The Botanical Tradition, Radicalism and Naturalists’ Societies in the Colne, Holme and Dearne Valleys.


Wood Bettony illustrated by Seth Lister Mosley

Wood Betony illustrated by Seth Lister Mosley

The minute book of Milnsbridge Socialist Club records:
1919 29 December: ‘Resolved that we allow Ben Goldthorpe the use of the top room for the purpose of holding a Naturalist Society [sic] but they must be given to understand they must not have any refreshments in said room.’
1920 18 October: ‘that we allow the Naturalist Soc. The use of the billiard room once per month. ie. Every fourth Sunday in the month.’
This account was first delivered at a meeting of the Radical Valleys group at the Red and Green Club, Milnsbridge, the premises of the former Milnsbridge Socialist Club. The Milnsbridge Naturalist Society is the only surviving one in the area, some of whose members were present at the talk, making this a doubly appropriate venue.

For the sceptics we should begin by explaining why the study of local Naturalist Societies is appropriate under the aegis of ‘Radical History’ :
Firstly and most obviously, because some of the local naturalists were themselves radicals of various kinds. The main founder of Huddersfield NS, Richard Brook was an active Chartist for example. I have described his role in both politics and botany in my account of the founding of the Huddersfield society.  [ see: ] One of the leading naturalists in the area, Seth Lister Mosley, born in 1848, was also an active secularist, initially a follower of Charles Bradlaugh, up to his conversion to Christianity in the 1880s. Even then he developed his own radical system of religion, eventually branding it ‘Theocosmic’ – a mixture of pantheism, panentheism and mysticism.

Secondly, naturalist societies are examples of the Victorian movement for ‘self improvement’ of the working classes, which warrants a radical analysis since it was a double edged sword. It could be liberatory for the individual, leading him, (and we are talking about men here), to a new view of the world, not necessarily political, but widening his horizons and activities. The archetype of this is the handloom weaver, reading books propped up on his loom while he worked and becoming proficient in some branch of science, literature or languages. But it was double edged in that there was also a moralistic underpinning, best expressed by the work of Samuel Smiles, who wrote ‘Self Help’ about men who had raised themselves up despite adversity. He also chose as the subject for biographies the hardships of two naturalists, Robert Dick, a baker of Thurso and Thomas Edward of Banff, a shoemaker. Such examples could be used to show that it was possible for anyone to educate and improve themselves, to become a self made man, and, if they could do it, anyone could – in short it was the person, not poverty, which was the root of social problems. This dichotomy is also reflected in the Mechanics Institutes which did such good educational work, yet, under the patronage of rich millowners, also discouraged any radical political debate and activity .

Thirdly, for me the experience of the old naturalists is a suitable subject for radical history because of my own politics. I believe that any real, beneficial transformation of society must entail a change in our relationship with nature, and to do this, we have to study and understand the natural world of which we are part. From the time of Francis Bacon, this has been described as reading the Book of Nature, and how that book has been read over the years and how that has affected our relations with nature is vital to understanding the ethical and practical problems we now subsume under the term environmentalism.

A more personal reason I have for studying this topic is that I had two great-uncles, well known locally in their time, involved in natural history. Norman Brooke was a medical botanist, or herbalist who had a consulting room in a hut by his house on Magdale, and Hamlet Brooke, a weaver, is described in his obituary as a naturalist, a member of Honley Naturalist Society known for his talks around the area. Together they represent the two different views of nature which co-existed and interacted in local naturalist societies.


The study of botany often grew out of an interest in herbal medicine and every community probably had its own herbalists with varying degrees of traditional knowledge, many of them women and very few of them leaving any record. The acceptance of the Linnean system of classification in the 18th century allowed a systematic, standardised approach to the collection and study of plants and animals which encouraged a wider interest and exchange of information among those interested in knowledge for its own sake .

I have not yet been able to trace the early history of botany in our area, but some work has been done on Lancashire. The booklet, ‘Han Yo Bin Yearbin ?’,by John Aldred, [1] mentions the working man Thomas Harrison of Manchester who had collected a herbarium of 4,000 specimens by 1762. By the 1790 s there were botanical societies in Ashton, Middleton, Whitefield, Tydesley, Boothstown, and Eccles, the last named being the first Linnaean society in Lancashire as early as 1777. In 1810 the existing societies met to form the Amalgamated Botanical Societies of Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. There may have been societies in Yorkshire dating from the 18th century, even though there is no record of them. There were certainly naturalists, such as the Halifax men James Bolton brought up as a handloom weaver in the 18th century, who produced books and illustrations, not only of plants and fungi, but also birds and butterflies and Robert Leyland, who was the regional secretary of the Botanical Society of London, formed in 1836, which was quite radical in admitting females, perhaps due to the influence of the high proportion of Quakers and Unitarians involved. It had about 16 Yorkshire members. According to D E Allen, a pioneer researcher into natural history societies, the LBS was, ‘…an organisation of outsiders. And like its fellows it reflected this in a self consciously liberal stance that verged even on radicalism.’ [2]

The first local mention of a herbalist, if not a botanist, with Radical connections we meet is George Haigh, a handloom weaver of Paddock. In 1838 he was arrested as a ring-leader of a riot in which windows of the Philosophical Hall were smashed in protest against a speaker advocating the New Poor Law. This was the law which abolished outdoor relief and established the union workhouse with a punitive system where husbands and wives were separated. The Leeds Mercury derisively dubbed him ‘the Paddock Doctor’, provoking him to write to the Chartist paper, the Northern Star, in defence of his reputation.
‘…since May 1837 I have cured 180 persons of the spinal disorder with ointment of my own manufacture from herbs alone; many of these cures have been of four, five, ten or fifteen years standing.’ He claimed that the ‘yellow doctors’ of Huddersfield wanted to put him out of business and after his arrest for riot the manufacturer T Crossland of Crosland Moor had refused him any more yarn to weave. In 1842 the Northern Star  carried an advertisement for his ‘Spinal Ointment’ with a testimony of of its successful application by George Armitage of Paddock Temperance Hotel and the apparent endorsement of two leading local Chartists. Joshua Hobson and Lawrence Pitkethly, from whose shops, ‘every additional information’ could be obtained. [3]

