April 16, 2024

An internationally important collection of shells, including specimens from Captain Cook’s final voyage, has been rediscovered 40 years after it was thought to have been dumped in a container.

More than 200 shells were returned to English Heritagewhich some of them will be showing in Northumberland this week.

It is a remarkable story that also highlights colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and the human impact on the natural world. At its heart, it tells the little-known story of the woman who collected them, Bridget Atkinson.

“It’s really nice to be able to tell the story of a remarkable woman,” said Frances McIntosh, English Heritage’s Curator of Collections for the North East. “She’s not a duchess or high society in London and she’s not in the history books – but she’s phenomenal.”

Atkinson was from a wealthy family but rarely strayed from their farm in Cumbria. Her lifelong passion was shells and she used her far-reaching connections to gather some 1,200 from around the world.

While many collected them for decoration, Atkinson was interested in their science and geography. The shells have been passed down through the family, including her grandson John Clayton, who grew up with her Chesters Roman Fort in his garden and whose collections form the basis of the museum at the English Heritage site.

In the 1930s, Atkinson’s items made their way to what is now Newcastle University. However, they were thrown out during an office move in the 80s.

They were thought to be lost forever – but it turned out that a passing lecturer, marine zoologist John Buchanan, retrieved them from the ship. His family, after cleaning out the house after their mother’s death, donated them to English Heritage.

McIntosh recalled the email from the Buchanan family. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I just thought, ‘this is great’, but then I thought… ‘What are we going to do? … I’m a Roman archaeologist!’”

Shell experts helped identify and catalog the collection, which includes specimens sent to Atkinson by George Dixon, an armorer on Cook’s third voyage around the world, on which he died.

McIntosh said the temporary show would not shy away from the more problematic aspects of the story, including the reality of Cook’s travels.

There are also letters from Atkinson to her sons, some of whom inherited sugar plantations in Jamaica, while others worked for the East India Company. In her correspondence, Atkinson asked her children to try to find specific shells for her collection. Some would have contained living creatures, with one instructed by Atkinson to “boil them until they are red”.

Tom White, the chief curator of non-insect invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, helped the project. He said the collection contained numerous rare species and described Atkinson as “one of the earliest known women to amass a scientifically significant shell collection from around the world”.

White said: “It would have been extraordinarily sought after in 18th-century Britain during the golden age of shell collecting, when single specimens could sell for thousands of pounds.”

McIntosh said to discover that the shells “not only survived but were kept safe and sound is nothing short of a miracle”.

Atkinson was fascinating in many ways: she also wrote down hundreds of recipes and cures for ailments including worms, madness and “mad dog” bites. One remedy, which unfortunately misses the ailment, is rhubarb, laudanum and gin mixed in a pint of milk. Laudanum is a mixture of opium and alcohol.

Shells from the collection will be on display at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum from Wednesday.

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