William Philip Hiern (1839-1925)

William Philip Hiern donated a large herbarium of dried plants to the Museum. Most of these were collected in and around Devon. He was born on 19 January 1839 and led a very busy life. His complete biography would cover many pages.

‘Punctual to the minute he arrives in a tall hard hat, and Dartmoor boots, carrying a role of 6-inch ordinance maps and newspaper sheets tied round with thick chord. He was blessed with 17 pockets. He liked to get the serious work done before lunch – after which for a time two plants occupied his attention – tobacco and briar.’ (Briar was used to make tobacco pipes.)

The Botanical Society and Exchange Club Report of 1925

Mathematics at Oxford and Cambridge

Hiern was an extremely capable mathematician and his first published works relate to mathematics. In 1857 he attended St. John’s College, Cambridge and became the Ninth Wrangler in the mathematical Tripos in 1861 (this means he achieved a first class degree and had the ninth highest mark in his year). In 1886 he also attended Oxford University.

Hiern and botany

Once married, he moved to Richmond in Surrey and his interest in botany started to grow. He studied botany at Kew Gardens under Sir Joseph Hooker and then visited many of Europe’s most important botanical gardens.

He also undertook three years of research for the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, London). In 1881 he received an autographed certificate of thanks from the King of Portugal for the work he carried out on a collection of Central African plants for Portugal’s government.

Hiern’s Publications

From 1861 onwards William Philip Hiern contributed to over 50 works on botanical subjects. One of his chief works was the Catalogue of Welwitsch’s African Plants which was published by the British Museum. In recognition of his contribution to botany he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903.

Hiern moves to Devon

In 1881 Hiern moved to Barnstaple and, like his father before him, lived at Barnstaple Castle. He took on many public roles including those of Lord of the Manor of Stoke Rivers and was one of the original aldermen of the County of Devon.

In Hiern’s Memory

Hiern died on 29 November 1925 at the age of 86 and his only child, a son, had already died. He was buried at Barnstaple Cemetery and his funeral was well attended. The Western Morning News carried a Poem, ‘In Memoriam’, dedicated to him.

His collection of seed-producing plants, ferns, lichens, mosses and algae came to RAMM. It is rich in specimens from the south of the country; in particular specimens from North Devon. His herbarium is very consistent: there are specimens from almost every month of his life between 1863 and 1925. Only about 10% of the data is electronically available.

Plants named in his memory:

  • The African figwort genus Hiernia named by Spencer Moore in honour of Hiern’s contribution to botany.
  • Ixora hiernii (a tropical evergreen shrub) named by Scott Elliot.
  • Coffea canephora var hiernii (a species of coffee plant) named by Pierre ex De Wild.
  • Pavetta hierniana named by Bremek

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