Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Andrew Simpson's Chorlton History Blog

Andrew Simpson - who lives on Beech Road in Chorlton - has been doing a lot of research on Chorlton's history and Manchester history in general. A couple of years ago I introduced Andrew to the shoe maker-botanist, Richard Buxton (who features in Part 1 of my series of articles on the study of natural history in the Manchester region). Andrew, of course, immediately recognised the historical significance of the biography that Buxton prefaced his flora with. There are probably not many first hand accounts of life in Manchester, during the early 19th century, from the perspective of a working man. I was going to write: from the perspective of an 'ordinary' working man - but Buxton was not 'ordinary' - and neither were many of his friends and contemporaries.

Andrew has done quite a bit of research on the background to Buxton's life and some of this material has been appearing on his Chorlton History blog, which you can find here: http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.com/. Highly recommended - and look out for Andrew's new book on Chorlton History - which is due to be published in April of this year (details on his blog)

Dave Bishop, February 2012

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Historical Background to the Study of Natural History in the Manchester Region - Part 2

This is the second installment of my series on the study of natural history locally. Some of you may have noticed the weird formatting of the last few posts on here. Google seem to have made some changes to their system which technically challenged people, like me, are struggling with. If there are any techies out there who could help - please get in touch.
Anyway, in the last post I described the meeting between Richard Buxton and John Horsefield on Kersall Moor and how this led Buxton to be inducted into the Artisan Botanist Movement

There is evidence for the existence of a botanical society, in Newton Heath, as early as
1750 and the Eccles and Oldham Botanical Societies were founded in the mid-1770s. In the 1790s George Caley, a farrier from Middleton, John Mellor , a handloom weaver from Royton, John Dewhurst, a fustian cutter of Red Bank and James Crowther, the Manchester porter referred to above, began to meet in pubs and exchange information about their shared passion for plants.

Incidentally, Caley (1770 – 1829) had developed his interest in botany as a result of
exploring the herbal remedies used to treat horses. He corresponded with the distinguished botanist, Sir Joseph Banks who subsequently obtained work for him at Kew and other gardens. Eventually Banks appointed Caley as a botanical collector in New South Wales from where he regularly sent specimens back to Banks together with information about the colony. He added greatly to knowledge of the colony and his botanical specimens constituted a valuable contribution to science.

As the 19th century progressed the various botanical societies began to adopt a broadly common form and mode of operation. They continued to meet in pubs but members paid a monthly membership fee and part of the accumulated funds was used to purchase reference books. Members were also obliged to bring plant specimens to meetings and these were named, by the particular society’s president, in front of the assembled membership. Members could be fined if they failed to bring plants to a meeting, used foul language, stole specimens or arrived drunk. These meetings were not ‘dry’ though. The publican supplied the room and looked after the society’s library and ‘box’ (of funds). In return he expected the members to spend a reasonable amount on drink in compensation for his trouble (the ‘wet rent’). To the botanists the local
pub was the obvious and natural place to meet. James Crowther remarked that, “my specimens always look best through a glass!”

However some of the botanists’ contemporaries, from further up the social scale, disapproved
of their meeting in pubs. Their main objections were based on the fact that the botanists tended to hold their meetings in pubs on a Sunday (usually their only day of rest); the increasing importance, as the 19th century progressed, of the temperance movement; and also that pubs tended to be associated with political radicalism. In the decades following the Napoleonic Wars economic turmoil adversely affected and radicalised many working people – particularly in the manufacturing districts. We don’t know how many of the botanist were political radicals but we do know that two of them, Edward Hobson and John Dewhurst, narrowly escaped arrest for their
political activities in 1812. It is known that John Horsefield was a witness to the Peterloo Massacre, in central Manchester in August 1819, and was interested in politics for most of his adult life (although he never joined a political party).

The Manchester author and botanist, Leo Grindon, in his book, ‘Manchester Walks and
Wild Flowers’, defended the artisan botanists’ use of pubs for their meetings in the following passage:

“The meetings ... are held upon a Sunday afternoon, at some respectable tavern, such being
the only place where working men can assemble inexpensively; and though this may seem to some persons detrimental to good order and sobriety, no religious service was ever more decorously conducted.”

In the same book Grindon provided pen portraits of some of the more prominent artisan botanists.

