The serendipity of finding the unexpected in a document is always a pleasure. Recently a researcher came upon a wonderful drawing of a giant mushroom ‘found in Mr Watt’s field, Soho and sent to James Lawson Esq. F.R.S.’ The mushroom, probably a puffball, measured 10 by 13 inches and weighed 6 lb 1 oz.
It was found on folio 267 of Soho Memoranda (Blotting Book No. 1), circa 1786-1803. This large book is almost entirely composed of entries by John Southern, with only a few by James Watt. It contains a wealth of rough notes, ideas, calculations and tables, mostly for engines and machinery to be made for customers. It also contains general thoughts on engine production, experiments on wood and iron, coal prices, weights and measures, accounts of agreements, reports on factories and other engines, thoughts on a boat engine, and so on.
This reminded me of an amusing account of gathering mushrooms by Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, (born 1778), daughter of Samuel Galton and Lucy Barclay:
‘When Dr. Withering was writing his work on Fungi, it was often the occupation and interest of our walks as children to search for the curious species in which the woods of Barr abounded; but as it was expected we should bring some new specimens almost daily (which was no easy task), and as my father happened to be showing us experiments with various acids and alkalies in solutions of metals, we often amused ourselves by painting over the fungi in sundry methods in order to increase our variety and puzzle the doctor, and it was not till long after that we told him of our misdeeds.’
[Christiana Hankin (ed.), Life of Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, 1858]