Chesters Roman Fort and Museum - Hadrian's Wall

Shells, Shores and Beyond: A Global Collection of a Georgian Lady

For the first time in over 100 years, see an extraordinary 18th century shell collection on display at Chesters Roman Fort. Collected by Bridget Atkinson (1732-1814), grandmother of John Clayton, the shells are internationally important.

A lifelong passion

At a time when women generally collected shells for decoration, Bridget was collecting them for their scientific and geographical interest. Despite never leaving Britain and rarely leaving Cumbria, Bridget had far-reaching connections and amassed more than 1,200 shells from across the globe. Her passion for collecting was inherited by her grandson, John Clayton, who excavated every year along Hadrian’s Wall for almost 50 years. The collection also acts as a record of Britain’s role in global trade and its colonial reach in the late 18th century. Find out more about Bridget.

Saved from a skip

Whilst most of the shells were sold along with the Clayton estate in 1930, around 200 of Bridget’s shells remained on display in Chesters’ museum. They were then loaned to the zoology department of Armstrong College, now Newcastle University. In the 1980s, the shells were thrown out during an office clear-out at the university. However, Dr John Buchanan rescued the shells from a skip and the family has donated them to English Heritage. The shells have been reunited with a giant clam that was previously the only remaining piece of the collection.

A remarkable collection

There are many spectacular shells in Bridget’s collection, including an extinct species and several shells believed to have been sent back from Captain Cook’s ill-fated third voyage. In the exhibition, you can see the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), which was one of the most coveted of natural history items for collectors. The animal that lived inside this shell had around 90 tentacles. Find out more about the collection.

Come and see

Head to Chesters Roman Fort and Museum to see this fantastic collection and discover more about the shells and Bridget. The exhibition will be in place until 1 November 2024.

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