He was born in Bacup, Lancashire, England and attended classes at night school whilst working in a mill. He afterwards studied at the Royal College of Science, London and Owens College, Manchester, where he was awarded an M.Sc. Trained in geology and paleontology, he worked as assistant keeper (1890–1898) and curator (1898–1911) at Manchester Museum before becoming Director of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (1911–1930). 
He died in retirement in Reading, Berkshire. His daughter Edith (born 1893) became a botanist.
- Genoways, Hugh H.; Andrei, Mary Anne, eds. (2016). Museum Origins: Readings in Early Museum History and Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. p. 308. ISBN 978-1-315-42399-9.
- Wallis, F. S. (15 February 1936). "Dr. Herbert Bolton". Nature. 137 (3459): 263–264. doi:10.1038/137263a0.
- Former Fellows of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF). 1. The Royal Society of Edinburgh. 2006. p. 96. ISBN 090219884X.
- Genoways, Hugh (2008). Museum Origins: Readings in Early Museum History and Philosophy.
- "Murchison Fund". Geological Society. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
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