Finding Richard Buxton

I mentioned the botanist Richard Buxton in a recent blog about The Manchester Herbarium which I had been treated to a tour of a week or so ago. The herbarium curator Rachel had told me a little about him and other important botanists who had contributed to the collection. The snap shot description had described him as having been a working class man, a shoe maker’s assistant who had taught himself to read and gone on to write the first flora of Manchester.

In the days that followed this story never strayed far from the front of my mind. I was intrigued by this idea of Victorian working class botanists. People who worked long hours in hard jobs and dedicated their spare time to the study of their local flora.

Photo sourced from Tony Shaw's blog - Link at at end

This guy in particular was interesting due to the idea that he had had a tough life. He lead a humble life from start to finish but during it managed, against the odds to produce a complete flora of Manchester.

My interest peaked I found myself embarking unwittingly on a mini voyage of discovery around this man who had lived and died in Greater Manchester between 1786 and 1865. If you want to know all about him he is an easy man to research on Google. Here’s a brief account of how I came to know more about him…

While writing my blog on the herbarium in which I mention him, I had read the overview of his life on Wikipedia. I noticed that he was buried in St Mary’s Church in Prestwich and I thought to myself that if I were to find myself in Prestwich some time perhaps I could pay the church a visit and see if I could find his head stone. Is that odd? I think it’s a certain kind of curiosity that makes you want to visit a stranger’s grave. Perhaps it’s a desire to add something solid and actual to a subject that until then has just been a concept.

I found out I was to assist Vicky on a Phase 1 habitat survey near Darwen in Lancashire this Tuesday gone. When Vicky and I were discussing where would be easiest to pick me up (she was travelling there from Sheffield) I noticed the line of direction on Google Maps passed through Prestwich and I suggested I get the tram there from South Manchester where I live and wait outside the tram stop.

Further investigation of the map showed me that St Mary’s is a 2 minute walk from the tram stop. I asked Vicky if she’d mind picking me up from the cemetery at St Mary’s instead (and explained why). She laughed. I thought: “Is this odd?” I decided, as I generally do, that it wasn’t.

Come the day I arrived in Prestwich early enough to walk over to St Mary’s with a few minutes to seek out the head stone and take a photo souvenir. On arrival I discovered that St Mary’s, which you can’t see until you’re almost upon it, is actually pretty big. I approached two old chaps at a shed near the gate and told them I was looking for a particular grave and asked if they had any advice on finding it. They laughed and said that there were over 30,000 graves there and that I would never find it. I should give them the details and they’d have someone look up a plot number and get back to me. As I had time to kill I went for a wander first, hoping I might happen across it by chance.

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The cemetery is vast, extending down hill for a couple of hundred meters. It’s one of those cemeteries where you have to walk over grave stones which are laid out like paving, just to get around. You constantly try to navigate around what look most like the feet ends of the stone because it feels rude to walk over the head end.

I couldn’t find it. Vicky called to say she and Tom were outside. I headed back to the gate, via the old chaps who I passed a piece of paper on which I’d written ‘Richard Buxton – died 1855’ and my details. “Richard Buxton the flower guy?” one asked. “Why didn’t you say? He’s over there”

Paid a visit to a Prestwich cemetery to see the botanist Richard Buxton

So now I’d seen his resting place and the stern Victorian photo portrait featured at the top of this blog and on most other websites you’ll find with an internet search. From the photo he looks quite down trodden; staring worried into the middle distance. It’d be easy to think no further on this. It was Victorian times and he was poor, of course he looked like that, but I’d read that one of his favorite flowers was Germander Speedwell…

That’s my favorite flower too and I know how I feel whenever I see it. So my mind’s eye takes the face from the stiff, monochrome Victorian photo and imagines it in colour on a man lying down in the countryside on a warm spring day, pushing apart the vegetation with his callused, shoemaker’s hands and breaking into a smile at the site of some familiar, pretty blue flowers concealed among the grasses.

