The anemonizers of Scotland

 

An anemone of medium size may be safely sent by post in a small tin-cannister, without water, but with a small tuft of damp sea-weed, rag, or blotting-paper, to maintain a moist atmosphere around the animal …”

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Gosse’s illustration of Stomphia churchiae (bottom left)

The Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse advertised thus for specimens of sea-anemones and corals to be sent to him — and soon small parcels “of a salt and oozy character” began to arrive from all over Britain. Gosse invented the marine aquarium and stocked those at the Zoological Gardens in London; he spent many summers collecting, watching and describing marine organisms — dredging from boats, wading in pools and striding across the shore — and his shore classes and delightful books triggered the craze for collecting. Soon he was in demand as a lecturer and, early in 1857, he gave a series of “chalk and talk” lectures in Edinburgh. Illustrated by freehand drawing on a blackboard, they were very well-received, apparently “full of charm”, and “popular and attractive”, so it is unlikely that the audiences knew of Gosse’s great and recent sorrow: just two weeks before his first scheduled lecture, on February 7th, his wife Emily had died, at home in Islington, from breast cancer.

Gosse had to leave behind his eight-year-old son Edmund at this critical time. He wrote to him frequently from Scotland: “February 24th 1857. My own sweet Boy, I cannot tell you how much I love you. I seem to love you better than ever, now that I have to be separated from you. And now that Mamma is gone to be with Jesus you are all that is left to me …”

He must nevertheless have conducted his talks and meetings in an entirely professional manner despite his grief, because he clearly made a great number of friends amongst the Scottish scientific community, and inspired many amateurs besides. When his advertisement requesting help in collecting sea-anemones appeared, the Scottish anemonizers were galvanised into activity. Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica  was published in book form in 1860. The detailed descriptions of the British sea-anemones (“actiniae”) and corals are beautifully illustrated with coloured engravings of Gosse’s drawings. Particularly interesting is his meticulous reference to the collectors to whom he was “indebted”.

So, we read about Mrs Murray Menzies of Oban, the Reverend William Gregor of Macduff (“pre-eminent in (his) contributions”), Miss J.C. Gloag of Queensferry (“who has long been a successful cultivator of Anemones”), James MacDonald of Elgin, and David Robertson who collected around Cumbrae and in the “Frith of Clyde”. Robertson’s researches into the Cloak Anemone, Adamsia palliata, which attaches to whelk-shells harbouring hermit crabs, are reproduced at length. He would be surprised to learn his experiments are still carried out: when I helped with courses for Glasgow University at the Marine Biology Station on the Isle of Cumbrae, students still enjoyed experimenting on  “shell choice by Adamsia”.

The antiquarian and naturalist Sir John Graham Dalyell sent anemones from the Firth of Forth. He did not send “Granny”: she (it) was a Beadlet Anemone who survived more than 20 years in his own aquarium. When he died Granny was, according to some sources, given to the palaeontologist Charles Peach who kept it for another 20 years. Peach had moved to Scotland in 1849, living first in Peterhead then Wick, where he studied fossil fish: he too sent anemones to Gosse. Peach lived in Scotland at an exciting time: he was part of the scientific élite that included geologists Hugh Miller and Sir Roderick Murchison, naturalist Edward Forbes, and the great Robert Chambers. Did Peach look after “Granny”? Gosse notes in Actinologia that the anemone was given to Professor Fleming (probably JDD Fleming of Aberdeen and Edinburgh) and lived for at least 40 years, producing more than 300 young in that time; perhaps Peach inherited Granny after Fleming’s death.

Another Scottish collector was the Reverend David Landsborough (anemonising clerics seemed to have been common during those times); he was the Minister of Stevenston in Ayrshire, and he sent specimens collected from the Clyde around Arran and Cumbrae, the islands just offshore from his “patch”. He must have had time on his hands, as he wrote articles for the Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow on dredging excursions and the “zoophytes” of the Clyde, as well as compiling the unofficial censuses for his parish.

In 1859, Gosse was lecturing in Scotland again and wrote to Edmund from Montrose, “My beloved Boy, You see that I have got to the extreme point of my travels, 650 miles from Torquay. I have just dined with some agreeable friends, and expect to deliver my first Lecture in about an hour. Montrose is a pretty little town, and the coast is said to be pretty good for Zoology.”