For example George Crozier (d. 1847), a saddler of Shude Hill, was, “... a well-built, portly man, quiet but merry, fond of a joke and a good story, mild and gentle, yet thoroughly independent ...”

In addition:

“Great as was his botanical information, he excelled in a still higher degree as an entomologist and ornithologist; he was acquainted with the shape and habits of every bird and every butterfly, every branch of his knowledge helping him to enlarged success in the prosecution of the others, botany aiding entomology, and entomology facilitating botany. It was his extensive and accurate knowledge of plants that rendered him so expert in finding rare insects, being aware what species the latter feed upon, and familiar with their forms.”

Grindon also recalls an excursion with Crozier, in 1839, to a peat bog, near Blackley,
called White Moss:

“Never shall we forget the genial smile that rippled old George Crozier’s broad, round,
rosy, white-fringed face as ... we stepped with twenty or more under his guidance for the first time upon the elastic peat, and beheld the andromeda and the pink stars of the cranberry, these also for the first time. To Crozier the pretty flowers were as familiar as the hills; ... Among the more remarkable insects then to be captured on White Moss were the showy beetle called Carabus nitens; ... the fox-moth, Lasiocampa rubi, so called from its peculiar foxy colour; and the emperor-moth, Saturnia

Dave Bishop, February 2012

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Historical Background to the Study of Natural History in the Manchester Region - Part 1

For some years now I have been interested in this subject and have been collecting information on it. At a time when (what remains of) our region's natural environment is under threat as never before it's rather sad to reflect on how much that natural environment meant to a section of that same region's population in the past. I'm sure that the old naturalists would have been horrified by the wanton destruction going on today, even though many of them lived at the height of the Industrial Revolution - when the natural environment was merely there to be poisoned and polluted in the name of profit. In their day, in the market economy of the time, nature had zero value. In our day all sorts of fancy policies and 'Biodiversity Action Plans' get written but, in reality, nature still has zero value - and our market economy has lots of bigger and 'better' tools to destroy it with.
This series will be in three or four parts (I haven't decided how many yet). I'll add a list of sources to the last part. After that I'm planning to add an indeterminate number of 'notes and digressions' which will allow me to add detail and to expand and amplify some of the subjects raised in the main text.
I hope that you enjoy this material as much as I do and are as intrigued by it as I am.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, ‘Mary Barton’ is set in the Manchester of the 1840s. Chapter 5
begins thus:

“There is a class of men in Manchester, unknown even to many of the inhabitants, and whose
existence will probably be doubted by many, who yet may claim kindred with all the noble names that science recognises. I said ‘in Manchester’, but they are scattered all over the manufacturing districts of Lancashire.”

The passage goes on to state that:

“... the more popularly interesting branches of natural history have their warm and devoted
followers among this class. There are botanists among them, equally familiar with either the Linnaean system or the Natural system, who know the name and habitat of every plant within a day’s walk from their dwellings ... There are entomologists, who may be seen with a rude looking net, ready to catch any winged insect, or a kind of dredge, with which they rake the green and slimy pools; practical, shrewd, hard-working men, who pore over every new specimen with real scientific delight.”

A character in the novel, named Job Legh, is thought to represent a sort of composite of the real-life local amateur naturalists of that time. Mrs Gaskell describes Job Legh’s room thus:

“... the whole room looked not unlike a wizard’s dwelling. Instead of pictures, were hung rude wooden frames of impaled insects; the little table was covered with cabalistic books; and a case of mysterious instruments lay beside ...”

The author also relates an anecdote from the life of Sir James Edward Smith, who travelled
to Manchester in search of a rare plant. He had been directed to consult a handloom weaver in Manchester. Sir James asked his porter if he could direct him to the weaver and it then
transpired that not only did the porter know the weaver-botanist, but was a knowledgeable botanist himself.

It is now known that the porter was James Crowther (1768 – 1847) of Hulme who, among
other accomplishments, contributed to the Manchester physician, John Hull’s ‘British Flora’ of 1799 and John Bland Wood’s ‘Flora Mancuniensis’ of 1840. Crowther appears to have been something of an exuberant ‘free spirit’. He would frequently walk 15 or 20 miles after work in search of plants. At Whitsun he would receive an annual week’s holiday and would walk to the ‘Craven’ district of Yorkshire (i.e. The Yorkshire Dales) so that he could botanise there. Gamekeepers frequently mistook him for a poacher and he had several narrow escapes. On one of his Yorkshire expeditions he was charged by a “savage bull” but managed to scramble to the top of a dry-stone wall before it could trample him.

