No jewel ever flashed and blazed with greater brilliance than some of these gems which are among the despised of the earth. (Blackburn Telegraph March 19, 1910)
Among the various natural history collections donated over the years to Blackburn Museum, perhaps the Bowdler collection of exotic coleoptera has proved one of the most popular. First loaned to the museum by local man Arthur Bowdler in 1908, the Blackburn Telegraph warned “[t]he mere mention of beetles is enough to upset the ladies”. Despite this, the collection proved immensely popular and can be found today at the top of the museum’s main staircase, drawing crowds and fascinating visitors just as readily today as it did when it first went on display over one hundred years ago.
Arthur Bowdler came from one of Blackburn’s manufacturer/mill owner dynasties and was closely connected to civic life in the town, which for Arthur included being a committee member of the Free Library and Museum. The collection consists of over three thousand specimens, arranged geographically, at the heart of which are one hundred and eighty British specimens. Arthur wrote a catalogue for the museum and several newspaper articles about the collection and it is clear from these that the exotic specimens served as comparative examples to the British ones. Undoubtedly some of the exotics were acquired by Arthur on his travels, however we also know that he used his influence to acquire the more exotic specimens. In 1908 he described in Blackburn’s Weekly Telegraph how his friend Clifford Hart sent him specimens from Dominica “where he is at present settled” (Weekly Telegraph March 7, 1908). The Hart’s were another of Blackburn’s manufacturer/mill owner dynasties whose business interests often took them around the world.
Despite its exotic contents, the collection was created in Blackburn around a core of British specimens and was perhaps more an outpouring of Arthur Bowdler’s enthusiasm for the subject than a natural science enterprise, with the Blackburn Times describing the collection as “Bowdler’s lifes work on the recreative side” (Blackburn Times October 18, 1913). For these reasons it speaks as much of life in Blackburn towards the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century, as it does of the coleoptera of the world. Peppering his more descriptive passages with emotive and qualitative remarks such as the leading quote, Arthur’s enthusiasm for the subject is clear and alongside the collections promotion in the press provides yet more evidence of the intensely important role that nature came to represent to residents of the industrial townships: “[o]ne cannot look upon the beetles without being impressed by their infinite variety, and in many cases, their amazing beauty” (Blackburn Telegraph March 19, 1910).
I find it remarkable that local newspapers were running illustrated articles on a museum’s collection of coleoptera and wondered if anyone else knows of similar examples?