Recently at Rossendale, Sandra, Steven and I have been digging up some wonderful material that provides an insight into the life of a Rawtenstall family during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Yardleys, and their intimate and familial connection with natural history.
The Yardley family archive, which consists of diaries, scrapbooks, poetry books, and photograph albums now held at Rossendale Museum, reveals how the countryside and nature had become woven into the family’s physical health as well as their spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. This is of course part of a broader phenomenon which can be seen manifest in the growth of leisure and pastime activities such as cycling, picnics, and photography. For the Yardley’s these activities were part of a fundamental response to the setting of the industrial township in which they lived. Even by the end of the nineteenth century, industrial townships were for parishes such as Rossendale still a relatively recent phenomenon. For some parishioners of Rossendale, where industrialisation came relatively late in comparison to other parts, the memory of pre-factory life and that of rural village life, would still have been close and still in living memory for some of the towns older residents.
Alongside the enthusiasm for rambling, for picnic excursions,cycling and camera clubs,there grew an enthusiasm for collecting nature. As we have seen with the collections at Rossendale Museum, this was especially true for botany and more often resulted in informal expressions rather than systematic herbaria. This informal engagement can be seen among the Yardley’s scrap books, family history albums, drawings, and poetry. Of course, there were some who wanted to make their engagement with nature more formal and from these the systematic and often impressively extensive collections of beetles, seaweeds or shells emerged. Some formalised their activities through the creation of societies or clubs. Indeed, the Rawtenstall Chemist John Lord established a natural history society in the town at the end of the nineteenth century, for which he was president. This more formalised appearance provided Lord’s amateur interest in sea weeds more authority. However I do still see the systematic collection of seaweeds left to us by John Lord as an amateur expression. Perhaps too often these collections are assumed into a natural scientific narrative.
I suppose one argument I would want to advance is that both the informal activities — those evident in the Yardley archive — and the more coordinated and systematic enterprises that resulted in the large collections of bird’s eggs, herbaria, entomology, shared the self-same amateur and enthusiast origins. Many of this latter type make up the natural science collections of regional museums and have consistently been interpreted as part of a scientific enterprise. While they undoubtedly aspired to a scientific rationale, taking as they did their organisation and instruction from science, they were as much a culturally and socially determined response and one that was based on local forces. Watch out for the upcoming post on John Lord’s phycological collection.