In March 2022, material from the British Lichen Society archives in the care of Mark Seaward was transferred to RBGE, comprising seven storage boxes and large quantities of mapping scheme record cards. With nobody quite knowing what the archives held, beginning the process of cataloguing felt like dipping into a time capsule…
The British Lichen Society (BLS) was founded in 1958 for the promotion of the study and conservation of lichens. I was approached to undertake the cataloguing and organising of the BLS archives for the first time. As a recent masters graduate in the taxonomy and biodiversity of plants, I came to this project with limited knowledge of lichens and no idea of the work of the BLS. My interests ordinarily lie in plant ecology and biogeography, the merging point of my undergraduate degree in physical geography and my fascination with plants.
I was to begin laying down the framework required for unification of the BLS archives from their three UK sites (the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (RBGE), the Natural History Museum, London (NHM), and the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW)). Here I share my observations, shining a light on the women within the Society and highlighting their lack of representation within the archives.
The archives at RBGE comprised written correspondence from 1920 onwards, containing an original circular distributed by Frederick A. Sowter in 1953 launching the lichen study group and material from Robert Paulson, James H. Bloom and Elke Mackenzie. In addition to this the archives housed photographic material from 1965 to 2014, event flyers, spatial records, and information from key BLS projects i.e., the Mapping Scheme and the Lichen IUCN Red List Subcommittee.
Much of the groundwork for this project had been laid previously by Becky Yahr who provided a guiding hand and helped to establish aims and priorities, having spearheaded the transfer of material from Mark Seaward during her BLS presidency (2020-2022). Also involved in this project at RBGE were Lorna Mitchell, head of library, and Leonie Paterson, RBGE archivist, who were key to discussions on archival procedure, storage agreements and acquisition policies that were to feature in draft agreements between RBGE and the BLS. My work on the archives also led me to meetings with Theresa Greenaway, the archivist and BLS library curator at NBGW who helped establish further guidelines for an acquisition policy and contributed an inventory of the material held in Wales. A meeting with Brian Coppins helped identify people in earlier unnamed photographs. In a trip down to London to sort the archives at NHM, I met Gothamie Weerakoon and Pat Wolseley who helped me navigate the herbarium and sort through the material into boxes for future transfer to RBGE.
At this point, having familiarised myself with names present in Oliver Gilbert’s The Lichen Hunters’ David Hawksworth’s Lichenology in the British Isles and numerous Bulletins, I started to notice gaps in the archives. The most conspicuous was a notable lack of material from 2014 onwards, no to very little representation of committee members 2010 onwards and, most strikingly, the lack of representation of the work of women in the society.
From Annie Lorraine Smith’s illustrated Handbook of British Lichens (1921) to Ursula Duncan, a founding member of the British Lichen Society and author of the seminal Introduction to British Lichens (1970), there is no doubt that women have made profound contributions to British lichenology.
Entirely self-taught, Ursula Duncan is renowned for her role in nurturing lichenology through its greatest decline (1945-1955), where work in the natural sciences was greatly reduced and effort was diverted to projects relevant to the war (Bullard et al., 1975). Through her lichen identification courses at Kindrogan field centre and her contributions to BLS field meetings, she encouraged beginners, sharing her enthusiasm and personal collections to awaken interest in lichens and inspire individuals such as Peter James. The tenacity of this woman, the lady who characteristically ‘tirelessly trampled across East Ross-shire in Wellingtons’ is captured in recollections by Kenneth Ross:
When I once asked Ursula why she always wore a skirt, and not trousers which, in view of the terrain over which we clambered seemed to me to be more sensible.
“Well Kenneth,” she said,
“It’s far easier and less obvious if I wander off a little distance and suddenly find the need to crouch down and examine something interesting, than what you have to do when the need arises”.
Leaving a Legacy
Within Duncan’s possessions, a bundle of light blue letters caught my attention. Addressed to Pauline Topham, these letters written by Ursula detail their close friendship and scientific relationship, taxonomic exchange on Umbilicaria and species such as Xanthoria lobulata and their shared lichen-hunting trips in the spring and autumn months. Whilst Ursula Duncan holds great presence in the archives, I failed to find any additional information about Pauline Topham, other than two photos, pictured below.
In fact, within the archives, only four women other than Ursula are reliably represented. Since the founding of the society there have been five female presidents, and five female recipients of the Ursula Duncan award. Yet, I could find no mention of their achievements or work that lead to this recognition within material currently held in the archives.
Pauline Topham would have been the first female president had she accepted the role. As vice president and field meetings officer between 1980-1981 (the first woman to hold these posts), she published papers on the genus Umbilicaria and did work on spore size and the growth rate of Rhizocarpon geographicum across Scotland. An extremely senior statistician for Scottish Horticultural Research and a prolific collector, Pauline contributed over 34,000 records to the BLS database and travelled extensively to collect in obscure locations such as Greenland (the specimens of which are now held by the NHM). However, all that is documented of her legacy in the BLS archives is her name in letterheads and a photo of the back of her head. Her obituary was never finalised and never made it to any Bulletin.
A glimpse in the photo albums stacked between the piles of correspondence of their male counterparts tells a vastly different story. Spread across social events, fieldtrips, and AGMs are the gleeful faces of the many female society members captured and curated by Mary Hickmott. Spanning 1983-2010, these albums and accompanying diaries serve such an important role in capturing the community, friendships and faces of the BLS not found elsewhere.
Mary’s legacy within the archives forms some of the most significant records for the BLS, representing 90% of the entire photographic collection. For this, I think we need to recognise her efforts and say a well overdue ‘thank you’.
Without Mary’s photos, each with a date and names of those included, I would have presumed that the society had few notable female members. From this discovery, I set about compiling a list of names, for which their only mention in the archives was Mary’s photo collection. From this alone I created a list of 25 women. This list, however, does not represent the active members in the society who are completely unrepresented.
Take, for example, Janet Simkin, who has managed the BLS spatial records database since 2000, a role that involves importing, cleaning, querying, and programming data to produce maps on request for both individuals and organisations. A member of the Conservation Committee 2003-, vice president 2012-3, president 2014-5, and webmaster 2012-20, Janet also lectures at Newcastle University, researching lichen communities in abandoned lead mines.
Sandy Coppins’ work and contributions are also absent from the archive. The first female president of the BLS, 2002-4, there is no mention of her work with Pat Wolseley doing the Exmoor Woodlands Lichen Survey, or her ambitious and successful Lichen Apprentice Scheme in Scotland. This provided training workshops, and opportunities in terms of funded projects for apprentices to go on and apply their skills working with active lichen consultants conducting visits at over 50 SSSIs.
Alice Burnet, Ann Allen, Ishpi Blatchley, Vanessa Winchester, Barbara Hilton, Becky Yahr. The list of people missing from the BLS archives could go on.
Witnesses to the Past
Much like the lichens they study, the contributions of these women have been growing in plain sight yet remain overlooked in the BLS archives. These unexpected gaps and missing narratives within the archives show that no archive is completely neutral in its representation of history. Given the pernicious gender stereotypes that have historically existed in botany, and by extension lichenology, it is the responsibility of all scientists to ensure that no contributions are overlooked or minimised in historical archives even if these contributions exist outside of academia.
Societies like the BLS are not founded on science per se, but the shared enthusiasm of a subject. There would be no science without people, excursions, collaborations, and conversations, and this needs to be properly reflected. Archives are witnesses to the past. It is essential that they accurately represent the work of the society and all its members.
In her obituary, Ursula Duncan was described as:
“Reticent about her many achievements and naturally modest by nature”
I say: don’t let these women’s modesty nor ingrained prejudices bury their legacy.