One of Crowther’s contemporaries was Richard Buxton (1786 – 1865) of Ancoats. Buxton’s
father had been a farmer near Prestwich, but had experienced money problems and sold the farm and moved his family to Ancoats where he became a labourer for the rest of his life. Because of these difficulties Richard received only a cursory formal education and was apprenticed into the Bat trade at the age of 12 (bats were children’s leather shoes). As a small child Richard had been fascinated by the wild flowers which he found in the fields and brick pits around his home.
His first master, James Heap, was an amateur herbalist (a ‘yarb doctor’ in the local dialect) and on Sundays would walk out into the countryside to gather wild plants from which he would make ‘diet drinks’ (probably herbal tonics) for his neighbours. Heap would take Richard on these expeditions which reinforced his interest in plants.

In his teens Buxton became frustrated by his illiteracy and so taught himself to read and write. He then went on to study botany, starting with ‘Culpepper’s Herbal’ and moving on to other books when he could afford to purchase them. In time he became a highly skilled botanist and eventually published a flora of the Manchester region which ran to two editions. He prefaced his flora with an autobiographical sketch, from which the account above was taken, and which I
believe to be an important social document.

In 1826, while botanising on Kersall Moor in Salford, Buxton had a chance meeting with a
man named John Horsefield , a handloom weaver from Besses O’th’ Barn near Prestwich and President of the Prestwich Botanical Society.

Horsefield (1792 – 1854) too was self-educated. As a young man he had read James Lee’s
‘Introduction to Botany’ (1760) wherein he had first encountered the twenty four classes of the Linnaean system. Determined to learn these classes by heart he had written them on a sheet of paper which he had pinned to his loom-post,” so that when seated at my work, I could always have opportunities of looking it over”.

The meeting between these two men served to induct Buxton into a network of artisan botanist societies spread throughout South Lancashire.
Dave Bishop, February 2012

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Drip, Drip, Drip ... The Destruction of local Biodiversity

If you’ve been down to Jackson’s Boat recently you will see that this, once tranquil and popular, beauty spot is being transformed forever. Soon a large bridge will span the river and Metrolink trams will regularly thunder (sorry, ‘glide’ completely soundlessly) across it.

Contractors working for Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) have carved a great swathe through the Lower Hardy Farm Site of Biological Importance (SBI). To be quite honest this breaks my heart. I have
been fascinated by this little patch of ground for nearly 40 years now and I am convinced that, because of its unique plant life, it should have been one of the most important SBIs in the Mersey Valley. There has been little focus on what has been destroyed on the other side of the river – but I expect the damage to be severe.

TfGM have a ‘Wildlife and Tree Replacement Policy’ (http://www.tfgm.com/) within which they state:

“In carrying out its development programmes TfGM recognises an obligation to conserve, protect, and where possible, enhance the natural environment and to mitigate the impact on biodiversity and therefore to protect important wildlife habitats and to take full account of new developments on
wildlife itself. In addition management and after-care arrangements should be put in place for new habitats to ensure they remain safe, attractive and good for wildlife in the longer term, balanced with the need to provide sustainable public transport.” Note the caveats!

So far I see little evidence that TfGM, or, more importantly, their contractors could care less about wildlife. We’ve seen a couple of ponds constructed, using cheap pond liners, and some, shockingly
inept, tree planting ... and that’s about it (lots of careless destruction though!) Presumably all that TfGM feel that they have to do now is to tick a couple of boxes and to rate themselves “Excellent” on the BREEAM scale (don’t ask!)

Recently, I was talking to Marc Hudson of the Manchester Climate Review (http://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/). Marc informed me that he was intending to interview Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, and invited me to suggest a question to put to Sir Richard on the subject of biodiversity. Here’s the result:

“Biodiversity – a questions from Dave Bishop, who helps run Friends of Chorlton Meadows; “Given that developers and their developments have now ‘concreted over’ so many of our remaining green spaces, where is all the wildlife going to live?”

