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Chemistry and politics at the time of the First World War

The terrible conflict of the First World War changed life for everyone in the UK. Few could have predicted, however, that a quiet backwater in rural Dorset in the South West of the country would become a secret First World War explosives centre which would provide vital support for troops and have an indirect influence on the formation of the state of Israel. This is the story of the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath.

A century ago, when the First World War began, Holton Heath, near Wareham in Dorset was a quiet tract of heathland bordering Poole Harbour. Within a year everything had changed and the heath had been transformed into a busy construction site for the highly secret Royal Naval Cordite Factory. This factory provided critical support for ammunition production for the Navy during WW1 and again during WW2. The site was finally closed in 1997 and is now partly a nature reserve and partly a business park.

What was cordite?

In 1914, all bullets and shells used by British forces depended on cordite as a propellant. Cordite was packed in to ammunition and once ignited, produced hot gases whose pressure propelled the shell or bullet towards its target. Cordite was made by mixing the viscous liquid nitroglycerine with fibrous guncotton (nitrocellulose), a little petroleum jelly and the solvent acetone to form a paste. This paste was extruded through a hydraulic press to produced spaghetti-like strands of cordite which were dried and cut to convenient lengths for use in ammunition.

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A World War I shell showing the cordite strands used as propellent (from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Superficially, this sounds like a simple process but don’t forget that the WW1 conflict was on a scale previously unimagined. This placed huge demands on cordite production requiring industrial-scale chemistry to make the raw materials. Many of these were potentially explosive so that there were great risks for workers.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Preparing strands of cordite during WW2 (from the Imperial War Museum © IWM (A 24936))

 

The Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath

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The main administrative buildings at the Royal Naval Cordite Factory Holton Heath

 

In 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that the Navy needed its own protected supply of cordite; perhaps he foresaw problems with supply. He commissioned building a factory to produce cordite exclusively for the Navy and a search began for a suitable site. Holton Heath was finally chosen because it was away from centres of population but with good transport links by rail and by sea. Work began in 1915 and the factory opened the following year. The site employed more than a thousand people during WW1 and Holton Heath station was built to help people get to work. Many of the workers were women, the so-called munitionettes, and the steam trains carrying staff to work were nicknamed “glamour puffers”. We should not, however, underestimate the courage of these women. They were performing dangerous work, they were handling explosive materials and they were exposed to toxic chemicals. They risked their lives every day and their work could be seen as an echo of the lives of the men fighting abroad.

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The Holton Heath station sign as it is nowadays (photo kindly donated by Pat English (http://squirrelbasket.wordpress.com/))
Holton Heath Station
Holton Heath Station as it is nowadays (from Wikimedia Commons)

The acetone crisis and Chaim Weizmann

Acetone was a critical ingredient in the manufacture of cordite and the scale of the conflict meant that huge amounts of the chemical were required. At the start of the war, acetone was imported from the major timber growing countries of the United States, Canada and Austria where it was made by distillation from wood. By 1915 there were supply problems and it became clear that another source would be needed to satisfy the huge demand of the munitions industry. The Synthetic Products Company in the UK tried to produce acetone on a large scale using bacteria to break down potato starch but ultimately failed to deliver the amounts required.

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Chaim Weizmann’s passport photo 1915 (from Wikimedia Commons)

The solution to the acetone problem was supplied by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Chaim Weizmann, working in the chemistry department of the University of Manchester. Weizmann was an expert in what we now call biotechnology, the use of biological processes to perform chemical transformations. He had collaborated with the Synthetic Products Company in their work on bacteria but eventually they parted company and he worked alone. After several frustrating years of research between 1912 and 1914 he finally isolated a bacterium that would produce acetone from maize starch in good yield. This microbe came to be called “Clostridium aceto-butylicum Weizmann” and provided the answer to the acetone problem.

