Friday, 19 January 2018

Amelia Griffiths, Mary Wyatt and a curious phenomenon in Torbay



Mary Wyatt was a dealer in shells and minerals from her shop in Torquay [1]. During the boom in exploring seashores that occurred during the early Nineteenth Century, such shops supplied visitors with important specimens to add to their cabinets of curiosities. Mary Wyatt’s shop was as well known in Torquay as Mary Anning’s shop in Lyme Regis, where fossils could be obtained, as well as other mementoes; the passion for Natural History including rocks and minerals as well as living organisms.

In addition to running, and supplying, her shop, Mary Wyatt collected algae that were dried and pressed, with some of her collections made up into volumes published as Algae Danmonienses - illustration by dried specimens resulted necessarily in a very limited number of copies being produced [2]. None of this would have been possible without the close co-operation of another famous resident of Torquay, Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) [3], the subject of an essay by Philip Strange and a biographical note by Ann Shteir. From their articles [4,5], we learn that Amelia Griffiths was born Amelia Warren Rogers on 14th January 1768 and married a vicar, William Griffiths, in 1794. He died in 1802 and she then raised her five children on her own, eventually settling in Torquay in 1829, where Mary Wyatt was one of her servants. By this time, Amelia was already well known for her knowledge of algae, their locations and their biology, and she corresponded with many of the leading authorities of the day.

Philip Strange concludes his article [4] by writing:

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.

Algae Danmonienses, with its limited number of copies was unlikely to spread the fame of Amelia and Mary and, while Amelia corresponded with many botanists, she produced few articles – Shteir [5] mentioning only two notes to The Phytologist and a list of Natural History specimens in Blewitt’s The Panorama of Torquay [6].

She was certainly well-known and respected in Torbay and Blewitt wrote:

The article on Natural History will be acceptable to all, containing, as it does, the most recent of Mrs. Griffiths’s truly beautiful discoveries in the difficult department of marine botany..

Blewitt also describes an interesting phenomenon at Elberry Cove in Torbay in which Amelia’s expertise was called upon [6]:

At a short distance from the beach, the surface of the water presents a curious phenomenon. A fresh-water spring, rising of course in some part of the chain of hills above the cove, makes its exit from the sandy bottom, about eight or ten feet below the surface of the sea at low water mark.. ..It ascends perpendicularly with considerable force and forms a smooth circle, four or five feet in diameter, on the surface of the sea. Two of these circles are occasionally seen, in consequence, perhaps, of the accumulation of sand; and their size, depth, and distance from each other vary at different times, according as they are influenced by the swell or weather. They are of course best seen at low tide and when the sea is smooth. In April of the present year, we made some experiments in conjunction with Mrs Griffiths, in order to ascertain the character of the water ejected by this spring. The result was satisfactory, and proved that it was a body of fresh water pouring out of an aperture of large size, and with such strength that the sand disturbed was forced by its power to the surface. The appearances within the circle resembled the effect of oil poured on the water.. ..[and] The volume of fresh water must be considerable as the salt taste of the sea perceptibly diminishes in the neighbourhood of the spring. This phenomenon will be visited by the natural philosopher with much pleasure..

Quite what experiments were carried out by Amelia Griffiths are not known – apart from tasting the sea water!


Having been brought up In Torbay, I made many visits to Elberry Cove (shown above at a time of far from ideal conditions) but never recall seeing the upwelling from springs that is described by Blewitt. Perhaps they no longer exist?


[1] M. Rendel (1994) Women in Torquay in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. The Transactions of the Devonshire Association 126: 17-39




[5] Ann Shteir (2004) Griffiths [née Rogers], Amelia Warren (1768-1858). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/59318

[6] Octavian Blewitt (1832) The Panorama Of Torquay, A Descriptive And Historical Sketch Of The District Comprised Between The Dart And Teign. London, Simpkin and Marshall + Torquay, Cockrem

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Poohsticks, Mr Trump and being a child-like researcher



In The Holy Bible [1] we read:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I have no idea whether this guidance is to be taken literally but, if so, and if I was a Christian believer, I would need to think twice about the enjoyment of games that adults are meant to have “grown out of”. One of the many pleasures of becoming a parent is that we can legitimately enjoy these games once again as our children grow up.

One that I still play is Poohsticks, described by A. A. Milne in The House at Pooh Corner [2] and demonstrated in a wonderful drawing by E. H. Shepard of Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet playing the game (see above). As is now well known, Poohsticks is for two or more players, each of which selects a stick. On command, each player drops their stick into a river from the upstream side of a bridge and the first stick to appear on the downstream side of the bridge decides the winner.

