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Senate House Library

Uncommon objects: Positioning SHL’s specimen books of pressed seaweed within the Victorian algology craze


Written by
Suzanne Canally, Senior Library Assistant

A fascinating blog filled with images exploring Senate House Library's Victorian seaweed specimens.

This blog is part of a series on environmental history for History Day 2021 on Thursday 4 November. History Day brings together students, researchers and anyone with an interest in history with professionals from archives, libraries, and other organisations with history collections from the UK and beyond. This year the event will explore collections that capture the experiences of ordinary people, collectors and scientists, looking at nature, landscape, climate change and much more.

In the library's archive reside two 'uncommon objects': two volumes, British Seaweeds and Seaweed Book whose pages house the ultimate 'environmental history' -- examples of seaweed collected from British sea-shores in the 1860s by Maria Emma Gray (1787 -  1876) and lovingly preserved by her within these books. In them, we confront, across time, natural memories.

British Seaweeds by Maria Emma Gray (1787 -  1876)  DLL 3/15

Women and 'marine botany' in the Victorian breakfast room

Maria Gray was one of a number of British women algologists -- scholars of seaweed -- whose practise has gifted posterity with prime examples of nature collecting.
Among these women was Margaret Gatty (1809 - 1873) whose 1863 publication "British sea-weeds drawn from Professor Harvey's 'Phycologia Britannica' with descriptions, an amateur's synopsis, rules for laying out sea-weeds, an order for arranging them in the herbarium, and an appendix of new species" was itself collected by the library in 1937.

The library also holds Professor Harvey’s Phycologia Britannica. William Henry Harvey’s work was made possible by a small army of dedicated enthusiasts, who sent him samples of the seaweeds that they found. His scholarly work was essentially a collaboration with these ‘amateurs’.

We can see the fourth page of seaweed – ‘Plocamium coccineum’ -- that Maria Gray pressed into what became the library’s “Seaweed Book” matches the specimens in the library's copy of Professor Harvey’s “Phycologia Britannica".

Page 4 of “Seaweed Book” by Maria Gray alongside Professor Harvey's 'Phycologia Britannica' Plate CXXXV, 'Cladophora arcta' & Harvey Plate XLIV, 'Plocamium coccineum'

Literal - littoral - environmental history

We need to read Gatty within the British natural history obsessions of the nineteenth century, which saw both academics and amateur enthusiasts collecting and cataloguing the flora and fauna of Britain, with a robust dialogue flowing between the Academy and civilians who were busily collecting 'fuci' and 'Actiniae' (seaweed and sea anemones) along Britain's littoral zone.

The common objects of the sea shore : including hints for an aquarium by J.G. Wood with illustrations by G.B. Sowerby, 1866

These fads (another one -- 'pteridomania', the collection of ferns -- was contemporaneous with the nature collecting that was in full swing at the sea-side) were undertaken largely by 'women of leisure', and Gatty provides her readers with solid, practicable advice on how to collect, and press, seaweed.

New boots and petticoats

Gatty refers to her readers as 'loving disciples' -- of 'fuci', of God -- and she speaks directly not only to the impulses inherent in collecting nature, but also to the practicalities of making nature memories:

British sea-weeds : drawn from Professor Harvey's "Phycologia Britannica" : with descriptions, an amateur's synopsis, rules for laying out sea-weeds, an order for arranging them in the herbarium, and an appendix of new species / by Mrs. Alfred Gatty. Imprint	London : Bell and Daldy, 1872.

"About this shore-hunting, however, as regards my own sex ... many difficulties are apt to arise; among the foremost of which must be mentioned the risk of cold and destruction of clothes."
She then goes on to recommend that readers invest in a pair of "boy's shooting boots", noting that "it is both wasteful, uncomfortable, and dangerous to attempt sea-weed hunting in delicate boots. ... Uncomfortable, because to walk on some rocks in thin soles (the slate edges of those in Douglas Bay, for instance) is so painful, that it very soon becomes impossible) ..." and goes on:

"Next to boots comes the question of petticoats; and if anything could excuse a woman for imitating the costume of a man, it would be what she suffers as a sea-weed collector from those necessary draperies!  But to make the best of a bad matter, let woollen be in the ascendant as much as possible; and let the petticoats never come below the ankle".

Maria Gray herself foraged for nature memories in Douglas Bay, in August of 1865, and collected this rather delicious example of ‘Bonnemaisonia asparagoides’, which she mounted as the seventh plate in Seaweed Book

‘Bonnemaisonia asparagoides’ in Maria Gray's Seaweed Book, next to Harvey Plate LI, ‘Bonnemaisonia asparagoides’

Harvey names the ‘hobbyists’ who sent him samples of seaweeds. His partners on this ‘Bonnemaisonia asparagoides’ collaboration include Mrs Griffiths, Miss Warren, Miss White, Miss Turner, Miss Hutchins and Miss Gower. 

'Common Objects at the Seaside' Punch Magazine, 21 August 1858

Mrs Margaret Gatty - a disruptor for the Victorian Era?

Can we allow ourselves to imagine Maria Gray in, we hope, appropriately sturdy boots, and with her petticoats just so, as she foraged the littoral zones of Douglas Bay in order to gather the seaweed which she gifted to us? 

Did she, as Gatty entreats her reader, "Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm -- confident in yourself, and, let me add, in your dress."
Gatty finishes: "... if costumed as I have described, you, loving disciple, are, at any rate for once, conscious as you step along, that you are in the right dress in the right place; that you could not walk where you are now walking but for it and that to walk where you are walking makes you feel free, bold, joyous, monarch of all you survey, untrammelled, at ease, at home!"

Suzanne Canally
Senior Library Assistant