Dinosaur quarries of Hastings

For over two hundred years, dinosaur bones and other fossils have been found along the beach to the east of Hastings, between Rock-a-Nore and Pett, but by far the most spectacular specimens were collected from local quarries in the nineteenth century. At this time, Hastings was expanding rapidly as a popular seaside resort. As a result, huge quantities of sand, clay (for chimney pots and bricks) and stone were required for new buildings and roads. This is reflected in the large number of local quarries marked on the 1899 Ordnance Survey map of Hastings. Many brickworks were located near outcrops of Wadhurst Clay. As well as clay, this formation also contains beds of sandstone and Tilgate Stone, which is a hard calcareous grit that was quarried for road stone (White, 1928). It was also known locally as ‘Bluestone’ or ‘Hastings Granite’ (Abbott, 1907). While the natural erosion of cliffs on the coast revealed occasional fossils, inland quarrying provided a more rapid and continual exposure of specimens. These included dinosaur bones from the geological section known today as the Hastings Group (Ashdown Sands and Wadhurst Clay – sedimentary beds which date from 141 to 137mya and belong to the Valanginian Stage within the Lower Cretaceous).

Fig. 1 Little Ridge bones
Fig. 1. Iguanodontid bones from Little Ridge Quarry.

For many years, I have been curious about the exact locations of these long-abandoned quarries, but my research was really inspired by a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. Here, in the storeroom, were huge dinosaur bones, some with their original labels, which were identified as coming from the old quarries of Hastings (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, they were not named on maps and very few locations were recorded in sufficient detail in early scientific papers. For example, a quarry that was established on agricultural land was often named after the farm or nearby house belonging to the land owner. However, confusion arises when separate quarries were located within the boundaries of a single farm.

Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852) was a doctor based in Lewes, but he was also a very keen amateur fossil collector. During the 1820s, he described and named the Iguanodon (only the second dinosaur to be named scientifically) on the basis of some teeth and dinosaur bones he found (or bought) at various quarries in the Tilgate Forest area of Sussex. In his personal journal (1822), Mantell complained about other collectors “poaching fossils” from quarries in his local area (Curwen, 1940). This may be one reason why some fossil hunters were not prepared to record precise details of their locations. Although Mantell visited Hastings on several occasions, I could find no evidence that he personally collected fossil specimens here.

Two of the most important local fossil hunters in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Samuel Beckles and Charles Dawson. These remarkable gentlemen are discussed below, because their history is essential to my task of finding the quarries.

Samuel Husband Beckles (1814-1890)

Beckles was born in Barbados and qualified as a barrister at the age of 24, but, when his health began to deteriorate, he retired to St Leonards in 1845. He became interested in the geology of the Weald and made many important discoveries in the Hastings area, Dorset and the Isle of Wight. Among the many fossils he found were some well-preserved Iguanodon bones, including the first partially articulated hind foot (Owen, 1854, found during 1853 to 1879). As a result of his discoveries, Beckles was able to publish a number of scientific papers on local fossils and his importance as a geologist was recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1859.

After Beckles’ death, a part of his large collection of Wealden fossils was bought by the Hastings Museum. Specimens included dinosaur vertebrae, limb bones and jaw fragments, and a ripple-marked footprint of Iguanodon. Unfortunately, today, very few of his specimens can be individually identified. The remainder of Beckles’ collection was purchased by the British Museum (Natural History), later renamed the Natural History Museum.

Charles Dawson (1864-1916)

While Dawson was living in St Leonards, he became friends with Beckles, from whom he learned considerable skills as a fossil hunter. Their visits to local quarries were so successful that, by 1884, Dawson had built an impressive collection of Wealden fossils. He also spent time investigating the coastal cliffs to the east of Hastings, from Rock-a-Nore to Pett. By the early age of 21, his work in geology brought him a Fellowship of the Geological Society of London. Later, on the recommendation of Richard Lydekker, he was appointed as an honorary collections advisor to the British Museum (Natural History), a post he held for over 30 years. Dawson found specimens that were used to establish three new species of Iguanodon (Lydekker, 1888, 1889). One of them, originally named Iguanodon dawsoni in his honour, was based on a partial skeleton collected from a site that he referred to as ‘Shornden’ (Norman, 2010, 2011a, b). Today these are recognised as belonging to two species: Barilium dawsoni and Hypselospinus fittoni (Norman, 2010, in press). The ‘Dawson Collection’ in the NHM contains some of the very best dinosaur fossils ever found in Sussex. However, today, Dawson is primarily remembered for his involvement in the Piltdown forgery and other deceptions (Weiner, 1955).

My search for the quarries

My quarry research involved the study of Ordnance Survey maps, geological maps and local street maps of the area. Other clues have been obtained from nineteenth century field trip accounts, articles in geological journals, contemporary newspapers and more recent descriptions of the fossils found in these quarries. Archives at the East Sussex Records Office, Hastings Museum, Hastings Reference Library and on the Internet have also been informative. Once a potential quarry site had been identified, the location was visited, mapped and photographed. From the material gathered, I have selected three local quarries (Fig. 1).

Little Ridge Quarry (TQ 8065 1240). The 1873 OS map shows a quarry just south of the Little Ridge farmhouse. Today, this overgrown site can be found on the south side of Little Ridge Avenue, a short distance from the Conquest Hospital. It has been suggested that Little Ridge Quarry was located at TQ 799126, west of Little Ridge Farmhouse (Brooks in Batten and Austen, 2011, p. 30), but further research has revealed that this site was not marked as a quarry on the 1873 OS map, and that the area was identified on the later 1899 and 1909 OS maps as Beauport Brickworks. There are also a number of smaller quarries shown on the 1873 OS map, such as ‘Quarry Wood’ to the east of Hillside Road.

Fossils in the NHM storeroom include a number of Iguanodon vertebrae, metatarsals and phalanges from Iguanodon (=Hypselospinus) hollingtoniensis (Fig. 2). These specimens are labelled as coming from ‘Little Ridge Quarry’ and represent part of the ‘Charles Dawson Collection’. The species ‘hollingtoniensis’ suggests an origin in or near Hollington, north of Hastings, and the original specimens (the holotypes) of this species included a variety of post-cranial bones collected by Dawson from a quarry referred to as ‘Hollington’ (Lydekker, 1889). The dinosaur bones from Little Ridge Quarry were recognised as being very similar to those of the ‘Hollington’ specimens.

Old Roar Quarry (TQ 808115). This quarry was named after a 12m waterfall (TQ 804120) that was a popular attraction in Victorian times. An early Hastings guide book states that, “… after long heavy rains a large body of water tumbles over with a tremendous roar, that is heard half a mile off” (Barry 1797, p. 86).

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