Finders, keepers: The lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes
Martin Simpson (UK)
There is a growing misconception that most of the earliest important fossil discoveries were made by a select few famous geologists – established names, who were supposed to have ‘found’ everything in their collections. In reality, however, the true ‘discoverers’ of the original specimens were an often unknown or forgotten assortment of amateurs, labourers, beach-combers, longshoremen or quarrymen: opportunists, who were finding ‘new’ material with surprising regularity. These people not only had local knowledge, but also had the distinct advantage of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to the hours they devoted to searching.
On the other hand, the early geological pioneers were fervently adding to their private museum cabinets by whatever means possible. As news of major finds of unusual fossils came to their attention, perhaps by way of the reports in some of the provincial broadsheets mentioned later, the more diligent and successful collectors (the acquirers) put their money where their mouths were and purchased directly from the sources (the finders). Eventually some of this material found its way to the academics and their institutional museums (the keepers).
In the case of the Isle of Wight – that classic locality for Cretaceous and Palaeogene fossils – the earliest and most important historical discoveries have been attributed to a small group of generalised geologists. These include William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Fitton, Edward Forbes and the surgeon, Gideon Mantell between the 1820s and the 1850s; and later to a whole host of individual local collectors, including William Fox, Mark Norman (Fig. 1), Ernest Wilkins, Stephen Saxby (and Reginald Hooley. However, other collectors have, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected or completely forgotten, and their contributions have not received the credit they deserve.
The process of finding and naming fossils has always relied on a positive interaction between amateurs and professionals, be they collectors, dealers, auctioneers, academics, taxonomists or curators. Unfortunately, fossil collecting (like other human scientific activities) is inherently terrestrial and territorial, so it is not surprising that many individuals have been written out of history or have been poorly acknowledged in the pursuit of fame or fortune by others. Nor is this activity exempt from periodic episodes of petty politics or personal rivalries, especially in the case of vertebrate fossils, where large sums of money may sometimes be involved.
As early as 1818, in the parish of Mottistone (including Brighstone), there are records of large petrified bones in the cliffs, thought at the time to be the relics of mammoths, but most probably representing the remains of Wealden dinosaurs. However, the first significantly important discoveries of saurian or reptilian fossils, only later to be classified as dinosaurs, include those of the large Iguanodon bones recorded by Buckland and those ‘found’ by John Smith in the late 1820s, all at Yaverland near Sandown. New data (recorded here for the first time) reveals that some substantial remains of not one, but at least two different sorts of “very large animals”, were excavated in 1829 by workers on the beach at Yaverland, who subsequently passed them on to the same Mr John Smith of Yaverland Farm (Hampshire Chronicle, 17 October 1829).
Around this time, James Vine of the Undercliff area also donated some Iguanodon bones from the village of Brook to the Geological Society of London; and shortly afterwards was responsible for bringing to light the famous sacrum seen by Richard Owen. This is the specimen that historian Hugh Torrens philosophically regards as the ‘first dinosaur’.
Decades later, when the likes of Gideon Mantell, Samuel Beckles and James Bowerbank visited the Isle of Wight, the last was fortunate to obtain (among other things) a portion of the skeleton of a small herbivorous reptile eventually to be named (in 1869) as the dinosaur, Hypsilophodon. Mantell acquired another part of the same specimen, previously thought by historians to have been split up and sold off separately by ‘labourers’ near Shepherd’s Chine, presumably to maximise their profit.
However, it appears that this highly important partial skeleton was supplied, and most probably collected, in two portions some 18 months apart. Bowerbank purchased his ‘half’ of the ‘Bowerbank/Mantell specimen’ in 1849, whereas Mantell received his consignment the following year from a local man I can now identify as one Stephen King, as hinted at in the surgeon’s journal entry for 7 December 1850. King described himself in August 1853 (Isle of Wight Observer, 20 August) as a “collector of copperas” and some months later as a “store agent” (same, 29 October). Mantell continued to obtain important fossil material from King, including sauropod and pterosaur bones in 1851.
Also in the 1840s/1850s, Mantell and William Fitton were acquiring choice fossils and important data from the beds of the Lower Greensand at Chale Bay, from individuals such as Charles Wheeler, Stephen Saxby and Joe Bastiani (Figs. 2, 3 and 6).
The fisherman Wheeler’s role was described by Fitton as that of a guide, as well as a collector. In fact, although Fitton’s contact on the Island was responsible for finding many important new specimens of fossil lobsters, ammonites and other shells, not a single species has subsequently been named in his honour, something I hope to put right in the near future.
