Friday, 2 February 2018

Charles Kingsley and Henry Gosse go dredging in Torbay

During the Nineteenth Century explosion of interest in the Natural History of shores, there was also much to discover about animal life in shallow coastal waters and this tempted naturalists like Edward Forbes to use dredges to bring animals to the surface, where they could be examined more closely.

In his biography of his father, Edmund Gosse describes a dredging trip that Philip Henry Gosse made with his good friend Charles Kingsley in Torbay. Although Kingsley is best known as the author of The Water Babies, Hereward the Wake and Westward Ho!, like many other Victorians he had a passion for Natural History and wrote Glaucus to summarise his knowledge and to inspire others [1]. The book contains many glowing references to Henry Gosse, and Kingsley was clearly a great admirer. This is what Edmund wrote [2]:

Charles Kingsley was several times our companion. The naturalists would hire a small trawler, and work up and down, generally in the southern part of the bay, just outside a line drawn north and south, between Hope’s Nose and Berry Head. I think that Kingsley was a good sailor; my father was a very indifferent one, and so was I; but when the trawl came up, and the multitudinous population of the bottom of the bay was tossed in confusion before our eyes, we forgot our qualms in our excitement. I still see the hawk’s eyes of Kingsley peering into the trawl on one side, my father’s wide face and long set mouth bent upon the other. I well recollect the occasion (my father’s diary gives me the date, August 11, 1858) when, in about 20 fathoms outside Berry Head, we hauled up the first specimen ever observed of that exquisite creature, the diadem anemone, Bunodes coronata; its orange-scarlet body clasping the whorls of a living Turritella shell, while it held in the air its purple parapet crowned with snow-white spiky tentacles.

Was this the specimen that Henry used in making the illustration for his important work Actinologia Britannica (shown below)? This is how Henry describes his discovery of these sea anemones (since re-named Hormathia coronata [3]) [4]:

This fine species first occurred to myself when dredging off Berry Head [seen in the far distance in the photograph below], in about 20 fathoms, in August 1858. Three or four specimens came up in about the same number of hauls. In every case the animal was adherent to the shell of the living Turritella terebra, a mollusk which is so abundant there that the dredge comes up half filled with it. The base of the Bunodes clasps the long turreted shell, nearly enveloping it when adult, only the apex and the mouth of the shell being exposed.

It is not unusual for sea anemones of some species to associate with the shells of living snails and the relationship appears to be mutualistic – the anemone being moved around and the mollusc gaining protection. No doubt, Charles and Henry were thrilled not only with the capture of Bunodes, but with the abundance of Turritella.

Perhaps you don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for sea anemones and snails, but can appreciate the enthusiasm of others at a time when there were many discoveries to be made? Although not a good sailor, Henry made trips by boat because he was very curious about all marine creatures not just those of the shore, which was his usual haunt and where he collected many specimens to be returned to his aquarium tanks in Sandhurst, his home in St Marychurch, Torquay. Edmund describes his appearance when out collecting [2] and I used this quote in an earlier blog post, in which I contrasted the decorum, and modesty of dress, required by women collectors [5]:

Even as a little child I was conscious that my father’s appearance on these excursions was eccentric. He had a penchant for an enormous felt hat, which had once been black, but was now grey and rusty with age and salt. For some reason or other, he seldom could be persuaded to wear clothes of such a light colour and material as other sportsmen affect. Black broadcloth, reduced to an extreme seediness, and cut in ancient forms, was the favourite attire for the shore, and after being soaked many times, and dried in the sun on his somewhat portly person, it grew to look as if it might have been bequeathed to him by some ancient missionary long marooned, with no other garments, upon a coral island. His ample boots, reaching to mid-thigh, completed his professional garb, and when he was seen, in full sunlight, skimming the rising tide upon the sands, he might have been easily mistaken for a superannuated working shrimper.

What a lovely description – and how nice to have it to complement the image of formal photographs (see below, for example). I can easily visualise Henry busying himself around the coast, completely absorbed in his work and caring little about appearances. Maybe that’s why he is a hero of mine, just as he was for Charles Kingsley?

[2] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica: A history of the British sea-anemones and madrepores. London, John Van Voorst.

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