an accident to hand) these areas are:

Pine Hill 1500 ft. alt.
North East Valley 500
Flagstaff 2000
Mt. Cargill 2000
Pelichet Bay: Mt. Bluff; Stewart Island; Wynd-Ham; Fairfax, Southland from the sea level up to 500page 5
Kingstown; Queenstown; Glenorchy; Kinloch; Diamond Lake about 1000
Mt. Alfred 5000
Mt. Earnslaw up to 5 or 6000
Mt. Bonpland 5 or 6000
Mt. Benger Roxburgh up to about 3000

The name of William Bell is perpetuated in the endemic moss genus Bellia and in three South Island endemic moss species: Anoectangium bellii, Psilopilum bellii, and Ulota bellii.

A great deal of deep interest still remains to be discovered of Bell's life and work, but the main structure can now be seen, thanks to Mr. B. L. Burtt of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh; Dr. Pekka Isoviita of the Botanical Museum, University of Helsinki; Mr. L. J. Metcalf of Christchurch Botanic Garden; Mrs. Florence Hawke (William Bell's neice) of Christchurch and late of Pine Hill; Mr. W. Martin and Mr. W. H. Davidson, both of Dunedin. Research into the life of William Bell has proved as difficult, fascinating and rewarding as, I am told, is that of the four endemic New Zealand mosses which perpetuate his name, but the day is not too distant when his ‘song’ can rise out of obscurity and be sung with full accompaniment. Then at long last can the man and his work be recognised, appreciated and understood in the three lands he loved.