Shells From Captain Cook’s Final Voyage Were Rescued From a Dumpster

Long presumed lost, the collection of rare shells is now on display in England

McIntosh Brushes Shell
Curator Frances McIntosh says the collection's survival is "nothing short of a miracle." English Heritage

In the 1980s, a trove of rare shells—some of which had been collected on a famed 18th-century voyager’s doomed final expedition—was tossed in a dumpster at Newcastle University in England during an office cleanout.

Luckily, a lecturer rescued the shells before they could be taken to the landfill, reports BBC News’ Joanna Morris. Now, some 40 years later, his descendants have donated the shells to English Heritage, a charity that protects historic sites and artifacts.

The collection is “a remarkable record of Britain’s role in global trade and its colonial reach in the late 18th century,” per a statement from English Heritage. It contains over 200 specimens, “including an extinct species and several believed to have been sent back from Captain [James] Cook’s ill-fated third voyage.”

By the mid-1770s, Cook had earned widespread recognition for his expeditions to destinations like New Zealand and the Antarctic Circle. He embarked on his next quest in 1776: a search for the Northwest Passage, the connection between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It would be his last. In 1779, the captain decided to wait out the winter in the Hawaiian Islands. Tensions escalated, and the Hawaiians ultimately killed Cook after he tried to kidnap their king.

During this expedition, one of Cook’s crewmembers was a man named George Dixon. While serving as the captain’s armorer, Dixon was also collecting pieces of the natural world for an eager connoisseur at home: He dispatched several seashells to the collector Bridget Atkinson back in England.

McIntosh Shells Close-Up
Some of the shells in Atkinson's collection came from the third voyage of explorer James Cook. English Heritage

Born in 1732, Atkinson was a woman with a “lifelong passion” for shells, writes the Guardian’s Mark Brown. Despite never leaving Britain, she amassed a collection of 1,200 specimens from all over the world, thanks to a network of far-flung family and friends who sent her their finds.

“Bridget Atkinson was a remarkable woman, with a real curiosity about the natural world,” says Frances McIntosh, a curator at English Heritage, in the statement. “At a time when women generally collected shells to decorate their furniture and grottos with, Bridget was collecting them for their scientific and geographical interest rather than their aesthetics.”

Tom White, a curator at London’s Natural History Museum, adds that Atkinson was one of the earliest women to possess such an inventory. Today, some of her specimens carry great ecological significance, including a Distorsio cancellina—a sea snail that’s now extinct—and several animals now protected by international regulations.

“These would have been extraordinarily sought after in 18th-century Britain, during the golden age of shell collecting when single specimens could sell for thousands of pounds,” says White in the statement.

McIntosh Shell Eyes
Bridget Atkinson amassed a collection of 1,200 shells during her lifetime. English Heritage

After Atkinson’s death in 1814, her grandson John Clayton inherited the shell collection, according to BBC News. While most of the shells were sold with Clayton’s estate in 1930, hundreds were sent to the college that became Newcastle University—where they were discarded in the ’80s.

Since then, researchers assumed the specimens were lost. But they had actually been rescued from the trash by a marine zoologist named John Buchanan, who held onto them for safekeeping.

“The shells remained in our family home for 35 years. Following the death of our mother, we discovered that the shells were part of the Clayton collection,” says Buchanan’s family in the statement. “We were delighted to return the collection to English Heritage for future generations to enjoy.”

This week, the collection went on view at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum in Northumberland, England. McIntosh says the display will also examine Atkinson’s unsung legacy.

“It is really nice to be able to tell the story of a remarkable woman,” McIntosh tells the Guardian. “She is not a duchess or in high society in London, and she’s not made it into the history books—but she is phenomenal.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.