16 July 2014
Mary Anning has a very interesting story. We have had some insights into the life and times of Anning and discussed some of the items she recovered from the Blue Lias Cliffs of Lyme Regis, Dorset. We have also seen how the modern world sees Mary Anning. We have, however, not discussed her early life much, if at all. Mary was actually the fourth of four children and one of only two that survived to adulthood. A brother and a sister, who was also named Mary, died very young. Mary was actually named after her sister who died 5 months earlier at the age of four after her clothing caught fire. As if that ghost story was not weird enough, at 15 months of age a young Mary was being held by a neighbor named Elizabeth Haskings when the elm tree under which they were standing was struck by lightning. Haskings and the two women she was talking with were killed and the infant Mary Anning was revived in a tub of water. Raised as a Congregationalist (a religion highly supportive of education in the early 18th century), Mary could read and write and was introduced to geology by her reverend, perhaps indirectly, after she read an essay he wrote. This was augmented by Richard Anning, a cabinet maker by trade, urging his children Mary and Joseph, to collect fossils and sell them to beach-going tourists to earn more income for the family. The local names for fossils in Lyme Regis curio trade at the time were kind of strange, including "snake-stones" (ammonites) and "devil's fingers" (belemnites). My personal favorite is "verteberries" (vertebrae). The truth, then, is that the entire family were professional fossil sellers. In fact, after the death of their father, the family supported itself, for a time, entirely on fossil selling. This did, eventually, lead to the penning of the tongue twister "She sells seashells", supposedly about Anning, in 1908 by Terry Sullivan.