On the other hand, Saxby was well connected and consequently may prove to have had more species named after him than any other Isle of Wight collector. These include a nautilus, three ammonites, a lobster and the cycadeoid ‘squat palm’ (Bennettites saxbyanus). Saxby’s collection allegedly exceeded ten thousand specimens, some of which were acquired by the British Museum (Natural History Museum) and the Geological Survey Museum from the dealer, Bryce Wright, in 1864/5.
Between 1865 and 1881 – a golden age of collecting on the island – the Rev William Fox (Fig. 4), a curate at St Mary’s church in Brighstone, had been actively collecting fossils while specialising in Wealden vertebrates.
An impressive four species of dinosaurs have been named after Fox, who is described by Blows (1983) as a “neglected” Victorian collector. This fossil-mad curate, who played such an important role in dinosaur research through his collaborations with academics such as Owen, Huxley and Hulke, is often confused with his namesake and fellow clergyman, the Rev William Darwin Fox, Charles Darwin’s second cousin, who also lived on the island and likewise had an interest in geology. This other Fox’s true feelings for his famous relative’s theory of evolution are revealed in a local newspaper report of a debate on geology and scripture at the Ryde Literary Society, in which he dismisses Darwin’s work as “false science” (Isle of Wight Observer, 18 December 1875).
One of the major discoveries made by Fox the dinosaur collector was the armoured herbivore Polacanthus, unearthed in 1865 from the cliffs near Brighstone. The excitement generated by this fossil find prompted Owen to visit the Isle of Wight and to meet not just Fox, but also the poet Tennyson, himself an amateur fossil collector of sorts. Owen declared that he would christen this spiky prehistoric creature ‘Euacanthus vectianus’, but his intended publication never materialised and the name has since been relegated to the taxonomic dustbin of nomena nuda. As it happens, the generic name was unavailable, having already been allocated to, of all things, a modern fly.
There are very few early reconstructions of Polacanthus as a living animal, so the one that appeared in 1928 (Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 6 October) drawn by WJL Abbott, and which has somehow escaped the notice of modern dinosaur workers, is of historical interest, so is reproduced here (Fig. 5) despite being of poor quality. A more surprising oversight is that of a publication in 1859 (A Concise Exposition of the Geology, Antiquities, and Topography, of the Isle of Wight) by Dr Ernest Powell Wilkins, honorary curator of the museum in Newport, who reported the existence of another articulated partial ‘Hylaeosaurus’ skeleton, which was surely Polacanthus. This is significant: it was found at least six years before Fox’s own discovery was announced and the issue of the specimen’s whereabouts constitutes a dinosaur mystery worthy of further research.
In a subsequent era of productive collecting, this time the 1900s to 1920s, the Southampton businessman, Reginald Hooley, amassed an impressive collection of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, turtles, crocodiles and fish, aided by some local collectors from whom he bought specimens directly or through auctions. One important source for Hooley was Mr Walter White, a local coastguard at Atherfield, with whom he obtained the impressive skeleton of the crocodile ‘Goniopholis’ (now Anteophthalmosuchus) that became exposed after a landslip.
Also in this period, a unique Wealden discovery was made in Sandown by Mr FMG Abell, who was probably an Isle of Wight tourist. His small fragmentary fossil, part of a skull cap, was established many years later as the type and only known specimen of the so-called bone-headed dinosaur, Yaverlandia bithola. This species has recently been reinterpreted as a theropod and another, very similar example, has come to light. From an historical viewpoint, it is interesting that the original fossil was first considered to have been crocodilian in origin, at least according to a report in a local newspaper (Portsmouth Evening News, 22 May 1922).
New and important species of Wealden reptiles continue to be found on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, for example, the pterosaurs, Caulkicephalus and Vectidraco, and the dinosaurs, Neovenator and Eotyrannus. I hope the respective discoverers’ contributions will be remembered as much as those of the describers, especially since many specimens are found by more than one collector over many years. It seems only fair that some of the historical characters briefly mentioned here might be given due recognition. The often eccentric collectors, like King, Bastiani, Norman and White, are an important part of the network of suppliers whose finds led to the description of some of the Isle of Wight’s most important and iconic fossils. In one sense, they are the true discoverers.
Blows, W. 1983 William Fox (1813-1881), a neglected dinosaur collector of the Isle of Wight. Archives Natural History vol 11, 2, p 299-313.
Wilkins, Dr E.P 1859 A Concise Exposition of the Geology, Antiquities, and Topography, of the Isle of Wight.