Dealing in Shells

Since February I have been undertaking a natural history internship documenting a significant collector’s mollusc collection which contains over eight thousand shells . . .

. . . over eight thousand shells from across the globe, collected over a lifetime of devotion to Conchology which now reside in the grand stores of the Discovery Centre in Leeds.

Who could have possibly amassed such a collection of molluscs?

The answer to that question would be Sylvanus Charles Thorpe Hanley (1819-1899).

But who was he and how did the collection come to rest in Leeds?

How did he move from the halls of Wadham College, Oxford, studying humanities to becoming a leading author on mollusca? Although there is little documenting Hanley’s personal life we do know that after inheriting a fortune at a relatively young age he was able to focus all of his energies on a sixty year career of collecting and discovering molluscs. Resulting in him publishing the first book on shells using the then new technique of photography. Hanley not only collected extensively for himself but also corresponded frequently with many other naturalists of his time. Even acquiring several specimens of the now extinct, Unio, for fellow naturalist Issac Lea.

After his death in Penzance, 1899, the collection became the property of his nephew Mr Crew Hanley. After this inheritance a significant portion of the collection types then found their way into the hands of the British Museum via the means of a shell collector known as H. Harvey. Following this there was a period of silence concerning the collection before it emerges again during the 1930s as a donation to the Tolson Memorial Museum in Huddersfield, and finally being transferred to Leeds in 1957.

Although little is known of Hanley as person it is evident from his work on mollusca that he was a driving force in the natural history world, willing to collaborate with anyone if not working alone.


Posted by Clare but written and researched by Kate Hollier (biology intern, Spring 2011) who worked diligently on the wonderful Hanley shell collection held at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.

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