Last week, I was walking on Boxmoor in Hertfordshire where a bridge crosses the River Bulbourne and, as on other occasions, the child in me could not resist playing Poohsticks. Necessarily, I played against myself and took two twigs and threw them in to the water and I didn’t much care which one came out first as I was the winner anyway. Both twigs eventually became tangled up, together with other vegetation, on a small tree trunk that had fallen across the river. While watching the fate of the twigs, I also notice that a submerged horse chestnut leaf was being carried downstream, but it was moving slowly compared to the twigs. As someone who spent a career looking in streams and rivers, I already knew that there are many methods by which vegetation becomes trapped, and thus retained to provide nutrients after decomposition, and I also knew that water flows more rapidly at the surface than in the water column (illustrated crudely below: higher in the water column the influence of friction from the bed becomes less).


Playing Poohsticks, in addition to allowing me re-entry to the joys of childhood, resulted in observations and questions for which I was able to provide answers based on acquired knowledge. When conducting original research, it is always helpful to ask questions like those inspired by child-like curiosity and I admit that there were several occasions in my career when I had the “look at that!” or “what’s that?” response that one might expect of a five-year old. The result was sometimes questions that could be framed into hypotheses and null models that were testable (using the best Popperian method), although I was always aware that complex biological systems have probability at their core, rather than just the absolute laws of physical science.

The main lesson to come from all this is that I Corinthians 13:11 must not be taken literally and we should all be child-like in the best sense, not like the childishness of Mr Trump that has recently grabbed the headlines [3]. Being child-like keeps us open to serendipitous discoveries and, as we know, many of those “accidents” have led to important steps in understanding the world around us. I always encouraged students to be child-like and to be amazed, and thrilled, by living organisms and their way of life. I can't help it.


[1] I Corinthians 13:11 in the Authorised King James Version of The Holy Bible.

[2] A.A.Milne (1928) The House at Pooh Corner. London, Methuen. (My edition was published in 2004 by Egmont U.K. in London).

[3] Michael Wolff (2018) Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. London, Little, Brown.






Friday, 29 December 2017

Celebrating the coming of the railway – the “Paignton Pudding Riot”



It is difficult for us to imagine the excitement caused by the building of railway lines in the Nineteenth Century. For example, the arrival of the extension of the line from Torquay to Paignton in 1859 saw a celebration that ended in a wild and notorious disturbance.


Paignton had a tradition that, every fifty years or so, a large pudding was made and shared between members of the local parishes who gathered on Paignton Green for the celebration (the green is seen in the aerial view above, taken from the englishriviera.co.uk website). Prior to the arrival of the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, the previous festival was held on 1st June 1819, with a pudding weighing 900 lbs. (pounds) and contained four hundredweight of flour, 120 lbs. of suet, 120 lbs. of raisins and a “large number” of eggs [1]. White describes the disaster that followed:

[The pudding] was boiled in a large brewing copper at the Crown and Anchor Inn; it was contained in a huge bag, which was held in a net suspended to a beam, from which it was lowered by a tackle into the boiler, and kept just three inches off the bottom. After boiling for three days it was hoisted out, placed on a waggon, and drawn to the Green by three horses. But those who had assembled to eat the pudding were doomed to disappointment; the outside, from the constant boiling, had been reduced to the consistence of paste, and the inner part was not even warm.

The organisers were aware of the problems of 1819 when planning the celebration for the arrival of the railway on 1st August 1859. It was to be held once again on the Green and the pudding was even larger. White [1] continues:

In order to secure success on the present occasion, it was arranged that the pudding should be baked in sections, eight sections forming one layer, the whole being afterwards built together. The pudding consisted of 573 lbs. of flour, 191 lbs. of bread, 382 lbs. raisins, 191 lbs. currants, 382 lbs. suet, 320 lemons, 144 nutmegs, 95 lbs. of sugar, a quantity of eggs, and 860 quarts of milk; the cost was £45. When completed the weight of it was one ton and a-half; it was thirteen feet six inches in circumference at the base, and five feet at the top. Besides this remarkable pudding, there were provided 1,900 lbs. of meat, 1,900 lbs. of bread, and an unlimited supply of the staple product of the Paignton orchards, - cider.

Perhaps it was the latter that fueled subsequent events. The waggon containing the pudding arrived and five policemen guarded both the pudding and dignitaries who had assembled for speeches etc. but they were overwhelmed by members of the public who left their tables and swarmed around trying to get a slice from the pudding. They were joined by navvies who had built the railway and who were also part of the celebrations, and White writes:

A disgraceful scene followed in which men, women, and boys, struggled and fought for the possession of the pieces thrown out from the waggon; and this continued until not a morsel was left.. ..For weeks afterwards the Post Office was inundated with greasy packets, containing morsels of the pudding, sent off as so many souvenirs to distant friends.

