The uncertain legacy of Mary McGhie, 1770-1844

Shropshire Botanical Society Newsletter - Autumn 2000 - page 9

Alex Lockton


Mary McGhie of Ludlow is a rather mysterious recorder who is cited 163 times in Leighton's Flora of Shropshire. On the whole, William Leighton did a fabulous job, and it was widely acknowledged at the time that his was perhaps the best county Flora of its day. Its value seems only to increase with time, as the accuracy of the records, taxonomically and geographically, is superb. However, it has its flaws, among which are the records of some of the contributors. Leighton himself did not travel all that widely in the county, relying instead on local botanists, whom he recruited through advertisements. One of these was Mary McGhie, a member of the Ludlow Natural History Society. The purpose of this article is to examine Miss McGhie's records.

It may be worth taking a moment to explain how and why records are reviewed and, if necessary, rejected. It can be a dangerous process to say that a record is wrong, partly because it risks offending the recorder, and partly because a record may subsequently be proven right, however unlikely that may seem. Botany is not such a simple subject that one can ever say with certainty what can and cannot occur; but, on the other hand, if we do not validate records, eventually the number of errors will build up to the level where they confuse distribution patterns and camouflage declines until it is too late to do anything about it. It is therefore important that our data should be as correct as we can confidently make it.

There is one principle that is of overriding importance, and that is the reputation of the botanist. One must never reject a record simply because the plant in question is in a place where it is not expected. Altering data to fit one's theories is a dangerous corruption of science. Instead, all records must be accepted if the recorder is known to be trustworthy and reliable, and can show that they have made the record with sufficient detail and care. It is therefore the responsibility of the recorder to prove to us that a record is correct, which they do through sound methodology and a reliable track record.

To reject a record, we must therefore prove that the recorder did not take due care in making the record in the first place. For some really difficult species, the failure to collect a voucher specimen and lodge it in a national herbarium, properly determined, is damning. But for most species we don't expect that level of work. Field records are, basically, unsubstantiated - so it is the reputation of the botanist that is the only "proof" that exists. My intention here is to examine Mary McGhie's records collectively, and to demonstrate that a proportion of them are dubious, and unsubstantiated either by voucher specimens or subsequent records, and should therefore be considered unconfirmed.


Juniper, Juniperus communis

Mary McGhie recorded Juniper in woods at "Burford, Ashford and in the neighbourhood of Ludlow" (Leighton's Flora, p. 496). As with most of her records, there is no exclamation mark after the localities to show that Leighton himself had seen specimens. Juniper is quite an uncommon species in England, being mainly restricted to the south. These sites are some distance from the nearest populations, although the records for the Wyre Forest are not in doubt. However, there have never been any repeat finds in any of McGhie's sites, and they unfortunately add two 10km squares to the national distribution map, creating the impression of a substantial decline in this part of the country. If these records are not correct, they are very unwelcome, but it has to be admitted that the localities are vague, and this is a relatively unexplored part of the county.

Wood Stitchwort, Stellaria nemorum

There are very few records for Wood Stitchwort in Shropshire, and it is interesting to note that none of them has ever been repeated or substantiated by a voucher specimen; and none of the county's top botanists has ever seen it. Thomas Salwey made a record for it in the Oswestry district, and he was a generally reliable but hardly expert botanist, and I think it was A.R. Horwood of Leicester who recorded it at Marrington in 1901, but he would have been only 22 years old at the time. In truth, there is little evidence that this species - which would be an easy one to confuse - has ever occurred in v.c. 40. Mary McGhie's records are for "a hedge or thicket rather near to the Boiling Well, beyond Lynney, towards Burway; and in a field near the Paper Mills, Ludlow." It seems unlikely - S. nemorum is a plant of damp woodlands in the north of England. This sounds more like S. holostea.

Pale St. John's-wort, Hypericum montanum

This is another species which is sufficiently scarce that Mary McGhie's records make a difference to the national distribution map, but not so rare that it can easily be rejected out of hand. Pale St. John's-wort is a strongly calcicolous plant, never occurring on acid soils. In Shropshire it used to be known on Wenlock Edge, but appears to have become extinct there. It is still recorded in the limestone areas around Oswestry, although there hasn't been a confirmed record for it in some time. Mary McGhie's three records for the Ludlow area are unique. No-one else has ever seen it in that 10km square. The records are "Ashford; Ludford and Steventon, near Ludlow."