In 1838 there arrived in England the unfortunately named Dr Coffin, whose remedies, based on those of the American Samuel Thomson, became popular among working class radicals. He toured Yorkshire, including Huddersfield and by the 1840s a Botanical Society existed in the town advocating remedies that often relied on cayenne pepper and lobelia. Seth Mosley tells the amusing story of one of his uncles who thought he was ‘afire’ after overdosing on one of the cures. Coffins agent William Fox of Sheffield went on to publish . ‘The Model Botanic Guide to Health’ which was still being issued in 1916. [4]


Richard Brook, one of the founders of Huddersfield Naturalist Society , a printer and book seller, was also a Chartist, a scientific botanist and a medical botanist. From 1847 he published in parts ‘Culpepper’s Herbal Improved: A New Family Herbal, …or a history and description of all the British and Foreign Plants, which are useful to man, either as food, medicine, farming purposes, or in the arts and manufactures.’, in which also advertised ‘Dr Torrens pills’, which appear to have been his own invention. [5]  Indeed the Huddersfield NS was set up with the help of the scientific botanist Jethro Tinker of Stalybridge in 1848 after discussions with him at the moorland inn of Bill’s O’ Jacks, on the Holmfirth to Greenfield road. [6]
Around the same time the Honley Botanical Society was founded based on principles of Dr Coffin, originally with a membership of 30. However by 1861 this had shrunk to 8 and the society degenerated into recriminations when Job Sykes of Deanhouse, the former ‘dispenser’, was sued for articles he had kept in his possession – scales, weights, recipes etc, and a quantity of cayenne. [7]
Holmfirth Botanical Society appears by 1872, but by now the scientific rather than the merely medicinal interest was paramount. It met at the Rifle Corps Inn, Underbank. One of its prime movers John Sanderson, an auctioneer, described the merits of their pursuit, ‘In botany there was no life to destroy, nor any experiment to make accompanied with danger; on the contrary, all was delight , innocence and safety…Botany tended greatly to sharpen their mental faculties, to render their observation and discrimination clear and acute, to improve their tastes and to enable them to “look through nature up to nature’s God”’ This quote from the poet Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ was an off-used favourite of naturalists, along with the concept of ‘the Book of Nature’ I have already referred to, and didn’t necessarily imply orthodox Christianity. [8]
Three years later Honley Naturalist Society was formed and in 1876 it held its first annual tea party and entertainment at the Coach & Horses, those present, ‘including a fair sprinkling of the fair sex’. John Sanderson of Holmfirth, remarked on the ‘great progress naturalists were making in that locality.’ [9] By 1885 it was reported that Naturalist’s societies were ‘springing up like mushrooms’, a new one at Scholes meeting at the WMC, which the Examiner correspondent commented was, ‘better than meeting in a public house.’ The association of the societies with pubs was often a contentious issue as we shall see. [10]

A Slaithwaite Reminiscence

John Sugden

John Sugden

Pubs are mentioned in the one published account of an early naturalists society in the Colne Valley, written by a former member. John Sugden, son of a handloom weaver, brought up a mill worker, was a radical liberal, a councillor and, in 1892, a Colne Valley parliamentary candidate , whose reminiscences and writings were collected together in the early 1900s and published as ‘Slaithwaite Notes- Past and Present’. It has some wonderful detail and anecdotes, though annoyingly, he often doesn’t tell us the dates of events he mentions. I want to quote him at some length on our topic because it is a vivid account that epitomises the typical naturalist society and sets the scene for our story. He was born in 1838 so I reckon it is the late 1850s he is talking about, though could be a bit earlier or later.

First he refers, slightly condescendingly, to the Society existing in Slaithwaite at the time he is writing and its role in self improvement:
‘There is a naturalist society in the town to-day, and I am told that some of the young men connected with it are a credit to themselves and the town ; and what pleases me the more is that they are mostly the sons of poor parents who have worked themselves up by study and perseverance. What I say is, ” Go on, lads ; this is in a right direction, and God speed you in all good work”’.

He also traces the link with herbalism:
In former times the Deans were good botanists, and one of their relations, Mr. Horsfall, of Merrydale, was the best herb doctor of the age, so it will be seen that this kind of thing was not altogether neglected in the past’.
His historical account, is, as I have said lacking in chronological references:
‘ there was a good society a long time ago at the Hare and Hounds Inn, Hardend. In the library there some of the best books of the age could be got. Mr. Marsden, and the best from Ready Carr Foundry, were the principals. The then aristocracy of the working classes commanded much consideration, not only from the learning of their masters, but for the great reputation of the firm as the leading mechanics of the day. Walter Oldroyd, of Holthead, a self-made mathematician of local repute, Edward Sugden, John Shaw, and others, attended the Sunday evening monthly meetings at Marsden. Books were given out and arrangements made for the botanical rambles, which extended to Halifax on one side, Woodhead on the other, and between Huddersfield and Stalybridge, together with the numerous places between. They were great times for me. I went with my elder brother to nearly all these places, the principal events of which were held in the summer time in the large room of one of the principal inns of the town visited, to which every member or friend would take specimens of plants, to be named by one of the clever working-men of the day, who had made this pleasing subject his principal study. It was marvellous with what readiness the work was done — not only the English, but the Latin name was given in full to every plant. The virtues were not considered on the naming day, but were well known to the friends of the society, who went far and near in search of rare specimens.
In an evocative passage describing some of the plants they found he also refers to the dramatic transformation of the area as a result of industrialisation. Perhaps it was in response to this assault on nature and with a sense of loss that some people began to appreciate its value.

