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W J Bean

From the Preface to Vol I of the 8th Edition

William Jackson Bean was born in Yorkshire in 1863, the son of a tree nurseryman. His first appointment was to the garden staff at Belvoir Castle, Leicester. In 1883 he was accepted at Kew as a student-gardener, and there he remained. Eventually he became Curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens and in all he served for forty-six years.

During this long period he acquired an exceptionally wide experience of living plants, travelling extensively to increase his knowledge. For some forty years he made a particular study of woody plants in cultivation and became the foremost specialist whose advice was constantly sought. He was caught up in the prolific tide of plant exploration in the first half of this century, when new material of unusual horticultural merit poured into the country, particularly from S.W. China, due to the unrelenting labours of collectors such as Farrer, Forrest, Rock, Kingdon Ward and Wilson. Bean was admirably equipped to keep abreast of these introductions and he was in close touch with the collectors, the botanists and the growers to ensure that his records were as complete as possible.

His great work, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, was a labour of love; having worked in the Gardens all day he would settle to his writing in the evenings, going out from time to time to check whether his descriptions were accurate. The First Edition was published in the autumn of 1914 in two volumes. It was an event of outstanding importance in the chronology of horticultural literature. The volumes in their original form were the product of constant observation, massive correspondence and immense industry and bore a more personal imprint than is usual in a comprehensive manual of reference. In addition to the botanical descriptions and other basic information of the kind to be expected in works of this nature, there are the personal assessments of the plants, the references to particular specimens, the reminiscing and all the other enlivening touches that give to the book its highly individual character. It soon acquired an enduring popularity and five further editions were issued in Bean’s lifetime; the seventh edition, in three volumes, appeared in 1950, three years after Bean’s death, but nearly all the preparatory work for the revision had been done by him.