Mary Anning: Letters ed. Bill Griffiths, 1973; Pirate Press.
Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a fossil-hunter, searching along the cliffs at Lyme Regis for remains from the Jurassic period, which she sold to collectors. Arising from this work she is said to be the subject of the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the sea shore“. She made many significant finds, including a number of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. She became acquainted with several recognized scientists and members of the Geological Society of London, which did not at that time allow female members. Anning’s work led to Dr William Buckland’s publication of the conclusion that certain Jurassic animals had used ink for defence, just as modern cephalopods do; and it was she who worked out that the stones known as “bezoar stones” were in fact coprolites, fossilized faeces.
Buckland credited her publicly for this work, but she was not always acknowledged. Her great contributions to palaeontology and related sciences were not properly recognized during her lifetime, since, as a rural working-class woman, she was outside the scientific community and the influential groups. Her letters fit in with many other items in Brunel’s Special Collections which can be grouped thematically as marginal voices or unheard stories.
In recent years there have been many publications on her life and work, including children’s books and fiction based on her story; you can find a range of these via our Library catalogue or via union catalogues such as COPAC.
This is a small and plain booklet, the only illustration being the simple but effective cover. There is a short preamble about Anning’s life, but no indication of why this subject was chosen for the Pirate Press, or why these particular letters, amongst the whole of Anning’s surviving correspondence, were chosen for publication. The introductory text reflects Bill Griffiths’ interests in local history, dialect, and language change, noting that in Lyme Regis in Anning’s time vertebrae were called “verteberries” and fossil fish “turbot”.
The text of the letters is given, with some corrections and clarifications in brackets, but as the original letters are not reproduced it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the transcription. There are some mistakes, such as “dof” for “dog” and “leyyer” for “letter”, which are clearly typing mistakes in the transcription, rather than faithful copies of mistakes in the original, but other unusual readings are less clear-cut.
The letters here are mainly to Mrs Murchison, wife of geologist Roderick Murchison, who became Anning’s lifelong friend. Perhaps the most vivid writing is this spirited description of being caught by the tide when digging out a plesiosaur, from February 1829:
“I [was] so intent in getting it out that I had like to have been drowned and the man I had employed to assist me, after we got home I asked the man why he had [not] cautioned me [about] the tide flowing so rapidly he said I was ashamed to say I was frightened when you didn’t regard it, I [wish] you could have seen us we looked like a couple of drowned rats”.
McGowan, Christopher. The dragon seekers. Persus Publishing, 2001.
Allaby, Michael, (ed.). A Dictionary of Geology and Earth Sciences (4 ed.), OUP, 2015 online edition.
Lyme Regis Museum: Mary Anning
University of Berkeley: Mary Anning
Bill Griffiths collection at Brunel