Charles Lyell’s Friends and Family

It’s that time of the year again, when we come together with friends and family to share in the festivities. So I thought it would be wonderful to find out about the family and friends of Charles Lyell.

Mary Horner was Charles Lyell’s wife. She, like him, was a conchologist and geologist, and she made major contributions to her husband’s work. They were partners in science, with Mary accompanying Charles on field trips. She assisted him by sketching geological drawings, and cataloguing their collections. In addition to her spoken languages of French and German she learnt Spanish and Swedish to assist with communications. They even spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area. Mary had a vast interest and a great understanding of geology, and was present in her husband’s conversations with Charles Darwin.

NPG x46569,Mary Elizabeth (nÈe Horner), Lady Lyell,by Horatio Nelson King
Mary Horner Lyell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most well-known names in science, was a friend of Charles Lyell. Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle gave Darwin the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a work that heavily influenced him. Lyell and Darwin first met on 29th October 1836. In letters digitised by the University of Cambridge there are multiple correspondences between Darwin and Lyell. In a letter to J.D. Hooker about Lyell’s death, Darwin states they “have both lost as good & as true a friend as ever lived”. In the letters Darwin offers information about his life and what he is up to, makes suggestions of books that Mrs Lyell should read (some of which have nothing to do with geology), as well as discussing work on geology. Darwin requests that Lyell send him news about himself and his wife, as well as asking Lyell for his wife’s opinions to discover what she would find least troublesome. It is impossible to read their letters and not know they are friends.


Charles Darwin. From Wellcome Images. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of both Lyell and Darwin, was one of the finest 19th century British botanists and explorers. He was Charles Darwin’s closest friend. He was a founder of geographical botany (phytogeography), which looks at the geographic distribution of plant species and their influence on the earth’s surface. After he died it was suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey near Darwin, however his widow declined and instead followed her husband’s wishes to be buried next to his father.


Joseph Dalton Hooker. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Lyell’s father, also named Charles Lyell, gave up law as a profession after a considerable inheritance to concentrate on botany (the study of plants). His studies focussed on mosses with several species of these plants being named after him. Like his son he also corresponded with noted naturalists such as the botanist William Jackson Hooker (father of Joseph Dalton Hooker) and James Sowerby. He was said to have great taste in literature and even published a translation of The Canzoniere of Dante.

Gideon Mantell is renowned for his work on Iguanodon, reconstructing its structure and life habits. During his medical career he attended to more than 50 patients a day, and delivered over 200 babies a year. In the little free time he had he pursued geology, which was a childhood passion. He corresponded frequently with Lyell, discussing geology and fossil finds. After a horrible carriage accident left Mantell crippled he started taking opium as a painkiller. He died, possibly from an overdose, in November 1852.


Gideon Mantell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

This is a small selection of the fascinating people who filled Charles Lyell’s life. This is the time of year where you can appreciate all the amazing people in your life. Enjoy!

Charles Lyell and the Sowerbys

G.B. Sowerby and Charles Lyell discussing fossils. Drawn by Amy Jones.

Imagine this: Charles Lyell sitting with his friend George Brettingham Sowerby discussing and identifying fossils from Lyell’s last adventure whilst in a pair of plushy armchairs drinking tea. It is not known whether this is the case, but for me it is what immediately springs to mind when finding comments and identifications made by G.B. Sowerby which have been written on the back of display tablets. Some of these identifications seem to be in the handwriting of G.B. Sowerby himself. Whether this was G.B. Sowerby the elder or the younger remains to be discovered.

Reverse of specimen tablet with “Pollia fusiformis G.B.S.” as an example of G.B. Sowerby’s handwriting

Research on the Lyell Collection has revealed that G.B. Sowerby identified nearly 3,500 fossils for or with Charles Lyell, mainly between 1839 and 1841. These were mainly gastropods (snails) and bivalves (clams, mussels, and scallops). The majority were from France, but it seems Lyell called upon him to assist with identifications from many other localities.