First of all, developers haven’t concreted over so many of our green spaces. Sorry Dave, we are going to build Metrolink to Wythenshawe and the Airport, and it does mean crossing the Mersey Valley(my
italics). Of course, there is a whole history of railways and similar developments protecting wildlife rather than destroying it – creating wildlife corridors because nobody goes on them. I know someone’s found rare orchids on the railway at Crumpsall. So those aren’t necessarily blots for diversity. If you look at what we’re working on for designs for new housing areas and so on, we are increasingly taking the best practice – mainly from Northern Europe – in terms of how we increase green, water management… increasingly within green spaces it won’t all be sculptured lawns and so. We have a greater use of tree
planting species that will encourage insects and birds and so on. I think there is an awful lot going on, including the recently revised Biodiversity Strategy, which is maximising the use of the green space we have, and also recognises that wildlife doesn’t always behave the way we think it ought to. Urban foxes –
are there more of them or not. Lots of people say it’s just about the same as it’s always been, it’s just that we see them more.

But no, we’re not concreting over everything, and we are planting – particularly trees – vast amounts of the city on a year-by-year basis.”

First, I have to thank Sir Richard for taking the time to answer my question. Second, I can’t help feeling that I must have done something right for Sir Richard to actually know who I am and what I stand for!

But I also can’t help but note that Sir Richard’s answer contains quite a bit of ‘hand waving’. Yes, railway lines can act as wildlife refuges – but old abandoned railway lines are even better – and we’ve now lost those to Metrolink! He may not be aware, though, that the whole ‘wildlife corridor’ hypothesis has recently been called into question (but I’ll leave that for another blog post).

More worryingly there’s the usual over-reliance on tree planting as some sort of ‘universal panacea’ for biodiversity loss. Way back in 1986 Dr Oliver Rackham, one of our greatest experts on the British countryside, wrote: Too much attention, and too much money, goes into the unintelligent planting of trees. Tree-planting is not synonymous with conservation; it is an admission that conservation has failed.” (‘The History of the Countryside’, p. 29).

I also disagree with Sir Richard when he states that, “... developers haven’t concreted over so many of our green spaces.” Sorry, Sir Richard, but they have; the amount of open space we’ve lost in Chorlton alone, since I moved here in the 1970s, is shocking! And I’m not the only one who thinks like this. In his book, ‘The Butterflies of Greater Manchester’ (1998) one of our finest local amateur naturalists, Peter Hardy wrote: “The pattern of events in the Mersey Valley is typical of many parts of Greater Manchester. The continuing trend towards private transport results in more and more schemes for building new roads and widening existing ones, and development of new industrial sites and shopping precincts, sometimes in what had appeared to be sacrosanct “green belt” locations ... [An] ever- ncreasing trend towards “market testing” and privatisation, result in every scrap of land being looked at with calculation of how much profit it could generate if put to commercial use."

No doubt Peter and I will be told that Metrolink is designed to take cars off the roads. But, for now, that’s yet another un-tested hypothesis; in the meantime we’ve lost even more of our biodiverse spaces.

The problem with biodiversity loss is that it is gradual but cumulative –‘piece by piece’ as the Guardian newspaper expressed it in 2010 – and it is happening on global, national and local scales. Recently the following startling statements and estimates have come out of Brussels:

“A silent crisis of biodiversity loss is costing the European Union 450 billion euros (US$590 billion) a year, adding to the stress of the ongoing financial crisis, the European Parliament heard on Tuesday. The loss estimate was presented in a draft report to the Environment Committee by Dutch MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, Special Rapporteur on Biodiversity of the European Parliament. He represents the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, the third largest political group in the European Parliament.

"A quarter of the plants and animals in Europe are in danger of extinction," Gerbrandy told the committee. "This destruction of nature will cost about three percent annual economic growth - equivalent to that which Europe needs at present to rescue the Euro. Biodiversity loss, though, continues year after year."” Environmental News Service, 26.01.2012.

As I was writing this a article, copy of the Manchester Evening News (08.02.2012) came through the door. The lead article states that 250 new homes are to be built in Chorlton, Gorton and
Wythenshawe. Given the present ‘housing shortage’ (plus shortage of profits for developers?) it’s hard to argue against this scheme – but it does definitely and irrefutably mean more land being concreted over and less habitat for wildlife. Piece by piece, drip, drip, drip, the ‘road-to-Hell’ is being concreted over with good intentions?

Dave Bishop, February, 2012