Friday, February 20, 2015

Marsden Bay: top destination for ballroom-dancing seaweed collectors

This is the only picture that I've ever seen of a remarkable piece of North eastern coastal history - the ballroom in the cave under the cliffs at Marsden Bay near South Shields.

The cave has a long and colourful history and was first created by a fabled local quarry worker called Jack 'The Blaster' Bates, who used a pick and explosives to extend a natural cave and make it into a home for his family.  Bates died in 1792 and the cave, which became known as Marsden Grotto, was bought by a man called Peter Allan who extended it into a considerable mansion, with the ballroom that you can see in the engraving above and an inn, all accessed by zig-zag steps down the cliff face. 

There have been several changes of ownership since then but the Marsden Grotto is still a pub, which you can either reach via the steps or via the lift (a better bet if you've had a few)

The pub terrace is on the beach and it's an interesting place to enjoy a pint while watching the fulmars that nest on the limestone cliffs.

In this picture the tide is coming in but at low tide it retreats beyond that large sea stack known as Marsden Rock. It's a popular place for indulging in a spot of rock-pooling in the summer months.

The engraving of the Marsden Grotto ballroom at the head of this post comes from this intriguing little book - The Seaweed Collector by Shirley Hibberd, published in 1872. Hibberd (1825-1890) was a Londoner; his first name was James but he preferred to be called Shirley. He's best known for his horticultural books and journalism (he was editor of Amateur Gardening, which is still published today) and this seems to have been his only foray into phycology. You can read a little more about the contents of his book by clicking here.

Hibberd lived almost all of his life in and around London but he clearly must have visited Marden Bay at some point because he recommends it as a place for the aspiring seaweed collector and extols the delights of a sea-cave on this coast which he calls the 'Fairies' Kitchen'  as the location of a rare species:

"I can add to the list of localities", he writes, "having found it near a small cavern called the 'Fairies' Kitchen', on the bold rocky coast near Sunderland, not far removed from the romantic abode of the famous Peter Allen. This district has been but little explored by British naturalists, while its noble scenery is, comparatively speaking, unknown, except to the inhabitants of the towns in the immediate locality."

The magnesian limestone cliffs here are constantly eroded by the sea and I suspect that Hibberd's 'Fairies' Kitchen' has long-since disappeared under the waves.

One of the other very striking things about this book is the number of references in it to women seaweed collectors who became eminent authorities in the field of phycology. In Hibberd's day women had a very prominent role in this branch of botany and several had whole genera of seaweeds named after them. Today having a species named after you is a high honour and being commemorated in the name of  genus is reserved for the scientific and natural history elite, such as David Attenborough. The Victorian lady phycologists and their eponymous seaweed genera  include:

Miss Hutchins - Hutchinsia
Mrs. Griffiths - Griffithsia
Mrs. Gatty - Gattya
Miss Ball - Ballia
Miss Cutler - Cutleria

Why were seaweeds so popular amongst lady naturalists in the Victorian era? One reason was that these plants made very attractive pressed specimens and so appealed to the artistic and collecting instinct. 

This little handbook, written in 1848 by another female algologist, Isabella Gifford, is both a guide to identification and a guide to collecting, drying and pressing seaweed species.

The colour plates in Gifford's book highlight seaweeds, like this Plocamium species, which make particularly attractive pressed specimens.

Isabella Gifford devoted most of her life to the study of seaweeds. I've appended her obituary, from the 1892 Journal of Botany, to the end of this post.

The cover of this seashore guide, written by the prolific natural history author Rev. J.G.Wood and published in 1857, testifies to the popularity of seashore visits amongst women, even if they were encumbered by unsuitable clothing dictated by the norms of decency in those days.

The rapid development of the railway system in the Victorian era opened up the coast for thousands of visitors, many of whom would have never seen the sea before. Visits to the coast combined the benefits of healthy sea air (especially for those who were otherwise confined to industrialised cities) with a chance to explore the mysteries of the deep - or at least those that could be found in the intertidal zone.

But there may have been another reason why collecting and studying seaweeds became popular subjects for study amongst refined ladies of the Victorian era.........

This is Carl von Linné, aka Linnaeus, who devised the binomial system for naming plants in Latin that we still used today - and who also devised a highly controversial system for classifying flowering plants.

In his Systema Naturae of 1735 Linnaeus produced a sexual system of flower classification based on the numbers and relationships of their male (stamens) and female (ovaries) parts. He had no hesitation in relating floral sexuality to the sexual relationships between humans. He wrote this steamy prose, the like of which have never appeared in botany books before: “The flowers’ leaves... serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials....”

Above is a summary of Linnaeus's sexual classification of flowers. A quick glance will reveal that it includes direct reference to most forms of human sexual relationship, including polygamy and incest.

The reaction amongst many in the refined classes was one of horror. Here is an example: 

 “A man would not expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany... but obscenity is the very basis of the Linnaean system’

First edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1768-1771

Faced with the depravity of Linneaus's sexual system, parents must have been keen to steer their daughters away from a subject whose study could only lead to impure thoughts. 