Front of previous specimen tablet showing the fossil gastropods G.B. Sowerby identified

Now this is all well and good but if you are anything like me you will be wondering “well who were The Sowerbys?”  Read on to find out what is interesting and extraordinary about them.

The Sowerbys contributed massively to the field of natural history in many different disciplines. 14 members of the Sowerby family wrote and or illustrated over 100 works on botany, mineralogy, palaeontology, and zoology. They worked with or for most of the great names of natural history in the 19th century, including Charles Darwin.

James Sowerby was the man who started it all. Father to 9 children including James de Carle and George Brettingham I. James Sowerby was a naturalist and an illustrator. He had black eyes and was told by his mother that all the girls would die for him. He couldn’t see how he would kill with his eyes or make girls hearts ache, and so decided that he was in fact ugly, concluding that all the talks of heartaches and killings were untrue. James recognised himself as a genius, titling his childhood reminiscences ‘Myself or the progress of a genious’ (his spelling). He produced not only his well-known work on plants (English Botany) but also works on mycology (the study of fungi), conchology (the study of mollusc shells), and mineralogy.

James Sowerby_01.jpg
The “ugly” James Sowerby. Line engraving by Mrs D. Turner after T. Heap. From Wellcome Images. Accessed from here on 23 November 2016.

James de Carle Sowerby, the eldest son, was a mineralogist and illustrator. He studied experimental and analytical chemistry under Humphry Davy, and had the honour of assisting Davy with his experiments. James de Carle proposed classifying minerals according to their chemical composition, and by the age of 20 had named and arranged the collections of the Marchioness of Bath and other amateur collectors.

George Brettingham Sowerby I was a naturalist, illustrator, and conchologist. He became estranged from his family, with his name not appearing on family publications after 1822, and set up his own establishment working with natural history specimens. His son, George Brettingham II, was taken on by Charles Lyell in 1843 as his aid when in the USA. The name was passed down for 6 generations.

Charlotte Caroline Sowerby was the only daughter of George Brettingham I. She was a natural history illustrator with her high quality images present in The Illustrated Bouquet. Not only did she create botanical images she also illustrated a quartz crystal with asbestos inclusions, and volcanoes, proving it wasn’t just the men of the family who did the work!

Calceolaria Bouquet. Hand coloured zincography in The Illustrated Bouquet by Charlotte Caroline Sowerby. From The Illustrated Bouquet. Accessed from here on 23 November 2016

I’m Back

Hi, I am Lily, you may remember me from the Getting the Picture blog. I was the Museum Studies student working on the Lyell Project for 8 weeks and guess what – I’m back! I will be here for the next 6 months finishing off the project, so here’s a little bit of information about me.

Lily looking at Lyell fossils

I have been interested in palaeontology for as long as I can remember, since the first time I watched Jurassic Park. All I have wanted to do since then is work in a museum, giving information a new life by exploring the ways old stories can be used to engage people in unusual and exciting ways.

When I first visited OUMNH I fell in love. It was hands down the best museum that I had been to. All I wanted to do was work somewhere like that, and look at me now (follow your dreams, kids!). When I learnt earlier this year that I was able to undertake my work placement here I was ecstatic. The project looked amazing and I couldn’t wait to start. A few months later I arrived, and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. Now I am back I have the same feeling of elation, finishing a project that I loved working on. It felt like a dream when I was asked to return (for actual money this time) – I am still not quite sure it’s real. To all those out there looking at doing work placements one piece of advice: pick somewhere you can see yourself working and you will have an amazing experience. Trust me, I did. I can’t wait to see the end result of this project and I hope you guys are all with me on that. It’s going to be amazing.

Watch this space…



Getting the picture

Photographing museum specimens is an important part of the documentation process. It creates a record of the condition of the object at a particular point in time, and may reduce the need for long descriptions of the specimen and associated material  such as labels. Making pictures available online also provides an exciting new window into the behind-the-scenes collections. There’s recently  been a big drive in the museums sector towards mass digitisation, and our museum is moving towards that model. The important thing for us is to balance speed with  the need to produce photographs that are both useful and appealing to our audiences.

