Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, Hewett Cottrell

WATSON, HEWETT COTTRELL (1804–1881), botanist, was born on 9 May 1804 at Park Hill, Firbeck, Yorkshire. His father, Holland Watson, was nephew of John Watson (1725-1783) [q. v.] His mother, Harriett, daughter of Richard Powell of Heaton-Norris, near Stockport, was descended from the last Lord Folliott of Ballyshannon. In 1810 the family removed to Congleton, Cheshire, and young Watson was sent first to Congleton grammar school, where he had the reputation of a dunce, and was then placed under the Rev. J. Bell at Alderley. Dr. Stanley (afterwards bishop of Norwich) was then rector of Alderley, and first encouraged a love of botany in the boy, while Watson often protected the frail, delicate Arthur Stanley (afterwards dean of Westminster), who was one of his schoolfellows though eleven years his junior. A permanent injury to the joint of one of his knees prevented Watson from entering the army, and on leaving school in 1821 he was articled to Messrs. Jackson, solicitors, of Manchester. Having, however, no inclination for the law, and inheriting a small estate in Derbyshire from a member of his mother's family when he was about twenty-two, he decided on entering the university of Edinburgh. He had at this time, through the acquaintance of a Dr. Cameron, become deeply interested in phrenology, and on going to Edinburgh in 1828 attended the medical classes; but, though he remained for four sessions, he took no degree. Besides phrenology, he devoted himself to ornithology, entomology, and botany. In 1831–2 he was elected senior president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, and in 1831 gained the professor's gold medal for a botanical essay. The subject of this essay, the geographical distribution of plants, was ultimately to become the main study of his life, and in 1834 he sent his collection of insects to Joseph (after Sir Joseph) Hooker. In 1833, after living for some months with a brother-in-law, Captain Wakefield, near Barnstaple, he purchased the small house at Thames Ditton where he passed the remainder of his life. He became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1834.

While at Edinburgh he had made the acquaintance of George Combe [q. v.] and Andrew Combe [q. v.], and of Dr. Spurzheim, and in 1837 he obtained from George Combe the copyright of the ‘Phrenological Journal,’ of which he acted as editor from that time until 1840, though his name did not appear on it until January 1839. His two phrenological works—‘Statistics of Phrenology; being a Sketch of the Progress and Present State of that Science in the British Islands,’ and ‘An Examination of Mr. Scott's attack upon Mr. George Combe’—had been published in 1836; but, although always remaining convinced of the truth of phrenological principles, he felt compelled to withdraw from any active part in promulgating them owing to the offence given to more zealous advocates by his pointing out imperfections in their evidences, definitions, and investigations (T. S. Prideaux, Strictures on the Conduct of Mr. Hewett Watson, Ryde, 1840, 8vo). In 1842 he accompanied the Styx as botanist in a survey of the Azores, paying his own expenses, collecting for three months in four of the larger islands, and introducing several Azorean species new to English gardens. This was his only excursion beyond the bounds of Britain. In 1870 he contributed the botanical part to Godman's ‘Natural History of the Archipelago.’ In 1844 Watson was mainly instrumental in drawing up the ‘London Catalogue of British Plants,’ ‘published under the direction of the Botanical Society of London,’ and, though the second and third editions of that authoritative list bear also the name of G. E. Dennes, and the fourth and fifth that of J. T. Syme (afterwards Boswell), Watson was mainly responsible for each recension down to the seventh, that of 1874. Although he had already acquired almost a European reputation as an authority on geographical botany, he was in 1846 an unsuccessful candidate for a chair of botany in the newly established Queen's Colleges in Ireland. The first volume of his magnum opus, ‘Cybele Britannica,’ appeared in 1847, the succeeding volumes being issued in 1849, 1852, and 1859, and a supplement in 1860. A ‘Compendium of the Cybele Britannica’ was published in 1870, and a supplement dated 1872 was printed at Thames Ditton. It was his own notion to apply the term ‘Cybele’ to a treatise on plant distribution as a parallel to the term ‘Flora,’ long used for descriptive works; and in this work he groups British plants according to their stations or ‘habitats,’ their horizontal distribution in 18 provinces—based upon river drainage and divided into 38 sub-provinces, and 112 vice-counties—their vertical range according to altitude and temperature, reckoning 1° F. to every 300 feet of altitude, their historical origin as ‘natives, colonists, denizens, or aliens,’ and their type of distribution, as British, English, Atlantic, Germanic, Scotch, or Highland. In this last series of conclusions a result nearly identical was reached almost simultaneously on more geological reasoning by Professor Edward Forbes [q. v.] Cautious and unspeculative to an extreme degree, Watson early formed very definite opinions as to the want of fixity in species; and an article ‘On the Theory of Progressive Development’ contributed by him to the ‘Phytologist’ in 1845 was reprinted in the concluding volume of the ‘Cybele,’ with a fuller statement of his views in the light of the ‘Origin of Species.’ Darwin in that work acknowledged ‘deep obligation’ to Watson ‘for assistance of all kinds,’ and in later editions devoted considerable space to his criticisms. The series of Watson's geographical works was completed by ‘Topographical Botany’ (1873–4), which, like most of his other works, was originally only printed for private distribution. Early in his career he announced (Neville Wood, Naturalist, 1839, iv. 266) that he published ‘all his works with a certainty of pecuniary loss, and that he would decline to receive payment for any article sent to a periodical.’ Always a keen controversialist, he often wrote more pungently than he intended (cf. Journal of Botany, 1881, p. 80). Keen and active as a politician, and an uncompromising democrat, he published in 1848, the year of revolution, a pamphlet entitled ‘Public Opinion, or Safe Revolution through Self-representation,’ in which he recommended a national association to take plebiscites on any public question.

Watson died unmarried at Thames Ditton on 27 July 1881. A lithographic portrait of him in 1839 by J. Graf, after Haghe, accompanies a memoir of him in Neville Wood's ‘Naturalist’ for that year, and a photograph of him in later life, the memoir by Mr. John Gilbert Baker, in the ‘Journal of Botany’ for 1881. His British herbarium, which he at one time firmly intended to destroy, is preserved separately at Kew, and his general collection at Owens College, Manchester.

Besides books already mentioned and forty-nine papers on critical species of plants, hybridism, and geographical distribution credited to him in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue’ (vi. 280, viii. 1202), Watson's chief works are: 1. ‘Outlines of the Geographical Distribution of British Plants,’ Edinburgh, 1832, 8vo, of which he considered ‘Remarks on the Distribution of British Plants, chiefly in connection with Latitude, Elevation, and Climate,’ London, 1835, 12mo, as a second edition, and ‘The Geographical Distribution of British Plants,’ of which only part i. (London, 1843, 8vo), including Ranunculaceæ, Nymphæaceæ, and Papaveraceæ, was ever published, as a third. 2. ‘The new Botanist's Guide to the Localities of the Rarer Plants of Britain,’ London, 1835–7, 2 vols. 8vo; dedicated to Sir W. J. Hooker. 3. ‘Topographical Botany; being Local and Personal Records … of British Plants traced through the 112 Counties and Vice-Counties,’ Thames Ditton, 1873–4, 2 vols. 8vo, of which only a hundred copies were printed; second edition, corrected and enlarged, edited by J. G. Baker and W. W. Newbould, London, 1883.

[Neville Wood's Naturalist, 1839, iv. 264; and memoir by J. G. Baker, reprinted from the Journal of Botany in the second edition of Watson's Topographical Botany, 1883.]

G. S. B.