Weizmann’s work had been performed on a small scale in the lab but, in 1915, when the Admiralty heard about his findings, they asked him to try to scale up the process. This was done in stages, first in a former gin factory in London and then in a 15,000 gallon tank built specially at Holton Heath. Weizmann must have paid regular visits to Dorset at this time to oversee progress. The work went well and the Admiralty decided to build a full scale acetone plant at Holton Heath employing Weizmann’s process. The new facility generated 2000 tons of acetone a year from maize starch. The success of the work in Dorset encouraged the Ministry of Munitions to adopt Weizmann’s process for production of cordite required for ammunition for all British forces.

Weizmann’s work on acetone, much of which was implemented in Dorset, was, therefore, fundamental to the outcome of the First World War. It was also the first application of industrial biotechnology, the use of biological systems to make valuable products on a large scale, now widely used for the production of drugs and vaccines.

Weizmann and Zionism

Flag of Israel

 

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Weizmann in 1949 (from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Weizmann was a passionate Zionist and in 1917, became President of the British Zionist Federation. His principal wish was that the Jewish people should return to their homeland. The contribution he made to the war effort put him in a unique position of respect and influence. Although he was not a member of government, he knew and was respected by many of the politicians of the time. His views would have been listened to and he had long discussions with the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour. Indeed it was Balfour who in 1917 issued a Declaration supporting Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people. Israel was established in 1948, Weizmann was its first President and chemistry had influenced politics. The Royal Naval Cordite Factory in Dorset was inextricably interwoven with these events which still reverberate.

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Some of the old buildings of the Cordite Factory as they are nowadays (photo kindly donated by Pat English (http://squirrelbasket.wordpress.com/))

 

The image featured at the top of this post is of a tract of nearby heath called Arne Heath.  It is how I imagine Holton Heath looked before the factory was built.  The image is © copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

For another article on this factory see Squirrel Basket.

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More ivy, more Ivy Bees !

Last Sunday, we enjoyed a walk around the small Devon seaside town of Salcombe. It’s a pleasant place now that the season is over and we relished the views over the estuary on this cooler but dry day. I don’t know whether I am looking more carefully or perhaps I haven’t previously visited Salcombe at this time of year? I didn’t remember the profusion of flowering ivy.

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The Salcombe estuary on a sunnier day, viewed from the cliffs (Photo by Hazel Strange)

 

A narrow coast road links the town to its two beaches, North Sands and South Sands. On one side of this road there are low cliffs dropping to the sea and all along the cliff tops were huge banks of ivy. Given my recent experience, I now search any stand of flowering ivy for Ivy Bees and the Salcombe cliffs did not disappoint.

Ivy bee on ivy Salcombe 3

Wasps were the predominant insect on the ivy flowers but there were also quite a few of the sleek, slender, yellow and black-banded Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae) with their characteristic russet hairs. The wasps mostly tolerated their company although I did see one attack an Ivy Bee. The bee fell away but I could not be sure if it died or just sloped off.

Ivy bee on ivy Salcombe 2

The Ivy Bees at this site seemed to be moving about less than when I had seen them before. Once they had found a suitable flower head they spent some time exhaustively probing its flowers. Perhaps there was more pollen and nectar available? Perhaps it was cooler? I looked for colonies but did not locate any; I presume the nests are in nearby cliffs but as these are mostly private land they are out of bounds to Ivy Bee-nerds like me.

Ivy bees on ivy Salcombe

What I am beginning to realise is that, in this part of Devon, Colletes hederae is doing rather well with large colonies and large numbers. They also don’t seem to mind the cooler damper weather we have been experiencing.

It’s good to have a positive bee story to tell.

We visited Salcombe on October 12th 2014.

For those interested in Ivy Bees, they featured in the Guardian Country Diary this week

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We see our first Ivy Bees!

