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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cunningham, Richard (1793–1835)

by Vivienne Parsons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Richard Cunningham (1793-1835), botanist, was born on 12 February 1793 at Wimbledon, Surrey, England, the second son of Allan Cunningham, a gardener from Renfrewshire, Scotland. His mother, whose maiden name was Dickin, and who had been previously married, died while Richard was an infant. Richard went to a preparatory school in Wimbledon, and then to a Putney academy under a Scottish minister, Rev. John Adams. At 15 Richard entered the service of W. T. Aiton to work on the second edition of Hortus Kewensis. After about six years as a clerk he transferred to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew where he worked for eighteen years as an amanuensis, cataloguing specimens which his brother Allan sent home from his travels.

When Allan returned to England in 1832 he recommended Richard for the position of colonial botanist and superintendent of the Sydney Botanic Garden, to succeed Charles Frazer. Richard was also strongly recommended by Robert Brown, as being familiar with botany generally and the plants of New South Wales in particular, and he was appointed on 10 May 1832, at a salary of £200. He sailed in the Mary, with a collection of vines made by James Busby on a tour of the wine districts of France and Spain, and several commissions to search for rare plants about Sydney for Robert Brown and Sir William Hooker. After his arrival in Sydney in January 1833, Cunningham spent two years distributing vine cuttings, shrubs, fruit trees and seeds throughout the colony, extending the vinery with the French and Spanish vines, corresponding with botanical institutions in several countries and exchanging plants with other gardens, especially those in Britain. He also made several expeditions in search of plants, including one late in 1833 in H.M.S. Buffalo, sent to New Zealand for pine spars for the navy. When few kauri trees were found at the Bay of Islands or Whangaroa, she sailed south, leaving Cunningham to make a collection of New Zealand plants, among which were a new orchid, Dendrobium cunninghamii, and Veronica species. Cunningham was unmolested by the Maoris who remembered his brother's visit some years before, and remained until March 1834 when he returned to the Bay of Islands and thence to Sydney in H.M.S. Alligator in May.

He considered a trip to Hobart, but was offered a place in (Sir) Thomas Mitchell's 1835 expedition to ascertain the course of the River Darling. After they left Bathurst, Cunningham wandered away near the Bogan River on 17 April, searching for plants, and was not seen again. Mitchell organized a search, but found only remnants of his belongings and his dead horse. A search party led by Lieutenant Henry Zouch of the 4th Regiment set out from Bathurst in November, and found a group of natives, who told how a white man had camped with them on the Bogan some months before, and how they had murdered him because his behaviour at night aroused their suspicion. Probably Cunningham was delirious and frightened these superstitious people. His remains were reburied at Lower Tabratong, near Dandaloo, the tombstone stating that Richard Cunningham was killed by Aboriginals about 15 April 1835, aged 42; this was a copy of the tablet erected by his brother Allan in St Andrew's Church, Sydney, and later moved to the Presbyterian Church, Watson's Bay.

Cunningham was not superintendent of the Botanic Garden long enough to make any outstanding contribution to it, but he did strive to give it an international standing, beginning a correspondence with gardens overseas which his brother continued when he succeeded as superintendent. Richard Cunningham never married, and often lived a lonely and precarious life in pursuit of his career. Allan Cunningham attributed his brother's moral fortitude to a religious discipline and firm belief in the existence of a merciful, protecting providence. A portrait of him by McNees is in the collection of Sir William Hooker at Kew, and the Mitchell Library has a copy.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 16-18
  • W. J. Hooker, Companion to the Botanical Magazine, vol 2 (Lond, 1836)
  • T. L. Mitchell, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia (Lond, 1838)
  • R. Heward, Biographical Sketch of the Late Allan Cunningham (Lond, 1842)
  • I. Lee, Early Explorers in Australia (Lond, 1925)
  • J. Britten and G. S. Boulger, Biographical Index of Deceased British and Irish Botanists (Lond, 1931)
  • W. W. Froggatt, ‘The Curators and Botanists of the Botanic Gardens, Sydney’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 18, part 3, 1932, pp 101-33
  • J. H. Watson, ‘Richard Cunningham's Grave’ (newsclipping, State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Richard Cunningham (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Cunningham, Richard (1793–1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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