Thomas Whitelegge was what some have termed a “working man naturalist” or “artisan naturalist” – that is to say, he had relatively little in the way of formal education but nevertheless, through interest and application, became a respected botanist and zoologist.
He was born in Stockport, the son of a brickmaker (?) on the 7th August, 1850. He left school at age 8, and worked in a factory before being apprenticed to a hatter (see details on the blog of Manchester Museum). However, he did not complete his apprenticeship but went to work on a farm in Lancashire; it was whilst working here that his interest in natural history developed.
He joined the Ashton-under-Lyne Linnean Botanical Society and began the study of botany. He had a good knowledge of natural history and his detailed knowledge of microscopic pond life was soon recognized by others. He was later to help establish the Ashton Biological Society .
He married Ellen Steele in 1880. The 1881 census records that he was living at Russell Street, Ashton-under-Lyne and described him as a felt hatter. He was living with his “in-laws”; that is, in Aaron (a blacksmith) and Eliza Steele’s household; with his wife, Ellen (described as a hearth rug maker), his daughter Annie (3 months) and widowed mother, Elizabeth Beeston. After the death of his mother, he and his wife (with their young family) migrated to Australia in 1883.
At first, he earned a living through plastering, and working in a brewery. However, his talents were soon recognised. He met (Rev) Julian Tenison-Woods, president of the Linnean Society of New South Wales and was proposed for membership by (Sir) William Macleay.
Whitelegge attended the society’s weekly gatherings at Macleay’s house at Elizabeth Bay. He also joined the Royal Society of New South Wales. Whitelegge was an authority on ferns and mosses.
He maintained contact with the UK as is evidenced by this snippet from The Microscopical News and Northern Microscopist :
He was one of Darwin’s correspondents (on gynodioecism in Ranunculus) – see http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/. Thomas Whitelegge died on 4 August 1927 in Sydney.
Sheets / herbarium specimens associated with Thomas Whitelegge may be found on the herbaria@home website – follow this link
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With thanks to archive.org for the various snippets / images above