We picked our way carefully down the steep, stony path to the beach at Mansands, one of the many small coves dotted along the South Devon Coast. At this time of year, the banks lining the path celebrate the season with silky draperies of “Old man’s beard” punctuated by bonfire-sparks of red rose hips and great outbursts of flowering ivy. Pale sunshine coaxed a sickly sweet perfume from the ivy flowers and encouraged a busy profusion of wasps, hoverflies and honeybees but we were hoping to spot another kind of insect. Suddenly my attention was grabbed by a different shape and there it was: marginally longer than a honeybee, its abdomen slender and pointed with clearly defined regular stripes of black and yellow. This sleek insect was an Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae), with a fringe of russet hairs around the thorax and its manner of browsing the ivy flowers in a crescent shape. We saw a few more but they were elusive and moved about quickly. It didn’t matter, we had seen our first Ivy Bees!

Ivy bee on ivy

Ivy bee on ivy flower

I was pretty sure that if there were Ivy Bees about, there must also be nests nearby but the conundrum was how to find them. At other sites in Devon, the nests are said to be near the beach so that seemed a good place to start the search. Ivy Bees generally choose soft friable soils to build the tunnels that form their nests. The beach at Mansands is book-ended by south-facing cliffs containing buff-coloured sandy soil, some shale and some rock. Scrubby grass provides cover in places. This is probably an ideal environment for these bees and, when I looked, I saw many small holes pock-marking the cliffs. Numerous bees were buzzing around and based on their patterning and shape these were probably Ivy Bees. Rather like commuters at a busy rush-hour railway station, some bees were going in and out of the holes and some were moving about, occasionally colliding with others. The nests were distributed along a stretch of cliff about 50 metres wide; there must be thousands of bees here. It seemed too easy but, almost by accident, I had stumbled across a massive Ivy Bee settlement, a truly impressive natural phenomenon.

Detail of Mansands cliffs with ivy bee nests
Close-up of the nest area

 

Mansands cliffs with Ivy Bee nests
Cliffs to the north-east of Mansands. Much of this area is populated by Ivy Bees

When I looked more closely, I noticed that the female bees returning to their nests carried chrome-yellow pollen along their legs, looking as if they were wearing bright yellow lycra cycling shorts. They mostly disappeared in to the holes presumably to unload the pollen to provide food for their larvae. A few returning females rested on blades of grass before entering their nests. As they cleaned themselves, they were bombarded by other bees. These may have been hopeful males but the females showed no interest at all, having probably already mated.

Ivy bee with pollen
Ivy Bee with pollen

 

Ivy bee approaching nest
Competition!

 

Ivy bee resting on grass blade
Female resting before finding her nest

 

Ivy bee at nest
Having a look

 

The Ivy Bee is a relative newcomer to the UK having been first identified on mainland Britain in Dorset in 2001. Since then it has colonised many sites along the south coast and is also spreading north. It is the last solitary bee to emerge, flying between early September and early November. It shows a strong preference for pollen and nectar from ivy although it will feed from other sources. Some call it a mining bee as it digs tunnels for its nests but others refer to it as a plasterer bee from its habit of lining the nest with a protective cellophane-like coating. Although it is a solitary bee in that it does not form cooperative colonies, many Ivy Bees tend to nest in the same area.

There are two other solitary bees that are on the wing around this time and which could be confused with Ivy Bees. The sea aster mining bee (Colletes halophilus) looks very similar but it is confined to salt marshland on the East and South East coasts of the UK. Another look-alike is Colletes succinctus but this is a bee of heather moorland. The Mansands bees are unlikely to be either of these species, especially as there are large banks of ivy in the area.

These Colletes hederae are the last solitary bees I shall see until next spring and I can’t help marvelling at their behaviour. Ivy Bees spend a frantic period of roughly eight weeks on the wing when they have to mate and build nests. They must also lay eggs and provide them with supplies of pollen and nectar, helping to pollinate the ivy along the way. During the next ten months the miraculous transformation of egg to larva to pupa to bee occurs but we don’t see any evidence of this until the new bees emerge next year and the cycle starts again.

We visited Mansands on October 3rd 2014;  the photos were taken by Hazel Strange.

I should like to thank Amelia, who writes two fascinating blogs: A French Garden and Bees in a French Garden, for kindling my interest in solitary bees.

