Lyme Regis, Dorset, Tuesday 9 March 1847

It is unlikely that Mary Anning registered much during the last weeks of her life. Crippled by the pain of a malignant breast tumour, she had vanished into a make-believe world by downing unspecified quantities of Godfrey’s Cordial, a relatively cheap, heavy-duty and entirely legal cocktail of opium, brandy, treacle and caraway seeds.[1]The syrupy medicine was variously dubbed ‘Mother’s Friend’ or ‘Quietness’, because if you fired a shot of it into a colicky or perpetually crying baby it guaranteed you a few hours’ peace after their innocent little eyes fluttered and closed in a deep drug-induced slumber.

The concoction almost certainly eased the physical agony for the 47-year-old Anning, but the flipside of this laudanum-based brew was that it also killed one’s appetite stone dead, leaving its consumer prone to muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Every drink the severely malnourished Anning poured brought her a step closer to the grave.

And yet perhaps the woman who had spent so much of her life gathering and polishing the bones of long-extinct animal species was all the time yearning for the moment when her own spirit would be free of its tormented earthly frame, leaving behind nothing but her skeleton and her skull. ‘The world has used me so unkindly,’ she wrote, before her ability to put pen to paper faded away. ‘I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.’[2]The opium had perhaps made her paranoid, for she enjoyed a number of rewarding friendships over the years, but her exceptional talents had also undoubtedly been abused by men who should have known better.

Millions of people in the English-speaking world have heard of Mary Anning, even if they do not realise it. In 1908 she was immortalised when the music-hall songwriter Terry Sullivan wrote what was to become probably the most famous of tongue-twisters:

AmmoniteShe sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,
So if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.[3]

Mary Anning did indeed sell seashells on the seashore. And then some. She was born in May 1799 in Lyme Regis, a small town on the west coast of Dorset, overlooking the English Channel. Her parents, Richard and Molly, were members of the town’s Congregational Dissenter community. High drama came into Mary’s life when she was but a toddler. On 19 August 1800 her nurse had brought her to watch a travelling group of horsemen perform some equestrian feats outside the town. A storm broke out, obliging the spectators to seek shelter under a tree but catastrophe struck when a lightning bolt zapped the tree, instantly killing the nurse and two teenage girls.[4]The baby Mary survived the freak accident and was hurried home to her parents.

Richard Anning, a spirited and independently minded cabinet-maker, was famed locally for having led a protest against the authorities during the ‘bread riots’ of 1800. When the novelist Jane Austen was holidaying in Lyme Regis with her family in 1804, she asked him to estimate the cost of repairs to a ‘broken lid’ on a trunk at the house they were renting. She was shocked when he quoted a fee of five shillings, ‘as that appeared to us beyond the value of all the furniture in the room together.’[5]He didn’t get the job.

An outdoors enthusiast, Richard often went roaming along the cliffs of Lyme Regis and Charmouth after heavy winter storms had battered the coastline, to see what new seashells and fossils might have emerged from the cracks and ledges of the Blue Lias shoreline. That he occasionally did this on Good Friday and other holy days irked his pious neighbours nearly as much as his penchant for bringing Mary and her older brother Joseph with him on these perilous jaunts.

When they returned to their modest homestead in Broad Street, the Annings would lay out their latest trove on a ‘curiosities’ table beside the town’s coach stop. Although remote, Lyme Regis was a popular seaside resort, and the Annings made useful money by selling their shells and fossils to the well-to-do tourists. Their top-sellers were ammonite and belemnite shells, which sold for a few shillings apiece.

In 1810 disaster struck when Richard slipped down a gully and fatally wounded himself, leaving his small family on the cusp of destitution.[6]A few months after his death, there was a momentous development in the Annings’ fortunes when young Joseph dug into a cliff and uncovered the four-foot skull of an ichthyosaur, a sort of fish-lizard. Two centuries later we now know that the coastline around Lyme Regis – the Jurassic Coast, granted status as a World Heritage Site in 2001 – comprises Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations, made from alternating layers of limestone and shale. It’s stuffed with first-rate fossils, some of which are in excess of 185 million years old, but until the nineteenth century most people barely registered the existence, let alone the importance, of these fossils.

