The photograph above is the only known of one of Henfield's most renowned figures, botanist William Borrer III (1781 - 1862). His stern expression belies what was said to have been a kind and gentle nature, although one astute in the management of his domestic affairs as local squire.
William's father was a wealthy farmer and grain merchant from a family associated with the Brighton Union bank, who supplied local army camps during the Napoleonic Wars. While a young man, Borrer assisted with these duties, taking every opportunity these travels around Sussex afforded to collect, record and begin to build his impressive expertise and passion for the natural world. Coming into the family wealth, he was able to dedicate himself fully to his passion for flora and the natural world.
George Busk, like Borrer, a Fellow of the Royal and the Linnaean Societies, described Borrer's early inspiration:
'To this study he had, in fact, a bent from his earliest years, and his brother, John Borrer, Esq., of Portslade, who was about two years his junior, has stated that he did not remember the time when he was not enthusiastic in his love for flowers, and in his admiration of the vegetable world in general; so that there was no muddy ditch, no old wall, no stock of a tree, no rock or dell, no pool of water, or bay of the sea, that did not add to his delight, and open to him a wide field for investigation or enjoyment.'
Based at Barrow Hill in Henfield, his own noted garden held 6600 species on his death, as recorded by his head gardener Charles Green prior to the rarer plants being moved to Kew Gardens. The Gardener's Magazine stated in their description of 1838 that 'the number of species of rare herbaceous plants is so great, that we do not know any garden in the neighbourhood of London that can be compared with it.' Borrer travelled widely around Britain to collect samples and corroborate or disprove findings. One representative tale reported in the Journal of the Linnean Society that upon hearing that 'a Westmoreland "guide" had represented the discovery of a habitat for Cypripedium Calceolus, but Mr. Borrer, doubting the correctness of the statement, was at pains to visit the spot for three years successively, at the time of flowering of the plant, and was at length able to expose the attempted imposition.'
Corresponding with and providing an expert sounding board for both enthusiastic amateurs and the leading professional botanists and naturalists of his day, he was a leading figure in botany in this country, much credited by luminaries such as Charles Cardale Babington and both William and Joseph Hooker. His West Sussex Gazette obituary stated that 'there was not a work on British botany for the last 50 years that has not acknowledged his assistance', which literal or not, gives an idea of his activity. George Busk of the Linnean Society stated that 'Mr. Borrer's extensive and valuable collections of plants, as well as the ample stores of his exact knowledge, were always at the service of his friends and fellow-labourers.'
Sussex historian Mark Lower stated of Borrer, that 'I might from my own knowledge mention some to whom, when pecuniary means were wanting, this benevolent man and true friend of science made valuable presents of scientific apparatus'.
While Borrer was debatably Britain's foremost botanist for a period in the early 19th century, this was certainly the case for lichens and certain other specific genera such as willows (salix), roses and succulents. Regarding salix - or willow - on August the 12th, Borrer's friend and fellow botanist Charles Cardale Babington sent an illuminating reply to a younger correspondent who had apparently been defensive about referring to Borrer and another's opinion on willows:
I am rather amused at your defending yourself for mentioning to me the opinions formed by Messrs. Borrer and Watson concerning the Willow. The opinion of the former upon any plants and more especially the Willows, has very great weight with me. I always feel doubtful of an opinion when I find that he has arrived at a different one concerning any species.
Borrer married Elizabeth Hall, the daughter of one of the partners at the Brighton Union Bank, and they had 13 children - 3 sons and 5 daughters survived to adulthood. Their elegant new home of Barrow Hill house was built upon their marriage in 1810. In William's case, although he was appointed J.P. and active in village life as required of man of his position, he was of a personally modest and fairly retiring nature. The family were nonetheless well known benefactors to Henfield. Projects included those in support of the church and local schools, with funding for an extension to St. Peter's Church for the use of local children (removed during the drastic remodelling of the church later in the century) and a donation of £2000 made to the Vicar's stipend - so encouraging the resumption of full time services. Indeed, the new Vicar Charles Dunlop was to marry Borrer's daughter Fanny - they moved into the newly built Red Oaks, the land and house having been given by Borrer and named after the American Red Oaks he had planted there.
When it came to education, as well as providing funding, he constructed local schools on his own land (including the Infant School at Nep Town), and furthermore personally taught several boys at Barrow Hill, subsequently finding them appropriate employment. Perhaps it was symbolic that Borrer was to die from a cold caught while attending the annual prize giving at Christmas 1861, at 'the National School which was established principally by his exertions'. Such was the level of respect to 'William Borrer, Friend of Henfield', that all shops closed on the day of his funeral, with over 300 attendees, many from out of town. Borrer's probate came to just under £70,000, over £8 million today.
Perhaps the most striking commendation of Borrer's unrivalled breadth of knowledge comes from the famous Hooker botanical family. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, twenty year director of Kew Gardens, described Borrer as 'long the Nestor of British botanists'. (Nestor, the wise king of Pylos in Homer's Odyssey). As a stark illustration, his father, Borrer's good friend and earlier twenty four year Kew Director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, received from Borrer for the year of 1823 alone 145 letters on botany. In 1855 Sir William dedicated the 7th edition of his and George Walker Arnott's seminal work, The British Flora, to Borrer with the following words:
'No one, we formerly remarked, has a critical knowledge of British plants superior, and scarcely any equal, to your own; and we desire thus again to testify how much, on many occasions, we have profited by the numerous notes and observations you have kindly communicated to us. That the uninterrupted friendship which has subsisted for so many years between us, may continue during the remainder of our lives, is the sincere wish of, Dear Sir, Your faithful and affectionate Fellow-labourers, The Authors.'
Article by R. S. Gordon, 2020
George Busk, The Journal of the Linnean Society: Zoology, Volume 6, London, Linnean Society, 1862, pp. lxxxix, lxxxviii.
Loudon J.C. (ed), The Gardener's Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement etc., Volume IV , London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1838, pp. 501-503
Anon, The Journal of the Linnean Society: Zoology, Volume 6, London, Linnean Society, 1862, pp. lxxxix-xc.
Sir William Jackson Hooker, George A. Walker Arnott, The British Flora etc., London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855.
Mark Antony Lower, The Worthies of Sussex: Biographical Sketches of the Most Eminent Natives etc., by subscription, 1865.
Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker etc., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1903, p. lxxxi.
H.C.P. Smail, Watsonia, Volume 10, 1974, pp. 55-60.