Partial solar eclipse over Manchester

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The Manchester Museum came to a standstill this morning as the staff stood transfixed watching the partial solar eclipse over Manchester’s cloudy skies. Only a few hours to go until our next spectacle as the British Museum’s Moai Hava arrives from Liverpool World Museum ahead of our next temporary exhibition ‘Making Monuments on  Rapa Nui‘. An exciting day for us all!


A history of cotton

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by Jemma


So after my blog on the opium poppy ( I have decided to write another; this time on Gossypium barbadense.

Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.
Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.


G. barbadense is a small, tropical tree that produces cotton. The cotton fibres grow in a protective capsule, called a boll, around the seeds to increase seed dispersion. These fibres can be collected and spun into yarn or thread, which then have a variety of uses. These include making textiles, coffee filters and fishing nets. Cotton was even used in the 1890s in the manufacture of fire hoses.

A cotton boll encasing Gossypium barbadense seeds.
A cotton boll encasing the plant’s seeds.

Cotton has been used by humans for at least 7,000 years.  Archaelogists have found signs of G. barbadense domestication (based on cotton bolls found) from around 4,400 BC. It is believed that cotton spread throughout India between 2,000-1,000 BC. Following his invasion into India during 327–325 BC, the troops of Alexander the Great began to wear cotton clothes because they were more comfortable than the alternative woollen ones.


By the medieval period, cotton had spread to northern Europe and was imported in large quantities. It was extremely popular as it was a cheaper alternative to silk but could easily be imprinted on to make patterned textiles. At first there was a common misconception that cotton was produced by plant-borne sheep due to its woolly appearance. However, G. barbardense was soon cultivated in Europe and this misunderstanding corrected. After the introduction of inventions like the spinning jenny in the 1770s, cotton manufacture soared in Europe. The Midlands in England quickly became one of the most profitable production centres for cotton.

Image from the Leo Grindon collection. Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree
Image from the Leo Grindon collection.
Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, textiles (particularly cotton) became their primary export. During this time, numerous inventions helped to dramatically increase cotton production. These included (but not limited to) Paul and Wyatt’s flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton, Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Crompton’s spinning mule. The invention of Whitney’s cotton gin for efficiently separating cotton fibres from the seeds reduced the time and cost of production, leading to cotton becoming one of the most widely used textile in the world. From the end of the 18th century onwards, Manchester became known as “Cottonopolis” due to its domination of the cotton trade.

Spun cotton thread
Spun cotton thread

The cotton trade continued to grow throughout the early 19th century and Britain had become one of the primary exporters. British factories imported vast quantities of fibres from India to produce cotton, but by the 1840s India could no longer supply the ever growing demand. British traders then instead turned to plantations in the United States, who quickly became one of Britain’s prominent suppliers. By the mid-19th century, cotton cultivation became one of the main occupations of slaves in the southern states of America.


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union states blockaded the Southern ports so cotton export dwindled. This led to Britain once again needing a new source of the fibre; turning this time to Egypt. Egyptian cotton has a much higher thread count and is today viewed as a luxury brand of cotton. At the time the Egyptian government invested heavily in the trade and took large loans from European bankers to finance their fledgling cotton plantations. However, the boom in Egyptian cotton was short-lived. After the end of the America Civil War, traders abandoned Egyptian cotton in favour of the cheaper cotton supplied by the Americans. This crippled Egypt’s economy to the point that it declared bankruptcy in 1876.


The cotton industry in Britain reached its peak in 1912 when over 8 billion yards of cloth was produced. However, there was soon a drastic decline in trade with the onset of World War I. During the war, cotton could not easily be exported and other countries soon began developing their own industry. One such country was Japan who, by 1933, replaced Britain as the largest cotton manufacturer. The interwar period then completely destroyed Britain’s declining cotton industry. During this time over 345,000 workers became unemployed and more than 800 mills closed. Britain had become a net importer of cotton by 1958, rather than an exporter, and its remaining mills struggled to remain open. For the next few decades Britain’s cotton industry floundered and a mill closed approximately once a week. By the 1980s, Britain’s textile industry had all but disappeared.


The demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s and today’s production occurs in lower-wage areas because production is cheaper. China is now the main producer of cotton, closely followed by America and India.