The Annings were different. They knew they were onto something, not least when twelve-year-old Mary found the ichthyosaur’s skeleton the following year. Nobody had ever seen an ichthyosaur skeleton before. When the skull and skeleton were put together, the creature was identified as some form of a crocodile and sold for £23 to Henry Hoste Henley, lord of the nearby manor of Colway.[7]

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it wasn’t just tourists who were coming to browse in the ‘fossil shop’ to see what Molly Anning’s children had unearthed: geologists, naturalists, fossil-hunters and gentlemen scientists were also alighting from the coaches and departing with the Annings’ precious relics. Mary had subsequently found several more ichthyosaur skeletons, one of which she sold to Colonel Thomas Birch (or Bosvile, as he became), a wealthy fossil collector from Ravenfield Park, near Rotherham in South Yorkshire.[8]

Above: Duria Antiquior – A more Ancient Dorset painted by Henry De la Beche in 1830, is the first artistic representation of a scene of prehistoric life based on evidence from fossil remains, today known as ‘palaeoart’.

However, the family enterprise was by no means a stable income-earner, and when Colonel Birch visited the Annings in the summer of 1819 he was aghast at their impoverished state. Shortly afterwards he wrote to his fellow-collector Gideon Mantell that he was ‘going to sell my collection for the benefit of the poor woman and her son and daughter at Lyme who have in truth found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation: when I went to Charmouth and Lyme last summer I found these people in considerable difficulty – on the act of selling their furniture to pay their rent – in consequence of their not having found one good fossil for near a twelvemonth. I may never again possess what I am about to part with; yet in doing it I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the money will be well applied’.[9]


As promised, Colonel Birch auctioned a large part of his fossil collection in May 1820 at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Interested buyers were advised that the collection of 102 lots included ‘valuable remains of Reptilia and Crinoidea from the Lias of Lyme and Charmouth, many collected by Miss Mary Anning.’[10] Indeed, as Gideon Mantell was to observe in 1846, ‘it was subsequently understood that all the most valuable fossils had been obtained by [Mary’s] indefatigable labours.’[11] The final lot was the auction’s big hitter: the ichthyosaur skeleton, considered the world’s ‘most complete specimen’, that had been found by Mary. This particular ichthyosaur would fetch up at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, only to be destroyed in a German air raid in May 1941.[12]

The auction raised an impressive £400, all of which the benevolent colonel donated to the Annings. It also considerably raised Mary’s profile in both the geological and biological communities. Her findings quite clearly proved that long, long ago there had been a number – possibly a large number – of very strange-looking creatures living in southern England. This was a mind-altering concept on the eve of the Victorian Age, when most educated people in Britain believed that God had created the world exactly as described in the Old Testament. At the time when Joseph Anning was dusting down that ichthyosaur skull, such words as ‘dinosaur’ and ‘paleontology’ hadn’t yet been coined, and Charles Darwin was still swaddled up in his cot.

Above: Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop by Benjamin Donne.

Mary Anning spent much of the 1820s meandering over the Dorset cliffs with her rock hammer, fossil-hunting with tremendous vigour. As the Bristol Mirrorput it in 1823: ‘This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide.‘ [13]

Lady Harriet Silvester, a wealthy London widow, visited the Annings’ shop in 1824, the year Mary discovered the world’s first plesiosaurus skeleton. Lady Silvester recalled in her diary that the ‘extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved … It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.’ [14]

For all that, fossil-hunting was still very much a man’s world, and Mary was predictably exploited by many of her male contemporaries. ‘Mary Anning was of rather masculine appearance,’ stated the Chambers’s Journalafter her death. ‘She braved all weather, and was far too generous in allowing even wealthy visitors to accompany her in her explorations without requiring a fee, as some naturalists now very reasonably do.’[15]Instead, often desperate for money, she was obliged to sell her fossils to those same visitors, often collectors from Britain, the US and Europe, who, much to her dismay, would then almost invariably claim the credit for finding them in the first place.