Digitised images in AdobeBridge

I’ve taken many different types of photos over the course of the Lyell Project, trying out different ways of creating the best image to illustrate a blog post, record an entire drawer or capture different types of handwriting. It’s been a useful but time-consuming process. We are now moving on to the mass digitisation part of the project, and I’ve spent  much of the past few weeks experimenting with various ways of doing this.  My aim is to get the entire process of photography, from getting out the specimens to uploading the images, to work more smoothly, making everything faster and more efficient.

The equipment I’m using was already in the museum, purchased during various projects and using different funding sources:

  • Camera: Canon EOS 6D (the specification is probably overkill for these photos)
  • Lens: EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
  • Copy stand: Kaiser RS1 copy stand
  • Lights: Kaiser RB30 lights
  • Scale bar
  • Basic laptop
  • Software: DSLR Remote Pro (remote capture application for camera)
  • Cable with USB type A plug to mini-B plug to connect the camera to the laptop
  • Paint brush to dust specimen and clean background
  • White paper for background
  • Stiff white card reflector to reduce shadows
The photography set up

For rapid photography, the big advantage of the Lyell Collection is that around 95% of the specimens are attached to wooden or cardboard tablets, many of which are the same width. We want to capture images of the entire tablet as that provides useful information about the specimen, including the object number, locality, genus and species. As the specimens are already fixed to the tablets, there was no need to go through the time-consuming and fiddly process of orientating every specimen in the same way and keeping it in position using props. The only decision was which way up to photograph the tablet. As you can see from the photos below, there is very little consistency to the orientation of the fossils on the tablets, so we decided to go with standard paleontological orientations e.g. apex up for gastropods or, where there was a mixture of ways up, to go with the orientation of  handwriting.

The right way up
Which way should this go?

I was surprised how quickly I could take photos of the specimens when I left the camera at a fixed height above the specimens and used autofocus, instead of adjusting the working distance and manually focusing for every specimen. Only the very smallest shells (less than 1cm) looked a bit flat, and there was still enough of the shape recorded to be useful.

Very small shells

I’ve done three drawers about 250 specimens so far and I’ve got down to approximately 2 minutes per specimen. This includes the whole process from getting drawers out of the cabinets, photographing all the specimens, manually renaming the images with the specimen number, doing basic image adjustments to the RAW files, saving as archival tiffs (5472 x 3648 pixels), and jpegs (1000 x 667 pixels) for online use, editing metadata, and uploading to our collections management system and digital archives.  Other demands of the project mean that I won’t be doing this full time, but I’ll probably be be doing a day or two of photography per week for the rest of the project.

This process will slow down considerably as we get to less uniform drawers of specimens and specimens that aren’t on tablets, but it is really useful to know how much we can do with limited equipment. In the future we may look at automating some of these processes. We’ve just been joined by a Museum Studies student who’ll be on placement with us for the next eight weeks. She’ll be working on all aspects of the Lyell project including photography, and simplifying the photography procedure in this way should make the training much easier and allow her to achieve much more in a short period of time.




Different Hands

Five specimens of the bivalve Cardita rudista Lamarck, 1919 from Touraine, France

Most of Lyell’s specimens are mounted on wooden tablets like the one pictured above. The glue used for mounting the specimens has failed in some cases so the fossils are loose. This means we have to be very careful moving them, for example if we want to see what’s written on the back.

The glue used to mount these bivalves has failed.
back of a Charles Lyell tablet with the loose fossils detached
The back of a Charles Lyell tablet with the loose fossils detached.

The faded ink writing on the front of the tablet gives the identification “Cardita rudis” and the locality “Touraine”, a historical province in the north east of France. We think that this writing and the pencil on the back may belong to Charles Lyell based on comparison with some of his letters, but we aren’t sure. We do know that the black ink numbers were added to the tablets by Paul Clasby, the Honorary Associate who catalogued the collection in the 1980s and 1990s.

Although it gives the same information, the writing in ink on the back of the tablet seems completely different to Lyell’s, and the slope of the letters suggests that the writer may have been left handed. The layout suggests that the ink writing came first and the pencil was added later, which means Lyell may not have been the person to originally identify the specimen.

