1694 – 1768
Peter Collinson was born into a wealthy family of Quaker cloth merchants. They lived in Gracechurch Street London, but Collinson spent his childhood living with relatives in Peckham. They had a large garden, where he acquired his lifelong love of plants.
The family’s wealth enabled him to spend much of his adult life developing his understanding of botany and his wider interest in science, alongside philanthropic work with botanists and others. He worked in the family business too, and became a partner with his brother James. They opened up extensive trade with America and through this he made contact with American botanists and other scientists.
He became particularly friendly with John Bartram, who started the first botanical garden in America. Collinson established a scheme whereby Bartram supplied seeds and seedlings to British patrons in return for an annual subscription. There were at least sixty subscribers, many from the gentry, including Lord Petre, who planted over 40,000 American trees on his Essex estate. In 1765, Collinson secured for Bartram the position of king’s botanist in North America.
Collinson had botanical contacts in many other countries, including China, Russia and Europe, with whom he exchanged trees, plant cuttings, seeds and bulbs. Linnaeus (the Swedish botanist who developed the modern system for classifying plants) became a good friend, and encouraged him to catalogue his plants. Collinson commissioned Lewis Weston Dillwyn, the Welsh Quaker botanist, to do this work, and Dillwyn named the horse balm (Collinsonia Canadensis) after him. He owned several annotated copies of the ‘Gardeners Dictionary’ compiled by his friend Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden.He had many influential friends including Sir Hans Sloane (whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum), John Fothergill (the eminent physician and botanist), Lord Bute (the effective founder of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew near London), and Thomas Story (lawyer, botanist, member of William Penn’s administration, and travelling preacher).
Collinson was a shy man who found it difficult to share his thoughts about his Quaker spirituality, but he and Story confided in one another and this drew them together. It was probably through Story that Collinson became acquainted with James Logan (one-time deputy governor in Pennsylvania).
Collinson had a famous garden at Mill Hill, including a rare collection of magnolias. This garden now forms part of the grounds of Mill Hill School. He was an avid importer of plants and introduced many species into Britain including a magnolia, and many medicinal herbs. It was said of his garden that no other garden in all of Europe had so many rare and exotic plants as his.
He was generous to others. He supported several people, notably John Bartram, in their studying and exploring. He helped Mark Catesby to publish his ‘Natural History of Carolina’.
He had many non-botanical philanthropic interests too. He supported Thomas Coram in his campaign for the care of foundlings, and when Coram established the London Foundling Hospital, Collinson became one of its first governors. He also supported the foundation of a subscription library in Philadelphia, and supplied it with many books. Through this, he encouraged American colonists to experiment with a wider range of crops.
He was a good scientist in his own right, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1728. He played a key role in its work for many years, corresponding with scientists in many different countries, and bringing their work before the Society. A key example of this was Benjamin Franklin’s seminal work on electricity, which he brought to the attention of the Royal Society. He gave two accounts to the Royal Society of the discovery of mastodon bones on the banks of the Ohio River. He also made sure that the Royal Society introduced the wider public to new ideas.
I think there is no greater Pleasure than to be communicative & oblige others…Wee fellow Brothers of the Spade find it very necessary to share among us.’
Collinson appears to have had a long and happy marriage to Mary Russell. He also seems to have been much loved, and to have used his wealth wisely and well.
Collinson is buried at the Quaker burial ground in Bermondsey, London.