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


Ian Keith said...

Dave - An interesting topic for a blog.
Bearing in mind the habitat loss that these early botanists must have witnessed it seems incredible that there is little evidence of their concern. In fact p217 of Grindon's Manchester Flora under Gentiana pneumonanthe states "the right onward furrow of a generous utility is more to be admired than the bloom of a thousand gentians" Whilst I'd like to think that Buxton didn't share Grindon's belief in "progress" is there anything to confirm this?

Friends of Chorlton Meadows said...

Hi Keith,

Thank you for your comment.
I've read that Grindon statement too! I can only conclude that people (especially middle class people like Grindon) believed in 'progress' at all costs in those days.

I think, though, that Buxton and his fellow artisan botanists were more concerned about access than destruction. Apparently he and James Crowther once strayed on to a private grouse moor above Stalybridge and were apprehended by a gamekeeper who believed them to be poachers; they only just managed to talk themselves out of that situation. Crowther, apparently, had several 'run-ins' with gamekeepers.

In his autobiography Buxton wrote: " ... I hope that the lords of the soil will yet allow the pent-up dwellers in the crowded city to walk about and view the beauties of creation ...". He also remarked that although the countryside around Manchester was much changed (in his lifetime) there was still much left to be enjoyed (i.e. in 1849).