Mary Sold Ammonites From Her Shop!

Screen grab of BBC’s QI hosted by Sandi Toksvig, with Romesh Ranganathan and Alan Davies.
Screen grab of BBC’s QI hosted by Sandi Toksvig, with Romesh Ranganathan and Alan Davies.

I know 'Mary sold ammonites from her shop' isn't as catchy as ‘She sells seashells on the seashore’, but if we are to link the song to Mary, it’s a more factual version of the rhyme, don’t you think? A rhyme that often gets quoted to us or sent to us on social media in connection with Mary Anning and her story. A song that has caused many a debate on its origins and its links to her, but there is one thing for sure that we do know; if the song is definitely about Mary she certainly didn’t sell seashells on the seashore. Yet, she is often associated with the song in news articles and blog posts claiming the song is all about her. 

Even the fabulous Sandi Toksvig used it as a question on BBC’s QI programme, reciting the tongue-twister from start to finish with aplomb. Teachers love it too; the rhyme helps them to connect pupils with the subject of Mary in the classroom. Pupils are amazed that this well-known rhyme they have been chanting for years is actually all about her! This is especially so now that Mary is named in the  national curriculum and is part of the Year 6 programme of study. Although learning specifically about Mary Anning is ‘non-statutory’, at least she gets a mention, and that’s a move in the right direction. 

But, is it true? Is this child’s rhyme really anything to do with Mary Anning and her story? I’ve personally questioned this on many occasions and it seems I’m not alone. Quite often we see a Tweet or a Facebook comment that triggers the question - what are the real origins of the song and even more interestingly, comments pointing out that the association of the song with Mary diminishes her remarkable discoveries somewhat? And I tend to agree, there is something quite demeaning, equating world changing scientific finds hacked out, by hand, from the Dorset landscape, to picking up pretty little seashells left on the beach. So, I decided to take a deeper look and see where this apparently recent urban myth sprung from and answer the question once and for all! Was this little ditty anything to do with Mary and if not, when did it become attached to her, and is the association a good or bad thing?

Original artwork by Anya Pearson using The Graphics Fairy
Original artwork by Anya Pearson using The Graphics Fairy

It’s relatively easy to do a quick internet search and find that the song was originally written in 1908 by Terry Sullivan & music by Harry Gifford, but what’s not clear is if this music hall song that was penned 62 years after her death was really inspired by Mary?

My own view is it’s very doubtful the boys even knew who she was, let alone wrote a song about her. An unknown, provincial working-class woman from a small seaside village in deepest, darkest Dorset! And when you also consider the fact that 173 years later most still have no clue who she is, it’s clear to see its highly unlikely the song is about her. There’s no real evidence that the song written by the duo at the start of the last century has anything to do with Anning yet it has attached itself to her by default somewhere along the line, but when?

I then came across this brilliant and thoroughly in-deth post on the subject by Stephen Winick, a writer and editor at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. From his really detailed, no-stone-unturned research he’s found the first ever mention of the tongue twister “she sells sea shells” in an 1855 book called Letters and Sounds: an introduction to English reading, written by Alexander Melville Bell. The book was published to be used as an aid to elocution. The tongue twister featuring in the book as an example of alliteration – a simple literary device in which a series of words begin with the same consonant sound. Classic examples of these can be heard in the film version of George Bernard Shaws, Pygmalion - My Fair Lady ‘in Hertfordshire, Herefordshire and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen’, You get the gist.

Titles: Ammonite People: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan © See-Saw Films
Titles: Ammonite People: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan © See-Saw Films

So how did a rhyme which looks like it was penned in America 8 years after Mary’s death find its way to the UK and become part of her story? Stephen Winick's research has some really interesting ideas and conclusions on this and if you really want chapter and verse on the subject, I recommend you make yourself a cup of tea and read his article here.

The most interesting part of his research for me however, is the first ever mention of the rhyme being connected to Mary Anning. Surprisingly it’s a relatively modern association, a book published in 1977 - Henry De La Beche: Observations on an Observer by Paul J. McCartney. But the book tells us only that she is “reputed to be the subject” of the tongue twister, and he gives us no real, tangible evidence to back the claim up, or indeed his source for his ‘Reputed’ comment.

The Mary Anning drill site on Mars: Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Mary Anning drill site on Mars: Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So, from a pure evidence-based perspective it looks like the ‘she sells seashells’ tongue twister has its roots firmly in myth. There are no hard facts or evidence that links Anning to the famous tongue twister, not one shred of evidence. Yet the overriding feeling I have is this: if the association of the rhyme connects people to her name, I’m not complaining. All publicity is good publicity, isn’t that what they say? Let’s face it, she could do with all the exposure she can get. And it appears, at long last, that she is getting some: she is the subject of a forthcoming Hollywood block-buster starring Kate Winslet as Mary and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, and last week, excitingly, NASA announced that they are naming a new drill target on Mars after her.

Yet Anning is still not the ‘roll off the tongue’ household name that it should be. Very few historical female scientists’ names are! I think I can just about, at a push, count on one hand, not including my thumb, the roll call of women who are globally known and recognised for their achievements. But you only have to say ‘natural selection’ or ‘The theory of relativity’ and their male counterparts’ names easily (even in my menopausal, hormone deprived brain) pop into our heads. 

I’ve thought long and hard on this subject; obviously as a group of trustees we are hugely protective of her name and legacy, but my conclusion is this: if this little ditty is helping to put Mary Anning in our collective memory banks and is being used as a teaching tool in schools, then I’m happy to embrace it and allow it to assimilate into her story. Fact or not, the song connects people to her narrative and generates a conversation that we desperately need to be having. 

Don’t forget: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde

And as a bit of a gauntlet, I challenge thee to do better than this?

‘Anning’s amazing ammonites are absolutely astounding’ 

Happy tongue twisting everyone!

Posted by Anya on July 29th 2020

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