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The main street in Lyme Regis, the town where Mary Anning was born and lived. Image: Katie Pavid.

Mary Anning Rocks: the campaign for a statue of the palaeontologist in Lyme Regis

A schoolgirl is campaigning for a statue of historic palaeontologist Mary Anning on the Jurassic Coast.

Evie Swire is just 11 years old, but she is determined to see her heroine immortalised in bronze.

Anning pioneered the field of palaeontology with her fossil finds in and around Lyme Regis on Britain's south coast, but for a long time she was overlooked by the history books.

Now, a campaign group have attracted national attention for their quest to get her permanently commemorated.

Prof Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Museum, says, 'Mary Anning has left an impressive legacy in the study of palaeontology. Here at the Museum, we look after many of her most spectacular finds, including famous pterosaur, ichthyosaur and plesiosaur specimens. They are still studied by palaeontologists from all over the world, and her life continues to be an inspiration to young scientists even today.

'Despite her discoveries being some of the most significant geological finds of all time, for a long period she was overlooked by the history books.

'I believe a permanent statue of her on the Jurassic coast would be a fitting tribute to a woman who changed the face of geology.'

A portrait of Evie among grass near her hometown

Evie Swire, the girl behind the campaign

 

Mary Anning

Born to a poor family in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Anning spent her life uncovering prehistoric remains.

She was 12 when her brother, Joseph, found a fossilised skull, and she spent months painstakingly digging out the rest of the skeleton. This ichthyosaur - her first of several extraordinary discoveries over the course of her life - was unearthed just as George Cuvier's theory of extinction was being introduced to the scientific community.

The mysterious specimen was studied and debated for years. It was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, or 'fish lizard' - though we now know it was neither fish nor lizard, but a marine reptile. It lived 201-194 million years ago.

Mary continued to unearth fossil after fossil. She sold her many finds, which increasingly fuelled public interest in geology and palaeontology. People flocked to fossil displays around the country - even major museums struggled to keep up with demand. 

Despite her growing reputation for finding and identifying fossils, the scientific community was hesitant to recognise her work right up until her death in 1847.

A portrait of Mary Anning by an unknown artist, before 1842

A portrait of Mary Anning by an unknown artist, before 1842

 

Rectifying the past

In recent years, interest in Mary Anning has grown.

When it was announced that a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett would be erected in Parliament Square, Evie was inspired to honour her hero Mary in the same way.

Anya, Evie's mother, says, 'Evie was indignant that Mary didn't have a statue. She is a real feminist, and I encourage my children to stand up for what they believe in.

'We started campaigning for a statue in August 2018, and since then we have had so much support. There is so much love out there for Mary and that has kept us going.'

Evie and her mum regularly go fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast, and have found ammonites, fossil lobsters and crabs. 

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Speaking to the website Trowelblazers, Evie said, 'I asked my mummy why Mary wasn't talked about in schools and she said Mary had been forgotten. She said Mary was uneducated, and in Victorian times working-class people did not have many rights and were very poor.

'Mary was also a woman, and this meant she could not do things that the men in science could do, like write things for the newspaper and join the big London clubs.

'Mary wasn't allowed to join in and that is why she has been forgotten. If I had a time machine I would go back and tell them that they are all wrong, and they should listen to Mary because she was amazing and had important things to say.'

Progress continues

Lyme Regis Town Council has already agreed to the statue, and the campaign has even attracted the support of legendary wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Evie wrote to Attenborough, sending him one of her fossil finds and asking for his backing.

 

She said, 'I have been writing to Sir David Attenborough, who said it was a great idea and that he would be one of our supporters too. He only writes letters and does not do email or the internet, like granddad.'

Evie and Anya plan to start crowdfunding for the statue in spring 2019. They estimate it will cost between £125,000 and £200,000 to have a bronze statue designed and made.

Dr Susannah Maidment, a fossil reptile researcher at the Museum, says, 'Mary Anning collected some of the most spectacular fossils of marine reptiles from anywhere in the world.

'Her discoveries made her respected by the naturalists of her day. She became a successful business person as a result of her fabulous discoveries, setting up a fossil shop in Lyme Regis: a remarkable achievement for a Victorian working-class woman.

'Mary Anning's discoveries have inspired generations of children to search for fossils on the beaches around Lyme Regis - including me - and I think it would be very fitting for her achievements to be celebrated with a statue in Lyme.'

See Mary's fossils

Visit the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery at the Museum and see some of Mary's finds.