Spring Cinquefoil, Potentilla neumanniana

Her records for this next species are perhaps the most alarming of them all. Spring Cinquefoil is a Nationally Scarce species that occurs on strongly basic soils throughout Britain. Take away Mary McGhie's records, and there is just one record for it in Shropshire, by Edward Williams at Cound in about 1800. Miss McGhie's records account for nearly 10% of all British "losses" of this species - losses that simply never occurred if the records are false. The details are:- "Clee Hill on the Bridgnorth Road, on the bank going up to Steventon Cottage, and to Ashford towards Caynham House, on the bank going up to Whitcliffe woods." If only she had found it on the other side of Clee Hill, where the limestone outcrops are found, we could have believed her. Even so, these records are not impossible, just dubious - but the evidence mounts. The only other record of this species cited by Leighton is a third-hand one taken from Turner & Dillwyn's Botanists Guide. How did all of Shropshire's leading botanists manage to overlook a plant that the humble Miss McGhie could find with such ease?

Garden Plants

There is some reason to suspect that Mary McGhie recorded garden plants, or species which can only have been naturalised. Other botanists of the day took care to distinguish escapes from natives, but I don't know what else to make of such species as Borage, Borago officinalis, in three places, Mezereon, Daphne mezereum, Box, Buxus sempervirens, Garden Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, Great Burnet-saxifrage, Pimpinella major, Green Hound's-tongue, Cynoglossum germanicum, and Wild Tulip, Tulipa sylvestris. These plants are not generally considered to be natives of Shropshire. As for the daffodils, Primrose-peerless, Narcissus x medioluteus, and Pheasant's-eye, Narcissus poeticus, give the game away somewhat.



Mary McGhie is something of an enigma. There is not quite enough evidence to prove that her records are wrong. She must have known quite a bit about botany, or at least about garden plants, to have chosen such a select list of records to send to Leighton. Even the common things she recorded, like the two native species of oak, displays an awareness of the difficult groups of which the inexperienced botanist is generally unaware.

Perhaps the answer is that Miss McGhie was an untrained botanist, not knowing the rigorous procedures of identifying specimens. I am not aware of her having made a herbarium or having any direct contact with any leading names of the day. At that time, ladies were not welcomed in many scientific societies, and although the Botanical Society of London accepted both sexes equally, she would not have been a young woman by the time that was established. It would not be unreasonable to assume that many of her records had been made years earlier, in the first decade or so of the 19th century. She would have been working in the area at the same time as such luminaries as Edward Williams, Joseph Babington (father of C.C. Babington), Edward Newman, Arthur Aikin and George Jorden.

The following list includes all of the known records for Shropshire by Mary McGhie. I have inserted square brackets around each record that should perhaps be considered unconfirmed, to prevent them being used too casually as evidence of decline. Until now they all appear to have been accepted without hesitation, as if their publication in Leighton's Flora meant that they were fully endorsed. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case.


Mary McGhie's records

List of records giving an approximate grid reference for localities (except "Ludlow", which can be assigned SO57) and square brackets if the record could be considered dubious.

[Juniperus communis, Juniper, Ashford Carbonel, SO5270]

[Juniperus communis, Juniper, Burford, SO5968]

[Juniperus communis, Juniper, Ludlow]

Helleborus foetidus, Stinking Hellebore, Titterstone Clee SSSI, SO5677

Helleborus viridis, Green Hellebore, Clee Hill, SO6077

Ranunculus sardous, Hairy Buttercup, Ashford, SO5271

Aquilegia vulgaris, Columbine, Clee Hill, SO6077

Papaver dubium, Long-headed Poppy, Ludlow

Chelidonium majus, Greater Celandine, Ludlow

Fumaria capreolata, White Ramping-fumitory, Ludlow

Urtica urens, Small Nettle, Ludlow

Castanea sativa, Sweet Chestnut, Ludlow

Quercus petraea, Sessile Oak, Ludlow

Quercus robur, Pedunculate Oak, Ludlow

Betula pendula, Silver Birch, Ludlow

Moehringia trinervia, Three-nerved Sandwort, Ludlow

[Stellaria nemorum, Wood Stitchwort, Ludlow]

[Stellaria nemorum, Wood Stitchwort, Paper Mills, Ludlow]

Saponaria officinalis, Soapwort, Ludlow

Dianthus armeria, Deptford Pink, Cleobury Mortimer, SO6775

Rumex sanguineus, Wood Dock, Ludlow Racecourse, SO4977

Hypericum hirsutum, Hairy St. John's-wort, Ludlow

[Hypericum montanum, Pale St. John's-wort, Ashford, SO5271]

[Hypericum montanum, Pale St. John's-wort, Ludford, SO5173]

[Hypericum montanum, Pale St. John's-wort, Steventon, SO5273]

