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Etheldred at home

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan explores the home life of 'the first lady geologist' 

Morgan, N., Etheldred at home. Geoscientist 30 (8), 28, 2020 10.1144/geosci2020-107, Download the pdf here

distant thunderOn 4 September, 1830, Etheldred Benett [1775 – 1845], already well known for her fossil collection and contributions to Cretaceous biostratigraphy, was busy writing a friendly letter to George Goldie [1784 – 1853], secretary of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The letter promises to send a large basketful of fossils 'selected for that purpose' to The York Museum, once they are 'ticketted and properly packed'.  At the same time, she provides a fascinating glimpse into her home life.

Born into a wealthy family, Benett never married and enjoyed the wealth and independence to pursue her interests. In 1802 she moved to Norton House in Norton Bavant, near Warminster, where she lived her sister, Anna Maria, for the rest of her life. Benett was inspired to begin fossil collecting in around 1809 by the botanist and geologist Aylmer Bourke Lambert [1761 – 1842], the half-brother of her sister-in-law. Apart from visits to London and to the Dorset Coast, she didn't travel much.  Instead, she purchased high quality fossils from local collectors, and collected fossils herself on summer holidays to the Dorset Coast.  

Although she published very little, she was meticulous in her documentation and her personal collection attracted many geological visitors. A number of her specimens appeared in James  Sowerby's [1757 – 1822] 1812 publication, The Mineral Conchology of Great Britain.  Among her numerous geological correspondents was Gideon Mantell. Mantell became a lifelong friend and recorded that the pair corresponded 'without interruption, for more than 25 years'.  In his obituary of Ethedred Benett, Mantell noted that:

'In private life this excellent lady was highly respected and beloved by a large circle of friends, for her sincerity of manners and never-tiring charity and benevolence.'  

Behind the public face

But what was she like as a person? There are few clues. In a diary entry for 20 April 1819, Mantell notes that Mrs Mantell thought of  'Miss B as a very engaging and interesting woman.' The only image of her is a silhouette portrait which, Etheldred complained, '...will [not] give you the least idea of me .. and makes me look at least ten years older than I am.' Her surname was – and is! – commonly misspelled. And because of her unusual Christian name, she was often assumed to be a man. In 1836, she was made a member of the Imperial Natural History Society of Moscow, and was annoyed to discover that her diploma was made out to 'Dominum' [Master] Etheldredus Benett. The British Museum also wrote to Etheldred Benett Esq. to thank her for the donation of her book on fossils which she presented to one of the librarians 'telling her it was written by myself'.  

Like all women of the time, she also suffered because many of the scientific societies did not admit women. But she appreciated the few that did. In her letter to Goldie she writes:

" I admire your liberal regulations with regard to Ladies, and if I lived within reach I should assuredly avail myself of it."
And she adds some insight into her home life by noting that:

" My Sister enjoys her normal good health but is gardening mad a Mania which prevails to a great extent in this neighbourhood."

Taking advantage

It also seems that Etheldred wasn't above a bit of penny-pinching. Her brother John [1773 – 1852] was a Whig MP for Wiltshire from 1819 – 1852, so entitled to free postage. In his diary entry for 19 September 1819, Mantell notes: "Received a letter from Miss Benett ... the letter was franked by her brother." Her letter to Goldie was similarly franked. Perhaps she felt that her brother's position entitled her to the nineteenth century equivalent of 'unlimited broadband'! 

End notes: Sources for this vignette include: a letter from Benett to Goldie dated 4 Sept 1830 from the YPS Archives held in the Borthwick Archive at the University of York; Torrens, H.S. et al., 2000, Etheldred Benett of Wilshire England, the first lady geologist, Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci Philadelphia, 150, pp. 59- 123; the DNB entry for Etheldred Benett by Hugh Torrens; Obituary Miss Etheldred Benett, by Gideon Mantell, London Geological Journal, 1, p. 40, 1846; The Journal of Gideon Mantell edited by E.C. Curwen, OUP, 1940


Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.  Her latest book, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is available via 

Image: Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [?1837]. Published in: H B Woodward, ‘History of Geology’ (1911).  One of the only three known likenesses of Benett, made during a trip to Bath. (Reproduced by permission of the Geological Society of London.)