Who were his “agreeable friends”? Perhaps they were Dr James Howden and his family, for in Actinologia Gosse describes an unusual little coral, the Shetland Cup Coral, which had been dredged off the Shetland coast: “Looking over the cabinet of Dr Howden, of Montrose, my eye fell on this little Coral which seemed new to me. Its owner was so kind to transfer it to my possession”.  This may have been the same Howden who was Medical Superintendent of the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, where his work led him to write a paper for the Journal of Medical Science, 1873, on “The Religious Sentiment of Epileptics”.

My favourite collector, though, was the intrepid Anne B Church, who collected a species of anemone brought up by a “turbot dredge” from Loch Long. Dredging in those days was an uncomfortable and potentially risky business, necessitating hanging over the side of small wooden boats that were powered by sail. Anne Church‘s descriptions are, however, delightfully feminine and Gosse deserves special credit for repeating them: the lips of the anemone’s mouth are scarlet “like the nectary of the hoop-petticoat narcissus”. Later, Peach and the Rev Gregor sent more specimens, but Gosse named the anemone after its finder – Stomphia churchiae. So Anne Church lives on, both in a specific name and, as a fictionalised version of herself, in my novel, Seaside Pleasures.

Although Gosse lived on the English south coast, he clearly made a big impression in Scotland: almost a third of Actinologia’s collectors sent specimens from Scotland. The Victorian craze for shore-collecting swept parts of the English coast clear “as with a besom”, but the Scottish shores were, and thankfully still are, “pretty good for Zoology”.

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(This article, relating to Philp Henry Gosse and my novel Seaside Pleasures, first appeared in the Scots Magazine,  May 2006, pp514-516)

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‘Seaside Pleasures’: the novel

 

When Matt Myers decides to spend the summer with his mother at the Shell House in Cornwall, he little guesses that he is about to step into the minefield of his family’s past and recent history …
Anne Church, a young Victorian; Matt, art student; Hazel Myers, his mother; malacologist and parasitologist, Elizabeth Wilson: their stories — of obsessional loves and conflicting beliefs — are inextricably linked with each other and with the life and tragic death of Victorian evangelist Emily Gosse, wife of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Seaside Pleasures ranges across time and geography, from Victorian Scotland to Africa in the 1960s and present-day England; the boundaries between fiction and fact become blurred, as the separate lives are woven together by the themes of shells and snails, science and religion, love and death — and the sea.

SP cover

ISBN 978-0-9544572-0-4
Littoralis Press, 1st edition, paperback 2003;still available from the author.

Second edition: ebook from Amazon Kindle,  Kobo and iTunes, in the UK and worldwide.

Paperback version still available from the author

 

COMMENTS & REVIEWS

Jane Gardam: ‘A big book with a MIND behind it!’.

‘Ann Lingard has written a thoughtful, compelling story … a very human account. The book is a rockpool in itself, concealing seaside secrets as well as pleasures deep beneath the surface.’ North Devon Journal.

‘A clever balance … that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction’. Oxford Times

Ann Thwaite: ‘Immensely readable and extremely clever, Seaside Pleasures is a remarkable novel. Told in four distinct voices, three contemporary, one Victorian, the blend of past and present, fact and fiction is both curious and compelling.

Matt Ridley: ‘A very fine piece of writing that, uniquely among modern novels, makes real use of science rather than wearing science on its sleeve. Tremendously good plot, story and narrative style, fascinating history and even better science … A true two-culture achievement.

Jennifer Rohn, LabLit: ‘ … unlike Byatt, whose science comes across largely as contrived, pretentious showing off, Lingard’s portrayal is relaxed, natural and rarely gratuitous. … [And] perhaps more importantly, science through [Matt’s] eyes eventually proves to be exciting, and its purveyors, both passionate and refreshingly ordinary.’ Read Rohn’s long and thoughtful review on LabLit.

 

BACKGROUND

The Victorians were great collectors of shells; they used them to decorate the interiors and exteriors of  houses and grottoes, they made pictures and three-dimensional decorations, and they arranged them decoratively, although not always taxonomically, in Cabinets of Curiosity.