Hypericum elodes, Marsh St. John's-wort, Ludlow

Malva moschata, Musk-mallow, Ludlow

Malva neglecta, Dwarf Mallow, Ludlow

Descurainia sophia, Flixweed, Ludlow

Arabidopsis thaliana, Thale Cress, Ludlow

Barbarea vulgaris, Winter-cress, Ludlow

Rorippa palustris, Marsh Yellow-cress, Ludlow

Armoracia rusticana, Horse-radish, Newport, SJ7419

Armoracia rusticana, Horse-radish, Steventon, SO5273

Cardamine impatiens, Narrow-leaved Bitter-cress, Clee Hill, SO6077

Thlaspi arvense, Field Penny-cress, Ludlow

Ribes rubrum, Red Currant, Ludlow

Ribes nigrum, Black Currant, Ludlow

Sedum album, White Stonecrop, Ludford, SO5173

Chrysosplenium oppositifolium, Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, Ludlow

Chrysosplenium oppositifolium, Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, Shortwood, SO5178

Chrysosplenium alternifolium, Alternate-leaved Golden-saxifrage, The Hope, SO5178

Potentilla palustris, Marsh Cinquefoil, Hopton Wafers, SO6476

[Potentilla neumanniana, Spring Cinquefoil, Ashford, SO5271]

[Potentilla neumanniana, Spring Cinquefoil, Clee Hill, SO6077]

[Potentilla neumanniana, Spring Cinquefoil, Steventon, SO5273]

[Potentilla neumanniana, Spring Cinquefoil, Whitecliff, near Ludlow, SO4974]

Geum rivale, Water Avens, Corfton, SO4984

Sanguisorba minor, Salad Burnet, Ludlow

Rosa pimpinellifolia, Burnet Rose, Ludlow Racecourse, SO4977

Rosa rubiginosa, Sweet Briar, Ludlow

Prunus avium, Wild Cherry, Ludlow

Sorbus aucuparia, Rowan, Ludlow

Onobrychis viciifolia, Sainfoin, Poughnhill, SO5373

Anthyllis vulneraria, Kidney Vetch, Ludlow

Vicia tetrasperma, Smooth Tare, Ludlow

Vicia sativa ssp. nigra, Narrow-leaved Vetch, Ashford Carbonel, SO5270

Lathyrus linifolius var. montanus, Bitter-vetch, Ludlow

Lathyrus sylvestris, Narrow-leaved Everlasting-pea, Ludlow

Lathyrus latifolius, Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea, Ludford, SO5173

Genista tinctoria, Dyer's Greenweed, Ludlow

Genista anglica, Petty Whin, Tinkers Hill, SO5272

Ulex gallii, Western Gorse, Ludlow

Myriophyllum verticillatum, Whorled Water-milfoil, Ludlow

Daphne mezereum, Mezereon, Clee Hill, SO6077

Daphne laureola, Spurge-laurel, Hineham Coppice, ca. SO5175

Epilobium parviflorum, Hoary Willowherb, Ludlow

Chamerion angustifolium, Rosebay Willowherb, Ludlow

Cornus sanguinea, Dogwood, Ludlow

Viscum album, Mistletoe, Ludlow

Buxus sempervirens, Box, Tinkers Hill, SO5272

[Linum perenne, Perennial Flax, Onibury, SO4578]

[Linum perenne, Perennial Flax, Totterton Hall, SO3687]

Polygala vulgaris, Common Milkwort, Ludlow

Geranium sylvaticum, Wood Crane's-bill, Clee Hill, SO6077

Geranium pyrenaicum, Hedgerow Crane's-bill, Paper Mills, Ludlow

Geranium phaeum, Dusky Crane's-bill, Hopton Castle, SO3577

Geranium phaeum, Dusky Crane's-bill, Stanton Lacy, SO4978

Geranium phaeum, Dusky Crane's-bill, The Hope, SO5178

Erodium maritimum, Sea Stork's-bill, The Long Mynd, SO4293, conf. Leighton, Rev W.A.

