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).

26 thoughts on “The Queen of Seaweeds – the story of Amelia Griffiths, an early 19th century pioneer of marine botany.”

  1. What I wouldn’t give to be known as the ‘Queen of Algologists’! I wonder how a Fields Medal compares? We women still have quite a few firsts to achieve (no disrespect to Marin Alsop). Sorry, I’m wittering. Great post!

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    1. Thank you, I am pleased you liked it.

      One of the surprising things to me was that Griffiths never published anything herself. This meant her reputation did not last well. I suspect she felt constrained by Victorian gender stereotypes.

      Another seaweed enthusiast who came on the scene about 40 years after Griffiths was Margaret Gatty, also an avid collector. Gatty wrote children’s stories and a lot of popular science including books on seaweeds. She was very well known at the time but this sort of writing kept her within her gender stereotype. She did, however, publish one scientific paper indicating some acceptance by the male science world.

      Things are very different nowadays but there is still important progress to be made for women. I admire Marin Alsop greatly and thought she spoke with great dignity at the Last Night of the Proms. The very fact that she is the only female conductor of a major orchestra shows how much is still to be done.

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  2. Fascinating! I never realised how early some people would collect in a scientific manner something that was a passion for them and with very little help. I cannot imagine trying to study anything without the vast body of information that is available to us now. Amelia

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    1. Thanks Amelia. The Victorians were great “categorisers” and for the right person, collecting, describing and labelling was very fulfilling. If you start from scratch, I imagine it can be thrilling to find new species.

      Nowadays, we have all this knowledge and, as you say, this is very useful in helping us identify species or understand other aspects of nature. We must always remember that some of this knowledge could be incorrect or incomplete. For example, I have several books of flowers and I don’t think they agree on their descriptions of some wild species, very confusing for me! Philip

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      1. A good point, we have a lot more help nowadays but we have to be careful not to follow everything blindly just because it in print or on a screen. It is only an assistance it is still up to us to discriminate. When you are starting with identifications of anything it is always so difficult to tell between an important difference and a normal variation.

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  3. What a very good read. Thank you. Both women were obviously very remarkable people, I wonder if they had any idea of the value and worth of their contributions to science, botany and to women’s individualism in general.

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  4. Thanks Emma, I am glad you liked it. I get the impression that Griffiths greatly enjoyed collecting and identifying seaweed and was well aware of her contributions and importance. Because of the position of women at the time, however, she left it to the men to do the writing and theorising. I don’t think she saw this as anything out of the ordinary but it does mean that her own extraordinary role did little to further the cause of women’s individualism.
    Wyatt was basically a businesswoman and needed to make money. The seaweeds were just one part of this and I doubt if she saw it as science; that was what Griffiths did.
    As I mentioned in another comment above the situation began to change with Margaret Gatty. She was very confident of her own ability and contribution and within the confines of Victorian gender stereotypes she pushed the boundaries where she could. I think she did contribute to women’s individualism.

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  5. I really enjoyed your account of Amelia, especially as she is my great-great-great-great-grandmother! Her son William Nelson Griffiths was a fossil dealer. His son John Griffiths was a famous collector and dealer donating many specimens to various museums. He unearthed dinosaur remains on a Folkestone beach. His daughter Elizabeth married Thomas Ingram Ramell a leading light in the Salvation Army and coach builder to royalty. Elizabeth’s daughter Edith was my grandmother and Edith’s sister survived the Titanic en route to America to work for the Salvation Army. Edith’s son Ernest was my father and I have been busy researching my family tree. The information about Amelia was a bonus!

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    1. I also have found this really interesting as my great-great-great grandfather is John Griffiths the fossil collector. I am stuck in researching my family tree in regard to his father William Griffiths. I cannot seem to link this William to William Nelson Griffiths and then Amelia Griffiths. Geoff do you have any of this information?

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      1. Hi Sophie. I don’t know if this helps. As you know, Amelia, my g g g g grandmother married the Rev William Griffiths in 1794. On 1st August 1798, William Nelson Griffiths was born in Walworth, London and later baptised at St Issey in Cornwall on 1st August 1801. In 1802, the Rev William died in St Issey and left £449 to Amelia, “the relict” (not and inconsiderable sum at the time). On 25 May 1819, William Nelson, aged 23, married Ann Conradi in Dover. In Dover in about 1829, John Griffiths was born and on 9th December 1853, aged 24, married Rebecca Jane Kelway in Folkestone. Their daughter, Elizabeth was my great grandmother which makes John Griffiths my g g grandfather so somehow we are related! By the way, in the 1851 census, William Nelson Griffiths is living at 160 Bulwark Lane in Dover with wife, Ann, sons John (your John) and Benjamin, and daughters Elizabeth and Sarah. At the same time, his grandmother, Amelia Griffith (no s) is living in Torquay with two of her daughters, a cook, a housemaid and a footman! It is near Torquay where her plaque is installed.

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      2. Hi Sophie, I am also John Griffiths descendant, his daughter Grace Kelway Griffiths is my great grandmother, same as you I have had problems tracking down William Griffiths despite searching records for the past 35 years. Through which line are you related to John?

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      3. Hi Sophie, I guess that makes us cousins 🙂 I was also born and raised in Folkestone. Have you seen John Griffiths grave? It is set with a huge fossil. I would love to make contact if you are agreeable. Tracy

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      4. Hi Tracy. I’ve never been to John Griffiths’ grave but I have seen a picture. I would love to get in contact. Instead of giving out our personal information here, I have found you on Facebook so I will add you.

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    2. Hi Geoff, I am also John Griffiths great great daughter, (my line is through Grace Kelway Griffiths, my great nanna) I like Sophie have never been able to find Williams parents despite researching for 35 years. Hopefully you can point me in the right direction as unfortunately I have been unable to find any documentary evidence linking him to Amelia. Thanks so much.

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  6. Geoff, I apologise for being slow to reply to your fascinating comment. What a tribute to the internet that you found what I wrote. Thank you for adding the details about your family tree. I have never come across anything before about her son and it is very interesting that he was also a collector. Have you ever come across anything about a Catherine Cutler in relation to Amelia Griffiths, Cutler was another seaweed collector at the time but I can find little or no information.

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    1. Sorry, Phillip, I have nothing to add about Catherine Cutler. I am pleased that you were interested to find how I am related to Amelia. Do you know if there any parish records relating to her?

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      1. Sorry, I did not look for parish records so I don’t know. I found it quite difficult to find detailed information about her. I found one short article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association from the 1950s. Is that of interest?

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  7. Hi all,
    I’m sorry for my late reply. I am related to John Griffiths and Rebecca Jane Kelway through their son William Griffiths (b. 1860) who is my great great grandfather. His son Albert Griffiths (1907-1997) is my great grandfather. And his son is my grandfather Michael Griffiths. We still live in Folkestone, the same area where John lived and worked. At the library/museum they have a photograph of John and Rebecca, newspaper cuttings and a drawing to show where they lived. I am also aware that they have some fossils which they believe to have been found by John (I haven’t had a chance to see these yet). I, like Tracy, have not found any links between William Griffiths and Amelia Griffiths.

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  8. What an amazing story…The women of that time have really left a great scientific legacy. Do you know also of Anna Thynne? ..She too was wife of a clergyman…and she holidayed in Torquay around the 1840s. Her studies on the solitary corals the madrepores did eventually get published. She is attributed by some with developing the first ever marine aquaria…

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    1. Thanks Sandra, they were amazing women. I hadnt heard of Anna Thynne but since you alerted me I have had a look and her story is also fascinating.

      Sorry to be slow to reply to your comment!

      Like

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