Todmorden and the Advance of Natural History

It seems that there is a close link between the weaving industry of the area and the pursuits of learning – “working class natural history was very much associated with the handloom weaving communities”. Writing in 1844 Samuel Bamford felt able to assert that the labouring classes in the South Lancashire towns ‘are the most intelligent of any in the island…’ Two factors that appear to have contributed to this development were, firstly, the relative freedom which the handloom weavers had, especially while their trade was flourishing, over their use of time, and secondly, the fact that enterprising weavers were able to study while actually pursuing their craft. It is said of John Horsefield, for example, who later became President of the Prestwich Botanical Society, that he became fascinated as a youth by Culpeper’s descriptions of plants, and the twenty four classes of the Linnaean system. “I wrote theses 24 names down on a sheet of paper and fixed it to my loom-post, so that when seated at my work, I could always have opportunities of looking it over”

(Cultures of natural history By Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord, Emma C. Spary)

Many members of the Stansfield family in Todmorden rose to prominence in the world of natural history and in particular within the realm of ferns. Amongst them were –

Frederick Wilson Stansfield (1854 – 1937) born Todmorden 1854 died Reading 1937. Collected ferns. President, British Pteridological society. Edited British Fern Gazette. 1917-1937

Thomas Stansfield (1826 – 1879) Nurseryman, Todmorden specializing in ferns. Secretary, Todmorden Botanical society. Florist and Pomologist, 1880

William Henry Stansfield born Todmorden 1850 died Tangier 1934 employed in nursery at Todmorden Collected ferns in British Isles, Pyrenees, Alps and North Africa. (information from Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists Ray Desmond. Pub Taylor and Francis, The Natural History Museum 1977

Abraham Stansfield (1802-1880) born at Kebcote in Stansfield 1802, died Todmorden, 1880, where he had worked as a nurseryman. He became President of Todmorden Botanical Society in1852 and was an avid fern collector. Abraham was considered an excellent general botanist who began very early to cultivate ferns, and published a catalogue in 1852. He did much to popularize and extend the cult, finding many good varieties, though perhaps nothing absolutely unique. He was one of the first to deliberately cross varieties, and raised a crested cruciate Atliyvinm (Pvitchavdii cvistatum) in about 1865 in this way.

(Botany of Forest of Rossendale. T.Newbiggin; History of Forest of Rossendale 1868)

The following words from Abraham Stansfield are now the motto of the British Pteridological Society appearing with his portrait on the front page of their website.

“The bright colours of flowers are admired by the least intellectual but the beauty of form and texture of ferns requires a higher degree of mental perception and a more cultivated intellect for its proper appreciation. Hence we regard the growing taste for the cultivation of ferns as proof of mental advancement.” –

1980 Ackers Road 7x8cm

3 thoughts on “Todmorden and the Advance of Natural History

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. My parents-in-law were both keen amateur botanists from south Lancashire families – in my mother-in-law’s case a long line of weavers from factory workers back to independent hand weavers in earlier generations. The account of John Horsefield pinning the list of Linnean classification to his loom is very evocative. One quibble with the post though; it suggests that Todmorden is in Yorkshire whereas it is, of course, over the border in Yorkshire!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Judith and thanks for your comment – I have just read through the post to correct my error and can’t find the reference to Yorkshire that you mention – am I missing something? However, Todmorden, until the boundary reformation by the Local Government Act 1888,straddled the two counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, as the boundary river (which is Walsden Water) runs directly below the Town Hall in the centre of Todmorden. The frescoes above the door of the Town Hall illustrate this split identity by depicting people engaged within the cotton industry on one side, and on the other, wool related activities. From 1875 to 1888 it was possible to dance in the Town Hall ballroom, forward and back, across two counties of England


  3. Its a weird setup really since the changing of borders! I once had mail returned to the post office because it didn’t have Lancs on as the county and of course I have an Oldham postcode at ‘The Unitarian Lodge’ as well as my Lancashire telephone code 01706. I am studying Natural History Art and have been asked to post a link to a local Natural Historian – seems that I have some choice with the various Stansfield contributors; John Horsefield pinning the list of Linnaean classification to his loom seems to indicate he could be a candidate for my study! Was hoping for a Fielden connection (but same family I suppose :))!
    Dancing over the border in the Town Hall was an interesting snippet I wasn’t aware of.
    Wes Paul


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