A Poem and Plant Specimens

Whilst exploring our collections, Patricia our natural history curator, came across this poem by the Saddleworth poet Ammon Wrigley (1861-1946)

“Flowers in an Oldham Alehouse”

You four flowers, did you grow

Where the winds of Devon blow?

Only Devon’s earth and air

Can have fashioned you so fair!

The poet said, and true it be,

“God alone can make a tree”;

And I’m sure it’s just as true

God alone one morn made you,

And from heaven when you came,

Devon folk gave you a name,

But no mortal e’er can guess

All that makes your loveliness.

Did you come to this drab room

From the fields near Ilfracombe,

Or from some dew shining down

Not a mile from Teignmouth town?

All that’s Devon in you lies,

Lovely scenes and sunny skies,

Tors and glens and headlands free

Striding out into the sea;

Lynton’s rocks and Tavy’s stream,

Cider barns and pots of cream,

Cobbled streets and quaint old inns,

Fisher folk with sea-tanned skins.

Ploughmen from the upland farms,

Freckled maids with sun-browned arms,

All that is or o’er will be,

From the moorlands to the sea.

Oh, the happy days you had,

When the sunny fields were glad,

And the white winged butterflies

Came to look in your sweet eyes,

And the bees oft kissed your lips

For the joy of honey sips,

And the thrush from blossomed thorn

Woke you in the early morn,

And the lark high in the blue

Often sang all day to you,

And you heard the orchard breeze

Shaking laughter from the trees.

Now you’re here in Oldham town,

Houses black and dirty brown,

And you hear the roaring street,

Crash of cars and tramp of feet;

To this room you brought a whiff

Of the heather from the cliff,

Now your beauty’s spent and spoiled,

Every leaf and petal soiled,

And you hear from unclean lips

Slang and oath and racing tips.

Mauled by noisy drinking folk,

Poisoned by the “bacco” smoke,

Dying in an Oldham inn

’Mid the rabble and the din.

Better you had lived and died

On a Devon countryside,

For to-morrow you’ll be thrown

On a tip with rag and bone.

Ammon Wrigley by Harry Rutherford 1938

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out a date when this poem was written and of course, all this might be written under artistic licence and result from the imagination of Ammon Wrigley and there may be no truths written here at all.

However I think it is interesting that there are some quite specific details given in the verse.

The poem first questions whether the flowers come from Devon, perhaps the poet thought they looked too pretty to have been found around Oldham? Then the poem contains 4 Devon place-names which extend right across the county, from Ilfracombe and Lynton in the north to Teignmouth in the south and the River Tavy which extends from Dartmoor to the south coast.

He says there are 4 flowers. He doesn’t describe the form of the specimens but gives enough information to describe their faded beauty. It is unlikely that they were on display in water in a container as the travel from Devon to Oldham would have taken many hours even using the train. They could have been collected several days before the collector departed for home so I imagine these were pressed specimens possibly pressed immediately on finding in a portable field press, so would retain some colour.

We know many Botanical Societies often met in pubs. So, did Ammon witness one of these meetings in Saddleworth or Oldham pub and then recollect it in his poem? If he did no doubt these were not the only flowers were spread around the tables. They were probably with other pressed/fresh specimen treasures being ‘mauled’ by botanists of the time.

So who was it who might have taken them to that smoky pub? We know that botanists of this era were happy to walk many miles to get to a society meeting or field meeting, there was no other option for most. So the collector could be one of many botanists in a radius of several miles, even someone from another nearby town.

Oldham Botanists

Looking at the specimens in the herbarium at Gallery Oldham there are three Oldhamers who may be possible candidates who all collected in Devon and who were all members of the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society.

Squire Ashton (1826-1897) in July 1877 collected specimens at Torquay and Plymouth on the coast and Bickleigh (inland), all in South Devon – there are 11 species from these places in the herbarium – Ammon Wrigley would have been 16 in 1877. Ashton’s specimens tell us that he also visited Cornwall on this same trip taking in the popular sites of Loe Pool and the Lizard and collecting 74 specimens.

John Waddington (c.1834 -1913) in January 1904 and March 1908 collected specimens at Newton Abbot, South Devon. His collection in the herbarium is of bryophytes and seaweeds and one fern, so not specimens with flowers – Ammon would have been 43 in 1904.

John R. Byrom (1841-1910) collected at Berry Pomeroy, Torquay and Plymouth, South Devon – 2 species Bramble and Beech can be found in the herbarium – there are no dates on Byrom’s specimens but again not much in the way of what we consider to be ‘flowers’.

Based on the evidence the most likely candidate would be Squire Ashton. He started working as a flagger and slater alongside his father but eventually he would become the owner of a successful building company in Oldham. As the cotton industry expanded in Oldham hundreds of houses were needed to accommodate a growing work force and their families so building would have been a most profitable enterprise.

Squire Ashton’s herbarium sheet – Broomrape/Orobanche caryophllacea – July 1877 – Torquay, South Devon

Squire Ashton’s collection in total consists of some 600 specimens from all parts of the UK. The Devon and Cornwall trip resulted in about 85 specimens. Why there were only 4 species mentioned in the poem?

Hopefully the plants did not end up on the tip as Ammon Wrigley speculated but were mounted on paper and were eventually put into the herbarium of the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society which was transferred in 1995 to Oldham Museum now known as Gallery Oldham where the Squire Ashton collection remains today.


Discover more about our natural history collections by visiting our collections webpage.