James Backhouse was a Quaker minister and missionary, nurseryman, and amateur botanist. He was educated in Leeds and after his return to his birthplace Darlington explored the botany of Teesdale with John Binks. He also studied botany with the help of an uncle and a great-uncle who were well versed in it, and trained as a nurseryman at Norwich for about two years. Here he met Sir William Hooker, with whom he sometimes went botanising. In partnership with his brother Thomas, James acquired an established nursery business in York in 1815 and made a success of it. In 1822 he married Deborah Lowe.
Having been appointed a minister by the Society of Friends at York in 1824, he felt that he should devote his life to the ministry. With his friend, George W. Walker of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he therefore undertook a mission to Australia, Mauritius, and the Cape Colony to preach, promote temperance, and visit public institutions such as gaols and schools. They sailed for Australia in September 1831, remaining three years in Tasmania and the next three years in New South Wales. In addition to his religious work and reports on social conditions, Backhouse sent a valuable collection of inland plants to Kew gardens during this time and the genus of shrubs Backhousia (fam. Myrtaceae) was named in his honour in 1845.
In February 1838 the two travellers left for Mauritius and after a stay of three months sailed for the Cape Colony, arriving in Table Bay on 27 June 1838. The purpose of their visit "was purely the discharge of a religious duty... but in passing along, their attention was alive to a variety of secondary objects, which appeared worthy of notice" (Backhouse, 1844, p. xv). During their two and a half years in South Africa they travelled some 10 000 km, visiting practically all the towns and mission stations existing at the time. Backhouse, who was a keen observer, kept a journal and also made sketches. They departed from Cape Town on 27 September 1838. Their itinerary included the coastal districts of the southern Cape to Port Elizabeth, the Little Karoo, the Eastern Cape, including the area north-east of the Kei River to the vicinity of Umtata (12 March 1839), the southern Free State, into Lesotho (9 June 1839) as far as Mokhotlong, Griqualand West (November 1839), the Kuruman area, Little Namaqualand (January 1840), with a short journey into southern Namibia (February 1840). They arrived back in Cape Town on 11 May 1840.
In the Eastern Cape Backhouse collected some fungi, including the type specimen of Broomeia congregata, known only from South Africa. It was described by M.J. Berkeley in 1844. After returning to Cape Town the two travellers started a school for the poor and wrote several religious pamphlets. During his periods in Cape Town Backhouse went botanizing in the vicinity, sometimes with W.H. Harvey*. He left for England in December 1840.
In 1844 he published a comprehensive book, A narrative of a visit to the Mauritius and South Africa, which included a detailed map of Southern Africa up to latitude 23 degrees south and between 14 and 35 degrees west longitude. The book contained descriptions of his travels, the country and its people, and accurate natural history observations. He provided both the botanical names of plants and their common names where known, and described a great variety of trees, shrubs, succulents, and flowering plants. In contrast to his stay in Australia, however, he did not collect a herbarium in South Africa, although he did collect bulbs and seeds for his nursery. His contributions to South African botany consisted of his recorded observations, plus his co-authorship (with W.H. Harvey*) of a description of the South African genus Schizostylis (fam. Iridaceae). The description was based on specimens of Schizostylis coccinea supplied by the Backhouse nurseries at York, the bulbs having originally been collected in the Eastern Cape by an unidentified collector. Backhouse was also interested in the South African fauna and described various mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in his book. He also mentioned that the Eastern Cape suffered from a severe drought in 1838.
Other publications by Backhouse included Extracts from the journal of James Backhouse, whilst engaged in a religious visit to South Africa, accompanied by George W. Walker (London, 1840-1841), A narrative of a visit to the Australian colonies (London, 1843), and The life and labours of George Washington Walker, of Hobart Town, Tasmania (London, 1862). He continued his nursery business with his son (also named James), who shared his interst in nature; undertook extensive botanical trips in England; and ordered thousands of Cape bulbs from the nursery of Joseph Upjohn* in Rondebosch. He also continued his missionary and temperance work, visiting Norway three times in connection with his religious activities. His writings display a sense of humour, a genial nature, and practical sense.