Re-publication of ‘Flora of Northumberland and Durham’ (1831): A dramatic account of change

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The classical treatise “Flora of Northumberland and Durham” by Nathaniel John Winch is re-published through the innovativeAdvanced Books platform as an example of combining modern information technology together with historical scholarship to create a new sort of resource and data re-use. This publication will be supporting ongoing research on the botany of the region, which can be seen as a model for other regions in Europe.

The on-line semantically enriched re-publication marries the meticulous detail of old books with the interconnectedness of the internet bringing advantages of the digitization and markup efforts such as data extraction and collation, distribution and re-use of content, archiving of different data elements in relevant repositories and so on.

“Historic biodiversity literature is not just of cultural interest, it can be used to chart biogeographic change and help us understand the impacts of environmental change on biodiversity. Even if we are trying to predict future scenarios for biodiversity, understanding the changes of the past will help understand the changes we should expect in the future” said Dr Quentin Groom from the Meise Botanical Garden, Belgium, who initiated the project and marked up the original text.

The North-east of England has seen many changes since the publication of Winch’s Flora. In the 19th Century the area was a powerhouse of the industrial revolution. It was an important coal mining area and significant for the production of iron and steel. It was also a centre for industries such as shipbuilding and engineering. In contrast the uplands in the west of the region were some of the most isolated areas in England, covered in blanket bog and rarely visited.

Since that time heavy industry and mining have declined, but the population has continued to grow. Agriculture and forestry have become mechanized changing the countryside perhaps beyond the recognition of Winch. Many of the plants and localities he mentions have disappeared and a large number of new species have been introduced. The local botanists are still very active in the region. With GPS systems and modern maps they are mapping theregion’s flora in ever more detail.

The extensive efforts of Quentin Groom from the Botanic Garden Meise and editor of this re-publication combined with the cutting-edge technologies for semantic enhancements used by Pensoft’s Advanced Books platform, have resulted in additional details including links to the original citations and coordinates of the mentioned localities. In some cases the habitat that Winch described for a locality differs dramatically from what can be found in the same location nowadays.

The flora, for example, frequently mentions Prestwick Carr, an area of lowland bog, once full of rare species. Sadly it was largely drained just thirty years after the publication of the flora. Yet in recent years the Northumberland Wildlife Trust has been working to restore the bog to its former glory. “When reading Winch’s flora, it is easy to see what has been lost, but more importantly what remains to be conserved”, comments Groom.

The re-publication of Winch’s flora is just one step towards fully understanding all the impacts on wild plants of all the environmental changes that have occurred since the 19th century. Nevertheless, digitization of this flora not only tells us about plants but also about the history of science. Between the lines of this flora one can see a rudimentary understanding of ecology and the beginnings of research on phytogeography.

Consider that in 1831 Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle, collecting and cataloguing biodiversity around the world, much as Winch had done in North-east England over the preceding 30 years. Field botany at the time was not just a hobby, but a serious pursuit that led to many new discoveries.

Understanding the causes of biodiversity change is only possible if you have data over a long period. The North-east England has an enviable botanical history dating back to William Turner (1508-1568), the so-called, Father of English Botany, who came from Morpeth in Northumberland. Yet he was only the first in a long list of North-eastern botanists, including John Wallis (1714-1793), Nathaniel John Winch (1769-1838), John Gilbert Baker (1834-1920), George Ralph Tate (1805-1871), Gordon Graham and George Swan (1917). Their publications and the works of many others have contributed to a large corpus of literature on the region’s flora.


The re-publication is supported by the FP7 funded EU project European Biodiversity Observation Network (EU BON).


Original Source:

Winch N (2014) Flora of Northumberland and Durham. Advanced Books: e4002. doi:10.3897/ab.e4002


Additional Information:

The Advanced Books platform is launched by Pensoft to publish new books or re-publish such previously available in paper or PDF only, in an advanced and semantically enhanced HTML and XML formats, to accelerate open access, data publication, mining, sharing and reuse. Advanced Books builds on the novel approaches developed by Pensoft’s journals.

This re-publication of the “Flora of Northumberland and Durham” originally published in 1831 by Nathaniel John Winch is supported by the FP7 funded EU project European Biodiversity Observation Network (EU BON) (Grant agreement No 308454


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