Anthriscus cerefolium, Garden Chervil, Ludlow Castle, SO509745

Pimpinella major, Greater Burnet-saxifrage, Castle Walk, SO5074

Angelica sylvestris, Wild Angelica, Ludlow


Torilis nodosa, Knotted Hedge-parsley, Ludlow

Blackstonia perfoliata, Yellow-wort, Totterton Hall, SO3687

Blackstonia perfoliata, Yellow-wort, Wheathill, SO6282

Hyoscyamus niger, Henbane, Ludlow Racecourse, SO4977

Datura stramonium, Thorn-apple, Ludlow

Pentaglottis sempervirens, Green Alkanet, Castle Walk, SO5074

Borago officinalis, Borage, Bromfield, SO4876

Borago officinalis, Borage, Halton, SO4875

Borago officinalis, Borage, Whitbatch, SO5177

Cynoglossum germanicum, Green Hound's-tongue, Ludlow

Lamium amplexicaule, Hen-bit Dead-nettle, Lydbury North, SO3586

Galeopsis angustifolia, Red Hemp-nettle, Bromfield, SO4876

Galeopsis speciosa, Large-flowered Hemp-nettle, Ludlow

Marrubium vulgare, White Horehound, Ludlow

Nepeta cataria, Cat-mint, Ludlow

Clinopodium vulgare, Wild Basil, Ludlow

Origanum vulgare, Wild Marjoram, Ludlow

Lycopus europaeus, Gipsywort, Ludlow

Chaenorhinum minus, Small Toadflax, Ludlow

Misopates orontium, Weasel's-snout, Ludlow

Veronica montana, Wood Speedwell, Ashford Coppices, SO5171

Pedicularis palustris, Marsh Lousewort, Ludlow

Lathraea squamaria, Toothwort, Caynham Camp, SO5473

Lathraea squamaria, Toothwort, Oakly Park, SO4876

Orobanche rapum-genistae, Greater Broomrape, Shortwood, SO5178

Pinguicula vulgaris, Common Butterwort, Aston Hall, SO5086

Pinguicula vulgaris, Common Butterwort, Titterstone Clee SSSI, SO5977

Pinguicula vulgaris, Common Butterwort, Vinnalls, SO59

Campanula glomerata, Clustered Bellflower, Bromfield, SO4876

Sambucus ebulus, Dwarf Elder, Bitterley, SO5677

Viburnum opulus, Guelder-rose, Ludlow

Lonicera xylosteum, Fly Honeysuckle, Ludlow

Adoxa moschatellina, Moschatel, Tinkers Hill, SO5272

Valeriana officinalis, Common Valerian, Ludlow

Dipsacus pilosus, Small Teasel, Poughnhill, SO5373

Mycelis muralis, Wall Lettuce, Whitecliff, near Ludlow, SO4974

Gnaphalium sylvaticum, Heath Cudweed, Ludlow

Inula helenium, Elecampane, Burford, SO5968

Inula helenium, Elecampane, Hopton Castle, SO3577

Achillea ptarmica, Sneezewort, Ludlow

Chrysanthemum segetum, Corn Marigold, Bromfield, SO4876

Chrysanthemum segetum, Corn Marigold, Felton Farm, SO5076

Chrysanthemum segetum, Corn Marigold, Hopton Titterhill, SO3577

Tripleurospermum inodorum, Scentless Mayweed, Ludlow

Senecio aquaticus, Marsh Ragwort, Ludlow

Petasites hybridus, Butterbur, River Corve - SO57, ca. SO5175

Petasites hybridus, Butterbur, River Teme - SO57, ca. SO5175

Sagittaria sagittifolia, Arrowhead, Ludlow

Stratiotes aloides, Water-soldier, Lilleshall Mill Pool, SJ7315

Juncus bufonius, Toad Rush, Ludlow

Eriophorum angustifolium, Common Cottongrass, Ludlow

Carex otrubae, False Fox-sedge, Oakly Park, SO480760

Carex ovalis, Oval Sedge, Oakly Park, SO480760

Carex pseudocyperus, Cyperus Sedge, Oakly Park, SO480760

Lolium temulentum, Darnel, Ludlow

Phragmites australis, Common Reed, Bromfield, SO4876

Sparganium emersum, Unbranched Bur-reed, Ludlow

Colchicum autumnale, Meadow Saffron, Ludlow

Tulipa sylvestris, Wild Tulip, Hopton Castle, SO3577

Ornithogalum angustifolium, Star-of-Bethlehem, Ashford, SO5271

Ornithogalum angustifolium, Star-of-Bethlehem, Ludlow

Ornithogalum angustifolium, Star-of-Bethlehem, Whitecliff, near Ludlow, SO4974

Allium ursinum, Ramsons, Shortwood, SO5178

Allium ursinum, Ramsons, The Hope, SO5178

Allium vineale, Wild Onion, Ludlow, SO5075

Narcissus x medioluteus, Primrose-peerless, Felton Farm, SO5076

Narcissus x medioluteus, Primrose-peerless, Whitecliff, near Ludlow, SO4974

Narcissus poeticus, Pheasant's-eye Daffodil, Felton Farm, SO5076

Narcissus poeticus, Pheasant's-eye Daffodil, Whitecliff, near Ludlow, SO4974

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, a daffodil, Ludlow

Iris pseudacorus, Yellow Iris, Ludlow

Iris foetidissima, Stinking Iris, Shortwood, SO5178

Crocus vernus, Spring Crocus, Ludlow

Epipactis palustris, Marsh Helleborine, Felton Farm, SO5076

Neottia nidus-avis, Bird's-nest Orchid, Plowden Woods, SO3886

Listera ovata, Common Twayblade, Ludlow

Spiranthes spiralis, Autumn Lady's-tresses, Caynham Camp, SO5473

Gymnadenia conopsea, Fragrant Orchid, Felton Moors, SO5076

Gymnadenia conopsea, Fragrant Orchid, Hope Bagot, SO5874

Gymnadenia conopsea, Fragrant Orchid, Shortwood, SO5178


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