Wood betony was much sought after for many diseases; a well-known place for it was Longwood, in the beautiful wood below Hannah Gill’s public-house. The present generation can hardly realise what changes have taken place there since. This remarkable lady and her house gone for ever, and the wood mangled to death by the wonderful progress of the place; only a few broken trees remain to tell the tale of its former natural glories. Large mills have replaced the fine trees, and where the wood betony grew now stands the cottages of the workers, whose condition is so much improved that they can very much better afford to buy than grow this little herb.
To come back to plants. These and hundreds more we knew quite well. We could rattle them off like the multiplication tables without any trouble, having had good teaching from the elders on those far-back, very happy, and pleasant sunny days, when a Sunday well spent brought a week of content to the hard toilers on the other less-favourable days. We used to take our time, range the fields and moors, and call at the nearest public-house to get a gill of beer to a little lunch, which was generally carried in the pocket.
If there was anyone at the inn ready to argue on any point under the sun, these men were ready. Politics was a great theme then, because there were so many things to adjust, wrongs to redress, and reforms to make. At these times the men were in earnest and determined. They believed what they preached, and were not soon turned away or denied the object they had in view. Many are the eloquent speeches one has heard on these occasions, drinking in largely the burning words descriptive of human suffering, and pledging oneself that when the time of being a man came, how I would fight for liberty or death — brave thoughts not lost sight of to-day. Even temperance came up for discussion, and I am not sure that then, with the greater liberty to drink more freely, less was drunk than now. Anyway, I was not only a botanist, but a teetotaler of a very pronounced type, and when not after plants or music, was practising and preaching temperance.’  [11]


Although Botany was often the original inspiration behind the foundation of naturalists societies, and for some often remained the main activity, other branches of natural history became just as important. By 1890 Skelmanthorpe Naturalist Society meetings heard reports from members not only on Botany, but also entomology, ornithology, geology, micro-zoology and micro-botany. A founder of the society, (as well as secretary of the Mechanics Institution), Fred Lawton, a handloom weaver turned powerloom weaver, was also a keen local historian and antiquarian. Some naturalists became recognised authorities in their field, such as the Skelmanthorpe handloom weaver, Ben Morley, whose knowledge of Lepidoptera earned him a curator’s job at Tolson Museum. In 1927 an exhibition of his lepidoptera was held at Skelmanthorpe ILP Club, of which he appears to have been a member.[12]


Ben Morley, former Skelmanthorpe weaver, shows off part of his butterfly collection.

On the calendar of events followed by the societies, rambles were the most popular among those members who were not content to be arm-chair naturalists. The enthusiasm is captured by Fred Lawton’s account of ‘A Ramble with the Skelmanthorpe Naturalists’ at Denby Dale in April 1891:
’‘The members met under the viaducts in weather that was not all that could be desired. Naturalists, owing to the long cold season have been imprisoned…They were over the walls and down at the waterside before anybody could say Jack Robinson.’
Golden saxifrage, liverwort, cicily, bistort, and wood anemone were among the plants found and not only the first chiff chaff of spring, but also its nest. Although it would appal us today, one egg was taken, an act Lawton was moved to justify. ‘The officers and leading members of our society are strongly opposed to the wholesale robbery of birds’ nests.’ Taking was condoned only when it was for study not ‘the mere selfish gratification of having a collection of dried specimens to show to the admiring gaze of friends.’ This was an extremely contentious issue for naturalists even then. Most collecting of specimens – birds, their eggs, insects etc – was done not on society rambles but by individuals. Morley, for example accumulated a collection of over 20,000 moths and butterflies, mostly locally. Others had hundreds of stuffed birds and eggs, either acquired by themselves or bought or exchanged. Seth Mosley, while acknowledging that his own father was one of the worst culprits, described his book on the Birds of Huddersfield, published in 1915 as ‘a record of murder and plunder from beginning to end’. [13]

We see an example of collecting by Slaithwaite NS in 1897 when a few members searched Slaithwaite Moor for the emperor moth, Saturnia carpini/pavonia, one of our most beautiful moths, which flies in the daytime during May. A ‘few fine specimens were obtained’. Today the moth is very rare in our area, though how far due to collecting or to changed moorland management is impossible to say.

Emperor Moth - this male specimen with a rear wing missing was photographed in Pembrokeshire.

Emperor Moth – this male specimen with a rear wing missing was photographed in Pembrokeshire.

The following day, a Sunday, there was a ramble by the society to Drop Clough, one of the favourite stamping grounds for local naturalists. Several cuckoos were seen – again now rare sight. It was recorded that members stopped for refreshments at the farmhouse of Ebor Hirst who supplied ‘a copious supply of milk.’ – a reminder that small dairy farmers are another endangered species. [14]

Drop Clough was so popular that naturalists from far afield included it in their itinerary. In 1902 Heckmondwike Naturalists’ Society took the train to Slaithwaite and walked along the canal towards Marsden. They were disappointed to find only two species of freshwater molluscs, but collected many plants along the bank.
‘ A pleasant break was made by a member of the Slaithwaite Society, who lived on the canal bank, extending an invitation for us to visit his garden, where several uncommon plants had been induced to flourish … [which] gave evident pleasure to their owner. After spending some little time examining the plants we continued our journey forward to what is known as the “ lake district “ (from the addition of one or two ponds adjoining the canal). Turning off abruptly northwards just previous to entering Marsden, a very pretty ravine was entered, known as Wool Clough, where an abundance of vegetation of interest to botanists was met with—from mosses, ferns, lichens, and various wild flowers and shrubs, up to the stately Oak and other trees which lined the valley on either side for upwards of a mile until the stream narrowed to a small size on the moors towards Blackstone Edge. Our visit was during a spell of dry weather, consequently the bed of the stream was in a condition to be traversed all the way up, with the exception of a few cascades and waterfalls.’
In what would test many ramblers today, they then went on to Marsden, up the Wessenden Valley, over to the Bilberry reservoir and down to Holmfirth to catch the train home. [15]

