Collinson, Peter (DNB00)

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COLLINSON, PETER (1694–1768), naturalist and antiquary, was born near Windermere on 14 Jan. 1693-4. His parents were members of the Society of Friends, who were settled on the paternal estate called Hugal Hall, on the borders of Windermere Lake. They were especially known as producers of men's mercery. Peter Collinson, in partnership with his brother, improved the father's trade, and opened a large business with the American colonies.

Collinson from his youth displayed a considerable fondness for natural history, and especially devoted himself to a close examination of the metamorphoses of insects. While yet a young man he secured the notice of some of the best naturalists of the age, and especially of Sir Hans Sloane. The Earl of Bute greatly encouraged his botanical pursuits, and Sir Charles Wager [q. v.] sought his assistance, and at Collinson's suggestion systematised his search for illustrative examples of natural products during his voyages. A considerable portion of the collections thus made were eventually deposited in Sir Hans Sloane's Museum.

Collinson was a lover of the antiquities near his home. He was active in the formation of the Society of Antiquaries, being one of its earliest members and a constant contributor to the meetings of the society. He withdrew from the Society of Friends, but always maintained their distinguishing simplicity of character. In 1724 Collinson married Mary, the daughter of Mr. Bushell of Mill Hill, Hendon, by whom he had one son and one daughter. Collinson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in December 1728. He communicated papers to the 'Philosophical Transactions.' The relations of Collinson's firm with America led to a close intercourse with the scientific men of the colonies. In 1730 a subscription library was originated in Philadelphia, and Collinson was consulted by some of the more active members as to its organisation. On the committee of the library was Benjamin Franklin, to whom Collinson sent in 1745 an account of some new electrical experiments recently made in Germany, and some parts of the apparatus required for carrying them out. This was the first intimation which Franklin had received respecting the advances of electrical inquiry in Europe, and he at once repeated and considerably extended the inquiry. Franklin acknowledged his obligation to Collinson, and they established a lasting friendship. By 1740 Collinson had acquired a high reputation as a botanist. He formed a botanic garden at Mill Hill, and by its means considerably improved the English system of horticulture. He established a good system of exchanges with the colonies, which proved of considerable advantage to the respective countries. He strongly urged the Americans to cultivate flax, hemp, silk, and wine, which led to the introduction of these industries in several of the states. Collinson was always a contributor to the collections of the British Museum, and at one time it was contemplated to appoint him as curator of the botanical division. It is not quite clear why this was not carried out. Collinson was evidently disappointed, but he never displayed any bitterness on the matter. He was always surrounded by friends, who valued his acquaintance and admitted the worth of his knowledge.

On 11 Aug. 1768 he died peacefully while on a visit to Lord Petre in Essex. The titles of thirteen papers by Collinson in the 'Gent. Mag.' are given in Smith's 'List of Friends' Books.' In 1843 L. W. Dillwyn privately printed 'Hortus Collinsonianus: plants cultivated by Peter Collinson.' Dr. Fothergill wrote a life of Collinson, privately printed (1771), and reprinted in Fothergill's 'Works' (1781).

[Monthly Review, vol. xxv.; Archæologia, vol. i.; Annual Register, vol. xiii.; Kippis's Biographia Britannica; Barrington's Miscellanies, p. 174; Royal Society's Scientific Catalogue.]

R. H-t.