Quaker missionary, botanist and nurseryman

Plaque at 92 Micklegate, York

James Backhouse

James Backhouse, Quaker missionary, botanist and nurseryman, was born in Darlington in 1794. He was the third of a lengthy family line all called James Backhouse extending back to his grandfather who died as a Quaker prisoner and martyr at Lancaster Castle in 1697. His father, James, together with his father and brother, founded the Backhouse Bank in Darlington. His mother was Mary Dearman, a devout Quaker of Thorne in Yorkshire. The younger James was apprenticed to a grocer but had to give up work due to ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and was too delicate to pursue a sedentary occupation.

Nursery business

From a family of botanists, he was encouraged to spend time in the open air and study botany. He made botanical trips to Upper Teesdale with the Durham lead miner, John Binks (1766-1817) who is credited with the discovery of many of the area’s rare plants. Binks was a major influence on James, as was the Newcastle botanist Nathaniel John Winch and William Hooker (1785-1865). James then spent two years near Norwich learning the nursery trade. In 1815 he moved to York where he and his brother, Thomas, purchased the York nursery business of John and George Telford which had been in existence for 150 years at Toft Green. By 1821 the business was flourishing with 37 varieties of vines, 31 of strawberries, 170 gooseberries, 129 roses and 125 apple trees.

The Backhouse house, 92 Micklegate

In 1822 James married Deborah Lowe (1793-1827) but, in 1827, the wives of both brothers died in the same year. James, a dedicated Quaker and clerk of the York Monthly Meeting from 1825, had travelled in the ministry from that year. His commitment and evangelising were central to his life, addressing a crowd at York racecourse which his sister, Sarah, put at 2,000, on ‘the iniquity of the frivolities in which they were engaged, and to call their attention to the weightier concerns of eternity’ (York Courant, 9 August 1825). Even in his early years in Norwich he conceived of ‘a gospel errand into Australia’ believing strongly that this was the will of God.

Mission to Australia

After the death of his wife and with the support of the Monthly Meeting and his brother Thomas, James set off in 1831 for an arduous travel of 10 years to Australia, Van Diemen’s Land, Mauritius and South Africa. Thomas, a devout Quaker who believed evangelising took precedence, remained in York to look after the nursery business on James’s behalf. The initial journey took five months in hazardous weather and his Quaker ministry, assisted by his companion and secretary George Washington Walker (1800-59), began immediately in dealing with a ship’s crew prone to drunkenness and violence.

When he reached Australia, he visited penal settlements interceding on behalf of the badly treated prisoners. Deeply concerned by the cruelty and rigours he witnessed, he wrote to Elizabeth Fry about the condition of women prisoners on ships and to the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land on the state of the prisons. Death of prisoners was often by murder from other prisoners in appalling conditions. James and Walker issued a lengthy address to the prison population of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land pleading for prisoners to find salvation in religion. They were tireless campaigners for temperance and thrift. A third of wages was paid in spirits and this was mentioned at a temperance meeting in Perth; they felt ‘the prevailing immorality’ was fuelled by drink. They were also concerned by the policy towards Aborigines, ‘this injured race of our fellow men’. Alongside their work with prisons they set up and visited Quaker Meeting Houses.

Plant collector

James also found time to collect plants and seeds which he sent back to the York nursery, to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and to Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. Two books published on James’s return to England, A Narrative Visit to the Australian Colonies (1843) and A Narrative Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa (1844), are detailed accounts of his travels with engravings from his original sketches of indigenous vegetation, aborigines, chain gangs of prisoners, and numerous missionary stations, with appendices of letters sent to officials, Christian evangelical writings and speeches.

In South Africa he again visited prisons including the notorious Robben Island. Over a period of more than 19 months, travelling 6,000 miles on wagon and horseback, he learned languages including Afrikaans so he could speak to the local populations, attended Quaker meetings, temperance meetings and non-Quaker meetings, and set up a multiracial school for the poor in Capetown with money sent by English Friends.

He returned to York to the nursery which had flourished in Thomas’s hands but both his mother and sister had died in his absence. His brother and son had grown the economic base of the successful nursery. Both York Quarterly and Monthly Meetings greeted his safe return in evangelical language; he had been delivered from the human and natural perils of such a long journey and had been ‘enabled to labour in the Lord’s vineyard [by] the faithfulness of and condescending mercy of the Great Head of the Church’ (Minutes, March 1841). Four years later, in 1845, Thomas died so James would have to devote more time to the nursery.

Nursery business expands

In James’s absence the business had moved from Toft Green due to the construction of George Hudson’s railway and relocated to Fishergate. In 1853 James and his son, also James, supervised the move to a 100-acre, greater than Kew, site at Holgate. The most striking feature was a rock (alpine) garden, 40 glasshouses, underground fernery and plants from all over the world. James had detailed involvement in the family finances, in wills and in the business but he also continued his evangelical work making many visits around the country and to Dublin. He gave talks to workers at York Glass works in 1858 and also to the rail wagon works. He was involved in Quaker schools at Bootham and Ackworth and gave financial as well as spiritual help for the establishment of a reading room at a nonconformist chapel in upper Teesdale. He visited Norway in 1851, 1853 and 1860 with over 200 meetings in 1853 and 1860. In 1862 he held over 40 meetings throughout Great Britain and in 1865, aged over 70, he held 53 public meetings exhorting Friends in his speeches and writings against pomp and parade, the lures of honorific office, elegant or ornamental clothing and dating writing with the heathen names of days and months. Although his teachings were strict, James was well-respected, sociable and genial.

Both his son and grandson, both called James, carried on the tradition of the nursery and as archaeologists, geologists and ornithologists with a close connection with the Yorkshire Museum in York and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. For almost 200 years members of the Backhouse family were actively involved in English horticulture, as tree planters, nurserymen, breeders or botanists. Their names live on in the botanical names of narcissi such as ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse’ and ‘Backhouse’s Giant’. The remains of their nursery (auctioned in 1955) later became a park run by York City Council known as West Bank Park.


David Rubinstein, The Backhouse Quaker Family of York Nurserymen: including James Backhouse 1794-1869 Botanist and Quaker Missionary (York, 2009)

James Backhouse, A Narrative Visit to the Australian Colonies (London, 1843)

James Backhouse, A Narrative Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa (London, 1844)

Sarah Backhouse, Memoir of James Backhouse (York, 1870)

Peter Davis, ‘Backhouse Family’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), 103-4


© Pat Hill