Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The A'Court Smiths of Gurnard: fossil insects and pedestrianism

After reading about the appalling Thomas Hawkins, the story of Mr A'Court Smith of Gurnard makes a refreshing contrast. He was a fossil collector also with Isle of Wight connections, but of very different temperament. The Athenaeum magazine commemorated his death in 1900 thus:
Sir Thomas Paine writes:— Geologists will recall the name of an old correspondent in Edwin A'Court Smith, who died at his cottage at Gurnard, near Cowes, on January 5th, at the age of eighty-nine. Though possessing none of the advantages of education or scientific training, he was a born naturalist and antiquary, and of his own initiative, unaided save by his own hands, he carried on protracted and laborious excavations on the foreshore of the Solent, unearthed a Roman villa and various antiquities, and formed large fossil collections, whence the Natural History Museum and other museums have been enriched with rare specimens. Meanwhile, the fortunate discoverer endeavoured to support his family on the produce of his garden! Mr. A’Court Smith—he was tenacious of the noble strain—was a pathetic illustration of natural gifts crippled by circumstances. When his sight was dimmed and his natural strength abated by the burden of years, his enthusiasm for science never failed. His laborious unrewarded life belongs to the romance of science, and a stern inexorable romance it is. - The Athenaeum, No.3768, Jan 13th 1900
His full name was Joseph Edwin Ely A'Court Smith (or some accounts, including his burial record for Northwood Cemetery, say Edwin Joseph Ely A'Court Smith - and whether the "a" in "A'Court" should be capitalized is also inconsistent across accounts). He was a sailor in the mercantile marine (now called Merchant Navy) who retired to Gurnard, near Cowes, in 1859. His career had started as a midshipman in the service of the East India Company, and he retired as a chief officer with a Master Mariner's certification.

"Fossil papilionoid butterfly from the Early Oligocene Bembridge Marls,
Gurnet Bay, Isle of Wight, England" - collected by Mr. EJ A'Court Smith:
from Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London
(vol. 1889 issue 3, plate XXXI)
Over the next few decades, he built up a remarkable collection of some 4000 well-preserved fossils from the coast nearby at Thorness and Gurnard Bays, particularly following his discovery of an 'Insect Bed', as he reported to Nature in 1874:
I have not hitherto informed you of the subsequent finding of a bed of insects—flies, gnats, and the larva and pupa of the latter, the larva in countless thousands—also the wings, in great numbers, of a variety of flies, butterflies, and one or two grasshoppers ; also a wing resembling that of the Mole Cricket. There are, likewise, two or three beetles.
Letters to the Editor, Nature 11, 88-88 (03 December 1874)
Some he sold to the British Museum; but it wouldn't pay for the main collection, which he kept, and after his death it was sold at auction in Southampton (ref. The A'Court Smith Collection, p174ff, GCG, Newsletter of the Geological Curators Group, #4, Sep 1975). Fortunately it was bought by a  keen collector, RW Hooley, who recognised its importance and sent it to the British Museum, which also acquired other A'Court Smith specimens via the Rev. PB Brodie (ref: TDA Cockerell, Fossil Arthropods in the British Museum, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, No. 37, Jan 1921). These are now in the Natural History Museum. A further segment found its way to the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge; the collections were only coordinated after the rediscovery of the Sedgwick portion in 2005 (see Fossil insects from the Sedgwick Museum feature in new international research).

An account in the IWCP mentions that A’Court Smith was very much in the right place at the right time, coastal erosion being an issue even then:
Mr Colenutt [the speaker] said that it was fortunate Mr. A’Court Smith worked there during those years. Mr. A’Court Smith died in 1900, and he was able to work in strata which have now been removed by sea erosion. In  Mr. A’Court Smith’s time the insect limestone formed a ledge on the foreshore of Thorness Bay and during the course of his meticulous examination he found these beds were marvellously fossiliferous and contained insect remains which in some cases were entirely new to science. … Many other things  Mr. A’Court Smith had which he (the speaker) had seen at his house, such wonderfully strange things as the feathers of birds, and beautiful insects of many kinds.
- New Island Fossils, I.W. Natural History and Archaeological Society, IWCP, December 24, 1932, page 10 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive archive.iwcp.co.uk).
Actually, the part about sea erosion may not be entirely accurate. An American visitor, TDA Cockerell from the University of Colorado, visited the location in the early 1920s, and concluded:
The exposure of insect-bearing rock was on the shore, and was entirely worked out by Mr. A'Court Smith in the course of a number of years. So far as can be seen, it will never again be possible to make a large collection of Gurnet Bay fossil insects.
- Cockerell, ibid.

