By Hugh Torrens

Winspit Cove, Dorset

This article has been adapted from Hugh Torrens, ‘The Long history of geological studies in Dorset confirms its World Heritage Coast status’, OUGS Journal 25 (2), 2004, pp. 1-16, by kind permission of the author.

The coastline of Dorset and East Devon has fascinated students of nature since the birth of modern science in England some 350 years ago. With its beautiful sea coast and rocky outcrops, yielding many fossils, it has given both aesthetic and scholarly pleasure to residents and visitors. Motives for studying the coastline, now dubbed the ‘Jurassic Coast’ have varied from the gentlemanly to the industrial, from the amateur to the specialist, and from the commercial to the scholarly.

One long-running theme has been industrial – and futile: the search for coal. During the early period of the industrial revolution, an incoming vicar to the area – William Sharpe – determined that local coal would be the solution to the ague endemic amongst his parishioners, by providing them with warmer homes. Sharpe’s Treatise Upon Coal Mines (1769) suggested geological clues for coal-hunters and inspired numerous local attempts at prospecting, long after William Smith’s Geological Map (1815) showed that there was no coal to be found. Needless to say these attempts all failed, many expensively.

Durdle Door II

A second theme has of course been the discovery of fossils. The botanist John Ray noted in 1673 that ‘Lyme in Dorsetshire’ was one of the key places in England ‘which afford plenty of … petrified shells’. One generation later, the Weymouth customs officer and mariner William Hobbs wrote a manuscript of his personal studies of local rocks. Unpublished in his day, it has since been rediscovered and reveals an interestingly non-Noachian view of geology. Hobbs argued that the fossils about the coast had not been placed there by the Biblical flood but had been embedded in rocks on the sea floor and gradually raised up to their present position by ‘pulsations from the centre of the earth’. His conclusions differed from those of John Woodward, a believer in the Flood who had also recently collected fossils in Dorset.

Jurassic Gargoyle, Dorset

During the nineteenth century, several well-known geological savants patronised the Dorset area: William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare chief amongst them. However, the collector of fossils on the Jurassic Coast who is best known today is almost certainly Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning picked amongst the rocks around Lyme Regis in the hopes of selling them and thus saving her family from the poorhouse. She found the world’s first complete Plesiosaurus in 1823 and the UK’s first Pterodactyl some five years later. Anning’s collecting – which despite her best efforts ended in financial disaster – helped to spawn a veritable Dino-mania amongst the Victorians. Ever since then the Jurassic coast has swarmed with professional palaeontologists and small children alike, hoping to find a fossil of their own.

Rich in both history and science, these 95 miles of wonderful coastline were granted World Heritage Status in 2001, the first British site to gain the honour. An excellent website (link below) gives details of travel, accommodation, science, history and events in the area – everything the visitor could hope for.

Further information:

Deborah Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World (HarperCollins, 2001). For a general audience.

Martin Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (Chicago, 1985) … and many more by the same author. For an academic audience.

Hugh Torrens, book on Mary Anning (forthcoming as of 2011)