She was clever, beautiful, talented, persuasive, loved gambling and travelling – and was one of the earliest and most unlikely trowelblazers. Between 1839 and about 1850, Barbara Hastings collected stunning specimens including fossil crocodiles and turtles from the Hampshire cliffs and the Isle of Wight.
Born in 1810, she was barely a year old when her father, Henry Yelverton – dear friend then sworn enemy of Lord Byron – dropped dead and she became Baroness Grey de Ruthyn in her own right. At 23 she became Marchioness of Hastings when she married into one of the most distinguished and debt-ridden of aristocratic families.
She loved Paris, became so partial to gambling she was known as the ‘jolly fast marchioness’, and then found herself a widow at 34 with five children and pregnant with her sixth.
None of that seemed to matter to her next husband, a naval captain then admiral, confusingly named Hastings Reginald Henry, whom she married the following year. They moved to Hampshire, near Hordle Cliff – a prime spot for collecting 36 million year-old fossils. There she recreated herself as a renowned palaeontologist, had a fan club which included Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, the great Professor Richard Owen – the Brian Cox of mid-19th century natural history – and the geologist Edward Forbes who described her as ‘one of the most excellent (and without exception the cleverest) woman I ever met’.
Nothing got in the way of her precious Trionyx and crocodiles – even when she was pregnant, she wrote to Owen more concerned about the welfare of specimens she had sent him than her pregnancy:
‘Were I in travelling condition I would bring my treasures myself but as in two months I am expecting my confinement I am compelled to be quiet….’
and, again to Owen, shortly after giving birth:
”I am dying to resume my labours – in the geological line”
Barely a decade after she shot to fossil fame, it was over. Something catastrophic happened – we can only guess at what – and she sold everything. In 1858, when she was just 48, she died of a stroke in Rome.
But what she has left is a collection of about 1500 specimens, now in the Natural History Museum. “I have found wonders’, she told Owen, and she was one of them.
[Barbara Hastings’s letters to Richard Owen are preserved in the Library of the NHM]
Written by Karolyn Shindler.
Edited by Becky & Tori
Read more by Karolyn on Barbara Hastings here, and this (£) is a paper on the history of Hasting’s fossil collection from Hordle Cliff. Karolyn Shindler is also the biographer of another trowelblazer, Dorothea Bate, and her book Discovering Dorothea is highly recommended!
Image: Barbara Rawdon Hastings (née Yelverton), Marchioness of Hastings by Thomas Anthony Dean, after Emma Eleanora Kendrick stipple engraving, published October 1828 . NPG D35753. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London. Permission granted for reuse here under the CC-BY-NC-ND licence.