Lydia Becker

Voting, suffrage and dancing butterflies

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Wood anenome
Wood anemone
Enchanter's nightshade
Enchanter’s nightshade

These beautiful herbarium sheets were collected by Lydia Becker for the 1864 Botanical Competition and quite understandably she won a gold medal for them. Lydia Becker was enthusiastic about science but was frustrated by the limitations put on women at the time. Through this desire to be more involved with scientific life in the UK she became involved in wider campaigning for women’s sufferage – the right to vote. In 1860, only 60% of property-owning men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Lydia Becker became active in local suffrage societies and the edited a national journal; you can read an interesting account of her political life here. I particularly admire Lydia Becker as she was not only interested in women getting the vote, but had a much wider goal of equality between the sexes. One highlight of her life-time of campaigning came in 1867 when a shop-keeper called Lily Maxwell was entered onto the electoral role in Chorlton in error. Lydia Becker and a second lady escorted Lily Maxwell to the polling station where she was allowed to case her vote and became the first woman in the UK to do so. Her vote was later ruled illegal.

I hope Lydia Becker would have been pleased by the efforts of the artist Romuald Hazoumè to encourage everyone to make use of their hard-earned right to vote* and become a Butterfly activist……….

“To remind us all of the power of voters to topple or install politicians through the force of democracy, West African contemporary artist Romuald Hazoumè has asked the Museum to give away the butterflies from six pieces in his exhibition, Dance of the Butterflies on Election Day on May 7th. This is a fantastic and unique opportunity for visitors to own a piece of contemporary art from a leading West African artist.

We particularly want to encourage first time voters to participate, but anyone of voting age can be a butterfly activist. To participate voters simply come to the Museum on Thursday 7th May between 11am and 4pm, pledge to vote before the end of the day and crucially commit to encouraging one other person, through the gift of a butterfly, to do “something” to engage with politics – whether that be voting, joining a campaign, debating or some other political act.

All the Museum and artist ask is that they let us know what they will do and post about their gift on social media using the hashtag #DanceoftheButterflies.”


* Key dates in universal suffrage

1918 – All men over 21 in their county of residence gained the vote. Women over 30 who owned a property (or whose husband owned a property) gained the vote.

1929 – All women over 21 gained the vote.

1968 – Voting age lowered to 18 for both men and women.

Dance of the Butterflies Election Day 2015
Dance of the Butterflies Election Day 2015


Natural Variation

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Spring is a great time to be interested in botany. It’s a pleasure to walk in the woods in April and May when the first flush of wild flowers is at its best. One of my favourites is the Wood Anemone, which is common in dappled shade in deciduous woodland. The botanical name Anemone nemerosa has Greek and Latin roots. Anemos was the Greek God of the wind in which the flowers bob charmingly, while nemorosa describes the plant’s habitat and comes from the Latin nemorosus meaning wooded.

Anemone nemerosa flowering in woodland near the highland village of Strontian (May 2010)

Although they are generally regarded with affection in the British Isles, the Wood Anemone is not universally popular. It is associated with death in certain Chinese cultures and with misfortune in some European countries. It was an emblem of ill health in ancient Egypt. This may be because although the plant is poisonous, herbalists used it to treat complaints such as gout and rheumatism.

Energy stored in underground rhizomes allows the Wood Anemone to produce its leaves and flowers in the first weeks of spring before the shade from trees becomes too dense. The single star-shaped flower has between five and eight white tepals (a sort of mixture of petals and sepals). The leaves are deeply cut and resemble other members of the buttercup family.

Wood Anemone's in typical habitat in the mossy bowl of a tree. The tepals fold over the stamens at night and in inclement weather. Legend has it they provide shelter for woodland spirits.

Walking in the woods last week I was particularly struck by the natural variability of the plants. There were significant differences in the number and shape of the tepals and a few aberrant plants with deep purple flowers. With all this natural variability it is easy to see why the Wood Anemone has become a popular garden plant. But it looks best with Primroses, Cuckoo Flower, Wood Sorrel and Lesser Celandine in its native woodland habitat.

An unusual purple form of the Wood Anemone, one of many variations seen along half a mile of track in the Sunart oakwoods.
Wood Anemone collected by Lydia Becker on 23rd April 1864 at Whalley woods, Lancaster.

International Women’s Day 2010

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Today is International Women’s Day.  To mark the occasion the museum organised a short lunchtime tour and talk celebrating the pioneering work of some women associated with the Manchester Museum.

We met in the reception area of the Museum where Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes gave an introduction to the tour and talked about the history of women working in the Museum.  We then went upstairs to to the Manchester Gallery where the work of some of our pioneering female botanists is showcased.  Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Exhibitions, gave a great talk about why Lydia Becker, Kathleen Drew-Baker, Marie Stopes and Jessie Heywood were so important not just to the advancement of rights for women but also for their contribution to the advancement of science.

Finally we took the group up to the herbarium where I had laid out some more information and specimens collected by these women.  Here the group had the opportunity to see some specimens at close range and even handle some of the more robust objects.  The group seem fascinated and interested by the tour.  However, I was especially pleased when one Phd student told me how much she was inspired and motivated by the stories of these women.   I’m sure Jessie, Kathleen, Marie and Lydia would be delighted to know that their hard work is still having a positive effect on women of the 21st Century – thank you ladies!

Lydia Becker mystery

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We have a bit of a mystery here in the Herbarium and were wondering if anybody out there can help us?

Many of you may have heard of a lady called Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827-1890).  She was born in Manchester and became a famous suffragette. She is best remembered for founding and publishing the Women’s Suffrage Journal between 1870 and 1890.  However,  most people don’t  know that Becker was also a botanist and astronomer: in 1864 she was awarded a gold medal by the Horticultural Society of South Kensington, and in the same year she published a small volume entitled Botany for Novices.

In the Herbarium we have some specimens that have been stamped  ‘Ex herb J Lydia Becker’ which denotes that they once belonged to the herbarium of J Lydia Becker.  The accession number (Kk398) indicates that the specimens came to the Manchester Museum from a collection belonging to Henry Hyde, donated in 1909.

What we are trying to find out is why there is a ‘J’ prefixing the Lydia Becker?  The dates and localities of when and where the specimens were collected fit in with them being collected by Lydia Ernestine Becker but why the ‘J’?

Also, does anybody know anymore about the British Botanical Competition, 1864, which is printed on the labels?

Finally, Henry Hyde.  Does anyone know anything about him?  On page 267 of the Whitelegge obituary in an earlier post, it states that Whitelegge had advanced Botany lessons from a Mr H Hyde from Manchester – my guess it is the same man.

Any help, suggestions or clues gratefully received…