An interesting ramble took place in 1908 when 30 children of Marsden Socialist Sunday School, led by their teachers, walked along the canal and up the clough, where they were joined by Casey, as in ‘Casey and his fiddle’, a popular act in Socialist circles. After a couple of enjoyable hours in the ‘glen’ they proceeded to Greenhill where a Mrs Ingledews provided hot water for tea. The plants they collected were named by ‘Comrade Brier’, who is surely the G Brier of Marsden NS and member of the Colne Valley Socialist League, who appears on a group photo with Victor Grayson and Robert Blatchford in 1907, a small slightly built man. The SSS movement appeared to attach importance to natural history since, at the tenth anniversary meeting of Huddersfield SSS in 1906 the visiting speaker was Harry Lowerison founder of the Ruskin School Home at Heacham, a contributor to the Clarion and author several books on Nature Study, such as ‘Sweet Briar Sprays’, ‘Mother Earth,’ and ‘Field and Folk Lore.’ [16]


At most meetings, although other specimens might be shown, it was usually the display and naming of plants which was the central focus. The medicinal aspect continued to be of interest, though it is not revealed how far members used any practical knowledge. For example the Salendine Nook Society, (which had been founded in October 1884 with 20 members) meeting in 1896 at the Spotted Cow, had a plant naming, including the scientific names, followed by a lecture by Joseph B Hughes MD USA from Oldham, on the ‘knowledge of botany, scientific and medical’ describing ‘the benefits to working man of studying plants in own locality’. [17]
In the same year Marsden NS, meeting at Railway Hotel, heard a talk by Frank Cock on ‘medical botany’. The Berry Brow society in 1898 had very good attendance of members at the Butchers Arms to hear the naming of 153 plant specimens, by Henry B Aspinall and John W Hoyle of Honley. The following year at a public meeting at the Castle Hill Hotel, they named 173 plants and answered questions about their medical properties. [18]

Another branch of study popular in some societies was mycology, which had the added attraction that you could eat some of the specimens collected. The Berry Brow society’s ‘ Fungus Foray’, begun around 1896, became an annual tradition until at least 1936 when a supper of fungi was enjoyed at the Railway Hotel. Lindley NS, meeting at the Blackhorse in 1891, heard the naming of 84 plants and some fungi which were sent to kitchen to be cooked. ‘Then the toadstool banquet came on and those who vowed they would not eat such rubbish were the very first to commence operations…’ the verdict being that it was a ‘delicious dish’. A different society, the Lindley Moor Geological, Natural History and Archaeological Society, (the name reflects how far some extended their remit), after a trip to Cannon Hall and Cawthorne Museum that same year, returned to Senior’s Hotel, Huddersfield with a haul of Coprinus to be cooked. [19]
By now it will be clear that most naturalist meetings took place in public houses – and usually on a Sunday, which was the only full day that workers had free. This clashed with both temperance and Sunday observance advocates. Paddock NS had the advantage that one of its members and sometime treasurer, John Dyson, was landlord of the Commercial Inn which must have resembled a museum. In 1873 40 members and their wives, after a knife and fork tea in the pub, heard Edward Marland give ‘… a short outline of the society since its formation and pointed to the large collection of specimens of natural history that adorned the rooms of the house they were assembled in.’ He also gave a rendition of ‘When Johnny comes marching home…’ and other songs. The event closed with the singing of the national anthem. The Paddock naturalists continued to hold regular meetings there at least until 1884. [20]

Seth Mosley, who helped establish Lindley Mechanic’s Institute Naturalists Society ‘to encourage a love of nature and science in the district…’ was a firm temperance supporter, although not a fanatical one. At meeting in 1895 he,
‘… remarked that the society had been established under the most favourable conditions and that he had always held that the study of nature should be associated with education and the meetings held at places where they could invite young people and ladies to join them…Those who preferred to meet at public houses, he wished them well, and had done and would do, all he could to help them except go to their meetings. He had been told there was no other place where they could meet but that was not true for the Board Schools had been thrown open to the Huddersfield Society and whenever they had asked for the use of a church school it had been willingly granted without expense.’ [21]

In 1897 Marsden Naturalists Society began meeting at the Mechanic’s Institute, to the approval of the Examiner’s correspondent, ‘The members of the Marsden NS have made a move in the right direction. Their meetings have hitherto been held in public houses and this fact militated against the success of the society as many young men refused to join under those conditions…Such a move will doubtless secure a considerable increase in numbers and widens the scope and usefulness of the society.’ However, this didn’t bring the increase of members expected and less than 18 months later perhaps the same correspondent reported,
‘The lectures have been a great success but nevertheless the association might be a greater success if it was better supported by the temperance societies and there is no doubt it is worthy of it, especially after the great efforts put forth to draw it away from the public house. Shall it be allowed to slide back ?’ [22]

However at a Sunday evening meeting of Slaithwaite NS in the Cooperative Hall in 1897 Alfred E Cotton, summing up the opposite view, ‘dwelt on the importance of naturalist societies as an educating, refining and pleasing influence and though some people objected to the time and place of such meetings, he thought, without casting reflection on any religious denomination, that they could as fitly and more fully worship the Creator in studying His works in nature, as to listening to the dialectic exercises of theologians. Sunday was the only free day to a working man, and on that day he could take his morning or afternoon ramble through the fields and hedgerows in search of specimens, which exercises gave health, pleasure and mental profit. They met in the evening to examine and discuss their various specimens and being financially a poor society , had to take the best and cheapest accommodation offered them and in their own case they found what they required in the assembly room at the Globe.’  [23]
Bearing in mind this background we should now look at two Colne Valley societies in more detail.

