The Lobb Brothers
In 1942 the Bishop of Truro witnessed a special commemoration ceremony for two men who had lived in the area a hundred years before. A small grove of shrubs was planted in Devoran Churchyard and a memorial plaque installed. The brothers, William and Thomas Lobb had been amongst the earliest and most successful plant hunters of the Victorian age and, whilst their adventures are now little known, between them they brought back over 600 species of plant from around the world for cultivation in British hothouses and gardens, the descendants of which are common in our gardens today.
In 1831 the Lobb family had moved to Perranarworthal where John, the father, had found work at the great Carclew estate situated across the creek from Devoran. Its owner Sir Charles Lemon had rented his new carpenter a cottage and small plot of land nearby at Perran Wharf.
This period of history was a golden age for horticulture and the fine estates of Cornwall contributed more than their share to the activity, undoubtedly due to the twin blessings of benign climate and wealthy benefactors. The owners of great estates were competitive in their search for the novel and exotic plants. The Royal Horticultural Society of Cornwall's summer exhibitions of the 1840's were gratified by exhibitions and prizes won by J S Enys esq of Enys, J P Magor of Penventon, J Vivian of Pencalenick, W Daubuz of Killiow and of course Sir Charles Lemon Bart M.P. Of Carclew. It could not be a surprise that two young men, who had developed an interest in plants under their father's encouragement, should have this fired into a passion by the opportunities presented.
Both brothers were to work under the direction of Veitch and Sons who had well established nurseries at Exeter. William was the eldest and undertook the first expedition to South America sailing to Rio de Janeiro on HM Packet Seagull in November 1840. On arrival he explored the local Sierra dos Organos region, sending his first shipment of orchid, begonia and passion flowers to arrive back in Devon in March 1841.
He continued on to Argentina and Chile where he searched for seeds of the monkey-puzzle tree which had been discovered by Archibald Menzies in 1795. He found the trees at 5,250 feet below snow covered peaks and collected 3,000 seeds by means of shooting cones from the trees, a method that any contemplating climbing the tree might well agree with. This shipment also arrived safely in Devon and by 1843 the Veitch nursery was offering seedlings for sale at £10 per 100. Unknown to his current employers William also sent seeds to his former employers Sir Charles Lemon and John Williams of Scorrier House where a plantation of the trees was set out which boasted Britain's tallest monkey-puzzle tree until it unfortunately fell in a gale in 2015. The largest example in Britain is at Benmore Botanic Garden in Scotland and currently measures over 55 metres tall. It was planted in 1863 when the estate was owned by a wealthy American, James Piers Patrick. William continued to Peru, Equador and Panama finally returning to England in May 1844.
William's second expedition to South America was between the years 1845-48 but in 1849 he chose to go to North America, arriving at San Francisco at the height of the Californian gold rush. He explored the Monterey area, sending back seeds of the Monterey pine and Californian redwood. In 1853 he returned to England carrying seeds of the Wellingtonia gigantea later to be known as the giant sequoia and famed as the largest tree in the world. The largest example in Britain is thought to have been planted in 1854 and is currently over 50 metres tall.
He returned to California in 1854, destined never to return to England. After 1847 he severed ties with Veitchs and attempted freelance work but appeared to loose contact with former colleagues. William remained respected amongst botanists in California but suffered from ill health and died at St Mary's Hospital in San Francisco on the 3rd of May 1864.
The following is a report of William's exploits on the National Trust website.
In 1852, Lobb visited San Francisco, where he first heard of mammoth conifers in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range.
Lobb knew this ‘vegetable monster’ would trigger an enormous craze in British horticultural circles, and hurried to the Sierra foothills too see the remarkable tree in its native habitat.
He found about 90 towering trees and reported that a felled tree had measured 300 feet with a diameter of over 29 feet near its base. A section of this 3,000-year-old tree was displayed in San Francisco where its hollowed (and carpeted) slice of trunk could comfortably accommodate a piano with an audience of 40.