As members of my family lived in Paignton in the Nineteenth Century, they are likely to have been present at the “pudding riot”, but it is not part of family folklore. 

One can’t imagine such a scene today, or could one?  


[1] J.T.White (1878) The History of Torquay. Torquay, The “Directory” Office.

Henry Gosse finds Sandhurst in Torquay, his home for the next thirty years



As a boy growing up in Paignton, I knew that the railway from Newton Abbot to Kingswear had been built a hundred years before, but not that it had been completed in sections. The line ran to a terminus in Torquay (now called Torre) until it continued to Paignton in 1859 and on to Kingswear in 1864 [1].

It was to the old Torquay station that Philip Henry Gosse, the famous Natural Historian, came in 1857 and he then set off for St Marychurch, an area that he knew from an earlier visit to the town. He had decided to move away from London after the death of his wife, to continue his researches on marine life; his young son, Edmund, being his constant companion. In his first biography of his father [2], Edmund writes:

[St Marychurch] had just been seized with a building craze, and new villas, each in its separate garden, were rising on all hands. [Henry] Gosse hired a horse, and rode round the neighbourhood to see what he could find to suit him, and at last he discovered, near the top of the Torquay Road, what he thought was the exact place.

It was not an attractive object to the romantic eye. It is impossible to conceive anything much more dispiriting that this brand-new little house, unpapered, undried, standing in ghastly whiteness in the middle of a square enclosure of raw “garden,” that is to say of ploughed field, laid out with gravel walks, beds without a flower or leaf, and a “lawn” of fat red loam guiltless of one blade of grass. Two great rough pollard elms, originally part of a hedge which had run across the site of the lawn, were the only objects that relieved the monotony of the inchoate place, which spread out, vague and uncomely, “like the red outline of beginning Adam.” By taking the house in this condition, however, it was a cheap purchase, and my father felt that it would be a pleasure to discipline all this formlessness into beauty and fertility. He never repented of his choice, nor ever expressed, through more than thirty years, the wish that he had gone elsewhere. The Devonshire red loam is wonderfully stubborn, and for many seasons the place retained the obloquy of its newness. But at length the grass became velvety on the lawn, trees grew up and hid the unmossed limestone walls in which no vegetation can force a footing, and the little place grew bowery and secluded. It was on September 23, 1857, that the family settled in this house – named Sandhurst, by the builder, in mere wantonness of nomenclature – and this became their home.

Sandhurst is still there, although modified by extensions, and we held a Blue Plaque ceremony for Henry in the garden (see below). It was Henry Gosse’s home for the rest of his life and he died there in 1888. He had re-married in 1860 and his widow, Eliza, continued to live at Sandhurst, but Edmund had moved to London to work at the British Museum in 1867. Edmund’s views on life, and on religion, were different to those of Henry and this caused many difficulties for them both, although Nellie Gosse, Edmund’s wife, acted as a go-between during visits to Sandhurst, and she and her children were loved by Henry and Eliza.



Edmund writes of a final carriage ride that he took with Henry to Cockington and the scene described must have been very close to the spot shown in the photograph above, with the road (then a small lane) passing under the railway line to Paignton that had been completed nearly thirty years before [2]:

My father, with the pathetic look in his eyes, the mortal pallor on his cheeks, scarcely spoke, and seemed to observe nothing. But, as we turned to drive back down a steep lane of overhanging branches, the pale vista of the sea burst upon us, silvery blue in the yellow light of afternoon. Something in the beauty of the scene raised the sunken brain, and with a little of the old declamatory animation in head and hand, he began to recite the well-known passage in the fourth book of Paradise Lost

Now came still evening on, and twilight grey
Had in her sober livery all things clad.

He pursued the quotation through three or four lines, and then, in the middle of a sentence, the music broke, his head fell once more upon his breast, and for him the splendid memory, the self-sustaining intellect which had guided the body so long, were to be its companions on earth no more.

As an admirer of Philip Henry Gosse, I find Edmund’s account very moving and it is sad that they were never fully reconciled, although they were able to enjoy each other's company rather more in Henry's last years. The trip to Cockington was in July 1888 and it was the last drive out that Henry took, as his final illness had immobilised him. At the end there was little pain and he died on 23 August 1888, being buried on 27 August in unconsecrated ground in Torquay Cemetery. Eliza, who lived to be 87, was buried in the same grave on 18 October 1900 and I have visited it to pay my respects.



[1] C.R.Potts (1991) The Newton Abbot to Kingswear Railway (1844-1988). Wallingford, The Oakwood Press.

[2] Edmund Gosse (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry
Gosse. London, William Heinemann.