Tuesday, May 25, 2010

She Sells Sea Shells

Ever since I first visited Lyme Regis in 1980 I've been fascinated by both its literary and geological connections. I must admit I initially wanted to visit because of Jane Austen's Persuasion and was enchanted to find the little bow windowed houses and the wonderful harbour wall known as the Cobb from which Louisa Musgrave fell in Austen's story. A visit to the local museum however opened up another fascination for me in the life and work of the well known fossil collector and dealer Mary Anning.

Whilst on that first visit I bought the little book and postcards in the photo above and have kept them all this time. Of course, over the years, I've read in other books about the life of Mary Anning - books like Deborah Cadbury's The Dinosaur Hunters.

Mary's life was a harsh one! She and her brother Joseph were the only surviving children of the 10 born to Richard and Mary Anning. As an infant she was struck by lightening- an accident that changed her completely. Her family weren't well off, her father was a cabinet maker and fossil enthusiast; Mary followed in his footsteps and from early in her childhood was able to spot and collect fossils from the beaches in and around Lyme. Her father died when she was still young and Mary took over as the main hunter of fossils whilst her family sold the fossils from their house in Cockmoile Square. Mary collected things like ammonites, Belemnites and sea urchins to clean and sell.

She came to the attention of many of the scientists and collectors of the day including The Reverend William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and the Reverend William Conybeare. As she scoured the beaches of Black Venn and the Undercliffe with her faithful dog, Tray she found some of the most startling and interesting fossils. As well as finding the remains of creatures now known as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs - at first thought to be ancient crocodiles and turtles - she also discovered the first complete pterodactyl, or pterosaur as they are now called, in the UK.

Imagine then my delight to find a new novel written by Tracy Chevalier about the life of Mary Anning. This book covers Mary's young life and her friendship with the Philpot sisters and in particular Elizabeth Philpot who was herself a collector of fossil fish. The Philpots had moved from London to Lyme about 1805 (missing Jane Austen, who visited in 1804, by a year) and were soon drawn into the social life of the town. The Philpot Museum in Lyme was built in 1901 on the site of Mary Anning's first home by Thomas Philpot the sisters' great nephew as a memorial to their life and work in Lyme.

Tracy Chevalier's 'Remarkable Creatures' brought Mary to life for me. It is written in the first person a chapter each in the words of Mary and Elizabeth covering the same events in time from differing viewpoints. She has captured society's restrictions on both Mary Anning and the Philpot sisters so well. Mary, of a lower class to the Philpots, was disapproved of by their servant Bessie. The genteel sisters - non of whom would marry - the cards and dancing at the assembly rooms, the interest in botany, art and drawing and collecting fossils; the making of salves and lotions to distribute for presents. It was Mary who worked so much in what was then considered a man's world - roaming the beaches of Lyme, hacking out fossils, cleaning them in the family basement and dealing with the gentlemen collectors and dealers as well as the geologists and scientists with whom she became acquainted over the years.

Mary's work was finally acknowledged when, just a few years before her death in 1847 she was granted a modest annuity raised by members of The Geological Society and others even though women were not admitted as members at the time. Mary left Lyme only once in her life to visit London. She is buried in the churchyard at St Michael and All Saints, Lyme where there is also a window dedicated to her and her work, paid for by the Geological Society.

It is said that the 'tongue-twister' whose first line is 'She sells sea shells on the sea shore' was inspired by the life of Mary Anning - hence the title of this post.

Wikipedia entry for Mary Anning - link

William Buckland's paper on 'The discovery of a new Species of Pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis' - link

The Philpot Museum's website - link

Waterstone's Review of Remarkable Creatures - link


  1. What a great true story - I'll have to find the book. Lyme Regis is such a wonderful place - I may stick it on the list for next year! xxxxx

  2. Fascinating! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. I learned something :-)

    The cover of the book, "Remarkable Creatures" is simply gorgeous!

  3. This has been an engrossing and enlightening read Rosie. I knew a little bit about Mary Anning and now I can't wait to read this book!

    I love Lyme Regis mainly because of the Jane Austen connection but after seeing the film of The 'French Lieutenant's Daughter' I just had to walk along the Cobb in a suitably romantic fashion!!

    Wonderful post - thank you Rosie.


  4. A wonderful post Rosie. I feel inclined to get the book about Mary now. What a fascinating person. x

  5. Yes, it was because of the the tongue twister that I came rushing to your blog (just kidding) -it's interesting though that Anne had a fossil shop in her day and age -wouldn't that be very unusual?

  6. Thanks for sharing the story, Rosie. I've never heard of Mary before or been to Lyme Regis.I'll look out for the book!
    My children loved fossils when they were small. We have a good collection from the beaches in and around Portland.
    Love Kathy xxx

  7. I enjoyed reading 'Remarkable Creatures' as much as 'Girl with a Pearl Earing' MayS

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  11. I have just finished reading this book yesterday and it touched such a chord in me i just had to find out more. Having visited Lyme Regis twice before i knew little of Mary Anning having never stepped foot in the museum, now i long to return and absorb all the facts about such an extraordinary woman!
    Great Post :) X

  12. Hope you don't mind a comment on an old blog post but I just had to say how glad I am Amanda recommended your blog. I loved these posts on Lyme Regis and they brought back happy memories as we had a holiday (our first in Dorset) there a few years ago.

    I really enjoy collecting fossils so it was bit of a pilgrimage for me to go Mary Anning country and visit the museum you mention (and fossil shop!). Loved the Jane Austen connection too and also read the French Lieutenant's Woman when we were there. I bought the same books as you from the museum! I do have the Dinosaur Hunters book in my pile of books to be read so will read that when I've finished the non-fiction I am reading at the moment and it won't be long before I buy that Tracy Chevalier book for my Kindle.

    Two wonderful posts and I shall be working my way through some more of your old blog posts :)

    1. I'm glad you found both Lyme Regis posts and hope you enjoy reading through some of the old posts. I've enjoyed several of Tracy Chevalier's books but have never read her most famous one 'The Girl with the Pearl Earing,' I must do that one day. I'd love to go back to Lyme one day too:)

    2. Thanks Rosie - I've not read any of her books but several are now on my Amazon Wish List! :) We may return to Lyme this year as we have a week booked away in East Devon (Sidbury) and its not far from there.

    3. I hope you do return to Lyme, say hello for me if you do. I'd love to go back again but with two elderly cats one on medication we don't like to leave them for too long. Our neighbour looks after them very well but I know she worries about if something happened whilst we are away so we tend to have short breaks now and the South West is such a long journey and warrents a longer holiday there:)