April 20, 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 thrown into a skip.

More than 200 shells have been returned to English Heritage, which will put some of them on display 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 tale of the woman who collected them, Bridget Atkinson.

“It is really nice to be able to tell the story of a remarkable woman,” said Frances McIntosh, English Heritage’s collections curator for the north-east. “She is not a duchess or in high society in London and she’s not made it into the history books – but she is 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 amass about 1,200 from all over the world.

While many collected them for decoration, Atkinson was interested in their science and geography. The shells passed down through the family, including her grandson John Clayton, who grew up with 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, in the 80s, they were thrown out during an office relocation.

They were thought lost for ever – but it has emerged that a passing lecturer, the marine zoologist John Buchanan, retrieved them from the skip. His family, after clearing 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 amazing’ but then I thought … ‘What are we going to do? … I’m a Roman archaeologist!’”

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

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

There are also letters from Atkinson to her sons, some of whom had 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 instruction from Atkinson to “boil it until it is red”.

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

White said: “These 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 the shells had “not only survived but been kept safe and well 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, insanity and “mad dog” bites. One remedy, sadly missing the ailment, is rhubarb, laudanum and gin mixed into a pint of milk. Laudanum is a mixture of opium and alcohol.

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

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