Ryde Social Heritage Group research the social history of the citizens of Ryde, Isle of Wight. Documenting their lives, businesses and burial transcriptions.
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William Arnold Bromfield – Traveller and Botanist

William Arnold Bromfield
William Arnold Bromfield

William Arnold Bromfield was born at Bouldre, in the New Forest, Hampshire, on 4 July 1801. He was the only son of the Rev John Arnold Bromfield, MA, formerly Fellow of New College, Oxford, and rector of Market Weston, in Suffolk. The Rev J A Bromfield was ill at the time of his son’s birth and had retired from clerical duties; he died in the following October, leaving his wife, a daughter and his son, of only three months.

When he was eleven William was placed in school at Tonbridge in Kent, under the care of a Dr Knox. He was there for only about a year but the teaching he received had a great influence on his later career. He was influenced by Dr Edmund Cartwright, a friend of his mother’s, and through him developed an interest in mechanics, especially with regard to steam power and machinery, an interest that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

He also developed an interest in chemistry. He was obviously a bright boy to have attracted the interest of so distinguished a genius as Dr Cartwright, a celebrated inventor, who did much to mechanise and improve the weaving industry.

When he was nearly twenty, William’s love of chemistry led him to become a pupil of Dr Thomason, Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University, where he stayed for two years. He was given full use of the Professor’s laboratory; his attainments in Chemistry were considerable. During this time he also attended medical classes and gained the degree of MD before he left Glasgow.

Botany was one of the courses making up the medical degree and this appears to have been the introduction to the science in which he was to excel. He started to collect and preserve botanical specimens at this time.

Although he graduated in medicine, Dr Bromfield never practised in the profession. It seems that he had considerable wealth and shortly after his graduation he began travelling in Europe. He left England in 1826 and returned home in 1830, having visited France, and the greater part of Italy and Germany. He learnt to speak German and French well, but never mastered the Italian language with ease.

While in Montpellier in France he made the acquaintance of M Dumal, a Professor of Botany, whose lectures he attended, and who he came to know well.

After he returned to England in 1830 he lived with his mother and sister at Hastings, Clifton, and Southampton. In 1832 their mother died and in 1835 William and his sister, Eliza, moved to Ryde where they lived for the rest of their lives. Soon after arriving in Ryde William decided he would write and publish a flora of the island. From then on botany became his main interest but he also studied climate and continued to pursue his interest in steam mechanics.

Though the local flora was now the main subject of his botanical studies Dr Bromfield was also interested in plants from further afield; he made frequent excursions to study interesting species, and over time the desire to travel again grew within him.

In 1842 he travelled to Ireland to see the Arbutus growing on the hills of Killarney and on 2 January 1844, he started for a tour through the West Indies visiting Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad, Jamaica, Porto-Rico, and St Thomas’.

On this tour as well as his botanical studies, he also observed the habits and manners of the people, the sky, climate, and aspects of Nature generally. Although he was disappointed with his collections from this trip, nevertheless he returned home with a considerable number of interesting specimens, as well as seeds, which later grew in the garden of his property at St John’s near Ryde.

After his return he diligently applied himself to the study of the local flora again for the next two years and then decided to pay a visit to North America. This journey took about a year and he returned home in August 1847. During the trip he made excursions to Canada and through the States to New Orleans, and 200 miles up the Mississippi. His notes and observations of the trip were later published in Sir William Hooker’s London Journal of Botany. Sir William Hooker was the first Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1841.

Back in Ryde, the next three summers were spent on his studies of the local flora but it was still incomplete when his love of travel prevailed again and he once more left for foreign parts on what was to be his final trip.

In September 1850 he left for the East. He visited Gibraltar and Malta where he collected seeds that later grew at St John’s. He stayed in Alexandria for a few days and then proceeded to Cairo where he stayed about a month. He travelled up the Nile on a river boat with two men he had met during his stay in Cairo. During the voyage they visited many places of interest and in January 1851 they arrived at Wady Halfeh.
Here they left the boat and proceeded on camels through the desert. The furthest point they reached was Khartoum where unfortunately one of his companions contracted smallpox and died.

Dr Bromfield and his remaining companion returned to Cairo, where they arrived on 4 June. William again made Cairo his headquarters while examining the surrounding regions and he also made an excursion to Suez. From Cairo he proceeded to Damietta on his way to Palestine. After some problems and delays at Damietta he proceeded to Jaffa, where he arrived on 8 August.

While he was travelling in Upper Egypt, the Arabs gave him the name of Abou Hasheesh that means Father-of-grass, because of his interest in the plants.

Dr Bromfield passed some time in Jerusalem and then went to Beirut. He intended to travel to Damascus and Baalbek then return to Beirut and from there return to Europe at the first opportunity.

He arrived in Damascus on 5 October but by this time he was dangerously ill with fever (believed to be typhus). He was looked after by a fellow English traveller and an American missionary but he only survived a very few days and died on 9 October 1851. His remains were interred in the Christian cemetery outside of the city. In his will he bequeathed his herbarium (collection of dried plants) and a library of about 600 books to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Dr Bromfield never married, his nearest surviving relative being his only sister, Eliza, who he had been devoted to. Apart from when he was travelling abroad, they lived together after their mother’s death in 1832. Eliza died at Ryde in December 1877 and is buried in Ryde Cemetery.

Eliza Bromfield’s grave in Ryde Cemetery

Eliza Bromfield’s grave in Ryde Cemetery

Dr Bromfield made extensive observations and notes during his travels abroad and also made the following additions to the British flora: Spartina alterniflora, which he discovered at Southampton, in 1836; Myriophyllum alterniflorum, near Brading, Isle of Wight, in about 1846; Calamintha sylvatica, a new species, in the Isle of Wight, in 1843 and Atriples horetensis, a doubtful native, near Ryde, in 1845.


The value of his botanical observations were well known and it was considered a great loss to science that his Flora of the Isle of Wight was not complete and published at the time of his death as it was of too great a value to be lost to the public. It was published posthumously by Dr Hooker in 1856.

Dr Bromfield took great care in drawing up his descriptions, in selecting and preserving the specimens of plants.

When describing a plant he would collect many specimens from different locations in order that he might examine the species rather than individual or local forms. He would refer to other the books in his library to see how other botanists had described the plants. He would carefully scrutinize the specimens to see if he could observe anything previously undetected. Once he was thoroughly familiar with the plant, he would put away all the books and draw up his descriptions from the plants themselves. His descriptions were therefore of very great value, from the amount of care and diligence he gave them.

He was equally careful with regard to specimens for the herbarium. Probably no botanist at that time took as much care in the method of preserving. The results were that his specimens portrayed the characteristics and aspects of the living plants to a degree rarely met with in any other collector.


There are two Bromfield Herbaria – one was bequeathed to Kew and the other came to the care of the Hampshire County Council Museum Service in 2001
The core of the herbarium at Hampshire Museum are plants collected on the Island by W A Bromfield.

Source: The Phytologist – A Popular Botanical Miscellany edited by Edward Newman 1851.
Researched and typed by Janette Gregson