We’ve come across a few cases where people working with Lyell helped label fossils (for example the fossil bryozoans annotated by Lonsdale on this page from the Natural History Museum). There is also some indication that one of Lyell’s sisters labelled some specimens held at the University of Dundee.

Some of our unmounted Lyell fossils have distinctive labels from previous owners, but the fact that these Cardita specimens are mounted on the standard Lyell tablet suggests that the ink writing on the back is not that of an original collector. As we continue to work through the collection we hope to work out the identities of some of the other people associated with it and the role they played.

Temporarily misplaced

When I started work on the Lyell project in July of this year, I was very keen to know more about the history of the collection, both before and after it arrived at the museum. Collections often arrive at the Museum with associated material such as catalogues, letters or notebooks and after they arrive any activity related to the collection should be documented.

The first step in investigating the history of the collection was to find out what was in the Museum’s records. I began by looking at the donors database; this recorded the date that the Lyell collection arrived (1903) and the donor, Sir Leonard Lyell, Charles Lyell’s nephew. There was a little more information in the donors card index, which mentioned the fact that the collection came in two parts, the bulk of the collection in 1903 and then additional Italian specimens in 1907. The Collections Manager, Eliza Howlett, also directed me to the annual reports of the Museum for 1903 and 1907, which noted the two donations, and to the Earth Collections Lyell file, but this started in the 1960s and was entirely related to the use of the collection.

I wondered if there was a book of acquisitions that recorded the information that went into the annual reports. A colleague had vague memories of some early donation books, so I decided to go on a hunt to see if that would yield more information. I checked many shelves, climbing up ladders and peering into boxes all over the Museum. My search eventually narrowed down to a cupboard full of folders taken from a former curator’s office. The donor book was there (and interestingly included library books as well as fossils) but it started in 1929 so it didn’t cover the years that I was interested in. I delved further into the pile and noticed that a tattered box file was labelled “Lyell Collection” among other things. Bingo!

Or so I thought. After carefully searching through the box, there was nothing Lyell related at all. There was quite a bit of space, so clearly something had been removed. I kept on searching, roping in various colleagues to help me think of new possibilities, which involved more ladders and delving into cupboards that hadn’t been disturbed for years. I found some interesting things but nothing on Lyell and I started to think that whatever had been in the file was already in our Lyell folder.

Then one day, a month or so later, I came in to work to find a mysterious cardboard box on my chair. Inside was some old notepaper, photocopies of most of the 1980-1990s catalogues, and a marble bound notebook with “Lyell Collection” on the front. It was the missing piece! It took me a while to work out where it came from but it turned out that one of our Honorary Associates had found it on the top of a filing cabinet while looking for something else.

Photograph of original Lyell Collection catalogue
Original Lyell Collection catalogue

It was fascinating to read. Inside was a complete, drawer by drawer listing of the species and localities of specimens from the collection. There were references to the places in which they were published, and references for further information as the cataloguer worked out where the localities were and how the stratigraphy fitted together.

The book contained two sets of handwriting. it became clear that this was a document created after the collection was presented to the Museum, as we identified the first set as that of Maud Healey, who worked as Assistant to Professor W.J. Sollas, Keeper of the University Museum, between 1902 and 1906. We know that she did a lot of cataloguing and arranged displays, and the 1903 annual report gratefully notes how the “work of reorganization of the fossils of the Museum Collection … has … progressed … at a much more rapid rate during this year, a result entirely due to the devoted efforts of Miss Healey.”

It seems Miss Healey may have pushed herself too hard; the 1906 annual report notes that the ” Professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is to be hoped that her retirement may be only temporary. ”

We haven’t yet identified the second set of handwriting, but the owner recorded the specimens that arrived after 1907, when Miss Healey had left. We suspect that it belongs to a C.H. Dunham or Durham, whose name is written on the book along with the date December 1907, but research so far hasn’t come up with any more information. If anyone reading this recognises the name or can suggest anywhere to look, we would love to hear from you!