The Mary Anning Experts

Mary Anning Blue PlaqueAt Lyme Regis Museum we pride ourselves on being the experts when it comes to Mary Anning.

Did you know that the museum is built on the site of her former home and fossil shop? So, when you visit the museum, you will be standing where Mary Anning herself stood, looking out at the same stunning view of Lyme Bay and the cliffs. Much of the seafront also remains as it would have been in her day.

Mary Anning’s Story

Mary was born in 1799 and grew up in a house that stood on the site of Lyme Regis Museum but nearly died when she was 15 months old. Her nurse took her under a tree to shelter from a storm but the tree was struck by lightning. The nurse and two other girls were killed instantly but Mary survived. Mary’s nephew commented that Mary had been a ‘dull child before, but after this accident she became lively and intelligent and grew up so.’

Mary’s father was a carpenter and cabinet maker. He made extra money by searching for fossils in Lyme’s cliffs and beaches and selling them to tourists. He took Mary and her brother Joseph fossil hunting and taught Mary how to clean the specimens they found. Mary had very little schooling. She learned to read and write with the other poor children at the Independent Chapel on Coombe Street (now Dinosaurland) and was lucky enough to meet the Philpot sisters who were keen fossil collectors. Mary often visited their house in Lyme to study their impressive fossil collection. Elizabeth Philpot went fossil hunting with Mary and encouraged her to organise her finds scientifically. From her experience as a fossil hunter, Mary knew all about local rocks and she cut up sea creatures to learn about their anatomy. One of her great talents was fitting together the many pieces of a fossil.

In Dorset, fossils had long been considered as ‘curiosities’ and know by colourful names such as ‘devil’s toenails’, ‘verteberries’, ‘dragons’ and ‘ladies fingers’. People of the time thought that fossils were either creatures that had been left out of Noah’s Ark, or the remains of strange animals that were still alive in distant parts of the world. Trying to understand the puzzle of creation and evolution was important in the early 1800’s.

The Annings took advantage of this growing interest by selling their curiosities to tourists from a table outside their house. Mary was a familiar sight on Lyme’s beaches with her basket, hammer and her little dog, Tray. She collected countless belemnites, ammonites and sometimes fossilised reptiles and fish that had lived in the Jurassic seas.

Mary’s father died in 1810, leaving the family dependent on poor relief. Mary went out fossil hunting in all weathers and helped the family by selling the fossils she’d found.

The year after their father’s death, the Anning children made an extraordinary find. Mary’s brother Joseph discovered an enormous fossilised skull in a rockfall below Church Cliffs to the east of the town. Over the following months, thirteen-year-old Mary carefully exposed and priced together the skeleton of a 5 metre ‘crocodile’. The skeleton was bought for £23 – a lot of money in those days – by the local Lord of Colway Manor. Scientists later named this creature ichthyosaurus meaning ‘fish-lizard’.

Mary’s reputation continued to grow as she made a series of amazing finds in Lyme while still only in her twenties. She discovered the first complete plesiosaur in 1823 and made the first British find of a flying reptile, a dimorphodon, in 1828. In 1829 she unearthed a new species of fossil fish, the squaloraja, and in 1830 discovered a new species of plesiosaur. She was also the first person to suspect that coprolites were in fact fossilised animal poo.

Mary found collecting an unreliable way of making a living. She and her mother sometimes fell on hard times, even after Mary had made her name as a fossil hunter. In 1820 they had to sell their furniture to pay the rent prompting local patrons to help Mary out. Many famous palaeontologists visited Mary’s fossil shop on Broad Street to ask for her opinions. Mary knew that many of these scientists had based their papers on her discoveries and were often helped by her expertise. She sometimes felt bitter that they hardly ever acknowledged her. During her lifetime only two of the species she discovered were named after and she was only mentioned in scientific works long after her death.

Mary died of breast cancer age 47. The Geological Society (which didn’t admit women until 1919) commemorated her life in a stained-glass window which can be seen in St. Michael’s Church, close to Mary and Joseph’s grave in the churchyard. Many of Mary’s finds are in the Natural History Museum in London, credited to the gentlemen that bought them from her. Mary is also remembered for her kindness and generosity to local people less fortunate than herself.

Learn more about Mary on your visit

Find out more about Mary’s amazing life and discoveries in our celebrated Geology Gallery. If you are visiting with children, you can learn all about Mary with our Museum Trail which is available at Reception as part of the admission ticket. After your visit why not follow in Mary Anning’s footsteps and go fossil hunting on the beach! Our guided fossil walks are the best way of finding out more about Mary Anning and the fossils you can find along the Jurassic Coast. To book your fossil walk please click here.

More Mary Anning sites in Lyme Regis

After you have visited the museum, why not visit the other sites in the town linked to Mary Anning:

  • Mary Anning statue – a short walk along the promenade towards Church Cliff. Children – see how many ammonites you can count on the statue!
  • Mary’s grave and the beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates her life – St. Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis
  • The Independent Chapel where Mary went to school – now ‘Dinosaurland’ on Coombe Street
  • The site of Mary’s fossil shop (after moving on from her home) – now Tenovus Charity Shop, Broad Street
  • The home of Mary’s friends the Philpot sisters – now The Mariners Hotel, Lyme Regis

School/Group visits

If you are looking to bring a group on an educational visit to the museum to learn about Mary Anning and the geology of the Jurassic Coast, we offer various options for a range of ages. Find out more here or email us  at museum@lymeregismuseum.co.uk.