John Tatham of Settle, Quaker Botanist

John Beckett
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

John Tatham was born in Settle on 20th September 1793, the son of John and Bridget (née Coor) Tatham, members of the Society of Friends. John senior had come from Wray, north-east of Lancaster in the Lune Valley where previous members of the family had produced and processed flax. He established a drapery business at premises in Settle Market Place in 1816. John junior’s obituary [1] records that he was educated at Giggleswick Grammar School, but it has not been possible to confirm this from school records. His father, in 1785, attended the school of his relation Joseph Tatham in the Friends Meeting House, Water Lane, Leeds [2], and his younger brother Thomas, after two years at Ackworth School between 1815-1817 [3], may also have attended that school, which by then had been taken over by the original proprietor’s nephew, also Joseph Tatham, John and Thomas’s uncle. Certainly John junior became an apprentice for seven years to Thomas Thompson, who by 1798 had established himself as a pharmaceutical chemist in Liverpool. On completion of his apprenticeship, he remained with Thomas Thompson for a few years, before returning to Settle where he joined his father in business in 1816, expanding it to include pharmacy and grocery. During the ensuing years John Tatham & Son became a veritable department store [4], selling everything from finest Lancashire cheese to flock mattresses. In 1870 they advertised homeopathic medicines produced by Thompson & Capper of Liverpool, where John junior had served his apprenticeship.

John married Maria Horsfall at the Friends Meeting House in Bradford on 5th of June 1822, and they had seven children before Maria died on 1st of September 1835 aged 35. John subsequently married Susanna Ecroyd from Lomeshaye, Marsden, near Burnley in 1837, who bore him three further children. Of John’s ten children, only two daughters outlived him. After the death of his father in 1847, John continued the business in premises adjacent to the Town Hall in Settle as Chemist, Druggist, Grocer and Draper until 1863, when he transferred it to his son Joseph and Ellwood Brockbank [5], who had been his apprentice.

Outside work, John was involved in establishing the Savings Bank in Settle, acting either as its actuary or secretary from 1818 to 1870, but his abiding interest throughout his life was botany, a subject to which he had been introduced during his apprenticeship with Thomas Thompson. In 1841 he was elected a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society (now the Botanical Society of Scotland); he was also a member of the Botanical Society of London (founded in 1836, now the Botanical Society of the British Isles) for which he was a Local Secretary from 1839-49 or later [6]; and he was one of the original members of the Ray Society, founded in 1844. It was in that year that he was one of a party of five Quaker botanists who undertook a botanical ramble in Yorkshire [7], the other members being James Backhouse senior [8], James Backhouse junior [9], George Stacey Gibson [10], and Silvanus Thompson [11]. Silvanus recorded all the plants which they saw, together with their localities, and also all the expenses incurred, including fares, carriage of luggage, and board and lodgings [12]. James Backhouse junior wrote an account of the ramble which was published in The Phytologist, in which he reported that they found a plant which they forwarded for identification to Sir William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Hooker identified it as Spergula stricta (now Minuartia stricta, Teesdale Sandwort), then new to the British flora. Gibson was credited with the discovery [13]. John later made further excursions to Scotland in the company of James Backhouse senior, collecting many characteristic Highland plants.

In 1841 John submitted a list of plants growing around Settle to Edward Newman, another Quaker botanist and the editor of the Phytologist, and this was published the following year [14]. John’s list only recorded the more scarce plants and not the common ones. In 1840, Newman had published A history of British ferns citing ‘Mr Tatham’ for the location of Beech Fern at Settle, and in the Magazine of Natural History of the same year he stated ‘I am indebted to Mr J Tatham jun. of Settle, in Yorkshire, for an abundant supply of Lastraea rigida [Rigid Buckler-fern]’. John also contributed hugely to the work of other botanists, and was an active distributor of herbarium specimens through his membership of the London and Edinburgh Botanical Societies [15]. The Bromfield Herbarium created by William Arnold Bromfield [16] contains specimens of three plants [17] from the Settle area collected by John in 1840-1841. He assisted Henry Baines with his Flora of Yorkshire (1840) and John Windsor with his Flora Cravoniensis, or a flora of the vicinity of Settle in Craven, Yorkshire (1873). In the introduction to his book Windsor wrote: ‘Some other residents of the neighbourhood have given much attention to its botany ... especially John Tatham of Settle whose long residence there, and assiduous attention to the subject, have enabled him to be quite conversant with Settle botany; and had he chosen to do it, to have ably executed the work I have thought it right to attempt’.