Slaithwaite Naturalist Society

The antecedents of the Slaithwaite Naturalist Society, are not known. However, by 1887 we hear of Slaithwaite Botanical class, formed and conducted by Seth Mosley at the Wesleyan School, which had 27 members including ladies. Mosley was in the forefront of trying to make natural history not just an adult male preserve, encouraging the participation of both women and children. [24] Clearly though, Slaithwaite NS was not founded on his principles. In December 1895, meeting at the: Globe Inn, with Albert E Cotton in the chair it passed a vote of thanks to ‘Milnsbridge members generally for the valuable services they have rendered to the Slaithwaite newly-formed society’. J Shaw of Milnsbridge named 58 plants, one fungi and one fruit while Charles Suthers read a paper on ‘Seeds: their germination, dispersion and uses.’ [25]
The following year it held its first tea and social when 85 members and friends gathered in the large room of Globe Inn, to enjoy songs, and an address by Allen Boothroyd of Milnsbridge. A few weeks later in February this was followed by a Saturday ‘smoking concert’ at the Globe, entertained by the Milnsbridge society’s glee party , while the following day a lecture and plant naming by James Shaw and J Sykes was held , ‘Fifty six were named, which was very creditable considering the short time the society has been in existence.’ By July they were naming collection of 127 plants including 2 grasses rare in district – purple goat’s beard and yellow ladies bed. Meeting in the pub was not without drawbacks, ‘owing to the heated state of the room it was deemed advisable to dispose with a paper which will be read on a future occasion.’ [26]


Goldenrod – illustrated by S L Mosley

Later that year members were urged by the committee to each bring one or two plants to name and describe the medical properties, Master Sam Wood (11) brought 9 plants, Tom Haigh skullcap and mountain flax, F Cock, elder and gentian, James Sykes , cliver and oak, John Haigh, wood sage and tansy, JE Quarmby, yarrow, T Cock coltsfoot and passion dock, Joe Bennet, horehound and golden rod and Sam Wood, eye bright. [27]
A cricket team was also organised and in 1897 Marsden NS was challenged to a match at the Waring Bottom ground followed by open air refreshments. ‘Much amusement occasioned during the match’ commented the report and ‘some facial injuries’. Slaithwaite won by 37 runs.

In first two years the Society had grown rapidly. At the Annual Meeting at the Globe in 1897 AE Cotton congratulated the society on the progress they had made. From 7-8 members at the founding there were now 200, despite prejudice against the meeting place and time. They had been totally dependent on other local naturalists, for equipment and books but now had 69 volumes in the library. [28]
Although botany was still a passion the Society expressed interest in a wide range of topics. The programme for 1898 from January to July, gives some idea. The support from the Milnsbridge Society is still evident:
• B Goldthorpe, Milnsbridge, ‘Medical botany, or diseases and their remedial treatment.’
• JR Coldwell, Linthwaite, ‘Electricity, its discovery and history.’
• S Dawson, of Milnsbridge was due to read paper on ‘Man and his relation to the material world’ but due to inclement weather was unable to attend, DH Meal gave a talk on moles instead.
• J.Shaw, Milnsbridge on ‘Sap’,
• Charles Ledger, Oldham, ‘Marriage customs in the vegetable kingdom.’
• JR Hughes, an Oldham herbalist, ‘on practical and medical botany.’
• S Dawson, Milnsbridge, the struggle of men of natural science, including Galileo, Bruno etc.
• S Wood, Linthwaite, ‘Protective colours and mimicry in animals.
• DH Meal on Charles Darwin.’ [29]
Seth Mosley was such a popular speaker that the Society felt able to compromise with his reluctance to enter pubs and his lecture on ‘Ants and their strange ways’ was held in the Coop Hall. It was illustrated by slides shown on the Milnsbridge Society’s limelight lantern, ‘unfortunately the gas cylinder was exhausted before all the slides had been completed and Mr Mosley had to bring the lecture to a close’. By the end of the year Slaithwaite NS had its own new lantern and Seth was again invited to the Coop Hall to deliver a talk on ‘Bird Life’ ‘The proceedings commenced with a hymn thrown upon the screen … which was heartily sung by the audience…’  [30]
The close relationship with the Milnsbridge Society was underlined in September 1899 when a joint meeting was held at the George Hotel, Linthwaite. Eli Meal delivered a paper on ‘Insectivorous Plans’ with limelight illustrations.  [31] At the AGM that year it was reported that after four years existence they now had 150 members, (50 down on 1897), £41 stock, books, microscope and a lantern. They had also approached the UDC to request if they could label trees and shrubs at the baths and have a plot of land to plant rare specimens. [32]

In 1902 the Slaithwaite Society hosted the Huddersfield and District Amalgamated Botanical Societies Meeting at Spa baths, with Alfred E Cotton, now described as a councillor, in the chair – Berry Brow, Honley, Holmfirth, Huddersfield, Milnsbridge, Moldgreen, Lepton, and W Vale societies were represented.
Regular reports on the Society appear in the papers, including occasionally the Worker, up to 1909, after that they are less frequent, whether due to less activities or just less diligence in reporting them I don’t know. In 1920 the Colne Valley Guardian reported ‘ An attempt is being made to revive this society which has languished during war conditions.’ Tom Cock spoke at on, ‘The soil and its influence on public health’ and there was a description by a demobbed soldier of the sanitary conditions in rural France and Mesopotamia. [34]