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Crab apples, arsenic and suburbia – the September garden

Silver birch in autumn

Early in the month, autumn was more of an idea than a fact but as September progressed, the predominantly green view from my kitchen window gained increasing yellow and brown tinges. But this was no New England “Fall”, rather a gentle and gradual transformation as the new season took hold. In particular, I watched the three silver birches become increasingly flecked with yellow, transforming their foliage in to a patchwork of bright yellows and dull greens which glowed in the light of the morning sun. By the end of the month, yellow had overtaken green and a thin carpet of autumn leaves began to form under the trees.

Sedum and bumblebee
Sedum and bumblebee
Himalayan honeysuckle and bumblebee
Himalayan honeysuckle and bumblebee

Down in the Leechwell Garden the signs of autumn were clear although a few residual flowers struggled on. These were received gladly by the bees and I saw them enjoying the thick pink mop heads of sedum and the pendulous white trumpet-flowers and deep red chandelier-bracts of Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa).

Mullein
Overbalancing mullein

A mullein that had overbalanced under its own weight to form a surprising arch sprouted vertical shoots and flowers as if desperately trying to grab the light; an occasional bee deigned to try these late offerings.
By the end of the month, ivy growing on walls outside the Garden had flowered and the huge clumps announced themselves with their sickly-sweet smell and insect-hum. The bees were lured by this sudden profusion of pollen for a final binge of the year but many other insects also contributed to the ivy-buzz.

Away from the flowers, interest this month has been provided by fruits and seeds as the plants and trees shut down for the season.

Snowberry fruit
Snowberry

A few squidgy white fruits appeared on a snowberry (Symphoricarpos) and, looking at them, I was transported back nearly half a century to a primary school playground where we used these as ammunition. No-one told me at the time that the fruits were highly poisonous but had I eaten one, their strongly emetic effects would have expelled the berry before I succumbed!

Spindle tree
Spindle tree foliage and fruit

 

Spindle tree fruit
Fruits of the spindle tree

In a somewhat gloomy corner of the Garden, a low shrub glowed with surprising pink leaves and even pinker fruit; this is a Spindle tree (Euonymus Europaeus). There is something slightly unsettling about the fruit with their bulbous four-lobed structure and brash colour. From Cathy, on her Words and Herbs blog, I learnt that the fruit are termed Bishop’s Hats in Germany; this seems most appropriate and the bishops refer to the colour as amaranth. A euonymus gets a mention in one of my favourite poems, “A subaltern’s love song” by John Betjeman. I believe Betjeman chooses the shrub as a symbol of mid 20th century suburbia. Read it to find out!

Crab apples
Crab apples

On the Crab Apple I noticed a few fruit: almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red. I am not sure why there are so few fruit given the number of pollinators in the Garden and I shall be intrigued to see how these mature as by last December the residual fruit were yellow.

Cedar flowers
Cedar flowers with pollen

The blueish needles of a cedar (Atlas Cedar I think) made a statement, and the tree was also adorned with squashy pollen-laden pale brown flowers. The plentiful pollen will be wind-carried from these male flowers to the female flowers higher up the tree to form cones.

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September this year has been notable for its lack of rain and mild temperatures. Although this has not been good for gardeners, it has prolonged use of the Leechwell Garden by visitors and local residents especially those with children. An unexpected use of the Garden this month was as an outdoor classroom for one of the town’s primary schools. Groups of small children in the Garden gathered around one of the benches with their teacher or ran through the water – mums and dads will have been pleased! The teachers used the Garden in this way when rebuilding work at the school was delayed by the unexpected discovery of contamination. The school occupies land formerly used as the site of the town’s Victorian gasworks and, during the rebuilding, underlying soil was found to be contaminated with arsenic, lead and benzopyrene.

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500 dead bumblebees – pesticides leave their deadly trace

Earlier this year, Sheila Horne was walking at Hacton Parkway, a public park and conservation area in Havering, East London. April is normally a good time to see insects in their prime so she was very surprised to find many dead and dying bees near the path. She alerted local naturalist, Tony Gunton who identified the insects as bumblebee queens from three species, red-tailed, buff-tailed and common carder. This was not a minor incident, there were as many as 500 bees affected.

