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

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