Elizabeth Philpot was born in 1780, and moved to Lyme Regis around 1805, when her brother John, a London solicitor, rented a house in Silver Street for his four sisters. Three of them, Mary (1777-1838), Margaret (?-1845) and Elizabeth (1780-1857), settled there for life, and soon became involved in fossil collecting.
At this time, Mary Anning (1799-1847) was still a young girl, but it is clear from later letters that over the years a close and affectionate relationship developed between Mary and the Philpot sisters, transcending any barriers of age, social origins or educational background (Edmonds, 1978).
As the Philpots’ collection grew it started to become known within the geological community. One familiar visitor was William Buckland (1784-1856), Reader in Geology at Oxford. Since his student days (1801-1808) he had often spent vacations around Lyme, and it seems that he regularly examined the Philpot collection; his earliest published reference to the Misses Philpots is in his 1829 paper on the pterosaur found at Lyme by Mary Anning.
It would be interesting to know whether Buckland usually went to Lyme Regis alone, or whether his wife, Mary, went with him. Their daughter Elizabeth records how, after the death of her 6 year old brother Adam in 1844, the whole family went by coach to Lyme for a change of air. Buckland took the children fossil hunting and introduced them to Mary Anning (Gordon, 1894). Mary also visited in 1840 to do her famous drawings of the Great Landslip to the west of the town. But might she have met the Philpots before this?
Letters from Elizabeth Philpot to William Buckland often send greetings to his wife, and one letter from 9 December 1833 is addressed to Mary herself. The main purpose of writing is to enclose a sketch of an ichthyosaur head, painted by Elizabeth with ink from a fossil squid of the same age as the ichthyosaur (her modesty about the sketch perhaps reflects the fact that Mary was herself a geological illustrator):
But there is so much more to the letter…
First, it provides colourful news of Mary Anning:
“Yesterday she had one of her miraculous escapes in going to the beach before sun rise and was nearly killed in passing over the bridge by the wheel of a cart which threw her down and crushed her against the wall. Fortunately the cart was stopped in time to allow of her being extricated from her most perilous situation and happily she is not prevented from pursuing her daily employment”.
Next, it sends a reminder to William Buckland, a man well-known for forgetting things:
“May I beg you to remind Dr. Buckland that he has borrowed from me some Plesiosaurus vertebre. As it is some time since I will mention that it is a section of a vertebre, one with the process, ten others, and a chain set in a box.”
Finally, it sends “best compliments” to husband and wife from her two sisters, so often forgotten in the Philpot story.
These letters from Elizabeth Philpot are now in Oxford University Museum of Natural History, along with the Philpot collection. This contains around 400 fossils, mostly from Lyme Regis, including more than 40 type specimens: a remarkable total for any collector. A brief list of people known to have examined the collection is practically a roll call of the key figures in 19th century palaeontology: William Buckland, William Conybeare, John Lindley and William Hutton, Richard Owen, James Sowerby and (from Switzerland) Louis Agassiz.
But the collection was also made available to the ordinary people of Lyme, and the handwritten labels by Elizabeth Philpot sometimes included detailed explanations of what these extinct animals would have looked like. Both the letters and the specimens remain deeply evocative today, conjuring up visions of what it must have been like to call on these three remarkable sisters. Because of the risk of light damage the material is not normally on display, but it can be viewed by appointment with the appropriate Department (email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)
Buckland, W. 1829. On the discovery of a new species of Pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis. Trans. Geol. Soc. Lond., ser. 2, 3, 217-222.
Edmonds, J.M. 1978. The fossil collection of the Misses Philpot of Lyme Regis. Proc. Dorset Nat. Hist. & Archaeol. Soc., 98 (for 1978), 43-48.
Gordon, [E.O.]. 1894. The life and correspondence of William Buckland. John Murray, London, 287 pp.
Images provided by Oxford University Museum of Natural History.