Thursday, April 18, 2024

Thurrock Local History Society: The Life of Mary Anning

AT our February meeting John Matthews gave us a very detailed and interesting illustrated talk on the life of Mary Anning, a fossil hunter and palaeontologist. 

In Shakespeare’s time no one questioned origins. The bible shows God created heaven and earth – the Great Chain of Being: God, angels, mankind and animals, vegetables, dust and mud, with chaos ensuing if broken. In the 17th century James Usher, Archbishop of Omagh said it started early evening on 22 October 4004BC, using all available evidence, e.g. the bible, using families. However, at the end of the 17C the dodo became extinct, thus breaking the chain. 

In the 18th century geologists questioned how things came into existence, i.e. new land, volcanoes etc., called catastrophes and found 24 such events. James Hutton, the father of geology, said everyday things are producing changes – erosion by wind and rain, called uniformitarianism. It was hard to fit this into the time frame believed; no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end and maybe no creation. He looked at Hadrian’s Wall and saw the effect of weather and thought the earth was 60,000 years old, not only 6,000 as people believed, maybe longer, and he was derided.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799, daughter of a cabinet maker. She always carried a hammer and bag for fossils, searching the beach, accompanied by her dog. She knew the history of Lyme Regis and met Jane Austen. Mary sold the curios she found, which we now call fossils, to tourists. An ichthysoraurus head was found by her brother Joseph; Mary was 12 and subsequently found the rest. Ten years later she found a plesiosaurus, the first time anyone had found one and did not look like anything previously discovered, suggesting that this broke the Great Chain of Being. Much of the world was still unexplored, so there could be more elsewhere. 

Her fossil rocks were split and some sold to tourists. However, three-dimension examples were needed, Mary learning how to remove the surrounding stone. Large fossils were found in pieces and had to be re-assembled. She began to enquire about anatomy and was self-taught, reading papers.  She became an expert and spoke to academics. Mary had a good eye for fossils and illustrated her finds, helping with sales. We can still recognise fossils today from her drawings.

William Conybeare published the first description of a plesiosaurus, quite an important event in newspapers. Fossil finding is an erratic recreation – something or nothing. Some years Mary had no income but was supported by the Geological Society. Later the government was persuaded to give her a small annuity. Also, sales of a lithograph showing various fossils helped funding. It was the first time anyone had tried to picture what they looked like.

She did not publish but sent a letter to the Magazine of Natural History, on curved teeth. She was the only non-professional woman of working class who published. There were very few professional scientists, some emerging in the mid -19th century.

Mary Anning died in 1847; a headstone shows her family. There is also a stained glass window in the church, a very rare dedication to a working class woman. There was a fulsome obituary at a meeting of the Geological Society. Various books have been written and now a species is named after her, even up to 2015. A plaque and statue remember her, erected in 2010. It is estimated that more has been written about her, other than Charles Darwin. Like Wallace, she was well known in her lifetime but has since been forgotten. Exploration is still ongoing, including the discovery of DNA. Some ammonites at Lyme Regis are 2 feet across, with more to be discovered. You can still search the beach, finding fossils of your own.

Our next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 15th March at St John’s Church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays. Our speaker is Dr Twigs Way, her talk entitled ‘Diverse History of Gnomes’. All visitors are welcome.

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