The history of our Cretaceous fossils

In 1931, shortly after the acquisition of Cumberland House for the city of Portsmouth, City Librarian and Curator James Hutt approached Mr G Woods of Sandown, Isle of Wight for help identifying Cretaceous fossils. In turn, Mr Woods contacted his friend James F Jackson, Honorary Curator of Sandown Museum, who wrote to James Hutt on 2 April 1931. The letter read: “If the collection is not very large I would be pleased to come over one Thursday afternoon to name them, or such as I am able to name, on condition that you pay my travelling expenses.”

This was the beginning of correspondence between James Jackson and James Hutt which continued from 1931 to the end of 1933, with letters being exchanged several times a week.

Hutt agreed to Jackson’s quote of £4 – £5 (about £270 – £377 today) for traveling expenses and occasional teas while collecting fossils from the Isle of Wight. “I feel that while we have the opportunity to get a collection made by an expert on such advantageous terms, we should do well to accept it.”

Jackson appears to have been very eager to develop the collections, with suggestions for displays and the removal of stuffed birds to another gallery. On 11 April 1931 he submitted his ‘Scope of the Museum’ report, with a suggested plan for a geology gallery – including displays on the rocks and fossils from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. He also proposed building a geological museum near the Rock Gardens in Portsmouth and displaying art at Cumberland House.

Following a visit on 23 April, Jackson wrote to Mr Hutt informing him that he had named, packed up and was sending nearly 60 species of Isle of Wight Cretaceous fossils and a few rock specimens to Portsmouth Library.

By May that year, Jackson had made three visits to the mainland and had identified all the fossils in Portsmouth’s geological collections, with some rocks and minerals to be identified later. By now Jackson had provided about 300 duplicate fossils and shells from his own collection.

In 1932 it became apparent that Jackson’s plans for a new museum and a geology gallery were not going to be realised, following a committee meeting. Jackson’s letter to Hutt reveals some of his frustration: “Why only one case? You have plenty of room at Cumberland House.” The committee responded that a small selection could be used for display but that they had: “no objection to his collecting further specimens, provided he agrees that these shall be placed in store until such time can be found to provide suitable accommodation for exhibition.”

By the end of 1933, despite the committee’s cutbacks regarding the geology collections, Jackson renewed his ideas for a new museum in Southsea and sent two letters to the Portsmouth Evening News outlining them. He sent his ‘Plan for new Museum in Southsea’ to Hutt, which included a lecture theatre, detailed the contents of each gallery, and included preparation rooms for botany, zoology and geology.

The correspondence appears to break off for several years until just after the Blitz which destroyed the Guildhall (then in the High Street) which housed the city’s museum collections. Jackson wrote saying that he was sorry to hear of the damage and offered to help identify any remaining geological specimens.

The new Librarian, James Hutt’s successor, sent the reply: “Some [geology specimens] were saved at High Street but I cannot at present say how many, as owing to shortage of accommodation in the city what little we did get had to be packed away immediately and cannot, I’m afraid, be dealt with until we get some accommodation back at the end of the war.” It is not known whether Jackson returned to Portsmouth’s geology collections again.

Recent work in the Natural History collections has led to us rediscovering 100 of Jackson’s fossils and rocks. These have been identified by the occasional label with Jackson’s handwriting and the distinctive green coloured pen used on his specimens to identify from which beds the rocks and fossils came.