Simpson, M.

The Fossils of the Yorkshire Lias

  • First edition of this rare and significant work describing the fossils of the Yorkshire coast, written by one of the region’s most significant semi-professional palaeontologists, and with numerous pencilled drawings of the species described by an early owner. There are no copies of the first edition in auction records and WorldCat locates only seven in institutions, at the Natural History Museum in London, the University of York, the Sorbonne, the University of Glasgow, the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of Oklahoma. The second edition of 1884 is also scarce on the market.

    Little is known of the early life of author Martin Simpson (1800-1892), save that he was the son of a master mariner who perished at sea, he studied for a time at the University of Edinburgh, and briefly worked as a teacher, astronomy lecturer, and as secretary to the Wakefield Literary and Philosophical Society. In 1837 he was appointed “Lecturer and Keeper” of the Whitby Museum, but was let go when the museum could not pay his salary. After a brief period as curator for the Yorkshire Geological Society at Wakefield he returned to Whitby, where he had inherited a smallholding, and worked unpaid at the Museum for the next 20 years, until he was officially appointed curator in 1861. Simpson had lost his savings in the collapse of Campion’s Bank, and “as a supplement to his meagre resources there were sold in Whitby shops copies of a small Guide to Whitby and the Neighbourhood, note books containing seaweeds mounted and labelled, and small boxes of Whitby fossils, numbered and labelled in groups of twelve. All these were Martin Simpson’s” (biographical sketch, Whitby Museum website).

    Simpson, “in top hat and frock coat, with carpet bag and green, whalebone-ribbed umbrella—was a conspicuous figure on the cliffs and Scar collecting fossils and measuring strata with a foot rule. The results of his work were embodied in three books issued to subscribers—A Monograph of the Ammonites of the Yorkshire Lias, 1843; The Fossils of the Yorkshire Lias, 1855; and A Guide to the Geology of the Yorkshire Coast, 1856. In this scientific work Simpson was a pioneer, and his writings brought Whitby prominently into notice in geological journals. He became recognised as an authority on ammonites and his type specimens of these fossils are a special feature in the Museum to-day. But with the new century came an age of specialists, and the lack of figures to his descriptions caused a disregard of his original work and the bestowal of new generic and specific names on many of the species he had painstakingly described” (Whitby Museum website).

    As late as 1909 a work on Yorkshire ammonites explained that, “The works of Martin Simpson are very little known outside his native county, and are almost unprocurable. His ‘Monograph of Lias Ammonites’ (London, 1843), is extremely rare; and his ‘Fossils of the Yorkshire Lias’ (London, 1855) is very scarce. Yet these modest works are more important than those of the other authors so far as Ammonites are concerned: they contain careful and discriminative studies of many species, and their worth has not yet received due recognition. Without full illustration of Simpson’s types it is almost impossible to obtain due knowledge of Lias Ammonites, and certainly dangerous to describe or name species as new” (Buckman, Yorkshire Type Ammonites, 1909, quoted by Sheppard in “Martin Simpson and His Geological Memoirs”, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 1918).

    It seems that an early owner of this guide was also inconvenienced by the lack of illustrations, leading them to add twenty-nine of their own in pencil in the margins. These are relatively undetailed, and probably served more as a visual aid for quick reference when flipping through the different sections than as a means of distinguishing similar species from each other; or perhaps they drew in only the fossils they themselves had located. In any case, they are excellent evidence that this guide was indeed used as intended by fossil hunters and amateur naturalists.

  • ...Described from Nature. With a Short Outline of the Geology of the Yorkshire Coast. Illustrated with Sections; and Intended as a Guide to Strangers. London & Whitby: Whittaker and Co.; Silvester Reed, 1855.

    Octavo. Original pink wrappers printed in black. Double page frontispiece depicting the Yorkshire strata, full page illustration of a Plesiosaurus within the text. Contemporary ownership signature, “Baxter Worcester” to the upper cover, and pencilled illustrations in the margins depicting the fossils described. Old repairs to the spine, wrappers rubbed and dulled with old creases and some marks, contents toned and with occasional spots. Very good condition.





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