Repost: Mary Anning: Fossils by the Sea Shore

Here’s another Geoscientist of the Week post from 2014.

This is a guest post by Charles Dickens, who was quite taken with the “she” who sold seashells by the sea shore – Mary Anning (May 21, 1799 to March 9, 1847). Dickens wrote in another time, to another audience, but he conveys a better sense of Mary, what she faced, and what she contributed, than I ever could.


The Mary Anning Window in St. Michael's Church, unveiled in 1850.  The inscription says:  "This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life."  (en:User:Ballista, via Wikipedia)
The Mary Anning Window in St. Michael’s Church, unveiled in 1850. The inscription says: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” (en:User:Ballista, via Wikipedia)

from “All the Year Round,” February 11, 1865

EVERY one must have seen at least an engraving of tiiat strange old-world monster the Plesiosaurus, of which Cuvier said, when the skeleton was sent to him from Lyme Regis, “Verily, this is altogether the most monstrous animal that has yet been found amid the ruins of a former world. It had a lizard’s head, a crocodile’s teeth, a trunk and tail like an ordinary quadruped, a chameleon’s ribs, a whale’s paddles, whilst its neck was of enormous length, like a serpent tacked on to the body.” This ” liassic, first cousin of all lizards,” was discovered by a self-taught geologist, the daughter of a Lyme carpenter.

Things in this world pretty much repeat themselves. Women’s pursuits follow this law. In Lady Jane Grey’s time, hard study was fashionable. Mary Hutchinson and the Duchess of Newcastle are representatives of a race who were something far more than mere students.  Then came a frivolous age, and then, by-and-by, science got to be popular ; the ladies’ pocketbooks and annuals of some forty or fifty years ago almost invariably contain a few algebraic equations, besides arithmetical problems like those which Longfellow’s Kavanagh sets his wife, and some chemical experiments to boot. This age produced the class of whom Mrs. Somerville is the type. We have now got round again to the frivolous epoch ; it will be the men’s fault if it lasts long, for women have consciences, and feel that what their sons are to be depends mainly on them ; besides, their minds are naturally more active than those of the “lords of creation,” and if they now and then taboo everything intellectual, it is because they find such conduct pleases. Geology does not seem a pursuit likely to attract women, yet we have known several who had picked up a very fair knowledge of its outlines some of them literally like Horace’s slave who had mastered the Stoic philosophy while acting as pew-opener in Stertinius’s lecture hall. There was a quaint old lady who used to go her ” midland circuit,” calling on all parsons and other supposed encouragers of science, carrying about with her boxes of ” specimens,” and begging to be allowed to enlighten the national school children at so much a head. Then there is Miss Wetherall, at Amesbury, quite worth a visit, her “museum” being a collection of flints of the oddest shapes, twisted like snakes, knotted like ropes, branching like coral, and her talk being about Stonehenge and the universal pre-diluvian serpent-worship, of which she believes it a remnant, and of noting the zealous affection with which she points out tracings of Karnac, and snake temples in India and America, drawn by her father, the ex-cicerone of the neighbourhood.

Mary Anning - note the rock hammer.  (Wikipedia)
Mary Anning – note the rock hammer. Source

But Mary Anning was something more than a mere village celebrity, interesting to those who like to study character, and are fond of seeing good stubborn English perseverance make way even where there is nothing in its favour. She acquired, if not an English, certainly an European, reputation. Professor Owen thought so highly of her usefulness, that he moved the authorities of the British Museum to grant her a pension of forty pounds a year, which she enjoyed for some little time before her early death.

Her father used to employ the church holidays in picking up along the beach pretty pebbles and shells, fossil and recent, and “verterberries,” and “John Dory’s bones,” and “ladies’ fingers,” and other “curies,” as they were called. Lyme and its neighbour, Charmouth, were then on the old coach-road, and the passengers mostly liked to take away a specimen or two, which they got either from Anning or from a Charmouth “fossiler,” called the Cury-man, or “Captain Cury,” from his trade in curiosities. In August, 1800, little Mary Anning was taken to see some horse-riding in the Rack field. A thunderstorm came on: those in charge of her hurried her under a tree; a flash of lightning struck the party, killing two women on the spot, and making the child insensible. A warm bath restored her to consciousness, and, strangely enough, she who had been a very dull girl before, now grew up lively and intelligent. She soon got to accompany her father in his rambles. “Fossiling,” however, does not appear to ave paid so well as steady carpentry, for the family went down the hill. The father died of consumption, and Mary, at ten years of age, was left very badly off. Just then a lady gave her half-a-crown for a very choice ammonite. This encouraged her to take to collecting as a regular means of life. But she soon proved something more than a mere “fossiler.” Gradually that truth dawned on her mind which our Laureate has so beautifully expressed:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree;
O earth, what changes thou hast seen!
There, where the long street roars, hath been
The silence of the central sea.

Blue lias cliffs at Lyme Regis.  Source.
Blue lias cliffs at Lyme Regis. Michael Maggs

In 1811, she saw some bones sticking out of a cliff; and, hammer in hand, she traced the position of the whole creature, and then hired men to dig out for her the lias block in which it was embedded. Thus was brought to light the first Ichthyosaurus (fish-lizard), a monster some thirty feet long, with jaws nearly a fathom in length, and huge saucer eyes, some of which have been found so perfect, that the petrified lenses (the sclerotica, of which it had thirteen coats) have been split off and used as magnifiers. People then called it a crocodile. Mr. Henley, the lord of the manor, bought it of the enterprising young girl for twenty-three pounds. It is now in the British Museum. Sir Everard Home, writing in 1814, supported the crocodile theory; by-and-by, when more perfect paddles had been discovered, he said it must be a fish. Dr. Buckland (father of our lively young salmon-hatcher) pronounced its breast-bone to be that of a lizard; Dr. Ure hit upon the happy name ichthyosaurus; Conybeare, and De la Beche, and others, had a turn at it; and at last all their drawings, specimens, and a great many fresh details which Miss Anning had since brought to light, were sent over to Cuvier; and, after a ten years’ siege, the Protean monster surrendered, and took the form under which he is at present known. Then came the Plesiosaurus, which was the occasion of a sharper, though shorter, battle. Miss Anning’s business, of course, was not to take sides, but to furnish the combatants with munitions of war now a paddle, then a jaw, then a stomach full of half digested fish. She had in a high degree that sort of intuition without which it is hopeless for any one to think of becoming a good collector of fossils.

Drawing from an 1814 paper by Everard Home showing the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Joseph Anning in 1811. Source
Drawing from an 1814 paper by Everard Home showing the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Joseph Anning in 1811. Source

Here, as in everything else, field and chamber practice are widely different: you may be well up in the latest theories, and able to argue perfectly on the specimen when it is laid before you, and yet you may totally lack that instinct which will lead your brother-collector right to the place where the “specimen” is to be found, and will direct him in following up the track, till from finding a fragment of a claw he succeeds in ferreting out the whole skeleton. Our heroine would have been able, for instance, out of fifty “nodules,” all looking to you much of a muchness, to pick without hesitation the one which, being cleft with a dexterous blow, should show a perfect fish imbedded in what was once soft clay. Scenting out valuable specimens in this way, she enabled the savans to fix four kinds of icthyosauri, besides two plesiosauri, and the extraordinary pterodactyle (discovered in 1828) which made Cuvier retract what he had said of the lizard’s cousin, and award the palm of strangeness to a monster half vampire, half woodcock, with crocodile’s teeth along its tapering bill, and scale armour over its lizard-shaped body. If you have never seen the creature delineated, take Dr. Buckland’s wonderful plate, Duria antiquior, wherein “the dragons of the prime, which tare each other in the slime,” are shown, swimming, flying, biting, fighting, “as ’twas their nature to; and aloft in the corner of the picture, those things that look like Japanese kites, are nature’s first attempts at anything in the bird line. Grewsome beasts they seem to be. Even if the pre-Adamite man is ever proved to have been existing at that epoch, we cannot imagine his wife making pets of them, or his children liking to have them hung about the house in cages, they have such a family likeness to the evil spirits who beset Aeneas or Satan in an old illustrated Virgil or Paradise Lost.

Duria antiquior, by geologist Henry de la Beche, based on fossils found by Mary Anning.
“Duria antiquior,” by geologist Henry de la Beche, based on fossils found by Mary Anning. Source

One more discovery Miss Anning helped to bring about: the ladies’ fingers were at last judged from their surroundings to be the bony processes of pre-chaotic cuttle-fish, belemnites they are now named, because they are long and dart-like, instead of flat like our present cuttle-fish’s inside. Some of them are so perfect that the ink-bag has been found and “utilised.” Dr. Buckland, in his amusing Oxford lectures, used to show drawings in sepia the colouring matter used in making which was countless thousands of years old. Of this lias itself, in which all these creatures are discovered, we must say a word: it is largely exported, especially to Holland, for lias-lime has the property of hardening under water, and so is invaluable in forming the dykes, whereby, with facings of immense blocks of Finland granite, the Dutchmen try to keep the sea out of their polders, or low-level meadows. Everybody knows that our geological strata, of which we can show a greater variety in tin’s little island than much larger countries possess, do not run parallel with any of the coasts, but transversely om north-east to south-west. The chalk goes from Norfolk across to the Isle of Wight, with the Wealden and London clay and other beds laid upon it; the oolite from the North Riding, down through Oxfordshire and westward to Bath, and so on of the rest. Then again the bands are not continuous and unbroken. Often one bed is washed away (denuded) along more than half its original course. This is especially the case with the lias. It is found at Lyme, it “crops out” again in a few other places, but is not largely represented anywhere else except in Leicestershire, where, at Barrow-on-Soar, fish and reptiles identical with those at Lyme might, till lately, have been bought for a fifth of the price which the Duke of Buckingham (who gave one hundred and twenty pounds for a very indifferent icthyosaurus) and other amateurs have made fashionable at Lyme. Alas! intending speculator, the Barrow men have now learnt how to charge.

Mary Anning's letter and drawing announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, December 26,1823. Source
Mary Anning’s letter and drawing announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, December 26,1823. Source

But to return to Miss Anning. Dr. Gurus, who went with the King of Saxony through England and Scotland, in 1844, and wrote an account of his majesty’s journey, speaks of visiting her collection, and securing six feet of reptile for fifteen pounds. The doctor says: “Wishing to preserve the name of this devoted servant of science, I made her write it in my pocket-book; she said, with unaffected pride, as she gave me back the book, ‘My name is well known throughout Europe.’ ” Better known indeed abroad than at home ! In her own neighbourhood, Miss Anning was far from being a prophetess. Those who had derided her when she began her researches, now turned and laughed at her as an uneducated assuming person, who had made one good chance hit. Dr. Buckland and Professor Owen and others knew her worth, and valued her accordingly; but she met with little sympathy in her own town, and the highest tribute which that magniloquent guide-book, The Beauties of Lyme Regis, can offer her, is to assure us that “her death was, in a pecuniary point, a great loss to the place, as her presence attracted a large number of distinguished visitors.” Quick returns are the thing at Lyme. We need not wonder that Miss Anning was chiefly valued as a bait for tourists, when we find that the museum is now entirely broken up, and the specimens returned to those who had lent them. No one had public spirit enough to take charge of a non-paying concern, when the early geological furore had calmed down, and people came to bathe and not to chop rocks. You may now visit the old abode of saurians without being able to see a single tolerable specimen.

Miss Anning wrote sadly enough to a young girl in London: “I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.”

All this time she was dying of a malignant tumour in the breast Her flying to strong drinks and opium to ease the pain of this, her detracting townspeople do not fail to record to her discredit. She died in 1847, and the Geological Society, in concert with the vicar of the place, have lately put up a little memorial window to her in the church – “a poor little thing, sir; one of those kaleidoscope windows, you know,” said one of the “faint praisers,” who, having neglected her in life, seem to think it quite proper to decry all her belongings now she is gone.

Mary Anning at work, painted by Henry de la Beche.  Source
Mary Anning at work, painted by Henry de la Beche. Source

Grateful or ungrateful, the Lyme people live in a pretty country. It is a fine bracing walk over the hills from Bridport, itself a quaint place just a knot of houses by the beach, and all the rest of the town a mile and more inland – so inland, that you don’t see the sea from any part of it. Near Bridport ends the Chesil Bank, that strange pebble beach which runs along from Portland, joining the “island” to the mainland. The pebbles grow gradually smaller as you move westward. At Portland they are as big as respectable potatoes. West of Bridport they are small peas; you think it is a sand-bank till you put your hand down and feel. So regular is this decrease, that they say smugglers, running ashore on blind nights, tell their whereabouts by picking up a handful of gravel.

The road to Lyme is very hilly. Even we, who live in the hilliest part of Somersetshire, groaned at the ups and downs; but what drivers these people are: how glad we were to be afoot, despite the fatigue. After our Zomerzet fashion of locking the wheel at every gentle slope, to see these Dorset men swing along down the hills without either drag or skidpan, was a “caution.” Is it that the men are bolder or the horses better trained? About the Peak, in Derbyshire, they do the same thing; but in the Saxon’s Paradise, the pleasant country, the ” Somer-soet,” we always make as much fuss about a hill as a London ‘bus does in going down by St. Sepulchre’s church. Lyme has a history of its own. It was great in Edward the Third’s reign, when the Cobb, the artificial harbour, was first built; and the Feast of Cobb Ale was founded. The “ale,” in the good old times, was the equivalent of a public dinner now-a-days generally for some good object; and this “Cobb ale” flourished till the Puritans “put it down,” along with stage plays and other unseemly sports. Lyme fitted out two good ships for the Armada. It was defended by Blake against Prince Maurice. The defence of Lyme and that of Taunton are enough to immortalise our great republican admiral, even without his deeds of prowess by sea. As is too often the case, the besieged sullied their cause by sad cruelty in the day of triumph. After the royalists had gone off, they sallied out to pillage, and finding a poor old Irishwoman of the enemy, drove her through the streets to the sea-side, knocked her on the head, slashed and hewed her body with their swords, and, having robbed her, cast her carcase into the sea, where it lay till consumed. The admiral’s secretary says explicitly that the women of the town slew and pulled her in pieces. Whitelock writes much to the same effect. Some tell of a hogshead stuck with nails having been prepared, into which the old woman was put, and so rolled into the sea. Such is civil war. Another sad episode in the history of Lyme is the attempt of the Duke of Monmouth the coward who skulked away from Sedgmoor while the poor Somersetshire rustics, whom he had deluded, charged and charged again, with scythes and billhooks, Kirke’s “lambs” and Feversham’s dragoons. Daniel Defoe was among Monmouth’s men. The brothers Hewling, of Lyme, were among the most pitied victims of the “Bloody Assize.”

But, amidst all the interest attaching to the quiet little “fashionable” watering place, not the least is that which centres round the name of Mary Anning. Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, towards promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.

Mr. Dickens probably didn’t have many fans in Lyme Regis after that essay was published. Nonetheless, today Lyme Regis is a World Heritage Site and people still come to where Mary Anning once sold sea shells by the seashore.

Featured image: Txllxt Txllxt via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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