A day out with the Yardleys


Extracts from the Yardley Archive, including Emma and Herbert Yardley at the seaside (top left). Herbert was a school teacher at the local St Mary's School. As can be seen from the examples here, botanical references are made throughout the scrapbooks and diaries: Rossendale Museum

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.

Herbert Yardley, pictured here on a Rawtenstall Cycling Club excursion, was also a keen amateur photographer and member of the town's camera club. Excursions were an important part of late nineteenth century family life (see the list compiled by Emma of the Yardley family's yearly excursions in the lead image to this post). Bringing back a memento from such excursions, whether a pressed flower, photograph, dried seaweed or shell, became an important part of a family's history: Rossendale Museum

Dried and pressed ferns and flowers are found throughout the pages, alongside the Yardley geneology: Rossendale Museum

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.

This example shows how a fern was pressed and used by Herbert Yardley as a stencil for an ink splatter motif: Rossendale Museum

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.

Mark Steadman

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “A day out with the Yardleys

  1. sjmma

    What a heady historical mix of social and scientific!

  2. Totally agree with the comment about amateur collecting vs. scientific collecting. Lots of historic collections potentially suffer from being seen as scientific when they are as much (or more) about personal access to the countrside, social mobility, chance to socialise with “like minded” or “better class”, ecelctic interest, and the need to find something “worthwhile” to do beyond the constraints of work & society.
    More personal expression…. than scientific rigour… and never really intended to stand up in comparision to bigger colelctions..
    We have had a tendency to dismiss small hobby collections as not being worthy of retaining in museums… but I think we need to see them in a wider context : )

    • Mark Steadman

      Bravo. Being both a locally and personally determined thing, as well as something that was freighted with broader national and cultural forces, it’s quite a complex thing to tease out… at once both a phenomenon and epiphenomenon… and it seems at this stage that any-such insights can only be gained from a divergent reconsideration of the primary sources. Thanks Helen

      • David Craven

        I think in any field, we have this odd tendency to ignore our own motivations and start thinking about historic tendencies differently.

        The vast majority of us that collect, whatever that collection may be, do not do so out of the purely technical. Even those who may be seen to have a “professional” technical interest, their personal collections are just that: personal.

        It’s this long-standing human nature need to apply facets of order where they may not actually exist, not overtly or consciously at any rate. Archaeologists do it when they create some “ritual” context for every vaguely interesting find, even though the mundane is far more likely to account for the majority of human endeavour. Scholars of literature do it when they minutely dissect Shakespeare, applying deep and symbolic significance to every word, forgetting that 99% of the time he was just trying to a) get paid and b) not get his head chopped off.

        Hmmm. I seem to have ambled off the point.

      • David Craven

        I’m not saying motivations don’t change; they patently do. Nor am I disagreeing with my colleagues above.

        I guess the point I was actually making relates to what Helen said about hobby collecting versus scientific collecting. Most collections in museums were, at some point, more than likely hobby collections, even if we have subsequently subsumed them into this broader exercise in applying scientific meaning and order.

      • “The vast majority of us that collect, whatever that collection may be, do not do so out of the purely technical. Even those who may be seen to have a “professional” technical interest, their personal collections are just that: personal.”

        Just a thought. Is it true towards multiples of anything that belong to somebody, even the farmer and his/her sheep? We were talking to a biology researcher here in Ekenäs about the idea of ‘collecting’, and she was convinced that it is a survival instinct, that humans are biologically conditioned to collect things.

  3. Mark Steadman

    We need also to remember that the natural sciences were a much more popular and public enterprise than they are today… almost a national pastime. It’s certainly striking how de rigueur the natural sciences were and the degree to which a scientific ideology pervaded popular preoccupations. It is multi-layered, not least because (I suspect) lying behind the seemingly systematic, taxonomically ordered collections, are discrete personal and emotional motivations. Makes me think of Baudrillard’s collecting as a discourse orientated toward oneself.

    • “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.”

      See our other comment questioning this kind of assumption (we haven’t done the depth of research that all of you have!) – Did the Yardley’s belong to a middle class who had more time for recreation? Did most people have more time for things like visiting museums, than they may have had prior to industrialisation? Could this apparent change in values be linked to how the ‘new rich’ may have had very different family backgrounds than the ‘traditional rich’ of the upper class?

  4. Patricia Francis

    Interesting ……..the maidenhair fern placed on the note on the first image wasn’t recorded in south Lancashire until very recently (2001, I think).

  5. Myna Trustram

    Mark’s description of the Yardley’s lives suggests t it isn’t helpful to compartmentalise lives into work/leisure, public/private, scientist/artist. Trouble is that the edifice of the museum does encourage us to do just that. Moving collections into a museum can turn a private passion into a civic thing. Perhaps turning a private passion (or simply a family, domestic pastime) into something civic makes it appear less excessive?

    Mark is describing a process whereby the museum becomes the container of memories, hopes, pleasure. As people are indicating, calling the objects ‘scientific specimens’ masks this function. Maybe putting the desires into a public place makes them easier to manage.

    On another tack, a colleague has told me that she was asked to provide a hospital with some natural science objects for a display in an oncology waiting room. But they were asked not to provide bird mounts because birds are omens of death. Has anyone else any experience of this?

    There’s growing interest in using museum objects in health and wellbeing work. It’s easy to see that beautiful objects can fill one with a sense of wellbeing. However museum objects can also help us get in touch with darker aspects of our selves and so help with the therapeutic process of ‘working through’.

    • “Mark’s description of the Yardley’s lives suggests t it isn’t helpful to compartmentalise lives into work/leisure, public/private, scientist/artist. Trouble is that the edifice of the museum does encourage us to do just that. Moving collections into a museum can turn a private passion into a civic thing. Perhaps turning a private passion (or simply a family, domestic pastime) into something civic makes it appear less excessive?”

      An interesting notion. Museums of obsessions.

      “Mark is describing a process whereby the museum becomes the container of memories, hopes, pleasure. As people are indicating, calling the objects ‘scientific specimens’ masks this function. Maybe putting the desires into a public place makes them easier to manage.”

      How to take off the clothes?

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