In 1826 Mary moved to a new house with two large front windows, in which her wares could be displayed, beneath a white board painted Anning’s Fossil Depot. An ichthyosaur skeleton was prominently displayed in one window. Among the items on sale were belemnites (which contain fossilised ink sacs) and coprolites (or ‘bezoar stones’), which she had correctly identified as fossilised dinosaur poo. Among her first customers was George William Featherstonhaugh, a beguiling geologist who purchased several fossils for the newly opened New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1827.[16]

By the time of old Colonel Birch’s death, in 1829, Mary had discovered the first British example of the curiously winged pterosaur, known to her contemporaries as the ‘flying dragon’. In 1830 she found her second plesiosaur. Her reputation was further enhanced when the pioneering geologist Henry De la Beche painted a well-received watercolour entitled ‘Duria Antiquior’ (‘An Earlier Dorset’), which was chiefly based on fossils discovered by Mary Anning. He gallantly gave the proceeds from the print sales to the Anning family.

Unfortunately, Mary made a careless investment – or she may have been swindled. The upshot was that she lost a whopping £300 in 1835 and was once again on the cusp of destitution. She was saved when her friend William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and joint founder of the Royal Geological Society, persuaded Lord Melbourne’s government to put her on the civil list and grant her an annual pension of £25.

A sharp reminder of the hazards of fossil-hunting came when she narrowly avoided being crushed in a landslide. Her black-and-white terrier Tray, a trusty companion for many years, was not so lucky. ‘Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘The cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.’ [17]

Mary’s expertise found much favour with Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-American fossil-fish expert, who visited Lyme Regis in 1834. He was so grateful for her advice that he later named two fossil-fish species, Acrodus anningiaeand Belenostomus anningiae,in her honour – and a third after her friend Elizabeth Philpot.[18] Another visitor was the anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen, who called in to the Fossil Depot in 1839. Three years later he was to coin the term ‘dinosaur’, from the Greek for ‘terrible lizard’. Perhaps Mary’s most unexpected customer was King Friedrich August II of Saxony, who popped in to the shop in 1844 and left with an ichthyosaur skeleton for his private collection.

In 1839 the Magazine of Natural Historypublished an article applauding what was claimed to be the first discovery of a hooked tooth of the prehistoric shark hybodus. In what would be the only writing she ever had published, Mary admonished the editor; stuff and nonsense, she’d found plenty of fossilised sharks over the years, some with straight teeth, others hooked.[19]

The surrounding landscape was to dramatically change shortly after Mary’s fortieth birthday that same year. On Christmas Eve, a massive chasm opened up, cracking off a forty-five acre field of wheat and turnips from the fossiliferous coastline, to form present-day Goat Island.

Although Mary continued to hunt fossils in her forties, she was by now beleaguered by the cancer that led her to indulge in that ‘quietening’ cocktail of opium and alcohol. Unaware of her illness, her neighbours in Lyme Regis assumed that she had simply developed a chronic drinking addiction.

Mary succumbed on 9 March 1847 and was buried at St Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis, the Anglican church to which she had pledged allegiance at the age of thirty. The Rev. Fred Parry-Hodges, who conducted the funeral, subsequently received word from the Geological Society of London that they wished to install a stained-glass window in the church. Unveiled in 1850, it would commemorate Mary’s ‘usefulness in furthering the science of geology’ and her ‘benevolence of heart and integrity of life.’[20]

That the notoriously chauvinist Geological Society was prepared to extol this woman’s remarkable achievements was due to the fact that the enlightened Henry De la Beche, Mary’s former patron, had since become its president. When the society met in London the February after her death, he delivered a eulogy in which he noted that Mary’s ‘talents and good conduct’ had won her many friends.[21]‘Though not placed among the easier classes of society, [she] had to earn her daily bread by her labour yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge.’

The Gentleman’s Magazine likewise hailed her as ‘the celebrated geologist, a delightful discoverer of the fossils of the blue lias.’[22]Charles Dickens concurred: ‘The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.’[23]

After Mary’s brother Joseph died, in 1849, most of the Anning fossil collection was bought by the Earl of Enniskillen for his collection at Florence Court, his house in County Fermanagh, Ireland. These would later find their way to the British Museum.

Mary herself was largely forgotten by the time Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Speciesin 1859, twelve years after her death. That amnesia has been redressed since 2002, when the Paleontological Association devised the annual Mary Anning Award in her honour. In 2010 the Royal Society declared her one of the ten British women who have done most to influence the history of science.

In the autumn of 2015 a tiny metal coin was found on the beach at Lyme Regis. On one side it is stamped Mary Anning MDCCCX(1810), and on the other Lyme Regis age XI.   Her story also forms the basis of the 2020 film ‘Ammonite’, starring Kate Winslett and Saoirse Ronan.



335003-1847-ƒAW-160803This story is extracted from Turtle Bunbury’s book ‘1847-A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery’, published by Gill in 2016. The acclaimed book is available via Amazon.

[1]  Thomas W. Goodhue, in Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning, 1799–1847(Bethesda, Md: Academica Press, 2004), p. 110, refers to her consumption of Godfrey’s Cordial. Further details on the medicine can be found in Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 34–5, and T. E. C., Jr, ‘What were Godfrey’s Cordial and Dalby’s Carminative?’ Pediatrics,issue 6, vol. 45 (June 1970).

[2]  Quoted by Charles Dickens in ‘Mary Anning, the fossil finder’, All the Year Round(1865).

[3]  Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4]  Northampton Mercury,Saturday 30 August 1800, p. 3, column 5.

[5]  Emma Austen-Leigh and Richard A. Austen-Leigh,Jane Austen and Lyme Regis(London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co., 1941), p. 31–2.

[6]  W. and R. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts,vol. 8 (1858), p. 383.

[7]  Mr Henley, Sheriff of Norfolk in 1814, was also the owner of Sandringham Hall, Norfolk, which was purchased by Queen Victoria in 1862. Rosina Maria Zornlin, Recreations in Geology(London: John W. Parker, 1852), p. 197.

[8]  The story of Thomas James Birch (later Bosvile) is told by H. S. Torrens in ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979).

[9]  H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 409. The author of the article intriguingly argues that this letter ‘strongly suggests what is supported by other evidence, that a major part of the early Anning fossil collection and dealing business in Lyme was conducted by Mary [Molly] Anning (c. 1764–1842), the wife of Richard, who died of consumption in 1810, after his death rather than the daughter Mary Anning (1799–1847), who has been given almost all the credit for Anning fossil discoveries by her many uncritical biographers.’

[10]         G. A. Mantell, London Geological Journal, vol. 1 (1846), p. 13–14. See also H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 405. The British Museum, which bought several of the colonel’s fossils, possesses a copy of the sale catalogue that belonged to ‘the fossil shop at Lyme’, signed Joseph Anning.

[11]         G. A. Mantell, London Geological Journal, vol. 1 (1846), p. 13–14.

[12]         H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 407.

[13]         Bristol Mirror,Saturday 11 January 1823, p. 4.

[14]         E. Welch, ‘Lady Sylvester’s tour through Devonshire in 1824’, Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, vol. 31 (1968–70), p. 23.

[15]         W. and R. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts,vol. 8 (1858), p. 383.

[16]         Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[17]         Thomas W. Goodhue, Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning, 1799–1847(Bethesda, Md: Academica Press, 2004), p. 84. Curiously Tray was the name given to the dog in ‘The Story of Cruel Frederick’ in the English version of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, published in 1848.

[18]         Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[19]         Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[20]         The full inscription reads: ‘This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.’ The windowdepicts the six corporate acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and the sick, and burying the dead.

[21]         Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, vol. 4(1848), p. xxv.

[22]         Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, vol. 27 (May 1847), p. 562.

[23]         Charles Dickens, ‘Mary Anning, the fossil finder’, All the Year Round(1865).