In the summer of 1830, a woman in a broad-brimmed hat and voluminous skirt picks her way over the rocks of a Devon beach. She gathers seaweed from the tidepools and places them in a creel. If other beach-goers think her eccentric, they keep it to themselves. Locals know her as the widow of a Cornish clergyman who died some years earlier. In scientific circles, she is known as the Queen of Algology.
Amelia Griffiths had a fascination for seaweed. She collected them, made observations about their distribution and life histories, described new species, and shared her knowledge and material freely with botanists in Britain and Ireland. Species were named in her honour, as was a genus of red algae. William Harvey dedicated his Manual of the British Marine Algae (1849) to
Mrs Griffiths, of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany, and whose numerous discoveries…entitle her to the lasting gratitude of her fellow-students.
and when the David Landsborough referred to her ‘the Queen of Algologists’, no one disputed the title.
Her life was one of devotion to her family and her studies. In 1794, she married William Griffiths, Rector of St Edmonds, Wiltshire, who became vicar of St Issey, Cornwall. He died in 1802, drowning in the sea near Newquay. At 36, Amelia was a widow with five children, the youngest of whom was only five months old when William died.
She moved back to Devon, eventually settling in Torquay where she lived with her two daughters. It was here she met Mary Wyatt.
A shop in Torquay offers seashells, cup corals and fossils as curios for visitors and specimens for collectors. Among the items available is a series of volumes on the algae found along the Devon coast. The books are illustrated not with lithographs, but with carefully dried and pressed seaweed affixed to the pages. They are sought by scientists and museums, and by well-to-do amateurs drawn to this new seaside pastime.
While in Torquay, Amelia Griffith engaged Mary Wyatt to keep house and to assist in field work along the south-west coast. As she learnt more about marine algae, Mary’s interests expanded. She opened a shop in town to sell shells, as Mary Anning had with fossils in Lyme Regis to the east. Then, in 1833, anticipating a growing craze for seaweed albums — or, perhaps, inspiring it — she produced the first volume of Algae Danmonienses [Algae of Devon].
Three more volumes and a supplement followed. The complete set contained 234 species, collected and preserved by Mary Wyatt and identified by Amelia Griffiths. Writing in the Journal of Botany (1834), William Hooker commented on the quality and usefulness of the work. The volumes were:
…remarkable for the rarity of many kinds [species], the general fineness of the specimens and the excellent preservation of the whole…We hear, with pleasure, that the ingenious author has met with ample encouragement from the public, so that she finds it difficult to prepare sets fast enough to meet the demand. The number of copies sold, will, we trust, make ample amends for the low price (considering the labour, and time, and skill required in the preparation) at which the work is offered; £1 the volume.
Seaweed floats in a bowl of warm water. Ruby-coloured filaments fan out like fine hair. A sheet of paper, cut to desired size, is slid beneath the specimen, which is then teased into position with artist’s brush and delicate touch. Lifted from the water, the sheet is covered in muslin and swaddled in blotting paper, and set aside to dry. Each one must be dealt with individually. There is no mass production here.
Each specimen was identified, washed, arranged, dried, labelled, and sewn into a volume. How many were imperfect? How many discarded?
So exemplary were these volumes that William Harvey did not spend time illustrating his Manual of the British Algae (1841). He presented it as a complement to Wyatt’s work.
However [the illustrations] might have added to the beauty of the book, the student will experience little loss by their omission who takes this MANUAL for what I wish it to be, a companion to the ‘ALGAE DANMONIENSES’…a most important work…These volumes furnish the student with a help, such as no figures, however correctly executed, can at all equal, — nature’s own pencil illustrating herself.
Amelia died in 1858, ten days short of her 90th birthday. Mary Wyatt died in 1871, aged 82. Amelia’s algal specimens are held in research collections and are prized for their historical and scientific significance. Mary’s books are prized for their science and their art.
Amelia Griffiths and Mary Wyatt were not the only women engaged in the study of seaweed — Anna Atkins, Ellen Hutchins, Margaret Gatty, Isabella Gifford, Elizabeth Warren, and others made significant contributions — but between them, they pushed forward the science and, according to Charles Kingsley, made Torquay ‘with its delicious Italian climate…the original home of marine zoology and botany in England’.