Thomas Greenlees – 1864 to 1949

This account is condensed from information given by his daughter, Mrs. Winifred Crook, herself a distinguished botanist who has a variety of skimmia, which she bred, named after her at Kew.

Thomas Greenlees, who was the joint author of ‘Flora in Bolton’, was the youngest of six children of Joseph and Alice (nee Houghton) of Astley Bridge. He left school when he was about ten and went to work at Walkers Tannery.

In 1894 he married Sarah Jane Whittle and had two sons and two daughters. There were often slack periods at the tannery when he was ‘laid off’ and then he did a variety of jobs – tram conductor, insurance collector, verger at All Souls and owner of a shop at Morris Green where he brewed herb beer. Whatever herbs it included it was also made with hops and malt, which is doubtless why one of his customers said that the pleasantest death he could think of, was to drown in Tom Greenlees’s herb beer.

Tom became expert in using herbs to cure illness and this is doubtless what kept him fit and healthy until almost the end of his very long life. He also dosed his children: Mrs. Crook had to drink a glass of wormwood every morning. Many people would have preferred poor health to this.

He always had a passion for knowledge. When verger of All Souls he sat at the back of the church reading during services, and in his home in Thurstane Street had shelves of poetry, botanical works, Gibbon, Carlyle, Disraeli and so on.

Eventually he was made the trade union secretary for the leather workers in this area. He was a fervent advocate for his men. Their wage rises were based on the cost of living Index which he checked regularly, exacting all they were entitled to, even if it was only coppers. It was his proud boast that there was never a strike during his term of office, though preventing one involved much plain speaking both to masters and men. Not surprisingly, he was highly respected by both sides. It was characteristic that when he went to conferences he behaved with puritanical thrift, while some of his colleagues regarded the trip as an opportunity to enjoy high living at the union’s expense.

His interests were many and varied. Though he did not play an instrument himself, he saw that all his children did so, and saved to buy one of the early gramophones. He had a camera and did his own developing and printing, though his daughter has only one photograph, that of a small miserable child holding a sprig of some plant and sitting amongst some rocks, a typical Greenlees pose. He painted in watercolours, made his own crystal set, mended the shoes of all the family, had a flourishing allotment, was a fanatical chess player, watched Bolton Wanderers every Saturday in the football season and, when he retired, founded a society to champion the cause of the old age pensioners.

His greatest love, however, was botany, when quite young he got in touch with a number of other self educated men and formed Bolton’s first botanical society, which later became the Bolton Field Naturalist Society. He collected, pressed and mounted specimens of many plants and eventually gave his collection to the old museum on Park Road. Quite recently an exhibition of his work was put on show in Manchester museum and later came to Bolton.

T.K. Holden, with whom he wrote the flora of Bolton, was his great friend, though they were very different. Mr. Holden was educated and scholarly, while Tom Greenlees was self-taught. He had a natural understanding of and sympathy with plants and would talk and write, in his many articles for the Bolton Chronicle, about the wonderful way in which they adapted to their surroundings. He often said that plants had more sense than people; this led to arguments with Mr. Holden.

His favourite verse in the Bible was Psalm 103 V. 10 ‘As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more’

Halliwell may well be proud of such a man.