John’s studies of the flora around Settle were continued by his granddaughter Rachel Ford Thompson [18] whilst she lived there during the years 1882-1893, and together with her sister she extracted a number of records from John’s herbarium and memoranda for F. A. Lees’s Flora of West Yorkshire (1888), and a supplementary list was later compiled by William Whitwell [19]. The Flora included a record of Lythrum salicaria (Purple Loosestrife) at Malham Tarn, with the comment by the author ‘at an unusual altitude, and not seen by me, but the recorder [John Tatham] was too good and careful a botanist for the record to be doubted.’

One of John’s main sources of botanical knowledge was A compendium of the English flora (1829) by James Edward Smith, who had founded the Linnean Society in 1788. John’s copy, annotated with the localities of plants found in the area of Settle, was presented to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, by his grandson Silvanus Phillips Thompson [20], and John’s herbarium and notebooks, preserved after his death by his widow Susanna, are also now housed at Kew.

John died on 12th January 1875, aged 81. His obituary in the Craven Pioneer recalled ‘his kind and genial disposition, the large fund of information he possessed, which he was ever ready to impart to the enquirer, his readiness to oblige, and pre-eminently his well-known character as a peace lover and peace maker, combined with his sterling integrity made him highly respected throughout the district’.


I am grateful to Janet Leyland (Rawlins) who ‘introduced’ me to John Tatham; to John Frankland of Skipton Library, Celia Wolfe of Ackworth School, Barbara Gent of Giggleswick School and Hazel Makepeace of the Natural History Society of Northumbria for help in compiling this account; and to Roger Neale for checking the current Latin and English names of plants in the Appendix (in the web version of this article) and for adding the current status of some of them.

References and Notes

  1. Craven Pioneer, 16 January 1875, p.3.
  2. Mortimer, J.E., 1990. Joseph Tatham's School, Leeds. Publications of the Thoresby Society, 2nd series, vol. 1, 29.
  3. Ackworth School Registers.
  4. Ball, C. and G., 2015. The shop now known as Castleberg Outdoors, Cheapside, Settle. North Craven Heritage Trust Journal.
  5. Ellwood Brockbank married John Tatham's granddaughter Maria Thompson in 1880. He pioneered mail order shopping, supplying dress fabrics, household linens and serges from The Warehouse in Settle.
  6. Allen, D.E. 1986. The botanists: a history of the Botanical Society of the British Isles through a hundred and fifty years. Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies.
  7. Rawlins, J., 2016. An 1844 Pennine Way from Tees to Ribblesdale: five botanists walk from Crook to Settle. Bain Falls Publishing.
  8. James Backhouse (1794-1869) founder with his brother Thomas of what became known as the 'York nurseries'.
  9. James Backhouse (1825-1890), after education at Bootham School, joined the family firm. He became a Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Geological Society, and published a monograph on British Hieracia.
  10. George Stacey Gibson (1818-1883) was born in Saffron Walden. He was the author of The flora of Essex (1862).
  11. Silvanus Thompson (1818-1881) was the youngest son of John Tatham's former apprentice master Thomas Thompson and became John's son-in-law when he married his daughter Bridget in 1848. He taught at Bootham School in York from 1841-1874.
  12. Rawlins, J. 2016. An 1844 Pennine Way from Tees to Ribblesdale: five botanists walk from Crook to Settle. Bain Falls Publishing.York: Sessions.
  13. Backhouse, J. 1884. Teesdale botany: historical and personal recollections. Naturalist, 10-13.
  14. Tatham, J. 1842. List of plants growing about Settle, Yorkshire. Phytologist, O.S., vol.1, 87-88. See Appendix.
  15. Journal of Botany, 1875, 64.
  16. William Arnold Bromfield (1801-1851) collected plants from the Isle of Wight and Hampshire.
  18. Rachel Ford Thompson (1856-1906), daughter of Silvanus and Bridget Thompson, contributed Hieracia to C. C. Babington's Manual of British botany (1904), 232-270.
  19. Whitwell, W. 1893. West Yorkshire records and notes from the herbarium, catalogues, etc. of the late Mr John Tatham of Settle. Naturalist, 25-40.
  20. Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916), son of Silvanus and Bridget Thompson, confirmed many of John's botanical records.