A passion for plants

Over the years, I’ve often been asked about the attitude of working men and women to science. There is a perception that in the 19th Century, the sciences were the preserve of the middle and upper classes. To an extent, this is true. To really pursue any science then, before “professional” science even existed, you had to have a decent income and plenty of free time. Ideal for the clergy, and local doctors, but not so much for millworkers. But this didn’t mean they couldn’t take an interest.

In the 19th Century, the population became more literate, and libraries began to appear, allowing the working classes access to scientific literature, manuals, and other materials. But was this opportunity taken up? Mark’s work, particularly at Rossendale, has suggested it was. But I’m always keen for first-hand sources.

I was talking to a friend about this, and they recalled a passage from a book called “A Cotton-Fibre Halo”. The book is an account, written in 1849, of the conditions for textile workers in Manchester and surrounding districts. The book was written by Angus Bethune Reach, a journalist. It was published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle between October 1849 and October 1850. Reach spent most of 1849 in with the millworkers, getting first-hand insight into their lives. In 1972, Chris Aspin of Helmshore Local History Society edited the articles into one text for publication. It was republished by Royd Press in 2007 (ISBN: 978-09556204-4-7).

Cotton-Fibre Halo (Royd Press 2007)

It’s a fabulous book, well worth a thorough read by anyone interested in the lives of millworkers in the mid-1800s. The book looks not only at life in the mill, but also at their homes, health, education, religion, self-improvement, and entertainment. With it being a first-hand account, it is worthy of real attention.

Among my favourite sections of the book, it looks at their reading habits. Unfortunately, far from the mass-consumption of scientific literature I was hoping for, cheap and tacky novels and romances seem to dominate the market. In that aspect, it seems little has changed in 160 years!

But the book contains one passage that really resonated, and was why it was recommended to me in the first place.

In truth the Manchester operative is amongst the most industrious and patient of citizens. He toils cheerfully, and is by day learning to read more, and to think more. If he has a turn for study, he devotes himself, in a few cases, to mechanical science – in the great number to botany. The science of plants is, indeed, a passion with the Manchester weaver. Every holiday sees hundreds of peaceful wanderers in the woods and fields around, busily engaged in culling specimens of grasses and flowers; while, generally harmless and industrious as the present generation are, there is good hope for expecting yet better things at the hands of their successors.

This passage is exactly the kind of first-hand information that fascinates me. The workers were indeed taking an active interest in natural history; in particular botany. What is particularly interesting, and this connects to some of Mark’s earlier posts, is that this was not just about getting out of the mills. It was not just a matter of an interesting hobby. The study of plants seemed to represent an opportunity for self-limprovement, and perhaps a route to a better standard of living. Because Botany connected to medicine, to dying, and to design, it presented multiple routes out of the mill. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of the millworker.

There is so much more I’d love to quote from this book, but I’d far rather you all went and found a copy yourself. It’s a rewarding read. Although I should warn potential readers, Reach is not always complimentary. Towns like Bolton and Stockport do not come out of it in a good light!


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Filed under Meanings, The project

5 responses to “A passion for plants

  1. Interesting post which prompted emergence of a memory from my entomology besotted mind.
    Not long after I got interested in insects, on a visit to Liverpool Museum I was shown a small collection of beetles, due to be absorbed into the main collection. I cannot remember whose collection it was, but do remember it was in one or more shoe boxes and consisted of lots of match boxes covered with paper, each containing a number of beetles on card mounts.
    I was told that the collector was a coal miner, who worked down the pit at night, and after work, he’d walk to Delamere Forest, spend a few hours beetle hunting, walk back and clock on for the next shift. He probably never imagined that his collection would end up in a national museum, and just did it because of that spark inside. Some good recording has been carried out by people from ‘humble’ backgrounds, sans degrees etc.
    I like the passage quoted, and it suggests of course that a natural interest may be passed on – successors can go that bit further. The interesting thing now is how much work is still carried out by ‘amateurs’ – you may have a PhD in physics and send in bird records, and the bird watching may be your real love. Same thing was probably true sometimes of mill workers – just imagine how many really looked forward to those days of picking flowers!

    • David Craven

      Brilliant, love that. Seem to have some vague recollection of you telling me about that one a while back. But a great example of what I’m talking about.

  2. Myna Trustram

    “…hundreds of peaceful wanderers in the woods and fields”? Why does this make me nervous? Remember this is a report by a journalist presenting a particular view to the readers of the Morning Chronicle.

    • David Craven

      True. But the text as a whole is pretty unflinching. It’s not a romanticised view of happy, smiling, millworkers who are actually just fine in their lives. So while it’s right to be slightly sceptical, I think Reach is a fairly reliable observer. He spent the best part of a year with these people, so he’s not looking in on isolated incidents. And, as Don has said, we do have records that provide a testament to this sort of endeavour. I’m sure some of our regions botanical curators can provide similar stories.

      But you are right to sound a more cautionary note. Reach was a journalist and, ultimately, he is telling a story. He has his biases.

  3. The book – Wildlife of Lancashire: Exploring the natural history of Lancashire, Merseyside and North Manchester, published by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2004 (ISBN 1-85936-118-8) contains a chapter by Eric Greenwood on Lancashire Naturalists, with a sub-section on “artisan naturalists”. This mentions people such as Richard Buxton (1786-1865), a shoemaker; Edward Hobson (1782-1830), a grocers assistant and William Helme (1784-1834), a cotton warper from Preston, and George Caley (1770-1829) – actually from Yorkshire, who was a stable boy who eventually got employed by Joseph Banks as a collector. It is worth a dip into.

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