Women’s History Month 2: Mary Anning, The Carpenter’s Daughter.

Hi folks, happy Womens History Month! I had something completely different planned for this week, but the mass shooting in Christchurch a. necessitated a change of subject and b. took me completely out of the headspace to write anything other than angry, anti fascist invectives. I was planning to write on Tamar of Georgia (1166 _ 1213) a true girl power heroine who does not get discussed enough – but this is history, and history is problematic. Tamar, a christian ruler, fought off an invasion from, then in turn invaded the Seljuk Turks. How do you write that in the wake of the murder of 51 Muslim New Zealanders here? Do I really want some mouth-breathing fascist taking my post as a dog whistle? Absolutely not. Sorry Tamar, we’ll return to you later.

A quote from John Donne’s Meditations has been stuck in my head all day. I am shocked, and horrified, and heartbroken for the families of the deceased. I don’t often buy into nationalistic rhetoric, but make no mistake, we are a diverse nation of many colours, religions (or lack of) and back stories. You take on them you take on all of us.

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.” – John Donne.


Now, on another note, repeat after me….

“She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the sea shore
Then I’m sure she sells seashells.” – Terry Sullivan.

Mary Anning (May 21 1799 – March 9 1847) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist. Our understanding of the Jurassic era (approx 201 – 145 million years ago) owes a huge debt to Ms Anning and her work. She lived, and worked near the Blue Lias (layered limestone and shale) cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset.
Among her achievements Anning was the first to identify an Icthyosaur skeleton, found several early Plesiosaurus, the first Pterosaur found outside of Germany, and helped lead public understanding towards the concept that animals could go extinct- something thought heretical by many at the time, as it implied God was imperfect, if things could…. well…. go the way of the dinosaur.
Mary Anning should have been a superstar of the 19th Century scientific community, but she was shunned, largely, as – first it was a boys’ club and second, Anning was a dissenter – a protestant who believed church and state should be kept separate, and had nothing to do with organized Anglican religion. After her death she began to get some of the recognition she deserved- prompting Charles Dickens to write of her, in 1865

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it”

In 1908 Terry Sullivan wrote the tongue twister above, in her honour. In 2010 the Royal society listed Anning as one of the 10 British women who most influenced the history of science.

So… expanding on Dickens’ Messianic appellation, Mary Anning was born in 1799 to cabinetmaker Richard Anning and his wife Mary aka Molly. They grew up in a house near the water, which regularly flooded in bad weather. The same rough, stormy weather which regularly flooded their home however also uncovered many ancient monsters in the cliffs nearby. Aged 15 months she was nearly killed at a travelling horse show when an oak tree her family were watching under was struck by lightning. She was one of 10 children born to Richard and Molly, but only one of two who made it to adulthood.

Anning grew up in wartime. The outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars kept many British holidaymakers away from the continent. Europe’s loss was Lyme Regis’ win – it became a holiday hotspot. With many visitors over the summer months, opportunities for extra money abounded, including hunting through the fossil rich cliffs for specimens to sell to holidaymakers. In the dangerous winter months, when the cliffs were tempest tossed, and landslides a regular occurance – Richard, Mary and her brother Joseph would brave the weather in search of dinosaurs. On one trip an ailing Richard, already deathly ill with tuberculosis, tumbled over a cliff, sustaining critical injuries. Richard’s death led to 11 year old Mary leaving school to work full time as a fossil hunter to support the family.

By the 1820s, Mary Anning had firmly taken the helm of the family business. She established a shop, and had become a leading expert paleontologist; autodidactically no less. She closely recorded all of her findings, though she would only be published once by the boys club. Anning also maintained close ties with several leading male scientists, who often shared her ideas – without crediting her. Of note, she sold a full icthyosaur skeleton to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, when he visited her shop. However throughout the 1830s Anning fell upon hard times. Britain’s economy fell into a slump, and luxuries like dinosaur bones fell out of favour with the middle class. Marred also by poor financial decisions, Anning was at risk of being sent to the poor house. At the urging of Mary Anning’s friend William Buckland, the British government granted her a modest pension for the rest of her life – in recognition of her many significant scientific discoveries.

Mary Anning died, 9th March 1847, of breast cancer.

Originally posted March 17th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited 2020… except for the poetry.

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