You don’t botanize miserably. You do it cheerfully or not at all.

I decided to write up the above in this blog. My discovery of the man, my trip to his grave and my thoughts on what might be a misleading photo. While doing some background research I discovered to my surprise that his 1849 book ‘A botanical guide to the flowering plants, ferns, mosses and algae, found indigenous within sixteen miles of Manchester’ is available for free as an E-book here:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1

On reading it I discovered that in place of a preface he writes what he describes as a sketch of his life. He describes his life and botanical work from childhood to the age of 62. He writes wonderfully about the importance of appreciating the beauty of nature, not just in botany but the natural world as a whole. Quite remarkable for a man who taught himself to read and write at sixteen. I could have quoted it all here but I urge you instead to read it. I found it inspiring. He embodies the spirit of a modern day naturalist more than a Victorian botanist. The affection with which he discusses the natural world is quite moving at times.

Here are 3 short quotes. They are not my favourites, those read best in the context of the whole ‘life sketch’, but they illustrate nicely I think that I was right to look past the stern man in the photo. He may have been poor but his life was rich with a passion for nature.

RB1

RB2

RB3

My personal hero of botany. Who’s yours?

Here are some links to other sites/blogs about him…
http://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/is-that-richard-buxtons-nose/#comment-708
http://herbariaunited.org/wiki/Richard_Buxton
http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/richard-buxton-in-prestwich-artisan.html

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I love botany but also blog about various other ecological subjects as I find them. I’m a mature student studying Ecology & Conservation at Manchester Metropolitan University, currently on a years sandwich year work placement at an ecological consultancy. Comments on the blog or just general story sharing are always welcome.

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Bat hibernation survey – Pooles Cavern

It’s hibernation season, the time when some bat workers get to go and share, hone or acquire the skills required to spot and ID a bat in a hibernation roost, and collect valuable data for the local bat group records. As you’ll know if you read my recent blog on my experience with South Lancashire Bat Group, it’s far from straight forward and more like something you work on over years than simply learn to do.

That survey had a mix of Whiskered Brandt’s and Daubenton’s. Very useful as they look so similar. I came away from it with a rare air of something like confidence in bat ID.

So I was excited to find out that I was to get the chance to go out on a mini hibernation survey with one of our licensed bat workers here on my work placement. Helen surveys the site at near by Pools Cavern and arranged to take me and a couple of others there one lunch time recently.

I hadn’t heard of Pooles Cavern. It sounds big at first but I knew the visit was to be a relatively short one in comparison to the day spent scrabbling around in the Lancashire mudstone caves so my mind painted a picture of a short, over-hanging rock face next to a road.

My lazy brain always places things right on the edge of a road. On an excursion with some work friends to try and see red deer rutting my subconscious uttered a familiar “Oh right!” as it discovered we were going to have to walk to see the deer and that they would not in fact be rutting in a field next to a car park.

Turns out Pool’s Cavern is a full on show cave. The Wooky Hole of Derbyshire. This happens occasionally with my not being from here, I haven’t heard of any of the famous local places so someone will say “do you fancy coming along on this job to Chatsworth” and I’ll say yes expecting another farm or brown-field site and suddenly there’s a giant country house in front of me with grounds and nobility and everything!

We surveyed a section of the caves. Helen, Tom, Becky, Andy and me. It was good fun, there weren’t many other people there and the caves are a magnificent site, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

We found 7 bats. I say we, none for me. Most were spotted by Tom who clearly has a good eye for it. I can’t decided whether I’m just not good at spotting them in their hibernacula or whether I’d find more if I asserted myself more in getting to have first look at more of the area we’re surveying. I do tend to linger at the back of the line a bit. I’m also seriously considering getting my eyes tested as when others do find them there are times when they’re a little too far away for me to make out the ID features.

But enough excuses…

The group found 7 bats. They were all Natterer’s apart from one brown long-eared and one Daubenton’s.

