Early Phenologists

Source: Briggs, Mary, with Frances Abraham. “Early Phenologists.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 65 (January 2008). http://sussexflora.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Newsletter_Jan_2008.pdf.


On a cold wet dark winter’s evening some friends took me for a meal at Rowfant House near Crawley. As we warmed by a welcoming blazing wood fire I saw on the wall at the side of the Elizabethan fireplace a large chart with records of first flowering, first leafing of trees and so on, dated from the 1700s. It was a brief glance only, but I was intrigued to see the records from so long ago, when they are now so topical because of climate change and global warming.

So, early in the New Year Frances agreed to come on an expedition to find out more about the chart.

The Managers at Rowfant House were welcoming when I enquired for permission, and we spent a happy morning studying the painted chart, which is framed, measures about 3ft. x 2ft, and is headed ‘Lord Suffield’s Remarks on Mr Marsham’s Indications of Spring’. Twenty seven species are included, and for each species three dates are given: the Earliest, Latest, and the Medium Time, with the number of days between the earliest and latest dates and the number of years for which observations were taken. For example, ‘Wood Anemone blows’ at the earliest 16th March 1790 and the latest 22nd April 1784, the medium date being 8th April 1778. The difference is of 37 days, observed in 30 years.

The chart also includes the flowering dates of Snowdrop, Turnip and Hawthorn, and the first leafing of thirteen tree species. The remainder gives dates for various animals, such as ‘Swallows appear’, ‘Churn Owl sings’, ‘Frogs and Toads croak’ and ‘Rooks build’. The earliest date is 1735, the latest is 1800, and the longest period of observation of a single species is 62 years. We discovered that Robert Marsham published a chart of his Indications of Spring in 1789 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Sparks and Carey (1995) relate that generations of the Marsham family continued the work, until Mary Marsham died in 1958.

From British and Irish Botanists (Boulger & Britten 1931) we found that Robert Marsham F.R.S. (1707-97) of Stratton Strawless, Norfolk, published papers on the growth of trees and kept a calendar of natural phenomena for more than 50 years. In The Flora of Norfolk (Petch & Swann 1968) he is described as a correspondent of Gilbert White and friend of the botanist and writer Benjamin Stillingfleet  (1702-71) of Wood Norton, Norfolk. Gillian Beckett (BSBI Recorder for W. Norfolk) tells us it is said that he seldom went far from home, and was only happy when he could smell the smoke from his own kitchen chimney. There are now splendid trees at Stratton Strawless planted by Marsham. She adds that Stillingfleet was tutor to Robert Marsham’s children. Female bluestockings are said to have been so called after Stillingfleet’s grey-blue hosiery. Martin Sanford (BSBI Recorder for E. and W. Suffolk and editor of Watsonia) tells us that Robert Marsham, Benjamin Stillingfleet and the first Lord Suffield (1734-1810) were neighbouring landowners with large estates in Norfolk and were the keen botanists of their day.

We were still curious as to Lord Suffield’s Remarks on Marsham’s observations, and this is still something of a mystery, but Tim Sparks at Monks Wood kindly sent me a copy of an article by Hugh S. Gladstone, in a 1940 edition of Notes and Queries, in which he says that he has acquired a broadsheet entitled ‘Lord Suffield’s Remarks on Mr Marsham’s Indications of Spring’. He adds that they are printed within an ornamental border measuring 16 3/4 inches by 11 inches, and goes on to describe the content. Gladstone’s chart is plainly the same as the one at Rowfant, but the latter is larger and is hand drawn rather than printed. It seems possible that it could be the original from which the printed version was prepared. It also seems that all the dates of first observation are Marsham’s, but that Lord Suffield worked out the earliest and latest sightings, the number of years covered for each phenomenon, and so on.

But how did this manuscript from Norfolk come to be in Sussex? A possible answer lies in the history of Rowfant House.

The house has the appearance of an Elizabethan mansion, and it was largely built by a Sussex Ironmaster in the late 16th century around an earlier timber-framed building. It is now a harmonious patchwork of 15th, 16th, 18th and 19th century architecture, and is set in woodland beside a lake. In 1848 it was bought by an American, Curtis Lampson, who also had a house in Norfolk, and the family kept it until 1953. Since 1953 it has been owned by a charity on behalf of the Latvian Lutheran Church in Great Britain and it is now run as a country club and venue for special functions. The Managers were not able to tell us how the Indications of Spring came to be in the house – only that Sir Winston Churchill had been very interested in it on his frequent wartime visits – but they mentioned that a book had been written about Rowfant which might be helpful.

The book, The Rowfant Story by Margaret Petersons (1980), does indeed provide a clue. In 1874 Curtis Lampson’s daughter married the poet Frederick Locker. Lampson left Rowfant House to both of them in his will, and they took the name ‘Locker-Lampson’. Astonishingly, the book adds that Locker’s great grandmother was Benjamin Stillingfleet’s sister. Although we will never know exactly how it happened, it seems reasonable to guess that Lord Suffield’s chart could have been passed on to the family of his botanical neighbour and friend, and that it was brought to Rowfant by Stillingfleet’s great great nephew on the death of his father-in-law in 1885.



Our thanks to Gillian Beckett, Arthur Hoare, Smuidrite Jinkinson, Gwen and Derek Parr, John Pope, Martin Sanford and Tim Sparks.  We also thank the library of the Royal Society for their kind assistance.


Boulger, G.S. & Britten, J. (1931). Biographical Index of Deceased British and Irish Botanists. London.

Gladstone, Hugh S. (1940). Reader’s query in Notes and Queries 17/8/1940 issue p.119.

Marsham, Robert (1789). Indications of Spring, observed by Robert Marsham, Esquire, F.R.S. of Stratton in Norfolk. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 79: 154-156.

Petch, C.P. & Swann, E.L. (1968). Flora of Norfolk. Jarrold & Sons Ltd.

Petersons, Margaret (1980). The Rowfant Story.

Sparks, T.H. & Carey, P.D. (1995). The responses of species to climate over two centuries: an analysis of the Marsham phenological record 1736-1947. Journal of Ecology 83: 321-329.