Natural England was appointed to investigate the insect deaths and samples of dead bees were sent to FERA in York for analysis. The results were released a few weeks ago and showed that the bees were contaminated with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and two fungicides, flusilazole and epoxiconazole. Imidacloprid is very poisonous to bees with bumblebees being more susceptible to this chemical than honeybees. Imidacloprid is now subject to a two year partial ban for some agricultural uses. Neither fungicide on its own is especially toxic to bees although flusilazole is due to be phased out this October because of its high toxicity to fish and because of other potential toxic effects.

But where did the bumblebees pick up these chemicals? We cannot be sure but as so many dying bees were found together in one place, it seems likely that the source of the poisoning was close by. Hacton Parkway lies alongside arable farmland and at the time of the poisoning some of the land was planted with flowering oil seed rape, so it is a reasonable conclusion that the bees had been feeding there. It is thought that the crop had been sown in autumn 2013 using seed treated with imidacloprid, just ahead of the ban. According to John Rennie of Natural England there had been no spray applications of insecticides or fungicides since the beginning of 2014.

So, why did these bees die? Because there are so many unanswered questions we cannot be sure. The imidacloprid used on the oil seed rape has been blamed by some but I can’t see how this could be a problem if the farmer followed safety guidelines. There is good evidence that exposure to typical agricultural levels of imidacloprid does not kill bumblebees although there is also good evidence for sub-lethal effects on behaviour and reproduction. It is, however, becoming apparent that neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid accumulate in soil so perhaps exposure levels of the dead bees were higher than expected. Soil testing would be informative here.

There is also the question of how the bees were exposed to the two fungicides if no spraying was performed during the flowering season? Does this mean that these chemicals persist for long periods or has there been spraying elsewhere? Perhaps the fungicides weakened the bees or made them more susceptible to the imidacloprid. There is some evidence for such interactions for other insecticide/fungicide pairings.

Although the investigation continues, it may be quite difficult to resolve some of these questions. Despite this uncertainty, the results of the chemical analysis stand. These bees died with three chemicals in their bodies: one insecticide and two fungicides. This was no laboratory experiment; this reflects what is happening around us when these chemicals are used. Our agricultural practices have led to this and the result is the deaths of important pollinators. How often is this occurring on a lower level but not being noticed or reported?

With thanks to Tony Gunton for talking to me about this incident

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Hedgehogs, hyssop and strewing meadowsweet – looking back at the Garden in August

 

Beech nuts
beech nuts

 

August failed to deliver the holiday heat we expected and the unseasonable cool made us more conscious of the approach of autumn. Looking around, there was palpable change, particularly in the look of the trees. Some showed tantalising hints of autumn tints but, for many trees, the season changed their appearance in a different way. The fresh, bright green leaves that had signalled the headlong rush of spring growth now lacked lustre. Also, from our kitchen window I could see a lime tree that seemed to have been painted with impressionist-daubs of pale yellow-green giving the tree a lighter look. A closer examination revealed that the tree was covered with seeds and pale ribbon-like bracts; these will eventually fall together and the bracts will act as sails to aid seed dispersal. Another tree, a beech, exhibited a mass of fuzzy brown nuts, as if afflicted by a plague of small hedgehogs. Soon, however, the leaves will fall, the seeds will have their chance and the trees will await another spring.

Lime bracts and seeds
lime seeds and bracts

 

Leechwell herb garden
the herb garden

Down in the Leechwell Garden, there was still plenty of interest, especially in the herb garden. Several clumps of hyssop were in full flower and their colour, one sky-blue, the other pretty in pink, caught my eye. In the sunshine these new faces also delighted the bees.