Lobb collected seed, shoots, and seedlings. In fewer than two years’ time these would give rise to thousands of saplings, snatched up by wealthy Victorians to adorn great British estates. The larger-than-life conifer, so symbolic of the vast American wilderness, suddenly became a status symbol in Britain.
What's in a name?
Back in California, the mammoth conifers were presented as tourist attractions to the American public. The big tree, as they dubbed it, was vastly appealing to the masses flocking from far and wide to visit Calaveras Grove, sleep in its hotel, and waltz across its expansive tree stump turned dance floor.
Shortly after the discovery of the big tree came the question of what to name it.
Dr. Kellogg, the founder of the California Academy of Sciences, was instrumental in the discovery of the tree. He planned to name the tree the 'Washingtonia' in honour of America’s revered first President.
Kellogg only needed to complete his set of herbarium specimens to register the new species. Lobb knew this, and quickly returned to England with the required specimens before his rival could carry out his plans.
To add insult to injury, John Lindley of the Horticultural Society, who was assigned the task of naming the introduction, opted for the decidedly un-American 'Wellingtonia gigantea' to commemorate the lately deceased Duke of Wellington.
A living monument
This was greeted with indignation across the pond, sparking a debate that would rage for years.
Ultimately, a scientific name settled the argument. 'Sequoiadendron giganteum' was chosen to reflect the tree’s botanical link to the coastal or California redwood, 'Sequoia sempervirens'.
That we persist in affectionately - or stubbornly - calling it the Wellingtonia is a testament to its value as a living monument.
Today’s tallest specimen measures an astounding 94.9 metres (311.4 feet) and can be seen at Kings Canyon National Park in California.
You can see magnificent examples of 'S. giganteum' at close range in such gardens as Killerton, Sheffield Park, and Penrhyn Castle.
Thomas's first expedition for Veitch Nurseries was to Java, Penang and Malaysia between 1843 and 1847. He arrived first in Singapore from where he sent his first shipment which included the insectivorous Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes Rafflesiana). A second trip between 1848 and 1853 included India, Nepal, Sarawak, Burma and the Philippines. Thomas's chief quarry when hunting was the orchid. The cultivation of orchids was the epitome of sophistication in Victorian times, requiring skilled gardeners, expensive hot houses and imported plants which might cost a small fortune. It was in Assam in India that Thomas amassed his most spectacular collection within which was the acclaimed Vanda coerulea, a delicate and beautiful blue variety which sold at up to £10 a specimen back in England.
On his third and last trip between 1854 and 1857, he returned to Java also visiting North Borneo, Burma, Sumatra and the Philippines. Thomas suffered a leg injury on this trip and on his return in 1860 he retired to a modest property at Devoran which he named Stanley Villa. He spent his retirement gardening and painting and when he died in 1894 he was buried in Devoran Churchyard.
The annual exhibitions of the Royal Cornwall Horticultural Society not only revealed the rivalry between the great estates but also provided a showcase for the professional nurseries in which the Lobb brothers plants were to be found at the fore.
In 1845 the exhibition was held in the Polytechnic Hall Falmouth under the chairmanship of J S Enys esq. The report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette described “Messrs Veitch and Son exhibited a beautiful collection of Dahlias and another of hybrid china roses, several varieties of fuchsias and Siphocamphylos coccineus recently returned from Peru.” The latter plant had come from William's first expedition to South America.
In 1858 the exhibition, under the presidency of the Rev. Thomas Phillpotts the vicar of Feock, was held at Trelissick House. The report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette this time described “many rare and valuable plants were largely supplied by Messrs Veitch of Exeter who exhibited a new orchid, Calanthe dominyi, the first raised from seed in England” and “different kinds of the singular pitcher plant brought home by their collector Mr Lobb from Japan.” These plants were derived from Thomas's expeditions to the Far East, although the pitcher plant referred to came from Singapore and not Japan.
A fascinating account of both brothers lives and achievements can be found in the book “Blue Orchid and Big Tree” by Sue Shepard and Toby Musgrave, published by Redcliffe books.
Written by Phil Allen