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Lunchtime Lecture (London): The Wood War: Kew Gardens and the Aeronautical Industry during the First World War

15 October 2024

Image Credit: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

On Tuesday 15th October 2024 at 12pm, Dr James Wearn will discuss the connections between the aeronautical industry and Kew Gardens during the First World War. This talk will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site and virtually via Crowdcast.

 

Talk Outline

During the First World War, the aeroplanes used by combatant air forces were largely constructed from plant-derived materials – notably wood and linen – rather than metals. The institution best placed to answer botanical queries related to the British aeronautical war effort was the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. At the time, Kew Gardens was the responsibility of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries of the British Government and therefore had a ‘direct line’ of communication to the hub of the national war effort. Located on the edge of London, Kew Gardens was also well-placed spatially for the receipt of material samples. The Aeronautical Inspection Department, Royal Flying Corps, Ministry of Munitions, and other bodies contacted Kew Gardens when there were uncertainties about the robustness of timber products, the identity of materials, and even with a sample from a downed German aeroplane, to find out what the opposition was using. Despite many of the Gardens’ staff going off to war, key scientists remained in post and used their unique capability to respond to such enquiries and potentially also help to save some pilots’ lives.  Thanks to the contemporary recording of letters and samples received by Kew Gardens, there are extant logbooks which provide an insight into the myriad of Kew’s wartime interactions. Additionally, several samples are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection to this day, while others were necessarily destroyed during analysis or had to be returned to the sender after consultation. Communications with the British aeronautical industry continued for several years after the armistice while plant products remained in use. The connections developed between important wartime authorities and Kew Gardens provides a significant example of an organisation, which could have been viewed as irrelevant during wartime, proving its significance through novel and distinctive application of its expertise.

 

Location
This hybrid lecture will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site in the Sunderland Suite. Attendance in-person is free but registration is required via Digitickets.
Livestream
To attend virtually, register via Crowdcast.

About Dr James Wearn FLS

Dr James Wearn FLS is an ecologist and historian, who has published more than 80 academic papers and popular articles. James is the Strategic Operations Manager in the Science Directorate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. His research focuses on the environmental legacies of war and the use of plant products for war materiel. James was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 2010 for contributions to ecology and tropical botany. He has carried out fieldwork in Europe, Africa, and South-East Asia, and he has worked in partnership with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, looking at interpretations of remembrance landscapes. He has also undertaken research on Battle of Britain aircrew losses. James was interviewed recently for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Poppy’ and has given guest lectures for various organisations, including The National Archives and the Western Front Association.


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