The following year Frank Cock, requested specimens for the new Ravensknowle Museum and a Society representative was elected. In 1922 the Society was still using the upper room of the Globe Inn, which the Guardian describes as behind the manor house and the first meeting place of the dissenters who had founded Pole Moor chapel. When the Society wound up is one of the many gaps I have not yet filled. [35]

Milnsbridge Naturalist Society

We have a precise date for the origins of the Milnsbridge Naturalists Society – 25 July 1890. It initially had 37 members and later met at the Armitage Arms to elect a committee of 7, a librarian and two auditors. One of the founders, John Brown was its first president. By the following June membership had increased to 71 when the society visited High Royd Honley, home of Charles Ingham Armitage JP, a vice pres of the society, who gave a ‘hearty welcome to all’. He was one of the mill-owning Armitage family who had practically built Milnsbridge – (hence the Armitage Arms). Although Huddersfield NS had wealthy patrons and a manufacturer Alfred Beaumont took an interest in Honley NS, it was unusual for local societies to have such support. There is not much evidence of Armitage’s involvement in the life of the society although he chaired a meeting at Milnsbridge Conservative Club in 1895, which attracted a ‘very large attendance. [36]

Help was provided by Huddersfield NS , in October 1892 Alfred Clarke supporting a microscope evening in the Armitage where about a dozen microscopes were made available to members. There was always a strong social element in the Society’s activities to attract people and at the annual meeting that year 70 members enjoyed music and dancing with the Longwood Albion Quartet Party – a regular entertainer who appeared at a ‘smoking concert’ the following year. [37]

Meetings extended from the usual botanical topics, for example Alf Clarke spoke on ‘Some plants used as food’, along with A Boothroyd on ‘Some other plants used as medicine’,  [38] to the discussion of wider scientific theory following talks by Albert E Cotton, of Slaithwaite NS, on ‘ A short account of the origin and evolution of species’  [39] and R Crowther’s paper on ‘Bio-geology’, describing the ideas of Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, and others. [40]

But there were also broader issues of interest to a more popular audience. Abner Denison on ‘The Air we breath’  [41] , J L Eastwood on his visit to America and ‘British Prospects’ [42] , S Dawson on ‘Gunpowder and Civilisation’ and a ‘A Chat on Chemistry’. Allen Boothroyd’s talk on ‘Bird Life’ provided an early ecological perspective, showing how interference with nature destroyed the balance, as the persecution of sparrow hawks had increased the number of sparrows. [44] An unnamed member gave a more romantic view in a lecture entitled ‘The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World we live in.’
‘The love of nature helps us greatly to keep ourselves free from those mean and petty cares which interfere so much with calm and peace of mind.’ [44]


This love of nature is most evident in the society’s rambles. In May 1892 40 members along with wives and children visited Thunder Bridge, Kirkburton, Castle Hill and Farnley Tyas followed by tea and specimen naming at the Woodman Inn. In July it was High Royd again and although the weather was unfit for rambling, it didn’t stop the collection of a few plants. A joint ramble with Berry Brow NS was held a few weeks later at Armitage Bridge and 141 species of plants, 26, shrubs and 7 ferns were collected on Mr Thomas Brooke’s estate. At each outing entertainment was provided by the Albion Quartet Party. [46]


Farnley Tyas


A Saturday Ramble to Farnley Tyas and Thunderbridge in 1894 , which included a meal of collected fungi cooked in the Woodman’s kitchen proved more eventful. Though there is no suggestion of a connection, on his return home W H Sykes of Crosland Moor was suddenly taken ill and died Sunday morning. The newspaper report added a bit insensitively, ‘With this exception the party had a very pleasant outing’ although the Society showed concern by sending condolences to his wife and a wreath and deputation to the funeral. [47]
A specifically geological ramble was held in 1894 led by Joseph Field of Huddersfield NS taking the train to Brockholes and walking up to Snowgate Head looking at strata along the way . The following year he delivered a talk at Milnsbridge on ‘Volcanoes’. [48]
Rambles ventured further afield. In 1895 it was to Mirfield where they were joined by the Primrose Hill and Ravensthorpe societies followed by tea in the Railway Hotel, and to Birdwell, which members reached by train, waggonette and bicycle, while in 1897 a wagonette party went to Stainborough Castle, returning via Silkstone and Dodworth to tea at the Crown Hotel Scissett. [49]


By 1894 membership had risen to over 160 members with a library of 50 volumes as well as costly microscopes, stereoscopes and lenses. Rapid progress had been made by younger members in naming plants. At the annual meeting Abner Denison, proposed a toast to the ‘Town and trade of the district’ commenting that ‘trade was not good at present’ although Milnsbridge had grown over the previous decade and there were now also flourishing Floral and Horticultural Societies.Abner Denison (or Dennison) , appears in the 1891 Census, living at Whiteley Bottom, aged 50, with the occupation of worsted spinning manager, along with wife Annie 42 and son Ernest 21, a worsted spinning overlooker. Born in Yeadon around 1840 the son of a clothier by 1871 he was a worsted spinning overlooker at Manningham before appearing in the Huddersfield area in 1881 at Hawthorne Terrace, Lockwood as a mill manager. By 1890 he was working in Milnsbridge, when he chaired a meeting at J A Armitage’s mill to welcome his daughter after her marriage. C I Armitage was also at the event. It may be Denison who involved him as a patron of the NS. [50]

