Victorians by the Sea Shore
C.M. Yonge shows how, during the nineteenth century, the British public began to take a keen interest in the wonders of their native beaches.
Visits to British shores have had a medicinal origin arising from interest in the ‘water-cure’, first recommended by a certain Dr Wittie of Scarborough as early as 1660, which found increasing support in the eighteenth century.
It culminated in the erudite De Tabe Glandulari published by Dr Richard Russel in 1749, four years later issued to a wider public as A Dissertation concerning the Use of sea-water in Diseases of the Glands. At the same time Russel moved to the village of Brighthelmstone. His fortune and the future success of Brighton, although, like Scarborough, largely the haunt of the favoured few, were assured.
Interest in the marine fauna remained confined to its more edible members, although Linnaeus, from his professorial chair at Uppsala, was revealing the pattern of the Creator’s works.
One of his correspondents was the London merchant, John Ellis, who was to assist in the description of the corals collected during Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour. Earlier in 1775, he had published his Essay towards a Natural History of the Corallines, and other Marine Products of the Like Kind, Commonly found on the Coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. Here, in what may be considered the first scientific study of living British shore animals, he describes how he:
went to the Island of Sheppey, on the coast of Kent, and took with me Mr Brooking, a celebrated Painter of Seapieces, to make proper Drawings for me. Here we had an Opportunity of seeing these disputed Beings called branched Corallines, alive in Sea-water, by the help of a very commodious Microscope... and was fully convinced that these apparent Plants were ramified Animals, in their proper Skins, not loco-motive, but fixed to the Shells of Oysters, Mussels, etc.’
Although a notable discovery, this failed to make much impression outside the then very restricted scientific world.