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Herbert Dobbie

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Herbert Boucher Dobbie, fern enthusiast and nature printer

By Paula Legel

Herbert Boucher Dobbie (1852–1940)

Herbert Boucher Dobbie (1852–1940)

From the inside front cover of his ‘New Zealand Ferns’ (2nd edition, 1921)QK531.5 DOB

Herbert Boucher Dobbie emigrated to New Zealand in 1875 on the ‘Lutterworth’ and joined the emergent government railways department Auckland as a fitter, becoming variously a draughtsman, stationmaster and manager in locations around New Zealand. Although an engineer by profession, Herbert had many interests: botany (particularly ferns), cabinetmaking, and writing, as well as being an enthusiast of new technology. He was one of the first people in New Zealand to ‘adopt the bicycle and the typewriter’.¹

Born in 1852, he was one of six children of Herbert Main Dobbie and Ellen Locker. Herbert Senior was a Major in the 30th Madras Infantry and the family lived in India and Burma for a time. Here, the spelling of the family surname changed from Dobie (deemed inappropriate as it is the word for laundryman in Hindi) to Dobbie. Within a short time, Herbert Snr died of a fever, leaving Ellen to take the children back to England. Despite Herbert Snr’s death, they remained a well-to-do and well-connected middle-class family. Herbert Jnr attended ‘Pilherds’, a boarding school near Maidenhead and then trained as an engineer in Edinburgh, working on both ships and locomotives. He collected and studied ferns during school holidays, which was probably a reflection of ‘Pteridomania’, the fern craze that was popular during the Victorian period.

By 1880, Herbert was married to Charlotte Gilfillan and living in Parnell in Auckland. The couple hosted his mother, Ellen, and two of his sisters, Bertha and Mary. They were in New Zealand to visit Herbert on an extended holiday, intending to return to England after touring as much of New Zealand and the South Pacific as possible. However, soon after arriving in 1878, Herbert’s sister Bertha met Forster Goring, son of Foster Goring, who was then Clerk of the Executive Council. Forster was in the colonial militia and in 1880 was transferred to Taranaki, where tensions were rising in relation to colonial pressure for land. After Bertha and Forster's marriage in June 1880, Bertha moved to Taranaki to join him. That same year Mary visited the newly-weds, which led to the terrible event of her murder at Te Namu, near Ōpunake.1 1880 was truly a year of happiness and sorrow for the Dobbie family.

Before her visit to Taranaki, Mary assisted Herbert in the preparation of his first book, 145 varieties of New Zealand ferns (1880), which coincided with an exhibition of his collection of ferns at the Auckland Institute and Museum, then located in Symonds Street. As a trained draughtsman, Herbert knew how to produce the blueprints (cyanotypes) needed for engineering plans. He used this cyanotype photographic process (where dried ferns were placed on glass with sensitised paper beneath and the assemblage then exposed to light) to create a form of nature prints in this first and subsequent volumes featuring New Zealand ferns.

Dobbie\u0027s first book, \u003cem\u003e145 varieties of New Zealand ferns\u003c/em\u003e, published in 1880, coincided with an exhibition of his collection of ferns at the Auckland Institute and Museum.

Dobbie's first book, 145 varieties of New Zealand ferns, published in 1880, coincided with an exhibition of his collection of ferns at the Auckland Institute and Museum.

This is a laborious and exacting process, so you can imagine that not many copies were printed, nor do many survive; only 14 copies are known in collections here in New Zealand and elsewhere.2 The Museum is lucky enough to hold four volumes of the various printings by Dobbie as well as a volume of a later version using Dobbie’s work published by Eric Craig. In fact, two of the volumes we hold have a personal connection to the family as they are inscribed 'Jeanie Gilfillan, December 1881, from H.B. Dobbie' (Dobbie married Charlotte Gilfillan, Jeanie’s older sister, in 1880).

Collectively they are known as the ‘Blue books’ due to the blue paper used. Although the results are not as detailed as other nature printing processes, these books were appreciated, as reported in the New Zealand Herald ‘…for those non-collectors, desirous of possessing a handsome ornament for the drawing-room, the book can, doubtless, be recommended’ (Volume xvii, issue 5945, 11 December 1880).

After moving around New Zealand and a short stint in Africa working on railways there, Dobbie eventually returned to Auckland where he built ‘Ruatoria’, a house at 122 Market Road, Epsom (now the site of St Cuthbert’s College). There he constructed a fernery and, after retiring, wrote New Zealand Ferns (1921), a much-expanded volume from his first books of the 1880s, which was then republished in several later revised editions; the last and sixth edition revised by Marguerite Crookes, incorporating illustrations and original work by H. B. Dobbie (1963).

Dobbie died in 1940 aged 88 and was survived by his wife Charlotte and six of his seven children.

In addition to Dobbie's published works, Auckland Museum holds 90 fern specimens from his collection and a carved cupboard bookcase base, an example of his beautiful cabinetmaking.


  1. Hastings, David: The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, page 16.
  2. McCraw, J.D.: The “blue books” of H.B. Dobbie and Eric Craig in New Zealand Journal of Botany, 1989, Vol.27:347-351.

Cite this article

Legel, Paula. Herbert Dobbie. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 June 2020. Updated: 11 March 2021.

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