Although by 1900 the Society had the largest membership in the Huddersfield area with 250 the on books, A Barker, the secretary, in a talk entitled ‘The duties and benefits of becoming a naturalist.’, complained about the inactivity and non-attendance at meetings of a number of the members, sometimes seeing only 12 -20 of the same old faces at weekly meetings, ‘which was disheartening when a lecturer had come a long way’. This may have had some effect since, a couple of weeks later when Tom Cock presented a lantern show on his trip to Buxton, there was a ‘good attendance.’ While in January 1901 the Sunday monthly meeting, ‘… was one of the most successful meetings in the annals of the society’ . That year interest was boosted when the Amalgamated Societies (formed in 1895 with 11 affiliates) met at the Armitage, chaired by Abner Denison, who announced that ‘it was the largest gathering it had been his lot to preside over during his connection with the society…’. Denison also chaired a meeting and dinner at the Crown, Scissett in 1906, following a ramble of 100 people led by B Morley of Skelmanthorpe, including naturalists from Milnsbridge, Primrose Hill, Berry Brow, Moldgreen, Honley, Shepley and Shelley who visited Gunthwaite and Silkstone. [51]

There coexisted within the society, as no doubt within some individual members themselves both a scientific and a romantic, ‘Wordsworthian’ view that saw an ethical dimension to nature. But this wasn’t simply escapist – social, economic and political issues were also discussed.
Sam Dawson, in 1894, in a talk on ‘“The sources of human happiness”, claimed that a knowledge of the various sciences tended to increase the happiness of man. ‘At the close of the paper an animated discussion took place, some of the members contending that Socialism was the coming source of happiness.’ Happiness was also defined in ethical terms in a talk the following year entitled ‘The use of life.’
‘They boasted that while animals had only instinct, man was a reasoning being and yet how little their boasted intellect had added to the happiness of mankind…It was not in everyone’s power to secure wealth, office or honours, but everyone could be good, generous and wise.’

Abner Denison, in a wide ranging lecture on ‘Air, Land, Climate and the Vicissitudes of the English people’, referred to the 18 m acres of uncultivated land in the country which could be used to relieve poverty. ‘He traced the condition of the working class for thirty years back and strongly advocated the cooperative principle as the best and safest solution of many of the social problems of the present day. A very lively discussion followed.’ While Albert E Cotton of Slaithwaite, on ‘The Evolution of Man’ pointed out that man himself was not an exception to evolution and from predators humans had developed into beings capable of ethical behaviour;
‘‘What was necessary for an improvement was that laws which were to rule the majority should be made by and for the majority, and not by the favoured few. There must be an immediate alteration of the land laws, for productive land is par excellence a nation’s wealth and strength. In conclusion he said he was not a Socialist in the narrow sense of the word, but a rank out-and-out individualist believing that everyman must work out his own salvation when the road had been cleared for him.’ [52]
1895 was the year that Colne Valley Labour League ran Tom Mann as parliamentary candidate and these discussions probably reflect what was going on in the wider community.

James Turner, a founder of  Milnsbridge Labour Club in 1892 in a series of talks from 1900 also emphasised the need for an ethical view of life. In one entitled simply, ‘Helpfulness’, i.e. altruism, he described John Ruskin as the ‘ideal naturalist’ and the ‘helpfulness’ he represented as ‘the only way to happiness’, ‘the true naturalist would never foster selfishness, but would always give of all he knew of nature’s laws to his fellow men and by so doing he made all things pleasant for them.’
The following year in, ‘The Science of Living’ he emphasised the need for science to be based on ethics ‘…true science pointed to the means of living instead of killing. Political economy was sadly misapplied. The object of real science was to obtain a real government which would deal with all classes in a parental way and avoid national degradation.’ While in 1903 speaking on ‘Man as a reformer’, he paid tribute to the works of the moral essayist Emerson. [53]


This ethical view was also increasingly extended to Nature itself. ‘The Beauties of Nature’ were described In 1901 by Ambrose Townend ,a 45 year old woollen weaver of Meg Lane, Cliff End,   ‘Speaking on the birds of the air and the flowers of the field in his own inimitable way, he held his audience delighted…’ He encouraged respect for nature and stipulated that on rambles flowers were not to be plucked to take home unless for scientific reasons.
Concern about conservation grew in the late 19th century reflected in the increase of protective legislation and organisations like the RSPB and the National Trust. In our area as early as 1873 there were calls in the Examiner from Slaithwaite on the need to protect birds against ‘hobbledhoys with rusty guns’ and gamekeepers ‘who seem to imagine that creation was established solely to maintain a lot of game’ . In 1911 there were still complaints about the persecution of birds on the Dartmouth Estate.
Birdnesting was also a problem, particularly by children in Bottoms, Shaw Carr Woods, Clough House, Merry Dale and High Wood. However, someone signing himself ‘A Naturalist’ of Slaithwaite took exception to the title of the report on the ‘cruel destruction’ of birds nests, claiming the right to collect specimens. [54]

This attitude was challenged in 1897 by a visitor to Lindley NS who ‘complained of the way some naturalists had of collecting without any regard to the rarer varieties, which might lead to their extermination..’ But naturalists thought it was also a matter of wider public awareness. In 1903 Elland NS reported that:
‘The members of this society recently rambling through Shaw Wood. Outlane, noticed the great number of ferns which had been pulled up and wantonly destroyed. At a meeting following the ramble the secretary Mr M Conder, was requested to write to the newspapers and draw the attention of the public to the destruction of ferns, which add so much to the beauty of the woods, and to ask the public to aid in preventing this wanton practice.’
There was also concern about the way capitalist industrialism was blighting nature. In 1908 at Slaithwaite NS Ben Goldthorpe of Milnsbridge spoke on, “A Midsummer Night’s ramble”.
‘Having dealt with the effects of commercialism as represented by sediment, smoke, soot, and fumes on the river and landscape he went on to describe a ramble from the chemical works to the strip of land above Low West Wood, pointing out what would interest a naturalist though leaning more to the botanical aspect and giving the medical properties of the plants to be found.’ [55]
As we come to the close our account we see that, although the study of natural history had matured and widened its scope, how the interest in medical botany still flourished.

