Geology and Fossils

The spectacular displays and the extensive stores contain one of the finest collections of Jurassic fossils in Britain. The Whitby fossil collection is famous for its ammonites and its massive marine reptiles. Many of these are now spectacularly mounted on the walls of the museum where they amaze and inspire visitors. These beautiful objects draw visitors from all over the world, and are of great scientific and historical interest.

The science of geology was established in the early nineteenth century, and Whitby and the Yorkshire coast were at the centre of this exciting new discipline. Scientists came to study the great cliffs of Jurassic strata, and the plentiful fossils they contain. As the scientific importance of fossils began to be understood, Whitby Museum’s extensive collection became a vital resource for geologists, and a treasure trove for children and adults alike.

The collection contains fossils collected from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Yes, we are still collecting, and scientists are still coming from all over the world to see what the Whitby collection can tell them about the history of the earth, and the history of science.


Included in this collection

History of the Collection

Around the beginning of the l9th century, new societies devoted to natural history, science, literature and philosophy were springing up all over Britain. Many of these societies established museums to house their collections and curiosities. It was also a time when the new science of geology was becoming a popular subject, new theories were being propounded and spectacular finds were being made. Amongst these discoveries were large skeletons of fossil marine reptiles found along the Yorkshire coast largely as a result of moving vast quantities of alum shale in order to extract the alum, one of the first chemical industries. The first one to be reported from the area was a marine crocodile. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1759 was given a description of the “Skeleton of an Allegator found in the Allom Rock near Whitby, January 3, 1758”. It was discovered by Captain William Chapman and described by John Wooler in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 1758. The specimen, later named Teleosaurus chapmani Konig, was given to the British Museum in 1781 (now renamed Steneosaurus bollensis).

The alum quarrymen uncovering these large skeletons sold them as curiosities to other parts of Britain. Certain citizens of Whitby, under the Rev. George Young, became concerned that whilst these curiosities were being found locally they were being ‘lost’ to Whitby and this concern spurred them on to the formation of the Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society in 1823 with the prime purpose to setup a Museum.

Teleosaurus chapmani

One of the major early attractions was another skeleton of the fossil crocodile Teleosaurus chapmani, purchased for £7 in 1824. The collector, Brown Marshall, a carpenter from Whitby, spotted the snout sticking out of the cliff and excavated the skull and the bulk of the skeleton by hanging from the top of the cliff on ropes. Part of the tail was taken out 3 years later. Over the next few years, thanks to the guiding influence of Rev Young, the Museum gained a reputation for its rich fossil collection, particularly the beautiful and gigantic marine reptiles. Many of these are now spectacularly mounted on the walls of the Museum where they rarely fail to amaze and interest visitors. To read the fascinating story behind many of these large fossils visitors should read The Floating Egg by Roger Osborne.

Scope and Importance

Section through an ammonite

Model of Hildoceras bifrons

Ammonite – Hildocras bifrons

Imprint of fern – Cladophlebis denticulata from Whitby

Imprints of gingko digitats

The collection contains a wide range of fossil material – vertebrates, invertebrates, plants and trace fossils. The ammonites, nautiloids, belemnites, marine reptiles, fish and plants are of particular interest and international scientific importance with over 200 ‘primary’ type specimens which includes many holotypes [a single specimen recognised worldwide as showing the main character of a particular species]. The main specimens of scientific importance are to be found amongst the ammonites, nautiloids, belemnites, plants and marine reptiles. Most of the specimens are from Lower and Middle Jurassic strata.

Microscope belonging to Martin Simpson

A number of important individual collections can be recognised in the overall collection. The most notable are those of Martin Simpson, Rev. George Young, John Bird, John Leckenby, Richard Ripley, and William Bean. Many other renowned geologists (e.g. Prof. Hemingway), past and present, have both visited Whitby, been members of the Society and used the collections. Click here to learn more about Martin Simpson one of our early curators.

The whole collection was conserved in the late 1990’s with the aid of grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, P.R.I.S.M., CURRY and Pilgrim Trust Funds.

Footprint of herbivorous dinosaur

There is also a growing collection of dinosaur footprints varying from some a few centimetres in length up to one 40 centimetres long belonging to a herbivore. To learn more about ichthyosaurs visit the Berkeley University site ichthyosaurs, and to learn more about plesiosaurs visit this website.

In addition there is also a small but good representative collections of local rocks, building stones, erratics and minerals. In recent years, a number of large and spectacular evaporate mineral specimens from the Zechstein Sea as found in Boulby Mine have been collected and displayed by Mr Peter Thornton.

Three-toed dinosaur footprint from Cloughton