Two years ago, a herbarium collection resurfaced in our archive. Our archivist Jane immediately realised this collection was far too important to hide - this article brings Lilian's legacy to light.
Our story begins over 200 miles away from Ilfracombe in Chiswick, London where Lilian Henrietta Sich was born in 1875 and was raised as one of the 6 children of Helen and Alexander Sich. The family owned a very successful brewing business and lived in luxury in the impressive Norfolk House over looking the river Thames. In the late Victorian period where else would an affluent family go for their holidays? You've guessed it, the fashionable seaside resort of Ilfracombe!
At the time Ilfracombe enjoyed a reputation for its natural beauty, 'healthy air' and the opportunities its location offered to those wishing to study or collect wildlife specimens, including an abundance of ferns, seaweed, marine life, birds, butterflies, shells and wildflowers.
The well known naturalist Philip Gosse (1810-1888) visited Ilfracombe in 1853, staying in Northfield Road. Initially he came to study marine life but whilst he was here he wrote the popular and influential book 'A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast' which cemented Ilfracombe's reputation as a natural haven and prompted Victorian visitors to flock to the town, in order to comb the pathways and countryside in the hunt for elusive samples for their collections.
Gosse, in turn, had been attracted to Ilfracombe partly due to the Revd George Tugwell, curate to the Vicar of Ilfracombe, Revd John Chanter.
Tugwell, also a keen naturalist, wrote about sea anemones - sparking a craze for collecting, and therefore unfortunately destroying them.
In 1857 Tugwell published a local journal called The Pixie - or Ilfracombe Miscellany of Art Nature and Human Nature - in it a writer credited only as A. Raven talks of how his visit to the town prompted a renewed interest in collecting botanical samples: 'The brilliancy of the wild flowers on the Capstone Hill where I was sitting had revived my old mania which had been unaccountably slumbering, and I set to work at once.'
In the article he recalls his 'Botanical Rambles' around Capstone, the harbour, Chambercombe and Hele.
It is against this backdrop of nature collecting mania - in 1890 - that 15 year old Lilian began amassing her herbarium, a collection of pressed wildflowers.
The majority of specimens in our collection date from 1894 and 1895. The herbarium consists of over 500 species, with roughly 100 specimens hailing from Ilfracombe and others from the surrounding areas of North Devon. Lilian carefully pressed the plants between folded sheets of thick brown paper and added both the common and Latin names, and in many cases the location they were found, such as Hillsborough, Chambercombe or Rapparee Cove.
Lilian's collection gives us an important snap shot into the flora that was growing freely around Ilfracombe over 120 years ago. This can also be cross referenced with a survey of wildflowers in Ilfracombe that was done in 1979 and finally we are able to compare these records with what remains here today. Her collection includes examples of Wild Madder, Sea Plantain, vetch, foxgloves and red campions amongst many other plants.
At the moment samples from the herbarium are on display in the museum, many still showing the colours of the original flowers. Lilian Sich died relatively young in 1924 and her brother Percy donated her collection to Ilfracombe Museum in the year that it opened, 1932. This year, 91 years later, inspired by this collection, we have given out hundreds of packets of wild flower seeds encouraging local people to plant wild flowers to support the declining number of pollinators in our environment and in memory of Lilian Sich. We have even constructed a new planter outside the museum so we can also do our bit for local rewilding - keep your eyes open for our results!
One last note - the census of 1911 for the Sich family home in Chiswick, lists a Nellie Louise Moon, Housemaid. 28 year old Nellie was born in Ilfracombe in 1883, the daughter of Walter and Louise Moon who lived at 31 Wilder Road. Nelly started her working life in Ilfracombe as a laundress but somehow ended up working for the wealthy Sich family in London, how this happened is a story lost in time but forms another interesting link between the Sich family and Ilfracombe with descendants of the same Moon family still living in Ilfracombe today.
Nellie is back left, c1900 in the garden of 31 Wilder Road.
We are most grateful to Jane Monger for her research into the Sich family and Lilian's herbarium and to Francis Down for information about the Moon family.
Lindsay Armstrong, 2023
If you would like to learn more about Lilian's legacy and the research behind this article, then you can get in touch at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org.