Mary Anning and me
Of the subjects she researched while working at Lyme Regis Museum, Jo Draper found one in particular unfailingly interesting
Published in June ’10
It is a great comfort to me that I am not alone in being fascinated by Mary Anning. When I left her home town of Lyme Regis after sixteen years working there, I wanted to try to understand why she continued to charm me, even though I had answered hundreds of enquiries about her while working at Lyme Museum, and tried to help people researching her for books, plays, television, radio and even a novel.
Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 and lived and worked there all her life, dying in 1847 aged only 48. As I have said in several displays, she was the right person in the right place at the right time. Geology was just developing in the early 19th century, with intense public interest, and Lyme with its richly fossilised deposits was just the right place for scientific discovery. Mary was clever, systematic and determined, strong and in essence scientific. Her family were from the same social class as a slightly later Dorset achiever, Thomas Hardy (born 1840). Their fathers were craftsmen. Richard Anning was a cabinetmaker or carpenter and collected fossils to sell as curiosities as well. That was the state of geology: fossils were simply odd objects. Over Mary Anning’s lifetime, with her work contributing, this all changed.
Mary was a rare early 19th-century woman scientist, which makes her interesting but not fascinating. The feminist applauds her for this, but in the past it has caused disapproval. Cyril Wanklin, Lyme’s historian, stated at a public lecture in 1930: ‘It is difficult for us to understand Mary Anning’s widespread reputation nowadays….She was, in fact, not a scientist at all, only the handmaiden of scientific men, and she became associated with many of great distinction.’ It’s difficult not to want to hit him. Obviously, even in the 1930s, only men could be scientists and important. Wanklin conveniently ignores the many tributes from these real men scientists to Mary – for example, Henry de la Beche (an important early male geologist) in his obituary of Mary, ‘who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her many talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge.’ There are several more.
The history of science is a recent study, but Mary Anning’s life and work have been written about from the mid-19th century. Even in her lifetime, people were interested in this rare scientific female, although this was partly due to her having survived a lightning bolt which killed her nurse and two teenagers when she was only 18 months old. ‘She had been a dull child before but after this accident she became lively and intelligent and grew up so,’ according to a contemporary account.
One of the bonuses with Mary Anning is the times she lived in: because so many diaries, accounts of travels, etc, survive from the first half of the 19th century, she keeps popping up. Most famously the King of Saxony’s visit to her shop in 1844 finished with his physician asking for the address. Mary ‘with a firm hand wrote her name “Mary Anning” in my pocket-book, and added, as she returned the book into my hands, “I am well known throughout the whole of Europe.”’ Well done, Mary: they must have annoyed her.
So she was doing marvellous work in an interesting town and at interesting times. Very good, very scientific. Unusual in being a woman in a new science dominated by well-educated, well-off men. Good, but not fascinating. There are many things we don’t know about her, which intrigues. But for me it is her surviving letters which bring her to life, make her into a real person and produce the fascination. She can be a bit of a dodgy speller, but this was common in the early 19th century and would not have marked her out at all. In one letter she describes herself as illiterate, but in fact she was a very direct writer.
She wrote of the great storm of 1824: ‘Oh! my dear Fanny, you cannot conceive what a scene of horror we have gone through at Lyme, in the late gale: a great part of the Cobb is demolished, every vessel and boat driven out of the harbour, and the greatest part destroyed; two of the revenue men drowned, all the back part of Mrs. England’s houses and yards washed down, with the greater part of the hotel, and there is not one stone left of the next house; indeed, it is quite a miracle that the inhabitants saved their lives. Every bit of the walk, from the rooms to the Cobb, is gone; and all the back parts of the houses, from the fish-market to the gun-cliff, next to the baths. My brother lost, with others, a great part of his property. All the coal cellars and coals being gone, and the Cobb so shattered that no vessel will be safe there, we shall all be obliged to sit without fires this winter: a cold prospect you will allow.’ That letter was published in her lifetime, which is why the spelling has been cleaned up. One statement of hers is very memorable – she told visitors, ‘I always enjoy an opposition amongst the bigwigs.’
I have been lucky enough to make three discoveries relating to Mary’s life. One of the puzzles is how someone as sensible as she ended up completely broke towards the end of her life. The Dorset County Chronicle for 1836 provides the answer: ‘We copy the following from a London Paper:- Mary Anning a female in humble life, residing at Lyme Regis, having by great industry and perseverance attained considerable proficiency in the science of Geology, was lately, by the sudden death of a gentleman to whom she had entrusted without receiving any acknowledgement, a small property of about £200, the fruits of her savings, to invest for her in the most advantageous manner, reduced to straitened circumstances, while her health was impaired from the hardships which she had exposed herself, and the distress of mind consequent on her loss.’ (It is not quite the thing to scream aloud in libraries, but I did, I did.) Happily, many distinguished geologists petitioned the Government and managed to get her a pension ‘for her declining years’.
Mary worked with the Philpot sisters, particularly the eldest, Elizabeth, another pioneering geologist with a fine collection. Strangely, no-one had been able to find any obituary of Elizabeth in the county newspapers. This was because it only appeared six months after her death, and then it was copied from the Athenaeum. It stated, ‘Miss Philpot went upon the lias shore in company with Mary Anning almost daily’, which must be an exaggeration, but the encomium, ‘Miss Philpot was an example of how much may be done for science by a judicious application of skill and judgement’, is a handsome one for a woman for 1857.
These ‘serious’ discoveries pleased me, of course, but the third made me laugh. Several Exeter diaries were published in 1984 in a book called Devon’s Age of Elegance, and I looked at it because I like diaries. Lady Paterson’s diary for 16 June 1831 describes going for tea after dinner ‘to meet some friends who had dined, amongst whom were Lady Duckworth, Major Read etc., and a Miss Anning, a great geologist, who has made some remarkable discoveries’. Mary herself in a letter says she has hardly been out of Lyme, and finding her at a posh dinner party in Exeter is a huge surprise. Lady Paterson refers to her as ‘Miss Anning’, rather than the working-class inferior terminology of ‘Mary Anning’. After tea ‘Captain Halstead amused the company by his amazing dexterity and beautiful tricks with cards, which were ingeniously and neatly done.’ The mind boggles at our tough Mary, presumably in suitably posh clothes, attending this stately dinner party and then being amused by military card tricks.
I was thrown into Mary Anning studies because of working at Lyme Regis Museum, and I do not want to pretend that I am the main scholar of her history. However, when the television described the first Mary Anning Day at Lyme Museum as celebrating ‘the scientist, Mary Anning’, I did feel a sense of achievement at helping to rescue her from the ‘miraculous child’ legend. I still find her interesting, still fall on any new letter with glee (one turned up last year). Although she has been dead for 160 years, she’s one of the people of Lyme I miss.
1, 3-5. Lyme Regis Museum
2. Courtesy of Roderick Gordon