Here is the best picture of the day. Taken by Andy on his phone. Further proof of how awesome camera phones are these days. This is of the Daubenton’s hanging conveniently in arms reach for this beautiful shot…

Natterers Bat Andy Keen

Now as great as it was seeing this and the Natterer’s (my first experience seeing Natterer’s in the flesh) it took the confidence I’d gained in separating Daubenton’s and Whiskered Brandt’s and turned it on its head. Adding this 3rd Myotis species to the mix upped the game of ID from medium to hard. Like the other two is has pale belly fur and like the Daubenton’s the pinkness of its face is an ID feature. It’s also a similar size to the Daubenton’s. Here are the ID features (courtesy of Steve from South Lancs group following an email conversation about the bat in the photo):

Thick fleshy ears
Ears too short for Natterer’s
Ears curled back – behaviour of a disturbed bat, and a trait of Daub’s (we saw it a lot with captive/rehab Daub’s)
Ears dark in colour, Natterer’s are always pinky
Fur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smoother
Greyish dorsal fur, indicative of juvenile – Natterer’s are more pale brown. (on W/B its very shaggy, and usually dark the base and golden or lighter tips- often visible as the fur is shaggy.)
On the pic there is a small bit of ventral fur above the wing, but not enough. Natterer’s bats have white ventral fur just above the forearm, between the pro-potagium and wrist
No white crescent of fur behind the ears
No reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
As I write this I notice that the three/four species in question are lined up on the BCT poster by my desk. A reminder that bat ID isn’t supposed to be easy…

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…but that’s part of the fun.

Manchester Herbarium

So I’d written a blog about ferns and was busy peddling it on twitter. I noticed it’d been retweeted by ‘Herbarium Manchester’.

There’s a herbarium in Manchester? Of course there is. There are universities and museums, it makes sense that there would be a herbarium. I followed their twitter @Aristolochia and read their blog herbologymanchester.wordpress.com

Now in truth I wasn’t 100% sure until this point what a herbarium actually was. I thought I had heard the term used to describe a collection of dry moss samples in a shoe box. I suspected what I was dealing with here was grander than a shoe box of moss samples. I imagined Hogwartian rows of Victorian cabinets containing old botanical specimens and curiosities.

Having read the blog it appeared to my delight that it looked as though I was imagining right.

Aside from an interest in botany from an ID and conservation point of view I love the aesthetic of a pressed plant. Especially the old Victorian collector type specimens, mounted in a frame with the Latin name written in neat handwriting. I made my own flower press last year and began collecting samples of plants I encountered in my area, mounting them all in a large clip frame which sat/sits on my fire place and slowly filled up as spring turned to summer.

Some of last years pressings

It was a useful practice of committing names to memory and a reminder of the order in which the species appeared. My technique needs some work but they’ve been an attractive ornament and it’s been curious to watch them yellow as time passes.

I called the Museum to see if it was possible to see the herbarium. I was given the contact details of the curator, Rachel, who I emailed introducing myself and asking, unsure of the precise protocol of the the situation, if I could come and have a look at the herbarium? She replied with a cheerful affirmative and we arranged to meet at the Museum reception on Friday.

On Thursday I was talking to Jacky at work and mentioned I was going. Did you know there was a herbarium in the museum? I asked her. She said she thought she did and that I was in for a treat, that it was up in the towers and full of interesting things.

I arrived on the day and told the lady at reception who I was there to see. She phoned and advised of my arrival. Several minutes passed. I read the information boards by some of the displays. Streams of school children filed in, to the sound of a familiar teacher monolog about them being ambassadors for their school. I followed the drama of an ambulance being called for a man who wasn’t feeling well.

When you’re waiting for someone in this situation you assess everyone who enters the scene and decide how likely it is that they’re a herbarium curator. Now I’ve met Rachel I shall judge future herbarium curators by how like her they are. Anyhow we guessed right that we were one another and set about retracing her steps back to the herbarium. Turns out that she must have left as soon as she got the call saying I was there.