Hyssop and bumblebee
hyssop and bumblebee

 

 

Echinacea
echinacea

 

Globe thistle
globe thistle and bumblebee

Bright pink echinacea and steel-blue globe thistle continued to flower valiantly providing welcome food for insects. I love the symmetry of these two flowers, a tribute to nature’s hidden plans. A tall mullein with a few residual yellow flowers overbalanced under its own weight like a drunk at the bar.

 

Artichoke
artichoke

Nearby, I found the massive flower heads of an artichoke topped with their punkish purple fuzz. The oversize blooms look like monster Scottish thistles and indeed artichokes are members of the thistle family cultivated for their edible buds. There is something primeval about the flower heads; fortunately the plants cannot move, otherwise we might have a prototype triffid. The blooms are also bee-favourites and I saw a red-tailed bumblebee seemingly drunk on the nectar.

 

water mint
water mint

The water flowing through the Garden from the Leechwell is very popular with visitors but it also attracts its own floral signature. Water mint, noticeable at this time of year for its many mauve flowers, dips its feet in the water and grows here prolifically. Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica tells the story of William Sole who, in 1798, wrote about the different kinds of mint and their particular smells. Sole likened the smell of water mint to “a ropy chimney in a wet summer where wood fires have been kept in winter”. This is too much for my nose and all I could detect was a strong minty smell.

 

meadowsweet
meadowsweet

The fragrant, frothy flowers and dark green foliage of the damp-loving meadowsweet were also in evidence growing near the stream. John Clare wrote about this plant in his poem, “Summer”:

The meadowsweet taunts high its showy wreath
And sweet the quaking grasses hide beneath

In the 16th century, meadowsweet was a popular strewing plant; its leaves were spread on floors to provide a crude carpet and a pleasant odour. The foliage of the plant emits a sharp aromatic scent and Gerard, in his herbal, extols the virtues of strewing meadowsweet: “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the senses”; it is said that meadowsweet was the favourite strewing plant of Elizabeth I. In contrast to the odour associated with the foliage, the creamy-white flowers have a different scent which, to me, is sickly sweet.

Meadowsweet has long been used in folk medicine to provide relief against mild pain. We now know that the plant contains chemicals similar to those in willow bark, another natural analgesic. These naturally occurring molecules were used to develop aspirin and the name of this widely consumed drug was derived from the old botanical name of meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria.

I wrote last month about the departure of the swifts. It turns out that this was slightly inaccurate as on the evening of August 10 two more appeared over the Garden; I suppose these swifts were on their way to the coast as we didn’t see them again. They were then replaced for a few days by a group of house martins. These are not as acrobatic or as quick as the swifts but it was good to see them swooping and twittering to one another as they harvested the insects.

The featured image at the top of this post shows a pollen-loaded honeybee on mullein.

This is the ninth of my diary entries for the Leechwell Garden;  to see the others please put “Leechwell” in the search box.

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The Queen of Seaweeds – the story of Amelia Griffiths, an early 19th century pioneer of marine botany.

In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential female scientists in British History. One of the ten was Mary Anning (1799-1847) who from humble beginnings in Lyme Regis, Dorset came to be recognised as the “greatest fossil hunter ever known”. Her discoveries of long extinct, fossilised creatures in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were central to the development of new ideas about the history of the earth at the start of the 19th century. She became an expert in her field but did not get the recognition she deserved because science at the time was an exclusively male profession. Nowadays she is receiving this recognition and the fascination of her story has spawned biographies, novels and children’s books. The Lyme Regis Museum has well-developed plans to build an extension, to be called the Mary Anning Wing.

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Mary Anning

I had thought that Anning was the only prominent West Country female scientist of her time until, walking along the coast path near Torquay recently, I paused to read an information board. This included a panel dedicated to the work of Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) “who collected and preserved nearly 250 species of seaweed ……. one of the first women to be recognised for their contribution to science.” Never having heard of Griffiths, my interest was piqued, especially when I discovered that, in the 19th century, she was described as “facile Regina – the willingly acknowledged Queen of Algologists”. [Seaweeds are large multicellular marine algae.]

So who was Griffiths and what did she do?

