Mary Anning


Mary Anning : biography

21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847

Her education was extremely limited. She was able to attend a Congregationalist Sunday school where she learned to read and write. Congregationalist doctrine, unlike that of the Church of England at the time, emphasised the importance of education for the poor. Her prized possession was a bound volume of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which the family’s pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton, had published two essays, one insisting that God had created the world in six days, the other urging dissenters to study the new science of geology.

Fossils as a family business

By the late 18th century Lyme Regis had become a popular seaside resort, especially after 1792 when the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars made travel to the European mainland dangerous for the English gentry, and increasing numbers of wealthy and middle class tourists were arriving there. Even before Mary’s time locals supplemented their income by selling what were called "curios" to visitors. These were fossils with colourful local names such as "snake-stones" (ammonites), "devil’s fingers" (belemnites), and "verteberries" (vertebrae), to which were sometimes attributed medicinal and mystical properties. Fossil collecting was in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th century, at first as a pastime, but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology was understood.

The source of most of these fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. This consists of alternating layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow seabed early in the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago). It is one of the richest fossil locations in Britain. The cliffs could be dangerously unstable, however, especially in winter when rain caused landslides. It was precisely during the winter months that collectors were drawn to the cliffs because the landslides often exposed new fossils.

Their father, Richard, often took Mary and Joseph on fossil-hunting expeditions to make more money for the family. They offered their discoveries for sale to tourists on a table outside their home. This was a difficult time for England’s poor; the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars that followed caused food shortages. The price of wheat almost tripled between 1792 and 1812, but wages for the working class remained almost unchanged. In Dorset the rising price of bread caused political unrest, even riots. At one point Richard Anning was involved in organising a protest against food shortages.

In addition the family’s status as religious dissenters—not followers of the Church of England—attracted discrimination. Dissenters were not allowed into universities or the army, and were excluded by law from several professions. When her father died in November 1810 (aged 44), he had been suffering from tuberculosis and injuries he suffered from a fall off a cliff, he left the family with significant debts and no savings, forcing them to apply for parish relief.

The family continued collecting and selling fossils together, and set up a table of curiosities near the coach stop at a local inn. Although the stories about Anning tend to focus on her successes, Dennis Dean writes that her mother and brother were astute collectors too, and her parents had sold significant fossils before the father’s death. Their first well-known find was in 1811, when Mary was 12; Joseph dug up a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull and a few months later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham, Norfolk, who was lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid the family about £23 for it,Sharpe and McCartney, 1998, p. 15. and in turn he sold it to William Bullock, a well-known collector, who displayed it in London. There it generated considerable interest, because at a time when most people in England still believed in the Biblical account of creation, which implied that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, it raised questions about the history of living things and of the Earth itself. It was later sold for £45 and five shillings at auction in May 1819 as a "Crocodile in a Fossil State" to Charles Konig, of the British Museum, who had already suggested the name Ichthyosaurus for it.