Collection TitleJohn Ball Papers
TitleJohn Ball Papers
DescriptionContains botanical manuscripts relating to the southern Alps, Morocco and other parts of Europe
Creator NameBall, John (1818-1889) F.R.S.
Date19th C
Extent2 series; 6 volumes, 1 folder
Administrative HistoryGlaciologist and politician, born in Dublin on 20 August 1818, the eldest child of Nicholas Ball (1791–1865), judge and politician, and his wife, Jane (née Sherlock) of Butlerstown Castle in co. Waterford. Until the age of eleven he received little formal education, but from his earliest years he displayed a precocious interest in science. In his seventh year he was taken to Switzerland, where he was deeply affected by the view of the Alps from the Jura. The following year he began to measure the heights of hills barometrically and to construct geological sections, and before his twelfth year he had completed the manuscript of what he termed his ‘Elements of chemistry’.

Ball's parents were Roman Catholics, and in 1831 he was sent to St Mary's College at Oscott near Birmingham, whence he was admitted into Christ's College, Cambridge, on 23 June 1835. That summer he participated in the Dublin meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (he attended many of the association's subsequent meetings), and in Cambridge, over the next four years, he joined the classes of John Stevens Henslow in botany, and Adam Sedgwick in geology.

On 13 April 1840 Ball was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and in Trinity term 1843 he was called to the Irish bar at the King's Inns. He never practised at the bar, and between 1840 and 1845 can have spent little time in Ireland. For much of that period he travelled in Europe, visiting the mountain regions (for which he felt a deep affinity), botanizing, and communing with kindred scientific spirits. During 1845 he was at Zermatt seeking to develop the glaciological studies pioneered by James David Forbes, but that was the year when a failure of the Irish potato crop marked the beginning of the great Irish famine, and Ball felt duty-bound to return to his distressed homeland.

While in the Dingle peninsula, co. Kerry, during 1846, Ball recognized that many of the landforms were analogous to features which he had seen being shaped by modern glacial processes within the Alps. Clearly, he reasoned, there must once have been glaciers in Ireland, and the paper on this subject which he presented to the Geological Society of Dublin on 14 November 1849 is the earliest published study of Pleistocene events within any region of Ireland.

In July 1848 Ball stood, without success, as a parliamentary candidate for Sligo borough, but on 26 July 1852 he was returned (by a majority of only two votes) as the member for Carlow County. In February 1855 the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, named him as assistant under-secretary of state in the colonial department. In this office he took the opportunity to further the cause of science in several ways. His energetic representations were largely responsible for ensuring the adequate financing of the expedition led by John Palliser for the exploration of western Canada, and he was instrumental in inducing the home government to support the efforts of Sir William Jackson Hooker towards the publication of colonial floras.

At the election on 11 April 1857 he was heavily defeated when he stood for Sligo County, and on 15 February in the following year he was again defeated when he contested Limerick City. Although subsequently offered several parliamentary seats, he resolved henceforth, as a man of independent financial means, to devote himself exclusively to travel and to natural history.

Following the foundation of the Alpine Club in December 1857 he served as its first president (1858–60), and he edited Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers, the club's earliest publication (two editions in 1859). The three volumes of his Alpine Guide (first editions 1863, 1864, 1868) are classics among the literature of mountain travel. In 1856 he married Eliza Parolini, daughter of the naturalist and traveller Count Alberto Parolini (there were two sons of the marriage), and between 1861 and 1869 he lived much in Italy, where, on his wife's death about 1867, he inherited an estate near to Bassano and at the foot of the Venetian Alps. By 1863 he had crossed the main chain of the Alps forty-eight times by thirty-two different routes, being accompanied upon some of his journeys by his close friend William Edward Forster. In 1869 Ball married Julia O'Beirne, the youngest child of Francis and Winefred O'Beirne of Jamestown, co. Leitrim.

In the company of Joseph Dalton Hooker he visited Morocco and the Atlas Mountains between April and June 1871, and their joint work descriptive of the excursion was published in 1878. Between March and August 1882 he sailed to the Caribbean, crossed the isthmus of Panama, and completed a circumnavigation of South America via the Strait of Magellan, his account of this journey being published in 1887. During the 1880s trouble with his throat caused him to winter abroad in places such as Algeria, Tunisia, and the Canary Islands.

While in the Engadine during the autumn of 1889 Ball was stricken with illness. He was taken home to London where, shortly after an operation and somewhat unexpectedly, he died at midnight on 21 October 1889 at his home, 10 Southwell Gardens, South Kensington. Among his distinctions were the Italian order of SS Maurizio e Lazzaro (1865), fellowship of the Linnean Society (2 December 1856), fellowship of the Royal Society (4 June 1868), and honorary fellowship of Christ's College, Cambridge (3 October 1888).
Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
SeriesComprises 2 series, JBA/1 contains botanical manuscripts (18-18) and JBA/2 correspondence with J D Hooker (1859-1896)
ArrangementAll manuscripts are contained within bound volumes. The papers have been arranged according to the titles of the bound volumes
Physical DescriptionManuscripts in bound volumes.
Related MaterialAt Kew: In the Archives: G Bentham Papers GEB/1/1: Correspondence, Vol 1, Achiardi-Beyerinck (1823-1882) (ff 171-190); J D Hooker Papers JDH/2/3/14 Letters from J.D. Hooker Misc. c. 1840s-1900s (ff 1-4), JDH/2/17 Linnean Society Letters to J.D. Hooker c.1879-1886 (ff 23-29), JDH/3/5 Students Flora c.1870s-1880s (ff 6-21); Miscellaneous Report China. Index Florae Sinensis 1883-1905 (f 17, 94-99, 115, 118, 120, 151); Letters to W B Hemsley Vol 1 (f 16); Letters to J D Duthie Vol 1 (f27); letters to W Thiselton-Dyer Vol 1 (ff 36-41); J Gay Misc Correspondence Miscellaneous No 35 (f 1); H N Ridley Papers HNR/2/1/1: Letters to H.N Ridley ABS-CLA, 1882-1845 (ff 71-72); Munro Correspondence
(ff 6-7); Director's Correspondence (DC) Vol 146 S. European Letters A-HAN 1845-1900 (f 794); Kew Herbarium Presentations to 1900 (ff 1-59), DC 12 English Letters A-G 1839 (f 31), DC 14 English Letters A-H 1840 (f 40), DC 17 English Letters A-L 1842 (f 34), DC 23 English Letters 1845 (ff 141-142), DC 24 English Letters 1846 (ff 44-46), DC 32 English Letters 1852 (f 23), DC 35 English Letters 1855 (ff 37-39), DC 36 English Letters 1856 (ff 222-26), DC 37 English Letters 1857 (ff 18-24), DC 39 English Letters A-H 1858-1861 (ff 52-54 n.d), DC 55 E. Indian, Chinese & Mauritius & c. Letters 1851-1856 (f 4, 1855), DC 79 English Letters BALF-BEV 1866-1900 (ff 3-67), DC 97 English Letters NAP-OXL 1859-1900 (f 258).

In the Illustrations section of the Library: photographic portrait, reproduced in Alpine Journal, 25/107 (Feb 1890).

In other Archives: British Library: Letters to Sir Austen Layard, Add. MSS 38983–39119, passim · correspondence with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43545; Bodleian Library, Oxford: corresp. with Lord Kimberley; Harvard University: Arnold Arboretum, letters to Asa Gray; University College, London: letters to Sir Francis Galton.

Show related Persons records.

DS/UK/85Ball; John (1818-1889)1818-1889
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