Shells from Captain Cook’s third voyage 'lost for 40 years' saved from skip: 'Nothing short of a miracle'

Statue of Captain James Cook (left) and his shell collection from third voyage (right)
Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman

Published: 12/03/2024

- 00:01

The fascinating collection is to go on public display for the first time in more than 100 years

An 18th-century shell collection from Captain James Cook’s third voyage, thought lost for more than 40 years, has been returned to English Heritage after being saved from a skip in “nothing short of a miracle”.

The collection, containing more than 200 specimens including an extinct species and several believed to have been sent back from Cook’s ill-fated voyage, is to go on public display for the first time in more than 100 years.

The items had been thrown out by a university, but were rescued from the skip by a retired scientist.

The collection, which serves as a record of Britain’s role in global trade and its colonial reach in the late 18th century, was the passion of Bridget Atkinson (1732-1814).

Woman holding up a shell

The collection of shells will be going on display at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum


She never left Britain, and rarely left Cumbria, but amassed more than 1,200 shells from across the globe.

The collection was inherited by her grandson, John Clayton (1792-1890), before being sold along with the Clayton estate in 1930.

Some 200 of the artefacts remained on display at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum in Northumberland and were subsequently loaned to the zoology department of Armstrong College, now Newcastle University.

But, in the 1980s, the shells were thrown out during an office clear-out at the university.

It was feared they had been lost forever, but it has now been revealed that a passing lecturer, Doctor John Buchanan, rescued them from a skip.

They have now been donated to English Heritage by the Buchanan family and returned to the museum, where they have been reunited with a giant clam which was previously the only remaining piece in the collection.

Doctor Buchanan’s family said: “Our father was a marine zoologist and senior lecturer from 1958 until his retirement, based at the Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats.

“He rescued the collection as he believed in conservation, and the shells remained in our family home for 35 years.

“Following the death of our mother, we discovered that the shells were part of the Clayton Collection. We were delighted to return the collection to English Heritage for future generations to enjoy.”

Among the shells is a thorny oyster (Spondylus americanus).

In an 1804 letter, Mrs Atkinson begged her son Matthew, who was based in Jamaica, to get the shell for her.

Painting of Captain James Cook's ship

Captain James Cook was famous for his three voyages between 1768 and 1779

Getty Images

Found along the Atlantic coast, from North Carolina down to the Caribbean and as far as Brazil, it is decorated with spines nearly 2in (5cm) long.

Others include a sunburst star turban or circular saw shell, Astraea heliotropium, endemic to New Zealand, which was sent back to Mrs Atkinson by George Dixon while he was serving as armourer under Cook during his third voyage on HMS Resolution.

Another shell is that of the giant clam, Tridacna gigas, the largest bivalve in the world, which is now protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

The chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) shell also features in the collection.

According to English Heritage, it is among the most coveted of natural history items for collectors.

The animal that lived inside this shell had around 90 tentacles.

It lived in the outer chamber of the shell and, as it grew, it created larger chambers, each time sealing off the vacated one.

Dr Frances McIntosh, English Heritage’s collections curator for Hadrian’s Wall and the North East, said: “We’ve always known about Bridget Atkinson’s collection but had believed it completely lost.

“To discover that the shells have not only survived but been kept safe and loved all this time is nothing short of a miracle.

“Bridget Atkinson was a remarkable woman, with a real curiosity about the natural world.

“At a time when women generally collected shells to decorate their furniture and grottos with, Bridget was collecting them for their scientific and geographical interest rather than their aesthetics.

“As well as being a testament to Bridget’s character and contacts, this collection is also a superb record of Britain’s role in global trade in the late 18th century, not to mention human impact on the natural world.”

Dr Tom White, principal curator of non-insect invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, who has been helping English Heritage to identify and catalogue the shells, said the collection includes numerous rare species, including the now-extinct Distorsio cancellina and others.

He said: “These would have been extraordinarily sought-after in 18th century Britain, during the golden age of shell collecting when single specimens could sell for thousands of pounds.”

– The collection will go on display, for the first time in more than 100 years, at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum in Northumberland from Wednesday March 13.

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