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"Local Heroes" 2.1 Francis Masson (1741-1805)


By david


Francis Masson, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, became the first official plant collector to be appointed by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

Commemorative Plaque at Cruikshank Botanic Garden, University of Aberdeen

I have not, to date, been able to discover anything about his early years, other than he had a brother, Charles, and a sister, Jean. (1)

Masson, presumably, trained as a gardener, before heading to London, where he found employment as an under-gardener to fellow Scotsman, William Aiton (2), superintendent in the developing gardens of Kew Palace.

William Aiton (1731-1793) (3)

Until the mid 18th Century, plant collections from overseas consisted, mainly, of dried specimens in private collections (herbaria). With royal interest in agriculture, horticulture and botany, however, influence and financial backing began to make it more feasible for planthunting expeditions around the world.

In 1771, Sir Joesph Banks returned from the famous voyage, by the “Endeavour”, under Capt. James Cook. Banks initially intended sailing with Cook on a second round-the-world voyage, but decided against this.

Joesph Banks as a young man. Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, engraved by William Dickinson (4)

Some articles on Masson say that Aiton was responsible for Masson becoming an overseas plant collector, and the first to be specifically appointed by Kew, but the majority say that this was due to Banks, who used his “influence” to secure a place for Masson onboard HMS Resolution, which, under Cook, sailed in May 1772.

HMS Resolution. Detail from a watercolour by midshipman Henry Roberts (5)

Masson’s voyage, however, was only as far as the Cape of Good Hope.

Between 1772 and 1774, Masson made three botanising journeys inland, the second and third in the company of the Swedish naturalist, Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), who spent three years in South Africa, engaged by the Dutch, botanising/collecting specimens for Dutch botanical gardens, but also learning Dutch, in preparation for sailing on to Japan, which, at the time, would only permit Protestant Dutch merchants. (6)

Perhaps the best-known plants to us, today, named after Thunberg, would be Berberis thunbergii or Thunbergia (Clock Vine, or Black-eyed Susan).

“Black-eyed Susan”/Thunbergia

Francis Masson returned to England in 1775, the same year as Thunberg reached Japan. He wrote an account of his three journeys into inland South Africa, which was published, in the following year, as one paper in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London”. Masson wrote of how he feared that Thunberg had drowned, whilst crossing a river, when his horse fell into a pit, made by (or created as a man-made trap for ?), a hippopotamus. (7)

From May 1776 until 1781, Masson was travelling, again, this time to Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Azores, and the West Indies.

He wrote “An Account of the island of St Miguel” (largest island in the Azores), which was published in 1778 in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London”. (8)

His next botanising trip (from 1783-85) was to Portugal, Spain, Tangier in Morocco, then home, via Madeira and Portugal.

Masson did not stay at home for long, however, In late 1785, he set off, once more, to the Cape of Good Hope, and stayed there for 10 years.

“English Ships in Table Bay 1787”, by Robert Dodd (1748-1815) (9)

Anglo/Dutch relations, however, were very different from the time of Masson’s first visit. The fourth Anglo-Dutch War had ended just two years earlier, and other conflicts of interest were to rise before the time he left South Africa. He may well have had to maintain a low profile during his botanising expeditions.

In 1796, Masson’s only book was published, titled “Stapeliae novae: or, a collection of several new species of that genus. discovered in the interior parts of Africa”. In the same year, he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

In 1797, Masson was persuaded by Banks to undertake a collecting expedition to Upper Canada. In September of that year, he set sail on what was to be his final expedition, and one from which he never returned. (10

He died in Montreal on 23rd December, 1805, and was buried on 25th at the Scotch Presbyterian Church (11).


(1). Mentioned as beneficiaries in Masson’s Will, which can be read at:- (2). Aiton was born near Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. After training as a gardener, he went to London in 1754. His first post was at the Chelsea Physic Garden but, from 1759 until his death, he was at Kew. He wrote “Hortus Kewensis” in 1789, a catalogue of all the plant species then at Kew, with information about country of origin, who introduced them, and when. (3). Source:- Wikimedias Commons (4). Source:- Wikimedia Commons (5). Source:- Wikimedia Commons (6). Source:- (7). This paper can be read online at:- (8). This can be read online at:- (9). Source:- Wikimedia Commons

(10). A good summary of Masson and his Canadian
journeys can be read in the Dictionary of
Canadian Biography Online, at:-

(11). This historical building was, unfortunately,
demolished. There is, therefore, nothing to be
found with regard to Masson’s resting place. I
learned this from a recent article in the “Montreal
Gazette”, whilst trying to find Masson’s obituary in
this newspaper at the time of his death. The online
archives of the “Gazette”, however, only extend
back 10 years. The recent article, however, is very

More blog posts by david

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Shame you could nt find any thing more David they demolish most of the decent buildings. My son loves the Black eye Susan I can tell him about this now, and I love the water colour of the ships my mums favourites the tall ships, funny how they do all the traveling to discover different spieces of plants then settle in one of the places he must of felt at home there.

12 Jan, 2011


Interesting to read this. You could publish these blogs in a book.

13 Jan, 2011


Very interesting blog to read.

13 Jan, 2011


Once again a masterful account of a collector's life! :-)) I enjoyed it very much, David! Looking forward to reading the next one!

15 Jan, 2011


Very interesting David especially as I was googling Kew gardens the other day thinking we might manage a trip in March , I will keep it on here and reread it slowly before we go , if we go that is ! it will help to bring things to life , Thank you .. :o))

16 Jan, 2011


Great blog David so interesting :o)

16 Jan, 2011


You are all very welcome. :-))

Hope that you do get to Kew, Amy. Look out for Masson's Giant Cycad!

18 Jan, 2011


I wouldn't miss it for the world David .... we have been studying the maps to see if we can avoid the congestion charges you have to pay in London what a nightmare ! We think we will stay on the outside somewhere and use other transport to make it easier .......It's in the planning stage ..LOL..... :o))

19 Jan, 2011


Very interesting, David. Especially the mention of the Church of St. Andrew's and St. Paul's, in Montreal.
May I suggest a google of one J.S.S. Armour, whose account of the peregrinating building is published entitled "Saints, Sinners and Scots: A History of the Church of St. Andrew's and St. Paul's" I found mention of this and thought it might have a lead for you in it.

13 Feb, 2011


Many Thanks for this pointer, Lori. Have googled this, and now know of the publication. Will endeavour to find a copy now. Am currently off chasing up another plantcollector/botanist, and enjoying several virtual visits to India, lol!! X

16 Feb, 2011


You lucky man! have fun! ;-)

16 Feb, 2011

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