In Defence of Mary McGhie (?1770-1844)

Shropshire Botanical Society Newsletter 5 - Spring 2001 - pages 14-15

Mark Lawley


Had Miss McGhie lived in our "interesting" times, she would have been a near neighbour of mine. Alas, though, she cannot now defend her reputation from the slight on her botanical worth, printed in the last issue of the Shropshire Botanical Society's Newsletter. May I therefore leap to the lady's defence, and beat off an attack impugning her honour?

A site whose habitat is hostile to a particular suite of species nowadays might have been eminently suitable for them many years ago. But many naturalists underestimate the great extent to which secular ecological successions alter habitats and the identities of species living at particular locations, even during brief periods of only a few years. This fault is apparent in the article discussing Miss McGhie's botanical records.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) was once quite common on the hilly brakes of Deerfold Forest, about eight miles south-west of Ludlow in north-west Herefordshire. Thus, the Hereford Times of June 5th, 1869, P.10, quotes a paper delivered by Henry Graves Bull: 'Common Juniper.... grows very freely on the eastern side of the Forest [i.e. west of Aymestrey].' W.H. Purchas also reported Juniper from the Vinnals on Bringewood Chase just west of Ludlow, presumably around the middle of the 19th century before he left Herefordshire to live in Gloucestershire and Staffordshire. And Sinker et al. report its rediscovery on Bringewood late in the 20th century. I therefore think it reasonable for Juniper to have also existed - if only as isolated plants - on the hillsides of south Shropshire, for instance at Caynham Camp. Presumably Juniper declined and approached extinction in north Herefordshire and south Shropshire during the 19th century, as hillsides were cleared of scrub for pasture.

Wood Stitchwort (Stellaria nemorum) is easy to overlook unless you've got your eye in for it, and Miss McGhie may have been more observant than we latterday worthies. It grows in woodland on Wigmore Rolls only six miles west-south-west of Ludlow, so as with Juniper, the plant may have occurred (and perhaps still persists unnoticed) elsewhere in woods about Ludlow.

Pale St John's-wort (Hypericum montanum) and Spring Cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana) like abandoned quarries where calcareous rock and soil yet remain fully insolated, succumbing once trees and shrubs cast sufficient shade. Thus, they become victims of a natural ecological succession, in contrast to the human influence which did for Juniper. Both species live at Nash Quarry near Presteigne, 13 miles south-west of Ludlow, and Pale St John's-wort also persists in an abandoned quarry near Leintwardine, six miles west of Ludlow. Moreover, the landscape of south Shropshire is littered with small quarries for building and road-stone, which had only recently been abandoned in McGhie's time in the first half of the 19th century. Quarries with calcareous rock and soil - such as those on Wenlock Edge, its southern extensions around Craven Arms and Stokesay, and The Novers on the southern flank of Titterstone Clee Hill - would have been ideal for the Hypericum and Potentilla until more robust woody plants succeeded them.

Historical evidence, botanical probability and secular ecological succession therefore suggest that many of Miss McGhie's more surprising records stand every chance of being correct, and that it is over-harsh to impugn her botanical reliability. It is more reasonable to conclude there is not quite enough evidence to prove her records wrong than not enough to prove they were right. True, she would have been botanically isolated in Ludlow, perhaps only with Withering's Botanical Arrangement and John Galliers of Stapleton and Leintwardine to assist her with identifying puzzling plants. Galliers was a fellow-member of the Ludlow Natural History Society in the 1830's, and must have come to Ludlow fairly frequently. On the other hand, I doubt if McGhie met Joseph Babington, for he had left the district by 1817 when Miss McGhie arrived (Shrewsbury Chronicle, June 28th, 1844). However, I do not think that Miss McGhie was a botanical novice by the time she came to Ludlow. Au contraire, she probably possessed more botanical nous than most. Her father, Robert McGhie was living in the (then) very fashionable Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, London before he died in 1806 (Gentleman's Magazine, 1806, 76: 590), and as a maiden lady Mary presumably lived there too, where she very probably attended soirées at their neighbours the Marcets. Jane Marcet was a popular botanical Anglo-Swiss authoress (Shteir, A.B., 1996, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, John Hopkins University Press, Page 100), whose parties would have brought Miss McGhie into contact with a wider botanical world. Moreover, Miss McGhie may well have first widened her botanical outlook while visiting or living in Jamaica, where her father had owned an estate in the late 18th century, and Maryland, U.S.A., where her brother Thomas lived before coming to Woodhampton near Little Hereford. Miss McGhie may therefore have had a much broader and more varied botanical background than any of her contemporaries in Shropshire.

Added to historical evidence for the creation of and subsequent changes in habitats, and the known occurrence of uncommon plants in those habitats around Ludlow, I conclude that Mary McGhie's records are more likely to have been right than wrong, and recommend that we regard them in that light.

Today, with so many better floras and more informed botanical colleagues to call upon for guidance, we latterday botanists still make mistakes in identification. Yea, even the best of us have bad days and blind spots. Miss McGhie, too, will, of course, have been human.


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