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.
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.
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”
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:
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.
My personal hero of botany. Who’s yours?
Here are some links to other sites/blogs about him…
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.