50 Treasures: British Marine Algae

Our ninth treasure is a rare example of the technically demanding art of seaweed collecting. From the Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection comes the album of British Marine Algae.

Liz Downes answers the question 'Why is this significant?'

British Marine Algae. Photograph by Michael Marzik
An examination of the singular collection of pressed seaweeds compiled by a young Englishwoman, Annie Slade, raises some interesting questions about women and science in the Victorian era. While 19th century Britain saw a flourishing of interest in the natural sciences, women were largely excluded from the scientific societies that sprang up around the country. Middle and upper class women were generally expected to develop their skills in music, needlework or the decorative arts. But, as urban industrialisation spread, there came a growing appreciation of outdoor activities in healthy country or seaside air. In turn, this gave many women opportunities for less conventional pursuits. Those who began roaming the seashore in search of seaweeds found, not just adventure, but the chance for scientific discovery and, in some cases, recognition from their male colleagues. To set Annie Slade’s album, British Marine Algae, in context we should look at some of these collectors.

Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) was a young parson’s widow with several children who collected along the shores of Torquay, on the south Devon coast. She often assisted male colleagues with species identification, becoming a friend and correspondent of leading British botanist, William Henry Harvey. In her lifetime she collected and preserved nearly 250 different seaweed species and was one of the first women to be recognised for her contribution to science. Her seaweed albums are held in several museums, including at London’s Kew Gardens. A number of species bear the Griffiths name.
A page from British Marine Algae. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

One of Amelia’s former servants, the much younger Mary Wyatt (1789-1871) often accompanied her mistress on collecting trips, eventually setting up a shop selling marine specimens, including seashells, fossilised corals and pressed algae. Mary also produced and sold books on seaweed identification, helping to spread the ‘seaweed craze’.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) created exquisite cyanotype photogenic drawings of seaweeds and over a ten-year period published the three volume Photographs of British Algae (1843-53), which pioneered photography as a means of botanical illustration. Children’s author, Margaret Gatty (1809-1873), took up seaweed collecting during a period of convalescence on the Sussex coast. Her two volume British Sea Weeds took 14 years to complete, described 200 species and contained 86 coloured plates. The Australian alga, Gattya pinnella, is one of several species named for her.

Annie Slade, the compiler of our album, British Marine Algae, was quite a latecomer on the scene. Dated 1884 and inscribed with her name and that of her home (‘Simla’, Paignton) the album was presented as a gift to her friends, Mr and Mrs Edmund Slatter.
A page from British Marine Algae. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

 Given that Paignton also lies on the shores of Torbay, it is tempting to speculate whether Annie’s interest was sparked by the pioneering work of Amelia Griffiths and Mary Atkins in the same location some decades earlier. Could she have visited Mary’s shop as a child or modelled her album on those Amelia produced? Certainly Annie’s album resembles a recent description of the leather-bound Griffiths volume held in Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, in which each sample is ‘mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in … neat handwriting’.

Annie’s album contains 35 seaweed specimens each identified by its contemporary botanical name and place of collection. All but two were from Torbay, a popular holiday destination then and now. What is so remarkable about this, and similar albums from the period, is the way the specimens have retained their colour and clarity of detail after so many decades.
A page from British Marine Algae. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

 The process of preservation was painstaking but not difficult. It was outlined in detail by the American A.B Hervey in his 1881 book Sea Mosses: A Collector’s Guide. The equipment required was simple: pliers, scissors, wash bowls, blotting paper, cotton cloth and mounting cards. A stick with a needle inserted in one end was used to gently separate the various parts of the plant to display its finer details. Seaweed pressing had one key advantage over flower pressing: no fixative was needed to secure the specimen to its mounting board as ‘the gelatinous materials emitted from the plant itself’ did the job. Annie Slade’s album, where each specimen seems to be almost a part of the mounting paper, is proof of the enduring properties of this seaweed glue.

So, did Australian women take up this interest? The answer appears to be yes, even if they were mostly collecting for male botanists like Ferdinand von Mueller and Ronald Campbell Gunn. Artist and writer, Louisa Meredith, was one of these. Albums compiled by Australian women are harder to discover or verify but at least one, in the National Museum, bears the name of Catherine Frere, the daughter of Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor, George Arthur. Dated 1836, the seaweeds were collected from Port Arthur’s shores. Was Lady Frere the collector or merely the album’s lucky owner?
A page from British Marine Algae. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
 Regardless of compiler, such albums are highly prized. One, compiled by Scottish immigrant Charles Morrison, made headlines in 2013 when the National Museum acquired it for $3500. Our own treasury of ‘the ocean’s gay flowers’ will be carefully guarded.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University. 

Author Biography 
 Liz was employed at JCU library from 1975-2011 and also studied for a BA, specialising in English literature and Australian history. She now volunteers with Special Collections, writing blog posts about collection items. Apart from keeping up with the lives of her two grandsons, Liz’s major interest lies in wildlife conservation. She is currently vice-president of the local branch of Wildlife Queensland (WPSQ) which tries to raise community understanding and appreciation of the natural environment as well as undertaking practical projects and conservation advocacy with all levels of government. Before retirement made life too busy, she sometimes wrote poetry.


Anonymous said…
I love the last line of the author biography. Always worth reading right to the end. (And the blog post itself was a treat in its entirety.)