Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.

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.

mary-anning-portrait-two-column.jpg.thumb_.768.768

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.

mary_anning27s_house_and_shop_in_lyme_regis2c_drawn_in_1842

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.