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Allan Cunningham

1791 - 1839
The King’s Collector for Kew in Brazil, Australia and New Zealand; Colonial Botanist in New South Wales.
Allan Cunningham, b.Wimbledon, Surrey, England, 13 July 1791; d. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 27 June 1839.
Allan Cunningham, portrait by Daniel Macnee c. 1831. Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Assistant to William Aiton at Kew, 1810/11–14. Collector for Kew in Brazil with James Bowie 1814–1816. In Australia and New Zealand 1816–31. Worked on his collections at Kew 1831–36. Colonial botanist at Sydney Botanic Garden, 1837. Visited New Zealand 1838.

After schooling in Putney which included grounding in the Classics, Allan Cunningham was appointed by William Aiton the younger in 1810/11 to assist in preparing the new edition of Hortus Kewensis, giving him a first-class knowledge of plant names. When Joseph Banks persuaded the government to support the employment of two collectors to travel overseas to seek plants for Kew, Cunningham applied and in 1814 was appointed Plant Collector for His Majesty’s Botanic Garden at Kew (the King then being George III). Together with James Bowie, also a Kew man, he was sent first to Brazil. For two years they explored assiduously and sent living and dried material back to Kew. Besides plant collecting, Cunningham developed a love for exploration. In 1816 Bowie was sent to the Cape of Good Hope while Cunningham went to Sydney, New South Wales. In 1817 he joined the Surveyor-General John Oxley on an expedition into the interior, in an attempt to solve the riddle of the flow of rivers west of the Great Dividing Range. From late 1817 to 1822 he accompanied Philip Parker King on four voyages around the coast of New Holland (as Australia was then known) and one to Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania). He made further expeditions inland, discovering the Liverpool Plans and Darling Downs, each region to become important in pastoral and agricultural development. Besides these he took every opportunity to explore botanically closer to Sydney. In 1826–27 he went to New Zealand and in 1830 to Norfolk Island. During the 15 years that he stayed in New South Wales he sent hundreds of living plants, bulbs and seeds to William Aiton, introducing many new species into horticulture. He made corresponding herbarium collections and kept detailed notes on localities and habitat.

In 1831 Cunningham returned to London and for over five years lived at 18 Strand-on-the-Green, just across the Thames from Kew (close to where the railway bridge stands now). There he worked on his herbarium specimens and often visited the gardens, especially to see how his ‘children’ were faring. He developed a strong association with William Hooker, then in Glasgow, sending him many fresh specimens from the gardens for featuring in Hooker’s journals, especially the Botanical Miscellany and Journal of Botany. These were accompanied by notes on their origin and classification, sometimes including Latin descriptions and, for new species, often proposing names, for which ‘A.Cunn.’ is often seen as the authority. His botanical associates, with whom he shared his collections and knowledge, included William Aiton, Robert Brown, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, John Smith, Robert Heward, Franz Bauer and, mainly through correspondence, Augustin de Candolle, George Bentham and John Lindley. Late in life he came to know William Colenso, a missionary/botanist in New Zealand.

Cunningham’s bother Richard (1793–1835), also a Kewite since he worked under Aiton for many years, accepted the position of Colonial Botanist in Sydney, arriving there in 1833. Although he threw himself into the duties his tenure was brief as he was killed by Aborigines while on an expedition into the interior in April 1835.

After the death of his brother, and with his health affected by the climate of London, Cunningham accepted the post of Colonial Botanist. He returned to Sydney in 1837 but found the duties of managing the botanic garden (especially supervising about 40 convict workmen and the associated bureaucracy) not to his liking. He resigned on 1 January 1838 and returned to his love of exploring and collecting. This included a further visit to New Zealand that year. The years of hard living in the bush had taken their toll, however, and despite all attempts to restore his health he passed away in 1839, much regretted by friends and associates in Sydney and Britain. Heward wrote a long obituary, published in 1842. An obelisk to his memory was erected in the Sydney Gardens in 1844, and in 1901 when the old Sydney Cemetery was cleared for a railway station, his remains were moved to its base.

Cunningham ranks with Robert Brown as one of the two most significant early plant collectors in Australia. A large quantity of correspondence by him and his contemporaries has survived and has recently been assembled for publication (Orchard & Orchard, 2015). He corresponded frequently with Aiton and, until his death in 1820, with Joseph Banks.

The main set of Cunningham’s herbarium specimens is held at Kew and there are duplicates in more than a dozen other herbaria. He is commemorated in the genus Cunninghamia, in specific names in genera such as Acacia, Araucaria, Archonophoenix, Grevillea, Stenocarpus, Verticordia, in several placenames in Australia and in the name of a journal from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.


Cains, F. & Whitehead, J. (2011), Cunningham’s Tracks 1827: His Journey through the Gwydir & Inverell Shires, privately published, John Whitehead, Coonabarabran.

Curry, S., Maslin, B.R. & Maslin, J.A. (2002), Allan Cunningham: Australian Collecting Localities, Flora of Australia Supplementary Series no. 13, Australian Biological Resources Study, Canberra.

Desmond, R. (1994), Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists, Taylor & Francis & The Natural History Museum, London, p. 342.

Heward, R. (1842), Biographical Sketch of the late Allan Cunningham, Esq., F.L.S., M.R.G.S., &c, privately published, London, first published in Journal of Botany 4: 231–320.

McMinn, W.G. (1970), Allan Cunningham: Botanist and Explorer, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Orchard, A.E (2013), Allan Cunningham’s cryptic publications, Telopea 15: 191–204.

Orchard, A.E (2014), The dispersal of Allan Cunningham’s botanical (and other) collections, Telopea 17: 43–86.

Orchard, A.E & Orchard, T.A. (2013), Allan Cunningham’s Timor collections, Nuytsia 23: 63–88.

Orchard, A.E & Orchard, T.A. (2014), The Botanist and the Judge: Allan Cunningham in Tasmania 1818–1819, Botanical interpretation by S.J. Jarman & G. Kantvilas, privately published, Weston Creek, A.C.T.

Orchard, A.E & Orchard, T.A. (2015), King’s Collectors for Kew: James Bowie and Allan Cunningham, Brazil 1814–1816, privately published, Weston Creek, A.C.T.

Orchard, A.E & Orchard, T.A. (2015), Allan Cunningham: Letters of a Botanist/Explorer 1791–1839, privately published, Weston Creek, A.C.T.

Whitehead, J. (2003), Tracking and Mapping the Explorers vol. 1, The Lachlan River Oxley, Evans & Cunningham 1817, Sunnyland Press, Mildura.

Whitehead, J. (2014), Tracking and Mapping the Explorers vol. 4, Cunningham’s Pandora’s Pass, 2nd amended edn, privately published.