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John Stevens Henslow

John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) was Professor of Mineralogy (1822-1827) and later Professor of Botany (1825-1861) at the University of Cambridge. He was tutor, inspirer and lifelong friend to Charles Darwin and founded the new Cambridge University Botanic Garden in 1831.  At Cambridge, Henslow was a pioneer in the use of visual aids, field trips and the ‘hands-on’ study of material to enthuse and teach his students. A good artist, he produced some himself but also worked with others to produce a range of colourful botanical wall charts and diagrams. It was this dynamic teaching that captivated Darwin and won him over to the study of natural history.  He co-authored the first Flora of Suffolk and his clear interest in the variability of plant species, an interest that he must have communicated to his best-known student, Charles Darwin, led inexorably to the theory of evolution.

He published the first report on an archaeological excavation in Suffolk – An Account of the Roman Antiquities found at Rougham, 1843.  He also discovered the fertilizing possibilities of the phosphatic nodules known as ‘coprolites’, which led to the development of a major industry that revolutionised farming in East Anglia and beyond. An early factory in Ipswich near the University Campus Suffolk site resulted in the oddly-named Coprolite Street.

Henslow was appointed Rector of Hitcham in 1837 where he devoted his energies to the social improvement of his parishioners, particularly through the education of their children and the provision of adult education.  He set up a village school, coal club, children’s clothing club, wife’s society and allotments.  The Hitcham Labourers’ and Mechanics’ Horticultural Society was the vehicle he used to facilitate the advancement of the labouring and agricultural workers’ knowledge and practical skills.  His progressive teaching techniques relied heavily on field experiments and gardening projects which encouraged students to make their own observations.  He also organised competitions, shows and educational excursions including to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  His enthusiasm resulted in labourers’ children with a great botanical knowledge, enabling them to gather seeds for some of Darwin’s experiments and to provide herbarium specimens for other scientists; some even went on to become teachers themselves.

He believed in the value of museums in education and was one of the founders of Ipswich Museum in 1847.  He was elected as its second President in 1850 and contributed a wide range of lectures.