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Part of the information board that alerted me to Amelia Griffiths

Amelia Warren Rogers was born in Pilton, North Devon in 1768. In 1794 she married Rev. William Griffiths and the couple moved to Cornwall. Eight years later, her husband died suddenly under mysterious circumstances leaving his widow with five young children but not without money. Amelia Griffiths decided to leave Cornwall for Devon, living first at Ottery St Mary before settling in Torquay where she could best follow her favourite pursuit of studying seaweeds.

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One of the Torbay coves that Griffiths may have frequented when she lived in Torquay. Plenty of seaweed is still visible.

For much of her adult life she collected seaweeds avidly: in north Devon and Cornwall, in Dorset and along the East and South Devon coasts. When she began, identification of species was difficult as many had not been named or clearly described so Amelia devised her own names – “bottle brush”, “cobweb” etc. She helped male seaweed enthusiasts in producing scholarly studies on the larger and smaller seaweeds, generously giving her knowledge and donating samples. One such enthusiast was the leading botanist William Henry Harvey with whom she corresponded and who eventually became a close friend. Her reputation grew and in 1817, the Swedish botanist Carl Agardh named a genus of red seaweed Griffithsia in her honour.

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Griffithsia setacea from Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Dried samples of seaweeds collected by Griffiths are held in several museums including Kew, Torquay and Exeter. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds three slightly battered leather-bound volumes of her seaweeds which I recently had the privilege to see. Each sample is mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in Griffiths’ neat handwriting. Many of the seaweeds still retain their bright colours despite being collected more than a century and a half ago.

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Enteromorpha intestinalis. Collected in Torbay. The name suggests that early collectors saw the resemblance with the human intestine. From Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Griffiths was often accompanied on her seaweed sorties by Mary Wyatt, formerly a servant in the Griffiths household but eventually the proprietor of a Torquay shop selling shells, polished madrepores and pressed plants. Harvey encouraged Mary Wyatt to sell books of pressed and named seaweeds to help identification. Supervised by Amelia, she produced the first two volumes of Algae Danmonienses (Seaweeds of Devon) by 1833. Each volume contained 50 species and cost 25 shillings or £1 if you subscribed to the series. The books sold well, being partly responsible for making seaweed collecting the must-do pastime at seaside resorts in early Victorian Britain. Followers of this seaweed craze were able to explore nature, improve their scientific knowledge and perhaps produce a memento of their seaside holiday.

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The title page of one of Mary Wyatt’s books of seaweeds with a special Royal dedication. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council.

Despite their extensive correspondence, Harvey and Amelia Griffiths did not meet until 1839 when he visited Torquay. At her urging, he wrote a hand-book of British Marine Algae later expanded to Phycologia Britannica, illustrating all known British Marine Algae. This great work required constant correspondence with Griffiths who despite being in her late 70s provided extensive knowledge of the plants in their natural state. Harvey held her in high regard and his hand-book contained the following dedication: “To Mrs Griffiths of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany….”

The more I investigated the story of Amelia Griffiths, the more I found similarities with Mary Anning. Both were systematic collectors, acquiring immense expertise in their fields and passing on samples to male scientists who furthered their own careers as a result. Both were strong women who pursued their interests whether or not these conformed to norms of society. Griffiths is known to have collected at Lyme Regis so perhaps she encountered Anning on the beach; it is an interesting thought. Anning is now better known, partly because her discoveries were much more significant for science and partly because of the well developed Mary Anning-industry in her home town.

Griffiths lived until nearly 90 maintaining her passion for seaweeds to the end. We must not forget that she began her systematic study of seaweeds in the early years of the 19th century, a time when women could not develop independent scientific careers. Despite this, she made a major contribution to marine botany and deserves to be more widely known.

I should like to thank Holly Morgenroth of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, who showed me Griffiths’ books of seaweeds and took the photographs.

This article first appeared in the August edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the top of this post is of Phycodrys rubens (formerly Delesseria sinuosa) in Griffiths’ books (copyright 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council).

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