Francis Kingdon Ward website.


Explorer by choice, plant hunter out of necessity.

“There are places up the Brahmaputra where no white man has ever been.”
Unknown explorer c. 1890s

Author's note

This project began when I was trying to find out more about my Grandfather as part of my genealogical research. I assumed that as he was a famous explorer there would be loads of information about him on the internet, but there was practically nothing. My first website about him was a Geocities Wysiwyg effort which has been kept alive against its will on Oocities life support system.
I was given a typed manuscript written by my Great Aunt Winifred, herself a celebrated Speech Therapist, as well as most of Frank's published books, and Charles Lyte's biography, and from these I have created this and previous versions of this website.

Blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia baileyi.
Probably Frank's most famous collected flower, Meconopsis betonicifolia baileyi, the Himalayan blue poppy.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century it appeared that most of the world had been explored and mapped in considerable detail. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Capt. Cook, and others had opened up the oceans and mapped the continents and islands centuries before. Intrepid men such as Livingstone, Lewis and Clarke, Przhevalsky, and Charles Sturt, to name but a few, had navigated rivers, hacked through jungles, and crossed searing deserts, filling in the maps with more detail, generating trade, and claiming new land for their European masters as they went. Even though, as this book will show, there were still more than enough challenges to keep explorers busy throughout the twentieth century (and indeed well into the twenty-first) unexplored areas were shrinking and the objectives of exploration were changing. Science was the main driving force now with imperial expansion taking a lesser role. The prizes for success were not vast estates, lucrative trade routes, piles of gold, or new lands, but the possibility of further funding for the next expedition, perhaps your name preserved for ever in a new species, or a medal from the RGS.

Photograph of the blue plaque erected by Manchester city council marking the place of Frank's birth. It reads; Frank Kingdon-Ward, 1885-1958 plant explorer, botanist, author. Born at no. 14 Heaton Road, Withington, which stood on this site.
Francis Kingdon Ward was born in Manchester. The building no longer stands but his second wife Jean was able to get his plaque erected on the site.

Francis Kingdon Ward was born into this changing world on 6th November 1885, the same year as Umberto Nobile, and Sir Malcolm Campbell. Queen Victoria was on the throne, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the British empire, not yet at its height, had dominions in Canada, Western and Southern Africa, Egypt, India, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the far East.


Frank's family were middle class, his father Harry Marshall Ward was an academic and his mother, Selina Mary Ward (neé Kingdon), was the daughter of an Exeter lace maker. They could afford to send him to a good school (St Paul's) and on to Cambridge but they were by no means wealthy. In fact the premature death of his father meant that Frank had to leave Cambridge a year early and take paid employment. In this he was fortunate to find work teaching in Singapore.

Selina Mary Ward (nee Kingdon) with a young Francis Ward sitting on her knee.
Francis Kingdon Ward with his mother Selina Mary Ward

Harry Marshal Ward, was himself a celebrated botanist, (although today he would more probably be called a mycologist, or bacteriologist). He studied under Tomas Henry Huxley in Kensington, then at Owen's college Manchester (now part of Manchester University), and finally at Christ's College Cambridge. From 1880 to 1882 he went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) working for the British government, to study a rust which was devastating the coffee plantations there. He returned to Owen's college as an assistant lecturer, where he married his fiancé of seven years Selina Mary Kingdon (Lina). He went on to become professor of botany at Cambridge.

Harry Marshall Ward, professor of botany at Cambridge University, and father of Frank Kingdon-Ward. Probably taken in later life he has a distinguished Victorian moustache, hair greying, and he is wearing a dark three piece suit.
Frank's father Harry Marshall Ward.

As a fellow of the Linnaean society, the Royal Horticultural Society, and the Royal Society, and having travelled himself, Professor Ward would receive visits from time to time from other scientists and explorers, and during one of these visits a chance remark found the ears of the young Frank. The words “There are places up the Brahmaputra, where no white man has ever been” jumped out from the rest of the conversation, and stuck in his head. It appears that this sentence set in motion a driving ambition to be the first white man to see those places, and many others, that stayed with him until his death at the age of 72.

Frank's unwavering obsession was exploration for its own sake. He thought of himself as an explorer first, and an author and plant collector simply to pay the bills. He made very little money from his 25 published books and innumerable magazine articles. His attempt at establishing a horticultural business in England to be supplied with a stream of fresh new species from abroad met with failure due to poor business management, and without the funding he received from wealthy businessmen, societies, and patrons, he would never have got beyond Singapore. What these people wanted was new species of garden plants which would be hardy in English gardens, and Frank was a natural at spotting and collecting these.

He also spent a substantial proportion of his time and energy on anthropological studies, at least a third of his writing seems to discuss, the people, religions, and society of the places he visited, and as many again of his photographs (including many of his most engaging) are of people, perhaps more so than either plants or landscapes.

His view of religion was generally mockingly disdainful, not just of the eastern religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam, but also of Christianity and the Missionaries' efforts to convert the locals. His father was agnostic, perhaps influenced by his mentor Huxley, whilst his mother was a member of the Plymouth Brethren although she appears to have been swayed by her husband's lack of belief. Frank recalled as a small boy, praying fervently for a pop gun with which to scare the birds. He says “After what seemed to a little boy playing in a big country garden an epoch, I got half the apparatus – the cork part; but the rest of the outfit never came at all.”

He was born and raised in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. White European racial and cultural supremacy was assumed and at the top of the pinnacle were the British. This was a 'fact' which was self evident. However, Frank appears to have had a strong sense of fairness, which must have been at least reinforced by his only recorded childhood friendship, of which more in the next chapter. He wrote at length at his disgust at the behaviour of some travellers who boasted of travelling half way across a continent without paying any money to the porters, and he always treated the locals fairly and did not interfere with local customs and laws. As such despite writing what would today be considered some very politically incorrect things he was ahead of his time, and was welcomed back by villagers on subsequent journeys. Even when explorers followed in his footsteps decades later they were guided by a descendant of one of Frank's porters and the locals all knew about Frank Kingdon-Ward from the stories handed down over the years.

From reading his letters and books and some comments about him there are hints or suggestions towards the possibility that, if he were brought up in the modern world, he might be diagnosed as having either Bipolar disorder or perhaps Aspergers syndrome which I intend to investigate in more detail, and from a chance comment by one of his travelling companions I also intend to investigate his use of morphine and whether he had in fact a slight dependence on it as more than just a pain killer.

FKW's legacy lives on in the many species of plants he introduced to western gardens such as Rhododendron wardii, R. imperator, Meconopsis betonicifolia, Primula Florindae, P. alpicola, Gaultheria wardii, Acer sikkimense, Lilium wardii, L. mackliniae, in fact an exhaustive list is well beyond my meagre botanical knowledge, however I will attempt to provide a more detailed list elsewhere on the site.

He also wrote and published 25 books, mostly describing his expeditions, a number of which have been reprinted in recent years and can thankfully be purchased for a few pounds rather than a few hundred pounds. A list of these appears in the bibliography.