Mary Anning

On the 21st May 1799 a baby girl was born to Richard Anning and Molly Moore in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Dorset. She was named Mary Anning and was one of ten children in the family, but would later become one of only two surviving children. From a young age, Mary was unusual and often poor in health. When she was only a year old Mary was struck by lightening. The women around her didn’t survive but thanks to the quick reactions of others, Mary was rushed home and bathed in luke warm water. She survived and her illnesses disappeared, this event became part of local folk lore. This incident made Mary one of the most talked about people in the town not only because of her lightening incident but also because of her strange interest in hunting for ‘curies’ or fossils down on the beach.

Dactylioceras sp. Ammonite from Lyme Regis

The family were poor and struggled to earn a living. Richard, Mary’s father would take Mary and Joseph down onto the beaches of Lyme Regis and Charmouth to search for fossils. The ‘curies’ which they found would be sold on a table outside the family home to try and bring some money into the household. In 1810, Richard Anning passed away leaving the family with huge debts. The only way the family could even attempt to pay off these debts was by continuing to sell fossils, now near a local inn where the change of selling would be higher. This meant that Mary and her only surviving brother, Joseph, spent many hours combing the beaches for fossils which would sell and bring in the necessary money for the family. Their mother would sometimes join them for she too seemed to have the eye for finding fossils, just like her daughter.

For two years the family continued to struggle with earning a living. In 1812 Joseph came across something neither he nor Mary had ever seen before. It was a head of what appeared to be a fossilised crocodile. A year later after a stormy winter which battered the coastline, Mary finally uncovered the body to go with the fossil head. Mary always referred to this fossil as a crocodile; it was the first complete one ever found. This find brought in a huge sum of money for the family, Lord Henley from a nearby mansion paid £23 to have the complete specimen. He later sold it to William Bullock who displayed it in the Bullock’s museum in London. There was a lot of interest in the specimen which was later sold again to the British Museum for £45; it was here it inherited its scientific name, Ichthyosaurus.

Vertebrae from an Ichthyosaur

Mary spent hour upon hour on the beaches in all weathers. It was here she met London spinster Elizabeth Philpot who had moved into Lyme with her sisters. They instantly formed a friendship which would last a lifetime. The people of Lyme Regis found their relationship strange. It was not seen as proper to have an upper class lady wondering along the beaches with a lower working class girl, both covered in mud and dirt. But their fondness for fossils created a unique bond. Mary collected to sell whereas Miss Philpot collected to keep and preferred to find fossil fish.

Mary accompanied many upper class men whilst they were fossil hunting on the beach. Many were big names of the time such as William Buckland who was to become President of the Geological Society of London. One man, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch took advantage of Mary and her skills to build up his own personal collection. But by 1820 he felt sorry for the family because by this point the family had begun selling their furniture in order to make a living. Birch decided he would auction his fossil collection off on the 15th May 1820 at Bullock’s. The auction raised an astounding £400 for the Anning’s although it is not known how much of this actually made it to the family. Mary also accompanied Sir Roderick Murchison and his wife Lady Charlotte Murchison during their visit to Lyme. This formed a life long friendship between Charlotte and Mary.

In the early 1820’s Mary found another new fossil species, a Plesiosaurus which was later followed by the discovery of a Pterodactylus, a winged reptile, which was the first of its kind to be found in the UK. Although Mary was the first person to find some of these fossil species, she never really received any recognition for her discoveries because of her level in society. It was only in her later years that people would begin to take notice of her and the work she had done.

A fossil Belemnite

The family continued to earn what money they could but in 1825 Mary’s brother stopped fossil hunting to take up a role as an upholsterer. At this point Mary took over the family business. By 1826 she had earned enough money to buy a property with a large glass front window, which would allow her to sell and display her finds. The business became successful with many geologists visiting the shop to purchase items for their collections.

Towards the end of her life, Mary became ill causing her work to tail off. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1846. Because of her failing health, she was to face financial struggle once more but the Geological Society of London stepped in and raised money for her. She passed away on the 9th March 1847 at just 47 years of age. She is buried in the churchyard at St Michaels in Lyme Regis, where the Geological Society also paid to have a stained glass window made to commemorate her memory and lifelong work.

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