Seaside Pleasures: 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 …”

gosse stomphia
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”.


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