William Borrer was born Henfield, Sussex (in June, 1781). His father, also a William, served at one point as High Sheriff of Sussex and was involved in the supply of forage to troops stationed in the county, during the Napoleonic War. Young Borrer visited the various camps (on horseback) and these visits enabled him to familiarise himself with the flora and fauna of the county.
On his marriage to Elizabeth Hall, his father had a house built for them in Henfield at Barrow Hill. Borrer had the time and the means to pursue his botanical (and horticultural) interests. His garden was rich in plants and trees, for example, Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (2nd edition, 1844) lists many types of willow in Borrer’s garden.
His gardener, Charles Green, was able to compile a list of some 6,000 species growing at Barrow Hill (circa 1860).
Borrer contributed to numerous journals (Journal of Botany, The Phytologist etc), and collected for his own herbarium; much of this is now at Kew, though sheets associated with Borrer also are to be found at H@H (mostly from Sussex). He was known to, and respected by many of the ‘better known’ botanists of his generation – Charles Cardale Babington, Hewett Cottrell Watson, George Bentham and Joseph Woods. J D Hooker in a letter to Darwin described Borrer thus “a wonderfully acute British Botanist of the old school …… Borrer & my Father traversed Scotland on horse-back in 1810! ” Borrer corresponded with many other famous biologists. After the fire in Thirsk, he invited J G Baker (later of Kew) to stay at Barrow Hill, under the pretext of organising his cryptogams (D E Allen, The Botanists, p 75). Many plants were named after him by his contemporaries, for example, Glyceria borreri but the ICBN has since deprived him of many of these acknowledgements.
Borrer was involved in the formation of ‘The Henfield Society for Educating the Poor’ in 1812, and between 1815 and 1855 there were some 66 ‘subscribers’ to this scheme. The subscribers were wealthier villagers (shopkeepers, farmers etc), who contributed money to the society. He was a JP and helped with the enlargement of the church and the augmentation of the Vicar’s stipend.
He had a particular interest an interest in the genera Rosa, Salix and Rubus. In 1844, he found Leersia oryzoides (cut-grass) growing in the wild. Prior to this date, it was only known as a cultivated plant.
William and Elizabeth had a number of children (9? survived to adulthood). Their eldest son (another William) accompanied his father on various botanical trips, but is perhaps better known as an ornithologist [Birds of Sussex, published in 1891]. Another of their sons, Dawson, planted the Cedars of Lebanon at the end of King James’ Lane (near Barrow Hill) – the seeds were brought back from the Lebanon in 1843. Clifford Borrer, another relative, was a Norfolk ornithologist and natural history writer.
William Borrer died in Henfield, Sussex on 10 January 1862.