This amazing article about the life of Mary Anning, was written by Oscar Roch who is just TEN years old, for a school project. It is his own work, with just books and guides to help obtain facts. After receiving the handwritten project in the post, we have been so impressed, we promised to feature it.
I have chosen to do my project on an amazingly, intelligent palaeontologist whose very existence was a miracle to everyone. Who (Legend has it) was an ordinary child, but when lightning struck and nearly killer her, she transformed into a child of extraordinary knowledge and energy. She grew up in poverty, therefore to help the family; she had to search for fossils, to then sell. Unfortunately, her father died in debt. But, after all these hardships in her early years, she pulled through and changed the knowledge of palaeontology. This wonderful woman was named Mary Anning, the Princess of Palaeontology.
On 21st May, 1799 a child was born that would ‘Change the world for the better’. Mary Anning was born in Cockmoil Square, in the small resort town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.
She was the daughter of Richard Anning and Mary Moore. Mary Anning had nine other siblings, but sadly only her and one older brother, Joseph, survived through childhood.
In August 1800, when Mary was only 15 months old, she was being cared for by a neighbour, Elizabeth Hasking and her two young friends. They were at a horseshow to watch the jumping in a place called Rack Field, when it started to rain heavily. Therefore they ran quickly to take shelter under an elm tree. Suddenly lightning struck, hitting a clump of elm trees and tragically killed Elizabeth and three other women. Mary lay unconscious, sheltered by Elizabeth’s body; she soon recovered consciousness after being bathed in water. According to her parents, Mary had always been a sickly child prior to the lightning strike; however, afterwards she was a robust and healthy child. Her parents believed the strike credited her with high intelligence, exceptional liveliness and a gritty determination.
During the week Mary’s father, Richard, worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, he was also an amateur fossil hunter. Unfortunately, he earned very little money from carpentry, barely being able to afford the rent on their home, close to the sea. Apparently, the house often flooded during storms, this was obviously not good, however in another way it was for the Annings, as it meant that the coastline was being gradually eroded by the sea, exposing fossils in the rocks (from the Jurassic era). From a young age, Mary and Joseph would go with their father to the cliffs to hunt for fossils. She soon learnt to recognise Ammonites by their spiral shape and the bones of marine reptiles and ancient fish which lay in the rocks.
To earn extra money for the family, Mary would go out with her brother to search for fossils or ‘ancient mysteries’ as they were called back then. When they found any fossils, they then returned home to give them to their parents, who would then sell them to wealthy tourists at the weekends, from a stall outside their shop in the town.
In the early 1800s, wealthy people visited the resort town of Lyme Regis and they were keen to purchase souvenirs, such as fossils from the area. Sometimes Mary would sell the ammonites on the beach, it is believed that the tongue twister ‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore’ was based on a song that was written by Terry Sullivan which was thought to be based on Mary.
She Sells Seashells by the Seashore
She sells seashells by 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.
As a female child in the Victorian era, Mary Anning was extremely intelligent, especially since she didn’t go to a proper school; therefore she’d had very little education. Fortunately for Mary, her parents belonged to a Congregational Church. This allowed Mary to attend church and Sunday School from the age of 8. The Congregational Church believed in educating everybody, unlike other churches in this period, this meant that Mary received a small amount of education in the form of learning to read and write.
When Mary was just 10 years old, her father tragically died from tuberculosis, he was only 44 years old. He left the family in debt and as he was the ‘breadwinner’ of the family, it meant that they struggled to survive even more. The family received a little help between 1811 and 1816, in the form of money, food and clothes from the Overseers of the Poor. Although this helped, it was not enough, and as the Anning family didn’t have any real skills, their only way of earning money was to carry on in their father’s footsteps in finding fossils along the coast.
Finally a year later, good luck came their way. In 1811, when Mary was 12, Joseph found the skull of an ichthyosaur (which means fish-like lizard) and amazingly Mary then discovered the rest of the skeleton over a period of time. This was a very significant find, which meant they were paid well, they sold it for £23 to Mr Henley, the local Lord of the Manor, but this was not enough to clear their debt.
This find was also the basis for the first ever scientific paper on an ichthyosaur, published in 1814 by Everard-Home. In this period science was classed as an activity for gentlemen, therefore as Joseph and Mary were children and their mother was classed as lower-class, so the only acknowledgement the Annings ever received was payment for their discoveries (this was also the case for many of Mary’s later discoveries that were described in scientific papers). The ichthyosaur they had discovered is now displayed in The British Museum in London, England.
A few years later, Mary found three more fossilized ichthyosaurs, they were between 5 to 20 feet long.
In January 1823, George Cumberland, an artist and fossil collector, wrote in the Bristol Mirror about Mary’s 5 foot ichthyosaur “The very finest specimen of a fossil Ichthyosaur ever found in Europe… we owe entirely to the persevering industry of a young female fossilist, of the name of Anning… and her dangerous employment. To her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections … “.
At the age of 14, Mary had an awful experience when she found the body of a young woman on the beach. She had been on a ship that had sunk with over 100 people on board. Mary’s religious beliefs helped her through this upsetting period in her life. She visited church every day to put fresh flowers on the body, until the young woman’s family claimed it.
In order to help the family’s finances, Joseph started an apprenticeship in 1816 with an upholsterer. This meant that Mary had to carry on searching for fossils alone. It was a dangerous activity to carry out alone, as rock falls from the cliffs happened quickly, and very often one followed another. She had several narrow escapes from grave injuries; however her pet dog was not so fortunate when one day it was crushed under a rock fall from the cliffs above.
She wrote to a friend of the incident “Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the cliff 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.”