The journey took us first to a lift, out of which came the poorly man with the paramedics who I was glad to see looked OK. We passed through various museum sections, passed mummies and frogs, pottery and spears. We talked about the building, its history, architects and layout. Apparently the different adjoining sections had been designed by 3 generations on the same family…

Then through doors behind the scenes, up old stone stair cases with narrow windows through which you glimpsed portions of a familiar building from unfamiliar perspectives, we finally passed a chair on which was sellotaped a piece of paper with ‘herbarium’ written on it in biro, and into the herbarium its self.

The paper sign on the chair was an ironically contrasting announcement of the world you enter beyond it. My eyes widened and I made a mental note not to outwardly gawp.

I’m a student at Manchester Metropolitan which I’m very proud of. It’s an excellent university but from a historical point of view it is architecturally  unremarkable.  This building though is part of the Manchester University neo-Gothic complex which for a Harry Potter fan like myself is deliciously Hogwarty. The herbarium takes up a sizable section of the loftiest floors of the building. The rooms are long and to return to the Potter metaphor is like a someone has tidied up the room of requirement, placing it’s many and varied specimens in a variety of boxes and cabenets. All cataloged and arranged in order.

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

I didn’t even get to see the whole thing as it’s currently having more shelving fitted. Rachel showed me around and apparently at random removed one of the many green boxes from one of the shelves. Digitalis purpurea. Out of it she produced pressed foxglove specimens that were nearly 200 years old. They were in pretty good condition. In a place like this the most important thing is that they keep it dry. Damp could ruin everything, as could biscuit beetles who apparently also have a fondness for pressed flowers. Thankfully there hasn’t been a serious beetle incident since the 1970s!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

There are over a quarter of a million specimens here, box after box, full not only of pressings but people’s notes, illustrations etc. The Pintrest boards of the 19th century. Articles so old that everything  is spelled a bit weird and ye olde words like ‘groweth’ take you way back to the rampant botanical collecting era of the Victorians.

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#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

We all know the Victorians liked collecting botanical specimens but it’s hard to get an idea of the scale and lengths they went to until you see a collection like this. And as Rachel said this was a time when hardly anyone went abroad so sending back strange, alien looking specimens sometimes provided people’s only chance of seeing them. Someone had even pressed a Golden Barrel cactus from New Mexico!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers #cactus #cacti #goldenbarrell

As well as the many green boxes, more curiosities were contained in drawers. Bags of dried leaves, cotton samples, and a fragrant drawer of old medicinal samples that wafted out a cloud of Eucalyptus scent  as it opened…

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

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Around the herbarium are photographs of old contributors and benefactors. Rachel summarized the lives and histories of them as we walked around. What struck me in particular was the description of the working class botanists way back when. Working men who would gather in pubs on their days off after collecting specimens and discuss their physiology and identification. I like that idea. Botany isn’t exactly considered a macho pursuit these day but I doubt those guys had fun poked at them for taking an interest in their local natural history.

One chap, a shoe maker’s assistant named Richard Buxton from Prestwich, taught himself to read using botanical literature and went on to produce A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses, and Algæ, Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester. He had a tough life by all accounts and died in poverty.

Buxton3It shows you though back then botany was accessible to everyone, and my visit to the Manchester Herbarium has given my botanical plate an extra spin. An inspiring look around a less-seen corner of Manchester. As I walked home I noticed that forget-me-nots were in flower amongst the grass verge on Oxford Road. Only a couple though so I left them be…

Hello forget-me-nots! #spring #botany #flowers #Manchester

Thanks to Rachel of the Herbarium for the generous tour. Photo of Richard Buxton sourced from Friends of Chorlton Meadows.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m a mature student at Manchester Metropolitan University studying Ecology & Conservation, currently on a work placement sandwich year at an ecological consultancy, documenting my adventures in ecology here.