The Prance Family




Basildon Camden Prance, an offocial in the British Colonial Service in India working as a magistrate, married Margaret Macnair in 1935. A son Ghillean was born 13th July 1937. Soon afterwards the family returned to England and took up residence on the island of Skye off the scottish mainland. After the war the family moved to Toddington in Gloucestershire amongst the Malvern hills. Even from a young age Ghillean showed a keen interest in natural history and when he entered Malvern College, an exclusive public school for boys, his interest in nature and botany in particular was nurtured and developed further by a sympathetic and similarly interested school housemaster. After five years at Malvern he was given a place as an undergraduate in Keble College, Oxford where he studied botany and it was during this time that the foundations of his christian faith were tested and strengthened. Now twenty years old, and with a B.A. Hons. degree he began a DPhil. in forest botany (A Taxanomic Study of Chrysobabanaceae) having firmly decided to make botany his career. This was determined also by his keen interest in taxonomy, the science of plant classification. He also met his future wife Anne Hay, also a committed christian, and they were married on his birthday 13th. July 1961


Sir Ghillean's first adventure was in 1960 as an undergraduate at Oxford when he led a scientific expedition to Turkey. His first tropical expedition three years later, sponsored by the New York Botanical Gardens whose staff he was about to join took him to Surinam on the edge of the amazonian forest and this set the scene for his future career. These expeditions were mainly sponsored by the New York Botanical Gardens where he began as a research student and ended by being the highly influential Research Director and Vice-President. He saw for himself at first hand that the rainforests were irreplaceable and that man's intrusion was causing wholesale destruction of an ecological system involving both humans and plants. While there he lead many surveying and collecting expeditions into the deepest jungle. Through his teaching at the Manaus Centre at the edge of the Amazon jungle and on his expeditions he was able to pass on his knowledge to countless students whom he saw as the future guardians of the forest and its plants and trees. In 1973, 'lent' by the NYBG he set up and directed a masters degree course for the Brazilian National Amazonian Research Institute but in 1975 returned to base in New York to work on the Programa Flora Amazonia, a bi-national project to produce a computerised database of the plants of the amazonian region. In 1975 he was asked to look into the setting up of the Institute of Economic Botany, a body to study plants in the service of humankind. In 1987, now vice-President of the New York Botanical Gardens, he received a letter from the Trustees of Kew Gardens in London which would change his family's life once again.


The most public phase of Sir Ghillean's career in Britain was probably during his time as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It was his scientific expertise in the field of plant classification, his leadership qualities and his unravalled knowledge of plants and ecology gained at first hand on the research field expeditions in the Amazon that brought him eventually to Kew. Ghillean was appointed Director shortly after the devastating storm which swept across southern Britain in October 1987. This accounted for the uprooting of many of the ancient and rare tree specimens that would take generations to replace. His first task was to oversee the restitution of the damage caused and initiate planning needed to fund a programme of development for the botanic gardens. With the 560 employees and the reputation of the world's most influential botanical research establishment to maintain he put a series of projects into action. These being helped enormously by the support and social abilities of his wife Anne. Although he is not a man who naturally seeks the limelight he launched a series of public lectures to further this purpose while at the same time responding to constant demands from across the country and around the world. For as well as furthering the interests of Kew his mission is directed towards the broader issues of the environment and its effect on human life. I refer you to his ....Mission Statement

With Margaret Thatcher at Kew in front of Victoria arizona, Water Lily
Photo courtesy Kew Botanic Gardens


Until more information is available I can only say that Sir Ghillean is Visiting Professor at Reading University and is also involved with the setting up of the Eden Project in Cornwall. The latter is a construction of vast greenhouses or biodomes which will house tropical plants and trees from around the world. It is an amazing concept and a world class venture. See...


Ghillean Prance's ancestry can be traced back through Robert Prance of the Hampstead branch to the William Prances of Plymouth who in turn originated in Northam, North Devon. This was a particularly professional branch of the family having sea captains, stockbrokers and members of the church amongst them with a high regard for public duty.

For this profile I have drawn heavily on the excellent book by Clive Langmead entitled 'A Passion for plants. The story of Ghillean Prance's Life from the Brazilian Forests of Brazil to Kew Gardens'. It is an excellent read and I thoroughly recommend it. Due to be republished in paperback by Kew Gardens. The hardback, although out of print, obtainable through book dealers on the internet.
For example....

UK.ISBN 0 7459 2962 1

Michael Rothman painting of the female carpenter bee visiting the flower of
the saspucaia