First forays in the field: Rossendale

Already, with just a few days of research behind me, I’m beginning to see how both Rossendale and Blackburn museums were part of broader social and cultural contexts. While being on one hand the stimuli to so much activity, the museums were themselves epiphenomena to broader forces. One of the first things I’ve done is to join the local libraries in each town and introduce myself to the community history librarian. Already this has proved profitable. Both libraries hold so much material including the records of societies and activities that were the precursors to these museums.

Rossendale Museum was opened to the town of Rawtenstall in 1902, along with the connected recreational gardens, and its history is intimately connected to the town’s dynasties of influential mill owners like the Hardmans, the Whiteheads and Richard Whitaker who gifted the house and the gardens at Rossendale to the town. If industrialisation had created the wealth of self-made men like Whitaker it was also an influencing force behind their philanthropic gestures.

I’ve alluded in earlier blogs to the role that industrialisation took in shaping peoples relationship with the natural world and the dynamic between nature and industry was often evident in the art and literature of the time but could also be considerably more prosaic and practical. The textile industries had always been closely allied to chemistry, not least through the associated industries of dying and fixing. Consisting essentially of organic chemistry, such activities relied heavily on botanical knowledge. The chemist Robert Comstive was employed by the Rose Bank Print Works at nearby Stubbins where he produced dyes for the company from 1835. Along with ingredients and instructions, Comstive’s books of dye recipes included colour swatches and print samples and provide a remarkable record of the dyers art, revealing the reliance it had on botanical knowledge and the use of plants such as madder, woad, and saffron. Although clearly a proficient botanist, Comstive was not an exception. Roughly his contemporary, the Leeds chemist James Abbott was to Leeds what Comstive was to Rawtenstall. Aside from his chemist business, which like Comstive relied on his expertise in botany, Abbott owned a large comparative herbarium which he used not only in the course of his chemical activities but also to teach and lecture the increasingly popular subject of botany to a variety of clubs and associations in the town. Comstive’s enterprise would similarly have represented a centre for botanical knowledge in Rawtenstall and would have undoubtedly included a large herbarium. With a philosophical society in Rawtenstall from the first half of the nineteenth century it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how Comstive’s activities, like those of Abbott’s, could have contributed to a growing popularity in botany and a public-wide engagement in the natural sciences. It’s early days for my research but it will be interesting to see if herbaria were amassed in Rawtenstall and whether any made their way to the Rossendale Museum.

Certainly Comstive’s wonderful recipe books make colourful reading (quite literally), throwing light as they do on the role of botany to the industrial enterprise and revealing the importance of individuals such as Comstive in creating local expertise that contributed to the growth of the townships. The titles of the recipes alone, such as “Lavender Stand”, “Good Steam Green”, and “Paint Colour for Embossed Velvet: Light Orange No. 3” speak of their time and provide rare glimpses into the often sumptuous products thus produced. Rossendale Museum has made digital copies of Comstive’s books, which are viewable on the computers in the shop area of the museum.

Mark Steadman


1 Comment

Filed under Museums

One response to “First forays in the field: Rossendale

  1. “Both libraries hold so much material including the records of societies and activities that were the precursors to these museums.”
    It would be useful to get our hands on that information too, if you happen to have it to hand.

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