As to A'Court Smith himself, The Entomologist has further interesting details of his life pre-retirement:
E. J. a'Court Smith was born in Buckinghamshire in 1814. When about 14 or 15 years of age he was wrecked on the Island of South Georgia, and was not able to get away for seventeen months. For many years he was a sailor (officer) in the service of the East India Company, and when the charter of the Company expired, he served in the West Indian mail-boats. He was in the Crimean war ... He corresponded with Ruskin, who presented him with a copy of Lindley and Hutton's 'Fossil Flora of Great Britain.' We are indebted to his sons, living in Yarmouth, for these particulars. It is greatly to be regretted that Mr. a'Court Smith did not live to see his splendid collections described.
- p81, The Entomologist, Volume 54, 1921
I wasn't all a quiet life at Gurnard. In 1877, the Hampshire Advertiser records:
Assault at Gurnard
James Gustar, a young dairyman, was summoned for assaulting Mr Edwin J. A’Court Smith, a gentleman of advanced years, residing at Gurnard, on his own property … The complainant stated that he was in hs own garden about noon on Christmas Day when he heard a shot fired and soon defendant, who resided on the adjoining premises, came over the ditch and on to his grounds. He remonstrated and requested him to leave his grounds. He had a geologist’s hammer in his hand and threw it down, and immediately defendant seized him by the wrapper round his neck and drew it tightly, so as to render him powerless, and then challenged him to fight. Complainant’s nerves had been unstrung by the attack, and he had suffered from want of sleep. .... Defendant said he was looking for a small bird he had shot, and he caught hold of the wrapper when complainant was trying to push him into the ditch. … Defendant was fined 20s and costs 7s 6d.

- The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Wednesday, January 03, 1877; pg. 3; Issue 3188. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II
The Athenaeum piece mentions A'Court Smith's family, which is of interest. It comprised his wife Ellen (1827-8 - 1908), who he'd married in 1861, and three children who were adult by the time of his death: a daughter Amy (died 1955 aged 90 - ref. IWCP, Dec 24, 1995, p1) and identical twin sons James Henry (died 1941, aged 72 - ref. IWCP, May 31, 1941, p2) and Edwin (died 1848, aged 80, at Whitecroft psychiatric hospital - ref. IWCP Jun 5, 1948, p8). All three siblings are buried in the same plot at St Mary's Church, Brook (see monument inscription).

The twin brothers were notable 'pedestrians', whose walks included record-breaking ones around the Island and from Portsmouth to London ("well within 24 hours" according to the IWCP piece All night tramp in a rain storm - Aug 31, 1912, p6 - which reports on a failed London-Southampton walk they had to give up through severely wet conditions). They repeated the attempt successfully, in 23 hours 15 minutes, in September of the same year. Another piece tells more about them:
Memories of many a cheery greeting on the roads of the West Wight were recalled to me by the recent announcement of the death of Mr. Edwin A’Court Smith, of Brook. He and his twin brother James, who died seven years ago, were great lovers of the countryside, and there can hardly be a road , lane, or footpath in the Island over which they had not tramped. First from their home at Gurnard, and later from Brook, they would set out almost every day, irrespective of the weather, on their walks, and, in their prime, they maintained a surprisingly good pace. Kindly, courteous men they always had a smile and a cheery wave of the hand for others on the road, and I wondered how many times they had charmingly declined the offer of a lift from passing motorists! They were among the select few pedestrians who had walked completely round the Island in one jaunt. They did it in October, 1911, in 18 hours 20 minutes, keeping as near the sea as possible all the way and covering about 70 miles. That is not a record. On May 9th, 1925, Mr. Harry Crassweller of Portsmouth, did a similar walk, covering about 71 miles in 14 ½ hours. This, I believe, is the best actual walking time on record, but in 1914 a waiter at the Sandringham Hotel covered almost the same course by go-as-you-please methods (running and walking) in just under 10 hours. He was certainly no “waiter” on that trip.
- An Islander’s Notes, by Vectensis, IWCP, Saturday July 3rd, 1945, page 5 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive archive.iwcp.co.uk).
I was under the impression that my maternal grandfather, Raymond Whittington, held some sort of record for the round-the-Island walk, but I can't find any sign of it in the IWCP archive.

- Ray

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