History of the Fossil Record Through Commercial Boxed Collections

Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Volunteer Curator

In my last post I foolishly offered to draft a short article on my experiences of the fossil content within the boxed mineral collections that are strewn around my house. Someone on the editorial board re-enforced the challenge and made a comment to the effect that they were looking forward to my article. So, I have been boxed-in by my own boxes.

O.K. Permit me to set the scene. My passion is mineralogy and it was touch-and-go as to whether I would collect fossils many years ago, but a problem arose around the size of these as some can reach enormous proportions and to include these into the home would, as I have been warned, cause some marital distress. I recall helping a friend from Scunthorpe to prepare a beautiful ammonite which was greater than a metre in diameter and there are only so many of those that can be accommodated beside the fireplace! I am reminded that within the collecting community others also have addictive passions. I remember a black T-shirt that my son used to wear and it was emblazoned with the following statement: –

Five Things I Like (almost as much as riding my bike)

  1. Looking at my bike
  2. Talking about my bike
  3. Watching television programmes that feature people riding bikes
  4. Websites about bikes
  5. Bacon

I then thought, if I were to have a T-shirt to represent my passion what would it say. The following is probably accurate.

Five Things I Like (almost as much as looking at my minerals)

  1. Taking minerals out of their cabinets and putting them back
  2. Taking minerals out of their cabinets and leaving them on the kitchen table until instructed to replace them
  3. Looking at websites displaying minerals
  4. Looking at British minerals on a popular auction platform
  5. Looking at my army Dinky Toys

So, I have laboured this point long enough and now for the serious stuff.

Many dealers in natural science collections from the 1790s included fossils within their assemblages. The earliest dealers, which include White Watson and John Mawe who both resided in Derbyshire in the early 19th century, were rather parochial in their selection of fossils to be incorporated. These were mainly crinoid ossicles (or Derbyshire Screws), bivalves, coral and coal-measure plants. The early John Mawe collections (see Buxton Museum example) featured the decorative value of some of the fossil beds, which include entrochie fossil shale, coralloid marble and the ‘muscle’ iron stones. White Watson (1797) features ironstone abounding with petrified ‘muscle’ shells, coralline marble, entrochie marble, impressions of reeds-most of which would have an economic value in the polishing industries situated around Bakewell, the home of White Watson.

Diversity of fossil content blossoms from around the mid-19th century. The larger dealers were London-centred and included within their number were Brice Wright, James Tennant and James R. Gregory to name an influential few. The fossil content became more diverse and no doubt local agents would forward their productions for inclusion within these instructive collections.

Figure 1: Fossil, rock and mineral collection from 1847. © John Cooke.

The next milestone within my collections is from the prominent dealer, James Tennant. This is dated 1847 and features thirty-seven fossils within a mixed collection of minerals, rocks and fossils (Fig.1) The boxes enclosing the specimens have dimensions 1.25 x 1 inch. The diversity is substantially greater than 20 years previously and tends to be grouped into certain horizons such as The Crag’ of Suffolk with specimens of Astarte, Natica and Turritella. Many specimens from ‘The London Clay’ are included such as Fusus, fish vertebra and teeth. Chalk is represented by star fish and Cidaris (Fig.2), the Gault with Belemnites (Fig.3) and Hamites, the Lias beds of Dorset include ammonites, and a vertebra of an ichthyosaur (Fig.4). There are others from coal measures and limestone areas.

Figure 2: Cidaris. © John Cooke.
Figure 3: Belemnite. © John Cooke.
Figure 4: Ichthyosaur vertebra. © John Cooke.

The next offering is from James R. Gregory and the collection can be dated to between 1866 and 1874. The fossil component is arranged far more scientifically and is grouped into different periods including the Eocene, Cretaceous, Oolitic, Lias, Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian and Cambrian (Fig.5). J.R.Gregory was always regarded as a more scientific dealer than many of his predecessors and contemporaries. No doubt he relied upon many suppliers to contribute to his boxed collections, but it is a credit to Gregory and others who sought to arrange the fossils in an order that we would recognise today. The representative specimens in the collection are larger than previous examples and are enclosed in cardboard trays of dimensions 2 x 1.25 inches. The quality appears better and the general feeling is that of a superior educational value.

Figure 5: Fossil, rock and mineral collection, grouped by Period. © John Cooke.

Some notable specimens include: –

CarboniferousSpirifer, Productus
LiaBelemnite, ammonite (Fig.6)
Inf OoliteTerebratula, Rhynchonella (Fig.7)
Oxford ClayAmmonites
GaultHamites ammonite (Fig.8)
Barton ClayNatica, Fusus, Voluta (Fig.9)

There may be specimen names within this text that have, in the fullness of time, been changed because of new research and I extend apologies to any purists out there!

Figure 6: Belemnite and ammonite. © John Cooke.
Figure 7: Terebratula and Rhynchonella. © John Cooke.
Figure 8: Hamites ammonite. © John Cooke.
Figure 9: Natica, Fusus and Voluta. © John Cooke.

I am not an authority in the field of palaeontology, but it is quite evident that the science was making substantial progress within a 60-year period from the early dealers in Derbyshire to those supplying the market from early to mid-Victorian times. I have presented a limited number of data points representing the turn of the 18th/19th century, mid-century up to the 1870s during which it is evident that the science of palaeontology and stratigraphy is making enormous strides. Fossil markers are being identified and a progression is evident. For those who might have similar Victorian collections under their curation it should be possible to “fill in the dots” and see the progression in more detail. As pointed out earlier, my limited observations have been made on those partial fossil collections that are an adjunct to principally mineral and rock collections, but fossil collections must exist and if time permits these could be plotted to give a more accurate timeline against contemporary knowledge. I can see a PhD for some enterprising student!

It is interesting to note that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 which fits within the period above……. Indeed, a golden time for the emerging sciences.

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