Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Historical Background to the Study of Natural History in the Manchester Region - Part 5

The study of natural history in the Manchester region in the 20th century does not appear, to my knowledge, to have as been as well chronicled as it was in the century before, and the available material is more diffuse. Nevertheless, several Greater Manchester natural history societies spanned the century and are still active, today, in the second decade of the 21st century. Examples are the Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society (founded 1880), the Rochdale Field Naturalists Society (1898), the Bolton Field Naturalists Society (1907), the Altrincham and District Natural History Society (1908) and the Manchester Field Club (1936).

The plantsman, writer and broadcaster, Roy Lancaster (b.1937) joined the Bolton Field Naturalists Society as a schoolboy. He recalled that they “organized lectures each week during the winter and weekend rambles in the summer”. He was initially interested in birds:
“One of my favourite pastimes during summer rambles was to show birds’ nests to members of
the group: I would run ahead of them as they walked along a path, all the while searching for nests in the hedge. When I found a nest, I would climb into the hedge and hold a mirror above the nest so that the members standing below could see a reflection of its contents.”

The young Lancaster’s interest was diverted from birds to plants by a member of the Society, a Yorkshireman named Mr Jackson:

“He was one of those people, rare now, who could put a name to most, if not all, the wild plants we were likely to find on our rambles ... [He] had a fund of stories to tell about plants – he knew their histories and lore as well as their uses in medicine and as food. Mr Jackson knew where plants liked to grow and often told me where to expect to find a particular plant before I actually discovered it for myself”.

Another of his mentors from the Society was the Reverend Shaw (“Vicar Shaw, ‘The Weed King
of the North’!). Lancaster writes:

“Vicar Shaw was an inspiration to me and we spent many happy hours looking for wild plants”.

I never, personally, met Vicar Shaw – but I knew of his reputation as botanist. When I moved to the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, in the 1970s, I was very excited to find a rare buttercup (Ranunculus sardous) on Chorlton Meadows – only to learn that Reverend Shaw had found it first!

His early experiences with the Bolton Field Naturalists Society led Lancaster to participate in expeditions to such exotic locations as Nepal, China and Tibet in search of plants and to a distinguished career in horticulture.

Other local naturalists have been less celebrated:

Bess Harthan (1905 – 2002) of Stretford, for example, studied the plants and fungi near her
home and further afield for most of her long life. I remember meeting her in the 1980s dressed, as always, in her walking boots, weather-defying coat and hat and carrying a wicker basket for specimens. On her death her notes and exquisite water colours of her finds were donated to Liverpool Museum.

Recently a loose-leaf folder was found in the archives of Chorlton Civic Society. It contained notes and drawings made by Mrs Hilda Broady during the course of the year 1959. She had selected a spot on Chorlton Meadows (her ‘plot’) and observed the plants and insects which lived on it during the course of that year (it is surmised that this may have been for a teaching project). I posted Mrs Broady’s diary entries on this blog during 2009.

There are still, to this day, many skilled and knowledgeable naturalists within Greater Manchester and I am pleased to know many of them through such organisations as the Manchester Field Club and the Friends of Chorlton Meadows. In spite of the fact that the membership of many of the traditional societies is ageing there are many younger people in the region who take an interest in the natural world around them.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the study of natural history in the Greater
Manchester region has a long and distinguished history stretching back over at least 260 years and is very much a part of the region’s heritage.

Richard Buxton, John Horsefield and their colleague, James Percival are buried in adjacent graves in St. Mary’s churchyard, Prestwich. I have often wondered why there is not some greater memorial to these distinguished local amateur scientists. I can't help feeling that a renewed interest in, and concern for, our local wildlife would provide a more fitting memorial to them than any structure of stone or metal.
Dave Bishop, March 2012

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