Revd Miles Joseph Berkeley

Woodnewton cannot claim connection to many famous people, but among them Berkeley stands out, even if his life and work are not well-known outside academic circles.

He was born at Biggin Hall, near Oundle on April 1st. 1803, into a long established Worcestershire family from Spetchley. His great-grandfather Maurice, settled in Apethorpe, and is buried there. Miles attended Laxton Grammar School in Oundle, before going to Rugby, and then Christ’s College, Cambridge, gaining a B.A in 1825 and M.A. in 1828. There he became interested in both zoology and  natural history, and began collecting  spore-producing plants.

He entered the church in 1826 as the deacon and curate of Stibbington and Thornhaugh, and was ordained in 1827. He lived at Stibbington until 1830, when he was appointed to a curacy in Margate. There, he carried out experiments on the powdery mildew “Oidium Tuckeri”, which affected grapes – and this led to cures for such  mildews using “flowers of sulphur” – which gardeners will recognise today. He also became interested in molluscs and seaweeds, and as an expert draughtsman recorded many varieties of land and water-based shelled species.

In 1835, he married Cecilia Campbell who was an accomplished linguist – a great help in translating French and Italian works, an artist in her own right providing Berkeley with illustrations for his articles, which increasingly became focused on the study of funghi. 1835 saw him return to Northamptonshire, appointed to the curacies of Apethorpe and Woodnewton, and he became chaplain to the Earl of Westmorland taking up residence in Park Street, Kings Cliffe, where he lived until 1868.

His scientific reputation was founded on two articles: “Gleanings of British Algae” (1833) and “Monograph of the British Funghi” (1836), which gained him such a reputation that  he became the prime European arbiter in disputes over the attribution of specimens. As his reputation increased he worked on the specimens collected by Charles Darwin from his famous voyage  on “The Beagle”,  and others collected by Hugh Cuming in the Philippines, by George Thwaites from Sri Lanka and the collections in the British Museum.

He had a large family: the 1851 Census lists 9 children, and 4 pupils, who he taught to augment his stipend (he is recorded later as having a school with as many as 30 boarders). The family grew to a total of 15, thirteen of whom reached over 21 years of age – quite remarkable at the time. In 1858 he was presented with a more valuable living  at Sibbertoft in Leicestershire (originally worth £400 a year – but that became eroded by the agricultural distress of the period), then in 1871 became  rural Dean at Rothwell. Like so many of his fellow clergymen in the Victorian period who had the advantage of university educations, and the means to pursue their interests, Berkeley must have been pressed to find time for parochial affairs. His bibliography comprises well over 200 articles of varying length and complexity, many containing illustrations.

1836 saw him elected Fellow of the Linnaen Society, proposed by among others,  Sir James Hooker,  a founder of geographical botany and Charles Darwin’s closest friend and Charles Babington, who held the Chair of Botany at Cambridge.

Berkeley wrote extensively for the “The Gardeners Chronicle”, on the subject of plant pathology and explored the funghi associated with “potato blight” taking a leading role in the scientific assessment for the Royal Commission appointed in 1845.

In 1863 he was presented with “the Royal Medal”, the citation for which is “the Royal Medals in each year should be awarded for the two most important contributions to the advancement of Natural Knowledge, published originally in Her Majesty’s dominions within a period of not more than ten years and not less than one year of the date of the award, subject, of course, to Her Majesty’s approval. In the award of the Royal Medals, one should be given in each of the two great divisions of Natural Knowledge”.

From 1866 he acted as editor of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, and became its Botanical Director. He was also examiner for London University, but he became increasingly deaf, and in 1879 withdrew from research. In that year he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society, and a Civil Service pension of £100 a year. He  gave his botanical collection of botanical specimens to Kew – nearly 5,000 of which he had named himself.

Described as tall well-built man, he retired fully in 1884, and died at Sibbertoft in 1889. His collection of algae went to the herbarium at Cambridge University.