Product has been added to the basket

Call out the boys in blue!

Blackfriars Bridge

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan on a mystery that the forerunners of the 'Met' failed to solve.

Geoscientist 20.6 June 2010

"What a malheur!" wrote John Philips to his sister Anne on 14 May 1837. "A thief quitting the Somerset [Hotel] has stolen one of my boxes of fossils, imagining it to be plate, at least so we think." The fossils in question were part of a teaching collection Phillips was intending to use during a course of lectures to be given at King's College London. A loss, certainly. But not one that Phillips took very seriously. "Perhaps the police may recover it;" the letter continues. "If not, I will not die of despair." Two days later he wrote again, tongue-in-cheek, to report "I have not heard of my fossils perdus, but 5000 police officers are in quest of the thief," and asked Anne to send some replacements. The loss of the first box, he assured her, was "of no avail & I only regret the waste of time and labour".

Although the monetary value of the stolen fossils was negligible – the story of the theft did lead to a rich vein of rumours. In February 1857, Thomas Wright reported that valuable type specimens had been lost in the incident. By 1896 Wheelton Hind was claiming that the thieves had thrown the box of fossils off Blackfriars Bridge (picture). This rumour persisted into the 1940s and grew in the telling when C D Sherborn recounted how the whole of the fossil collection, comprising several boxes, had been stolen and subsequently thrown over Blackfriars Bridge by the disappointed thieves. This version was still circulating in the 1950s.

The reality is far more prosaic. At least some of the 'valuable type specimens' referred to by the rumour-mongers were far from lost. Recent research has shown them to be safely incorporated into the systematic collection of the Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. To find out more, turn to First Find Your Fossils.


This vignette is drawn from The legend of John Phillips's "lost fossil collection" by J.M. Edmonds, J. Soc. Biblphy. Nat. Hist, vol 8(2), pp. 169-175, 1977, which quotes from the 234 letters from Phillips to his sister Anne, housed in the archives in the Hope Library and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit: