She Sells Seashells

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

This tongue twister, written in 1908, is believed to be based on the life and discoveries of one woman, the unsung hero of fossil discovery, Mary Anning. Living and working along the Jurassic Coast, Anning unearthed important finds in the marine fossil beds, changing the way scientists thought about prehistoric life on Earth.

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Mary Anning and her loyal companion, Tray

Mary Anning was born on 21st May 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset where her father, Richard (c.1766-1810) worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. To supplement his income and support his large family, Richard combed the beach for “curios” to sell to tourists. Richard and his wife Mary “Molly” (1764-1842) were parents of ten children, only two of which survived infancy. These were Mary, who was named after a deceased older sister, and an older brother Joseph.

The Anning family were religious dissenters and attended a small chapel of “independents” who later became known as Congregationalists. Dissenters were faced with discrimination and were not allowed to study at university, serve in the army or take up certain vocations. As a result, the family was very poor and lived in a cottage so close to the sea that it was often flooded. On one occasion, the Anning’s were forced to climb out of an upstairs window to avoid drowning inside.

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1842 sketch of Anning’s house

Despite being poor, Mary Anning was well-known in the village from a young age. In 1800, when Anning was only 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbour under an elm tree, which was suddenly struck by lighting. The neighbour and the other people under the tree were all killed, however, Mary miraculously survived. Superstitious neighbours later attributed Anning’s intelligence, curiosity and personality to the event.

Schooling was limited for females at the beginning of the nineteenth century so, combined with her parents’ lack of money, Anning could not receive a normal education. Instead, she relied on the Sunday School at the Congregational chapel for lessons in reading and writing. Many Congregational churches at that time concentrated on educating the poor than traditional Sunday School lessons.

Anning’s interest in fossils came primarily from her father, however, she was also inspired by her pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton. In the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, Wheaton had published two articles; one arguing that God created the world in six days and the other urging the congregation to study science and geology.

As soon as she was old enough, Anning’s father allowed her to accompany him and her brother Joseph on fossil-finding expeditions. Mary and Joseph likely did the majority of the work for, by this time, their father was suffering from tuberculosis. He was also suffering from injuries after falling from a cliff. By November 1810, Richard Anning was dead and the family were left with significant debts, forcing them to apply for parish relief.

Meanwhile, Anning and her brother continued collecting and selling fossils to tourists. They set up a stall near the coach stop to draw the attention of people visiting the seaside resort. Labelled as “curios”, the Annings sold significant fossils, possibly without being fully aware of what they were.

Although Mary Anning eventually became famous for her finds, it was her brother Joseph who found the first significant fossil. This was a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull. An ichthyosaurus, meaning “fish lizard”, was an extinct marine reptile from the Mesozoic era. It is estimated they first appeared 250 million years ago and disappeared 90 million years ago. They are likely distant ancestors of the modern-day whale and dolphin.

Ichthyosaur specimens had been discovered before but this skull was the most complete. Yet, what makes this find all the more impressive is what Anning discovered a few months later. At only 12 years of age, Anning found the rest of the skeleton.

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Ichthyosaurus communis specimen

Some people thought Anning had dug up a monster and others thought it was the skeleton of a crocodile, however, Anning’s mother Molly realised it was something special and sold it to Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham House, Norfolk, for £23. Eventually, the fossil ended up in the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum, where it created a lot of attention. Most people in England believed in the Biblical creation, which when taken literally, implied the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Claiming that Anning had found a skeleton that could potentially be 200 million years old, went against many people’s beliefs.

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Mary Anning’s sketch of her first plesiosaur

In 1823, Anning made another discovery: a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus. This creature, meaning “near lizard” in Greek, was a large marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic Period. It had a small head on the end of a long, slender neck. Its body was like that of a turtle with a short tail and elongated legs or flippers. Once again, this discovery went against the traditional story of creation.

The outrage following the discovery of the fossil caused people to claim it was a fake. Even the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) disputed its authenticity and a special meeting was organised by the Geological Society of London to examine the fossil properly. Cuvier eventually admitted the skeleton was real, however, the society was hesitant to record that is was Anning, a mere girl, that had made the discovery. It was not until the early 20th century that women were accepted by the society.

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Sketch of Mary Anning at work by Henry De la Beche

By 1825, Anning was more or less running the family fossil business alone. Her brother Joseph was training to be an upholsterer and, although he remained an active fossil hunter, his career took up the majority of his time.

Anning continued to sell the fossils to tourists but rarely made more than a few shillings at a time. This was a mere pittance and did not take into account the time, effort and danger it took to extract the fossils from the sea bed and rocks. In 1823, Anning had barely escaped from a landslide, which killed her black and white terrier, Tray.

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”
– Mary Anning to a friend, Charlotte Murchison

Despite only selling fossils for a small amount of money, there were so many small invertebrate fossils in the area, such as ammonite shells, that Anning managed to save enough money to purchase her own home in 1826. The 27-year-old’s new home included a glass store-front window, which she used for her shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot.

Due to her previous discoveries, Anning was well-known in the area and soon she was attracting customers throughout Britain, Europe and even from America. Geologists and fossil collectors regularly visited Anning’s shop, which had an ichthyosaur skeleton on display. This was later purchased by King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (1797-1854) in 1844 for the modest sum of £15.

The British-American Geologist George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866) was another keen visitor to Anning’s Fossil Depot. In 1827, he purchased many fossils from Anning for his New York Lyceum of Natural History, now known as the New York Academy of Sciences.

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Anning’s first pterosaur

In 1828, Anning discovered the fossil of a ray-finned fish that lived in the Early Jurassic period. Whilst this garnered interest from the Geological Society, it was her discovery at the end of the year that hit the headlines. What at first seemed to be a jumble of bones turned out to be a partial skeleton of a pterosaur.

A pterosaur was, as its Greek name suggests, a winged lizard. With wings reaching over 30 ft, it is estimated these creatures could rival the giraffe in height. They existed during the Mesozoic Era, which occurred between 252 million and 66 million years ago.

William Buckland (1784-1856), a theologian and later Dean of Westminster, was the president of the Geological Society of London at the time of Anning’s discovery. Buckland was one of the very few people who credited Anning in their papers. As well as the pterosaur, Buckland praised Anning for her skill in dissecting cephalopods, a type of squid, and for solving the mystery of coprolites, which Anning suggested correctly were fossilised faeces.

Despite being more knowledgable than most of the people who purchased her fossils, Anning was never allowed to attend any meetings at the Geological Society, not even when it was her finds that were being discussed. A friend of Anning’s, Anna Pinney, reported, “She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.” It was mainly through people like Buckland that Anning kept abreast of the discussions occurring in London. Buckland was a lecturer on geology at Oxford University, however, he often spent his Christmas holidays in Lyme, assisting Anning in her hunt for fossils.

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Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset

Another good friend of Anning was the palaeontologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) who had moved to Lyme when he and Anning were teenagers. De la Beche often helped Mary and Joseph on the beaches and continued to keep in touch after moving away to establish himself as one of Britain’s leading geologists. In 1830, De la Beche was inspired to paint Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset from which he produced and sold prints. This example of palaeoart was the first of its kind, representing prehistoric life based on fossils. De la Beche gave the money raised from the prints to Anning, who, despite being a successful fossil hunter, continually struggled to make ends meet.

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Front piece of The book of the Great Sea Dragons

Gradually, as well as purchasing from her shop, geologists visited Lyme to collect fossils under Anning’s instruction. On one occasion, Anning led Buckland and two other geologists, William Conybeare (1787-1857) and Richard Owen (1804-92) on a fossil-collecting excursion. She also helped the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins (1810-89) search for ichthyosaur fossils. Hawkins went on to write many books, including Memoirs of Icthyosaurii and Plesiosaurii and The Book of the Great Sea Dragons.

Louis Agassiz (1807-73), a Swiss geologist, was so thankful for Anning’s help when he was searching for fish fossils in Lyme Regis in 1834 that he named two specimens after her. These were the Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae, which became extinct around 54 million years ago.

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Cast of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus found by Mary Anning in 1830

Anning’s final major find was a skeleton of a new type of plesiosaur, which she discovered in 1830. She sold the skeleton for £200 but lost all her savings five years later due to a bad investment. It is not certain whether she entrusted her money to a conman or whether the man died suddenly before the investment was finalised, however, there was no way Anning could retrieve the money.

Concerned for her welfare, William Buckland went to both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to persuade them to award Anning a civil list pension in return for her contributions to geology. Although it was unusual for a woman to receive such an annuity, Anning was granted a £25 annual pension, which gave her a certain amount of financial security for the rest of her life.

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Gravestone of Anning and her brother Joseph in St Michael’s churchyard

Anning’s career as a fossil collector was hindered by breast cancer. When the Geological Society learnt about her diagnosis in 1846, they raised money to help her cover the expenses of her medical treatment. Unfortunately, she passed away on 9th March 1847 at the age of 47.

Henry De la Beche wrote a eulogy, which was read at a meeting of the Geological Society and published in the society’s quarterly transaction. This was the first time a woman had been honoured in this way. Later, in 1865, Charles Dickens (1812-70) wrote about Anning’s life in his magazine All the Year Round. He commented on the difficulties she faced as a woman and concluded the article with, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Anning was buried at St Michael’s Church on 15th March 1847. Although Anning had attended the local Congregational church as a child, attendance began to dwindle after the beloved pastor and fossil collector left in 1828. Anning decided to leave the church and its new, less likeable pastor for the Anglican church. Some of her regular customers, including Buckland, Conybeare, and Sedgwick, were members of the clergy and supported Anning’s decision. The move also earned her more respect since the Congregationalists were still distrusted by the locals.

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Mary Anning’s Window, St Michael’s Church

Shortly after her death, members of the Geological Society raised money for a stained-glass window in Anning’s honour, which was unveiled at St Michael’s Church in 1850. “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.” The window shows the six corporal acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick.

Despite her early death, Anning’s discoveries continued to help geologists and led to the creation of the discipline palaeontology. Although the finds initially caused controversy with the strict teachings of the Church, people were now aware that there had been an “age of reptiles”. They also provided evidence for extinction, which was another thing that caused outrage amongst the devoutly religious. People protested that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect.

Gradually, people began to adapt to the new ideas and realise they did not evidence that God did not exist and accepted them as new information about God’s creation. Throughout the 20th century, authors began to publish books about Anning’s life, for instance, The Heroine of Lyme Regis: The Story of Mary Anning the Celebrated Geologist by H. A. Forde.

Unfortunately, Anning’s name gradually faded from the history books and science books until she was almost forgotten. Whilst schools taught children about dinosaurs, they did not cover the people who discovered the skeletons and fossils. Fortunately, those working in the field of palaeontology remembered her, holding an international meeting of historians, palaeontologists, fossil collectors, and others interested in Anning’s life in Lyme Regis to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth.

The Natural History Museum credits Anning with many of the fossils in their collection. They have also named the members-only area the Anning Rooms in her memory. The Rooms include a restaurant, lounge and study area.

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In 2018, it was announced that Kate Winslet would play Mary Anning in an upcoming British-Australian romantic drama film called Ammonite. The film is scheduled to be released in 2020. Another film currently in the post-production stage is Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters. This film, unlike Ammonite, which starts later in Anning’s life, is a biopic spanning from her birth into adulthood. Jenny Agutter is cast as Anning’s friend and mentor Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857).

Philpot was an amateur fossil collector who, like Anning, collected fossils in Lyme Regis. She befriended Anning when she was only a child and, despite the 20-year age gap, they remained close for the rest of their lives. Although it was Anning who made the most significant discoveries, Philpot was the person that encouraged Anning to read about geology and understand the fossils she collected.

It is hoped that these films will boost knowledge and interest in Mary Anning and her contributions to science. More and more women are being acknowledged for their achievements during a time when women were not allowed to be credited. Since the anniversary of the Women’s Rights campaign led by the suffragists and suffragettes, more determination has been exerted to discover the women who have been erased from history. Mary Anning is just one of many women who deserve to be remembered.

3 thoughts on “She Sells Seashells

  1. Another interesting blog about a lesser known character from history. Thank you Hazel for bringing her to my attention.

  2. So interesting on many levels, the Congregational church level, role of women, the social background. Every sentence made you want to read the next. It should have wider circulation because it topical and educational. Reading it Hazel was a great investment of my time. But on thinking about it, everything you write and I read is a great investment of my time. Thank you for sharing your considerable talent.

  3. Pingback: The Tale of Beatrix Potter | Hazel Stainer

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