When malacologist (an expert on snails, or Molluscs) Elizabeth Wilson helps artist Barbara Lewisham repair a pattern of shells on the facade of her Shell House in Cornwall, she includes a highly-unusual shell at the centre: Tiphobia.

The inclusion of Tiphobia is a joke, for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the story.

 

Tiphobia and Bulinus: images from David Brown’s book, ‘Freshwater snails of Africa and their medical importance’, Taylor & Francis 1994. (For the explanation of the Tiphobia  joke, see p296 in the paperback.)

In the 1960s, Elizabeth worked in Ethiopia and Eritrea, surveying for the freshwater snails of the genus Bulinus, many species of which are responsible for carrying larvae of the parasitic blood-worm, Schistosoma, that causes the debilitating disease bilharzia in humans. Unusually for a woman scientist at that period, she lived under canvas in the field, collecting and sending snail samples back to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.

When she eventually retires from the NHM to live with her husband Allan on the south Cornish coast, her home becomes a centre for discussions and collaborations with other scientists – and she befriends Matt, an art student and Barbara’s grandson, who is staying with his mother Hazel in the Shell House.

Matt and Jim, a visiting American scientist, investigate the camera obscura and its clever attachments that Allan built in the attic before he died, and through the scientists – and their jargon which he describes as a ‘dance’ – Matt becomes intrigued and inspired by the colours of snails on the shore, and the shapes of the parasites that infect them. But more importantly, he gradually begins to learn about Elizabeth’s friendship with his grandmother.

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Littorina obtusata, periwinkle

Colour polymorphism in periwinkles: citrina,aurantia, rubens and fusca – ‘Lovely poetic names’, see p99 of the p/b.

 

The stories of these three contemporary ‘voices’, Hazel, Matt and Elizabeth, are also intertwined with the story of the love between the Victorian naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and his wife Emily.

The Gosses (including their son Edmund, ‘Willy’) spent weeks at coastal towns such as Weymouth, Ilfracombe, and Tenby, while Philip (or ‘Henry’ as Emily called him) collected, observed and drew marine animals. He designed the marine aquarium as a way of keeping animals alive for observation, and he and his friend Charles Kingsley would go dredging to collect specimens, Kingsley often sending parcels of animals (including some lively cockles) to Gosse in London.

 

Soon Gosse was helping the Zoological Gardens in London’s Regents Park to set up large aquaria – and the fashion for small elegant aquaria in the home took off. People wanted to know more, to be able to find and identify shore creatures themselves – and Gosse began to run ‘shore classes’.

 

The fourth ‘voice’ in Seaside Pleasures is thus Victorian: Henry and his wife Emily, and their little son, are observed by a student on one of Gosse’s ‘shore classes’, Anne Church. Anne Church really existed – she is mentioned in Gosse’s classic book on the British sea-anemones and corals, Actinologia Britannica, as finding a new species of anemone in Loch Long, which Gosse describes and names as ‘Stomphia churchiae’ in her honour – but her character and story have been fictionalised in Seaside Pleasures. (Her fictional husband, Duncan Robertson, too, was a real-life collector of sea-anemones and is, again, mentioned and thanked in Actinologia.)

Stomphia churchiae

Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka were Dresden glass-blowers famous for their glass flowers, but also made exquisite glass models of invertebrate animals such as sea-slugs, octopuses, and sea-anemones; see Chris Meechan’s excellent article about their lives and work for more information. Their models of sea-anemones, the Actiniae, were based on Gosse’s coloured engravings  – and I was thrilled to find that the Blaschkas had also made several glass models of Gosse’s illustration of that Stomphia churchiae. One of the Stomphia models is in the Natural History Museum and I was actually able to use it when I gave a talk there for the Darwin Live series.

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Shells, religious beliefs, the patterns and shapes of things, love, and death – in Seaside Pleasures, these are all set against the backdrop and sound of the seashore, where both Gosse and Elizabeth Wilson spent many of the happiest, and also most tragic, periods in their lives.

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There is more about PH Gosse and some unusual sea-anemones in my article from the Scots Magazine, May 2006,  The anemonizers of Scotland, and there are more images relating to the story on Pinterest