Cotton wool extracted from Gossypium barbadense.
A jar in the Materia Medica containing cotton wool

Transferring from Newspaper – by Jamie Matley

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jamie1     jamie2


We come across plenty of specimens placed in newspapers – this one is from 1912! – Not all of them, like this one, are secured with tape. But, when they do have tape, we have to cut through the tape with either a knife (pictured) or a scalpel.


Once the specimen has been cut free; we then transfer the specimen to a new sheet.

jamie4     jamie5


Along with the specimen, we transfer all identifiable information to the new sheet.

jamie7     jamie8

The finished product, the specimen on its new sheet, secured with tape, and with the same information from its previous (newspaper) sheet.

Before and after

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We have had a lot of changes in the herbarium recently – here are some pictures.

Roller racking (compactor storage) installed in the room overlooking the quad, at the end of the corridor.

Before – old cupboards and bench removed:




During – roller racking being installed:



After: Roller racking installed and ready to be filled



Before: empty shelves and old floor in the main roomImage

After: fern boxes returned and a beautiful shiny reconditioned parquet floor:



Materia medica room.  Before:





Another storage room. Before:


After, shelved and ready for boxes:



Another view of roller racking. Before;





The Roller Racking’s Arrived!

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It’s been a hectic start to 2014 at the herbarium! Following the break for Christmas and New Year we had some fantastic roller racking installed. The racking was salvaged from the Whitworth art gallery following their redevelopment. The room overlooking the Old Quad was cluttered with all sorts of specimens. It was previously home to Algae amongst others in grand old cupboards. It took a while, and a huge moving effort from the team, but after a couple of days we had managed to: temporarily re-house our solander boxes in a temporary makeshift home, clear out the vast runs of journals and books hidden behind shelves and finally we had fully cleared the room ready for the installation team.

Nearing the end of the removal process before installation could begin
Nearing the end of the removal process before installation could begin
Halfway through installation.
Halfway through installation.

Now that the roller racking is installed it allows us to make much more efficient use of the space we have. Our solander box collections can now be stored in a greatly compact way, whilst still allowing access when necessary. There are 8 new shelving units in the roller racking, each with the capacity to store 97 solander boxes. Whilst the permanent occupants of the racking have not yet been decided, the increased storage capacity has allowed us to begin the plans to re-organise the entire collections into a more logical and flowing way

photo 1    roller2

The job of re-arranging our collections has not been an easy one. Lots of number crunching has taken place. The aim is to get all the collections more efficiently organised and to work the boxes that currently take up our work bench space into the collections on the racking. The project will involve each box in the entire collection moving to a new place. So there is going to be a lot of hard work, moving around and re-jigging in the coming months, but it will worth it in the end.

Breaking News on our Mystery Botanist

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Earlier this year we posted a photograph of a portrait we found in a box of paperwork at the back of the herbarium. It clearly shows a Victorian botanist – but which one? We speculated that it might look like Richard Buxton, who was a very interesting and impressive self-taught naturalist, but we now have another contender.
Richard Buxton

Christine Walsh (one of our dedicated team of herbarium volunteers) came across a picture of Joseph Evans (1803 – 1874), botanist and herbal doctor from Boothstown. There’s a biography of him on this site, and I have to say, he looks very like our mystery man. What do you think?

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More on collecting at the Manchester Museum……this time it’s in Entomology

Entomology Manchester

Some people may think that natural history museums deposit only old, historically and/or scientifically important collections. Although this is true, museums also continue to acquire new materials coming to them in various ways. In order just to give visitors an idea about how new collections can be acquired, here is a very brief report on new acquisitions made by the Manchester Museum’s Entomology department during the last five years, from January 2008 to December 2012.

A total of 66 acquisitions of 17,477 specimens have been received, as follows:

1.    Fieldwork (by the curator): 3 acquisitions of 368 specimens.

2.    Enquire-based acquisitions (usually via the identification service we provide): 10 acquisitions of 61 specimens.

3.    Acquisitions related to the public events that we support (Bioblitzes and others): 5 acquisitions of 112 specimens.

4.    Exchange: 1 acquisition of 121 specimens.

5.    Donations: 47 acquisitions of 16,815 specimens.

 Of the aforementioned…

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