Of all the societies that existed in the area before the First World War, only Milnsbridge survives. The reason for the decline is another story and awaits further research. Perhaps the motivation of the early naturalists is best summed up by two verses of doggerel, inscribed on the original Milnsbridge NS member’s card.’

‘There are thousands that walk on this beautiful earth,
From cradle to grave without knowing its worth
They see things around them, yet coldly pass by
Without ever asking the wherefore or why.

The silent observer is never alone
A companion to him is a leaf or a stone
He wonders, examines and studies to find
Their value, their use, their nature and kind.’






1.Artisan Naturalist Project 2014
2.D E Allen ‘Yorkshire and the Origins of the Botanical Society of the British Isles’. The Naturalist. Vol.107. No.963 December 1982. D E Allen ‘The Women members of the Botanical Society of London. 1836-1850.’ British Journal for the History of Science 13. Pp240-245 (1980) quoted in S J Gould, ‘Dinosaur in a Haystack’, p.189.
3.Northern Star 15 Dec 1838; NS 18 Jun 1842.
4.Dr Janette Martin ‘The People Their Own Physicians’: Huddersfield and the great medical botany debate’ .
5.Details of Dr Torrens pills arose during a court case in 1850 when Brook sued another Huddersfield printer for producing a libelous poster bearing Brook’s imprimatur. HC, 16 : Nov HC 14 Dec ; HC 21 Dec 1850.
6. Alan Brooke ‘Bretheren in the Temple of Science’, The Naturalist, Vol.137. no.1081, December 2012.
7. Huddersfield Chronicle (HC)  19 Jan 1861
8.Huddersfield Examiner (Weekly)  (HEW) 6 Apr 1872; A Holmfirth Naturalist Society had existed by 1862 but collapsed that year for unknown reasons, and no doubt there were other short-lived societies which have left no record.
9.HEW 29 Jan 1876. For more on Honley naturalists see:
10. HEW 17 Jan1885
11. John Sugden ‘Slaithwaite Notes – Past and Present’. (John Heywood, Manchester 1905) pp.39-41.
12.HEW 1 Mar 1890;  HEW 19 Mar  1927.
13.HEW 9 May 1892; Seth Lister Mosley, The Birds of the Huddersfield District, published 1915, Huddersfield, Preface.
14.HEW May 29 1897
15.Naturalists’ Journal Vol. X. October. No. 112. 1901
16.The Worker 8 Aug 1908, The Worker 18 May 1906.
17.HEW 3 Jan 1885; HEW 29 Aug 1896
18.Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News (SGCVN); HEW 4 Dec1898;HEW 21 May 1898; HEW 24 Jun 1899
19.HEW 11 July 1891; HEW Sep 12 1891; HEW 17 Oct 1936.
20.HC 1 Feb 1873; HEW 17 Jan 1874; HEW 24 May1884; In 1877, the YNU meeting at the George Hotel, Wakefield, struck off the Paddock Society for failing to comply with rules.
21.HEW 18 May 1895
22.HEW Oct 2 1897 ; HEW 25 Mar 1899

23. HEW 13 Mar 1897
24.HEW 18 Jun 1887
25.HEW 27 Dec 1895
26. HEW 8 Feb; 22 Feb; 25 Jul 1896:
27.HEW 5 Sep 1896
28.SGCVN 15 Oct 1897
29.HEW 8 Jan; 22 Jan; 5 Feb; 19 Feb; 2 Apr; 16 Apr 30 Apr; 23 Jul 1898
30.HEW 12 Mar 1898 ; 7 Jan 1899
31.HEW 23 Sep 1899.
32.HEW 14 Oct 1899.
33.HEW 31 May 1902
34.CVG 23 Jan 1920
35.CVG 25 Nov 1921, CVG 26 May 1922.
36.CVG 20 Oct 1911; HEW 14 Nov 1890; HC 27 Apr 1895
37.HC 24 October 1891; HC 21 Nov 1891
38.HC,HEW 5 Mar 1892.
39.HEW 24 Nov 1894
40.HC 9 Feb 1895
41.HC 23 Jan 1892, (A talk repeated in 1906, HEW 20 Jan)
42.HC Jan 1892; HC 17 Dec 1892
43.12 Mar 1892; HC 11 Feb 1893
44.HEW 20 Jan 1894
45.HC/HEW 27 Jan 1894
46.HC 7 May , HC 23 Jul , HC 6 Aug 1892
47.HC 25 Aug 1894.
48.HC 6 Oct 1894 ; HC 6 Apr 1895,
49.HC 6 Apr1895; HC 11 May 1895; HC 14 Sep 1895, SGCVN 2 Jul 1897
50.HEW 28 Apr 1894
51.HEW 10 Mar, 31 Mar 1900; HEW 12 Jan, 8 Jun 1901; HEW 12 May 1906
52.HC 1 Dec 1894; HEW Feb 2; HC 16 Feb 1895; HC 16 Mar 1895 .
53.HEW 3 Mar 1900 ; HEW 12 Jan 1901 ; HEW 23 May 1903
54.HEW 3 May1873; HEW Apr 26 1873; CVG 5 May 1911.: HEW 3 May 1874;HEW 25 Apr 1874;HEW 2 May 1874
55.HEW 13 Nov 1897; HEW 11 Jul 1903; HEW 25 Jan 1908.
56.HEW 15 Jun 1900. Described at talk by Ambrose Townend.

Law Taylor Milnsbridge.

Obituary of Law Taylor , member of Milnsbridge Naturalist Society. Undated clipping, probably 1940, from minute book of Huddersfield Naturalist, Photographic and Antiquarian Society.

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