Seth Lister Mosley: Huddersfield naturalist, autodidact and the first curator of Tolson Museum (1848-1929)

Dr Janette Martin
7 min readOct 23, 2021
A group photograph of the museums and grounds staff. Seated at the front is Seth Lister Mosley and his son Charles Mosley, who was the first Assistant Curator at Tolson Memorial Museum and succeeded his father as Curator in 1925. Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Seth Lister Mosley was born in the township of Lepton just outside of Huddersfield in March 1848 and brought up at nearby Almondbury. He was the son of James, a handloom weaver turned joiner who was also, literally, a poacher turned gamekeeper. His mother’s family were small domestic manufacturers. Due to illness he had little formal education and spent much time in the company of his parents. Consequently, he always considered himself to be mainly self-taught. His father was also a self-educated naturalist at a time when that activity usually consisted mainly of collecting specimens of plants, insects, birds etc. James was also a skilled taxidermist, or bird stuffer as the art was colloquially described and his services were used by many local collectors. One of these was Albert Beaumont, a woollen manufacturer, whose collection of over 270 birds became the core collection of Huddersfield’s town museum.

The Birthplace of Seth Lister Mosley, Lepton near Huddersfield

Seth’s father also bred butterflies which were used to compile framed collages to decorate Victorian drawing rooms or pub parlours. As well as trading specimens of butterflies and birds had his own collection of exhibits in his home which he advertised as ‘Mosley’s Museum’.

Painted Lady butterfly. Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Consequently, from an early age Seth was enthused with a love of nature and collecting which grew into an ambition to have his own museum. From his father he also inherited strong secularist views and in his teens he became active in the Huddersfield Secularist Society which developed his abilities at writing and public speaking. Seth became a painter and decorator but his passion remained natural history. In 1869 he joined the vibrant Huddersfield Naturalists Society and soon became one of its most active members, collecting moths and butterflies from the New Forest to the Scottish borders. In 1880 he moved to a house near Beaumont Park, where he soon opened his own museum with refreshment facilities for visitors to the park. The year before he had become co-editor of the journal ‘The Young Naturalist’. He was also developing a reputation as a natural history illustrator, drawing and colouring insects and birds for various publications.

Brimstone. Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

The museum was also a base for issuing his own publications and educational ventures. He won the support of the local education authorities for introducing natural history into local schools. From the mid-1870s he had begun to increasingly question his secularist ideas and by 1890 he had adopted his own version of Christianity which led him onto the Methodist fold. Despite the respect he was held in the community his efforts to establish a town museum based on the Beaumont and other local collections plus thousands of his own exhibits did not garner enough support and in disappointment he sold many of the best specimens from the Beaumont Park Museum and closed it down by the end of the century. Shortly afterwards the work he had done to establish a natural history collection at the Huddersfield Technical College was recognised by the award of post as part-time curator, which he combined with a part time curatorship of the recently opened Keighley Museum. These jobs he combined with efforts to promote Nature Study in schools and in the wider community through organisations such as the British Field Club. His realisation of the immorality and futility of killing living creatures merely to acquire collections led him to the concept of the ‘New Nature Study’ based instead on acquiring knowledge of the way of life of different species and how they interacted in the natural world — an embryonic form of ecology, a science just becoming popular. This he happily combined with his religious views in a ‘mission’ to make people aware of importance of the natural world to human well-being.

In 1914 he was granted his own column in the Huddersfield Examiner entitled ‘Nature Around Huddersfield’ which gave him a platform for publicising his projects, such as his ambitious survey of Huddersfield area, recording every species and the physical geography and geology by each Square Mile. The following year he brought out in book form his ‘Birds of the Huddersfield Area’, dedicated to his father, but also unequivocally denouncing the methods of the old naturalists ‘I regret that the book is a record of murder and plunder from beginning to end.’ As curator at the Technical College he had advocated replacing cases of stuffed birds and drawers of mounted insects with good illustrations accompanied by more educational information. To this end he produced tens of thousands of post-cards of flowers, birds and insects which he disseminated as widely as he could. This he continued to promote, but, when he was appointed curator of Huddersfield’s Tolson Memorial Museum in 1920 he had to bow to more conventional forms displaying specimens and put immense effort into making the bird room — which was comprised of so many of his father’s works — as illustrative of each bird’s habitat as possible. His curatorship drew together the threads of his life and united the various collections that he had been involved with –his father’s specimens, others from the Technical College and elements of his own Beaumont Park collection.

Grass Drake. Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

His religious ideas had also undergone a profound transformation during the war years and, although he retained some of the language of Christianity, his view was now predominantly Pantheist, in that he saw god, who he now equated with universal spirit, and Nature as one. Since all life was divine any form of killing was unacceptable — a position which sometimes conflicted with the needs of the museum. In 1925, mid some growing friction with the museum authorities he retired from curatorship, but not from his ‘mission’ to increase awareness and reverence for the natural world. He continued with his Examiner column until a couple of weeks before his death in February 1929. From his early days as a collector who saw the natural world as composed of objects to be desired and acquired in the name of ‘science’ he now regarded all life as interconnected and sacred, anticipating in his last article, ‘the time will come when men will see the wisdom of Nature and adopt her plans and follow her path; not till then shall we have “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men”’

Sheildrake. Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Hopefully the biography of Seth in preparation to mark the centenary of the founding of Tolson Museum may lead to greater recognition of his work and an attempt to form a combined Mosley collection. Seth’s prodigious amount of writing, his art work and his own taxidermy and insect collections should be identified and brought together, starting with those in the Tolson Museum and Kirklees Archive collections. A full bibliography needs to be compiled embracing his writing for newspapers and natural history journals. Now and then dispersed material appears on the auction circuit — postcards, books issued in parts, illustrations etc Seth the collector has now become collectible. His ‘Birds of the Huddersfield District’ (1915) book now commands thousands of pounds. But the known material is only a fraction of his output. Only a few of his Square Mile survey records remain in Tolson Museum. Diaries or field notes (which must have been detailed and extensive) seem to have also disappeared. His son Charles was a keen photographer, yet few photographs of Seth appear to have survived. Seth is now portrayed in the bird-room of Tolson Museum, but his achievements are far wider than this culmination of his life’s work. He exemplifies the maxim that ‘a prophet is not honoured in his own country’ and his all-round character as collector, naturalist, taxidermist, illustrator, teacher, preacher, scientist and missionary for Nature should finally be recognised.

The Seth Lister Mosley Archive: Copyright Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Find out more

The Tolson Museum is located in Ravensknowle Park, Huddersfield. To find out more about the Seth Lister Mosley collections held there please contact Dr Nathan Smith

You can find further information on West Yorkshire Archive Service: Kirklees and Mosley material held there by exploring these links.

If you would like to contact the blog author Alan Brooke please follow the link

Next Year Huddersfield Local History Society will publish a book by Alan Brooke called, ‘Nature’s Missionary: Seth Lister Mosley, Naturalist, Museum Curator and Mystic 1848–1929'. Copies will be sold via the Society website and at the Tolson Museum.

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Dr Janette Martin

Research and Learning Manager (Special Collections) interested in developing online learning resources drawn from the spectacular collections held at the UoM