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

[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

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