York Civic Trust plaques

James Backhouse (1794-1869)

Quaker missionary, humanitarian, plant collector and nurseryman

Location of plaque: 92 Micklegate, York, Backhouse's former home

James Backhouse was born in Darlington in 1794, the third in a line of James Backhouses extending back to his grandfather, who died a Quaker martyr at Lancaster Castle in 1697.

James was apprenticed to a grocer but had to give up work due to ‘inflammation of the lungs’. He was encouraged to spend time in the open air and study botany. He spent two years near Norwich learning the nursery trade, and in 1815 moved to York where he and his brother, Thomas, bought the Telford nursery business, which had been at Toft Green for 150 years.

In 1822 James married Deborah Lowe but, in 1827, the wives of both brothers died. James, a dedicated Quaker, had already addressed a crowd of 2,000 at York racecourse on ‘the iniquity of the frivolities in which they were engaged’. After the death of his wife, he decided to take his evangelising further afield, and set off in 1831 for a ten-year round-the-world journey to Australia, Van Diemen’s Land, Mauritius and South Africa. His brother Thomas remained in York to look after the nursery business.

In Australia, James visited penal settlements, interceding on behalf of badly treated prisoners and pleading for prisoners to find salvation in religion. He and his secretary George Washington Walker were also concerned by the policy towards Aborigines, ‘this injured race of our fellow men’.

James also found time to collect plants and seeds which he sent back to the York nursery and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Two books published on his 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.

In South Africa he again visited prisons, including the notorious Robben Island. Over a period of 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, 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. In James’s absence the business had moved from Toft Green to Fishergate. In 1853, by which time Thomas had died, it moved again to a 100-acre site at Holgate. The most striking feature was a rock (alpine) garden, 40 glasshouses, underground fernery and plants from all over the world.

Both his son and grandson, also called James, carried on the nursery. For almost 200 years members of the Backhouse family were actively involved in English horticulture. Their names live on in the botanical names of narcissi such as ‘Backhouse’s Giant’. The remains of their nursery, auctioned in 1955, later became West Bank Park.