Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Plants of the Mersey Valley - Part 2., Botanists

In the 19th Century the “meadows around Jackson’s Boat, Chorlton” were regularly visited and studied by local botanists. The most remarkable of these was the impoverished Ancoats shoemaker, Richard Buxton. Buxton was born in 1786 and taught himself to read and write whilst in his teens. He then taught himself plant identification and became a local expert. Eventually, encouraged by other working class botanists in South Lancashire, he published his book, ‘A Botanical Guide to the Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ (1849). This book is still highly regarded for the accuracy of its records.
Some of Buxton’s friends and colleagues also knew the Mersey Valley and studied its plant life; men like: James Crowther, a warehouse porter of Hulme, George Crozier, a saddler of Shude Hill, John Horsefield, a hand-loom weaver of Whitefield and James Percival, a gardener of Prestwich.

One of Buxton’s contemporaries, but of a different social class, was Leo Grindon, who was born in 1818, the son of a Bristol solicitor. Grindon came to Manchester in his twentieth year and went on to become a popular author and lecturer in botany. In 1859 he published his ‘Manchester Flora’, a comprehensive catalogue of local plants which compliments Buxton’s work. These botanists recorded many interesting plants from Chorlton Meadows. Of particular interest were: Green-winged Orchid, Meadow Saxifrage and Adderstongue Fern. Nationally speaking these three plants are regarded as rare or scarce today and are indicator plants of old, undisturbed grassland.

Buxton and Grindon also recorded large colonies of the beautiful Autumn Crocus. This plant is a native of South Western Europe and is said to have been introduced into England by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. This order of warrior monks and physicians, formed after the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099, were said to have used the crocus stigmas in the treatment of malaria. They had holdings around Oldham and Halifax and I believe that the Mersey Valley plants were probably washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

Working slightly later than Buxton and Grindon was Charles Bailey, a successful Manchester businessman who lived for a while in Whalley Range. Bailey developed an interest in botany after attending evening classes run by William Crawford Williamson, Professor of Natural History at Owen’s College (the forerunner of Manchester University). He collected many specimens in the Mersey Valley and elsewhere in the region. He eventually conceived the idea of collecting a specimen of every European plant from every country in which it grew. Most of this collection was acquired by purchase and eventually numbered some 300,000 specimens!

This vast collection was bequeathed to Manchester Museum, on Bailey’s death, and it is still housed there. In the latter half of the 20th Century it became one of the cornerstones of an important work called ‘Flora Europaea’ – a complete, scientific description of all European plants. The Mersey valley can truly be said to have played an important part in the development of European Botany.

In the 19th Century all of the botanists that we know about were men but, for some unknown reason, in the 20th Century the most notable practitioners were women. Bess Harthan of Stretford studied local plants and fungi for most of her life and was still enthusiastically involved well into her 90s (she died in 1995). She produced hundreds of beautiful and scientifically accurate illustrations which are now in Liverpool Museum. Audrey Franks of Didsbury was an extremely knowledgeable field botanist who contributed to a number of national plant recording projects. Finally, Priscilla Tolfree of Chorlton and Audrey Locksley of Sale are still very much with us and contributing to a number of national and local projects including a projected new ‘Flora of South Lancashire’.

Dave Bishop, July 2008

1 comment:

Resume Writing Service said...

Very well explained. I would like to say that it is very interesting to read your blog.