November 1940 was a devastating month for natural history specimens in England’s port cities. On 24 November, 17,000 natural history specimens were destroyed at Bristol Museum during a bombing raid. Just four days before, the glasshouse at Liverpool’s Botanic Gardens had been hit by a stray German bomb and 400 specimens from William Roscoe’s plant collection were destroyed.
William Roscoe (1753-1831) was one of Liverpool’s most famous figures. He was a successful lawyer and politician who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Roscoe‘s interests also included history, poetry and botany. As a keen botanist, Roscoe established private gardens in 1802 which became Liverpool’s Botanic Gardens. In 1909, Liverpool’s Parks and Gardens Committee transferred the Botanic Garden’s herbarium (dried plant) collections of over 40,000 specimens to the museum. It included this specimen of a crocus obovatus collected in 1810.
In response to the attacks on Liverpool and Bristol, Liverpool (now World) Museum began to evacuate its collections. As a result, 14,000 botany specimens were evacuated to an underground mineshaft at a secret location in Wales.
Despite the importance of the collection the herbarium specimens survived by chance. As the museum’s staff began packing the larger objects chosen for evacuation they needed packing materials to stop these large pieces breaking on the journey to Wales. The bundles of paper and specimens (see image) made good cushions and so they were stuffed in-between objects. This saved the specimens from the bomb which destroyed much of the Botany collection left on display.