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John Templeton (1765 - 1825):
Naturalist; Pioneer of Irish Botany; Enlightenment Thinker

Among the treasures of the Ulster Museum in Belfast is a series of diaries filled with meticulous handwritten records made by John Templeton between 1806-1825. In them he describes the natural history of Ulster during the early 19th century, which goes a long way to explain why he is considered one of the most eminent naturalists that Ireland has ever produced.

John Templeton was born in 1765 at Bridge Street Belfast, son of a wealthy mercantile family. He attended David Manson’s innovative liberal Academy in Donegall Street. His life was spent at Orange Grove, a house with Williamite connections. Templeton later re-named it Cranmore. Here he laid out his magnificent experimental gardens, cultivating and planting a large collection of exotic and native species. Trees were a special feature. His close friends, Henry Joy McCracken and his sister Mary Ann, and Thomas Russell, enjoyed spending time at Cranmore, admiring the views and listening as their congenial host showed off his latest species.

Cranmore, dating from the 1600s, was set in thirteen acres of parkland on the Malone Ridge, south Belfast, with additional farmland stretching down to the Bog Meadows. It was here that he and his wife Katherine Johnston of Seymour Hill raised four daughters and a son, Robert, later a naturalist, artist and entomologist. Though Templeton made frequent journeys around Ulster and beyond, botanising, exploring and visiting friends, his heart was always in Cranmore. “I remained at home in my peaceful groves”. Today his house, set within the playing fields of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, is but a shell, romantically framed by some of the trees he planted. Templeton was the complete naturalist of his time, not given to specialising, as is often the case today. Botanising, however, took pride of place. He collected and catalogued hundreds of plants, including every branch of cryptogamic botany, a special interest. An Associate of the Linnean Society, he discovered new species, notably Orobanche rubra on Cave Hill and his most famous find, the hybrid wild rose Rosa hibernica close to Holywood, which he sent to the Dublin Society, winning a prize. Modestly, he named it Rosa hibernica but many called it Templeton Rose. The diaries record that he discovered the rose flowering on the road to Holywood on 4 June 1807 and annually at Cranmore. Today its only known locations are Botanic Gardens, Belfast and a private house at Ravara, County Down.

A generous man, Templeton readily shared his findings. Other botanists encouraged him to publish his research, which he never did, whether out of modesty or a feeling the work was unfinished. He communicated with the most eminent naturalists of his time, even invited by Sir Joseph Banks to accompany a scientific expedition to New Holland (Australia), which he declined for family reasons. Never possessing a strong constitution, he may have recoiled from the idea of such a perilous journey. On the other hand, health worries never deterred him from his many strenuous Irish expeditions. As well as documenting his botanical finds, he often incorporated details that give us insights into the topography of the country in the early 1800s.

Ornithology was a passion. He saw species that are rare, or even gone today. He noted the annual arrival of the rail (corncrake), appearing at the same time as the swallow and the cuckoo. Though it was everywhere in the 1800s, sadly it is now rarely heard. Templeton loved all animals. The diaries include a scathing attack on blood sports. The house at Cranmore was pet-friendly, for instance, his daughter Ellen’s cuckoo, never caged, lived in the house. The story of the cuckoo is one of the most delightful in the diaries. Templeton took every opportunity to discover scientifically many of the mysteries of the animal kingdom. A network of people brought him curious specimens they had shot or found. One day he was presented with a swan shot on Belfast Lough. Characteristically, he wondered how it emits its distinctive whooping call: “Dissected the wild swan in which I found that curious conformation of the breast bone and clavicle which allows the extraordinary convolution of the windpipe that produces the prodigious loud call.”

Geology, astronomy and meteorology were also of great interest. He studied and illustrated the classification of clouds as proposed by Luke Howard of London in 1802. He recorded meteorology data throughout eighteen years of the diaries. His scientific interest in the rhythm of the seasons combined with the remarkable accuracy of his observations provides valuable baseline data for current debates and studies into climate change and disappearance or decline of plants and animals.

Over and above his naturalistic prowess, Templeton was an accomplished artist and produced stunning watercolours, intended for his unpublished Natural History of Ireland. His pictures can be appreciated both as artistic creations and scientific illustrations. Besides his many natural history interests Templeton was a hands-on farmer with a deep interest in the cultivation of grain, vegetables and fruit. “Cold dark day. Shovelling wheat sown yesterday in the Oaktree field.” Contemporaries said that his interest in botany began as he searched for a method to extirpate weeds on his farm at Cranmore. His consistent recording of many farming practices paints a remarkable picture of life on a well-managed farm at the beginning of the 19th century.

Templeton engaged with a close-knit group of advanced liberal reformers and thinkers of the day. He was a founder of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, the Linen Hall Library, the main proposer of the Botanic Gardens, a Director of the Lagan Canal and helped establish the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, still thriving today. An active and inspiring participant in the exciting cultural and intellectual life of Belfast, he contributed to the development of learned societies and their associated publications. Others extensively used his research and writings. His interests spanned the arts, theatre, concerts and music, supporting them not just by his presence but also financially. Keen to preserve the ancient music and instruments, he was an original subscriber to the Irish Harp Society and helped Edward Bunting to collect and publish his “Ancient Irish Airs”.

Templeton had been encouraged by his friends, the McCrackens, to join, albeit reluctantly, the Society of United Irishmen. However, as it became increasingly inclined towards violence, Templeton distanced himself from the group. Whilst he certainly remained sympathetic to the achievement of Irish nationhood and advocated full civil and religious liberty, he did not believe in the use of physical force. The lost diaries covering the years before 1806 would no doubt have reflected on his close friendship with Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken, both fervent United Irishmen, but for them, with disastrous consequences.

Templeton was a proponent of the Irish Enlightenment but as the 18th gave way to the 19th century, the rationality of the Enlightenment was increasingly challenged by a Romantic subjectivity. He had always been a naturalist inclined towards scientific recording but the more he revealed his sensuous enjoyment of the natural world the more he began to resemble an early 19th century Romantic.

It is difficult to define Templeton, as he contributed to so many aspects of his time and to the burgeoning life of Belfast. Botanist, ornithologist, horticulturist, farmer, artist, man about town, member of the civic elite, polymath, he was cultured, well read and deeply interested in the advancement of knowledge during the Irish Enlightenment.

John Templeton had a short life. He died on 15th December 1825 and is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery Belfast alongside other significant figures in Ulster history. The ivy-covered grave tracked down in 2015 was symbolic of the general neglect of his achievements and legacy. Since then, the exhibition “Out of the Shadows: Capturing the World of John Templeton, the Forgotten Naturalist”, held in the Ulster Museum in 2016, followed by the transcribing of his diaries by the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club and the unveiling of one of the Ulster History Circle distinguished Blue Plaques in Botanic Gardens in Belfast have brought him into focus.




Born: 1765
Died: 1825
Patricia Pyne