Fortunately there was an alternative.The last item in the key printed above, No. 24 Clandestine Marriage, refers to the group of plants known as Cryptogams (literally 'concealed sexual organs') - those plants whose reproductive structures are hidden. These include mosses, liverworts, ferns ........ and seaweeds. Unless you are armed with a microscope and a lot of patience, there's little in a pressed seaweed that would steer your thoughts towards sex. Safe subjects for study, then, for those who found Linnaeus's sexual system morally offensive.

Now back to where we started, to Shirley Hibberd's Seaweed Collector and Marsden Bay. His book also includes this little engraving, depicting the famous Marsden Rock, a scenic sea arch. Many sources on the web claim that the sea arch was formed by a rock fall in 1911 but this engraved illustration in Hibberd's book, from 1872, shows that it existed much earlier than that.

Over a century later it was still intact - these are pictures that I took in the 1980s. It was a popular landmark and early in the 20th. century had steps leading to the top. It's said that in 1903 a choir climbed to the top and sang, surrounded by the waves. But mostly it's the home of seabirds - gulls, fulmars and cormorants - that can be watched by drinkers in the Marsden Grotto nearby.

These days Marsden Rock is a shadow of its former self. The sea arch collapsed in 1996 and now the stumpy sea stack is a platform for seabirds, best viewed from the cliff tops opposite.

Tail piece

Abridged obituary for the phycologist Isabella Gifford, from the Journal of Botany 1892

Isabella Gifford 1823-1892, author of The Marine Botanist, an introduction to the study of algology, containing descriptions of the commonest British seaweeds, and the best methods of preserving them, with figures of the most remarkable species.

Isabella Gifford was born at Swansea about 1823. During her early life she resided with her parents in France, in Jersey, and at Falmouth (where her only brother died) ; they finally settled at Minehead about forty years ago. From both father and mother she inherited strong moral and intellectual powers. Mrs. Gifford was a rarely gifted and most cultured woman, and herself educated her Daughter.  But the scientific bent which very early in life Miss Gifford developed was quite her  own,—she had no individual instruction or guidance in the pursuit which she followed most unweariedly throughout her life. She had full encouragement from her parents, but she was quite self-taught, Mrs. Gilford's mind being of a literary turn, with no admixture of the scientific. The extremely simple mode of life which was characteristic of the family was very favourable to this lover of Nature, who studied and explored, and scrambled and botanised wherever her fancy led her in the neighbourhood of her home ; from Blue Anchor Bay to Bossington Point, on the shore; and, inland, over the heights and in the valleys ; or nearer home, where the woods and banks and hedges formed, for the most part, her " happy hunting ground."

 We are indebted to a cousin of Miss Gifford for many of the foregoing facts, as well as for the following note:
 " Her life was singularly uneventful, so much so, that she would count as her 'field day” a long-ago scientific meeting at Dunster, where a paper of hers was read, and her collection of the plants of West Somerset exhibited. Rheumatism and neuralgia made her in her later life almost a prisoner to the immediate neighbourhood of her home;  but though not able to go far afield, her conservatory and garden afforded her unfailing delight, while her large correspondence kept her also happily employed. Major Gifford died in 1869, and his widow and daughter lived on at Minehead, a very quiet life, but a most refreshing one to come in contact with, because of its unworldliness, and its large and genial sympathy. Influenza attacked the household before Christmas, and mother and daughter passed away within twenty-four hours of each other. They were laid to rest on New Year's Eve in the beautiful churchyard of Minehead, surrounded with hills and sky and sea ; a fitting resting place for one who loved Nature so truly."

The only portrait of Miss Gifford is one in crayon, taken many would not be suitable for reproduction. Mr. Holmes describes her as of medium height, with fair hair and complexion, and a delicate refined face.


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    1. Nature is full of stories, isn't it?

  2. What a mega post! Re. the Ballroom - I'd like to visit it but would never bear to be long there, let alone live in a house without windows.

    1. There are windows that look out over the sea - and you could waltz to the rhythm of the waves!

  3. Fascinating. The coloured plates are beautiful. Beach combing must be in our very DNA

    1. Couldn't agree more - it's always fascinating to see what the sea has cast up on the shore, isn't it?

  4. Great post – interesting and I'm so glad you included so many beautiful images. "very quiet life, but a most refreshing one to come in contact with, because of its unworldliness" struck a chord.

    1. Lives of such simplicity, but with such productivity, are rare nowadays, aren't they?

  5. Who needs 'Fifty Shades of Grey' when you have Carl Linnaeus and his classification? Very interesting post Phil and such an interesting area at Marsden
    The last time I saw folk collecting seaweed, they were taking it away in buckets loads from North Bay at St Mary's Island for use as garden fertiliser! Cheers. Brian

    1. Thanks Brian. I tried some seaweed tasting a couple of years ago (carrageen and sea lettuce) - wasn't my cup of tea! I think crofters in the Outer Hebrides still use seaweed as a soil improver. There's an account of it at

  6. Well, well...Carl Linnaeus beats the Kamasutra

    1. When I used to teach taxonomy and systematics to undergraduates this always revived their interest!


    There is a photo of the ballroom here.

    1. Thank you! What a brilliant web page.