The Beauty of British Shells

Explore the United Kingdom's most important collection of early 19th century shells

By Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Queen scallop (Aequipecten opercularis) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Colonel George Montagu (1753-1815) was a British naturalist. His interests were broad but he specialised in mollusc shells.

Award for Montagu’s collection

In January 2020, Arts Council England recognised the international importance of George Montagu's shell collection by awarding it Designation status. It is the most intact and scientifically important collection of British shells of the early 19th century anywhere in the UK and includes British land, fresh water and marine shells.    

Round-mouthed snail (Pomatias elegans), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Tower shell (Turritella communis), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Swollen river mussel (Unio tumidus), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Montagu’s collection includes British land, fresh water and marine shells.   

Norway shipworm (Nototeredo norvagicus) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Norway Shipworm

Despite their name and appearance shipworms are not worms. They are a kind of bivalve mollusc but look very different to the clams we are more familiar with. They burrow into wooden structures such as piers. These fragile white tubes are the lining of the burrow.  

Moss snail (Pupilla muscorum), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Queen scallop (Aequipecten opercularis), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Egg melampus shell (Tralia ovula), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Montagu often stuck small specimens onto octagonal pieces of blue card. He attached a label to the card with the species name either typed or handwritten. Some specimens are in glass topped boxes. Others are neatly tied with string to make sure the two halves stay together.     

Parthenina decussata shell (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Parthenina decussata – a tiny shell

Many of Montagu’s specimens are very small. This one (Parthenina decussata) is just 2mm long. These photographs were taken using a light microscope and a scanning electron microscope. Seeing this level of detail is important for scientific study.       

Testacea Britannica (1803) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Montagu's book of shells

Montagu was the first person to publish a comprehensive monograph on the molluscs of the British Isles. ‘Testacea Britannica’ (1803, supplement in 1808) describes 470 species. Some species are tiny. He used his own collection of shells for the descriptions and illustrations.

Testacea Britannica plate 10, Colonel George Montagu, Eliza D'Orville, 1803, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Testacea Britannica plate 16, Colonel George Montagu, Eliza D'Orville, 1803, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Testacea Britannica Plate 8, Colonel George Montagu, Eliza D'Orville, 1803, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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In 1798 the army discovered Montagu's affair with Eliza D’Orville. It caused scandal among his society friends and family. After his court-martial the couple moved to Kingsbridge in Devon where Montagu devoted himself to natural history. Eliza drew the illustrations for 'Testacea Britannica'. Each plate is signed with her name or initials.    

Blunt husk shell (Retusa obtusa) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Naming new species

When a new species is described for the first time it is published in a scientific journal or book. A particular specimen (or sometimes specimens) must be chosen to represent this new species. They are known as ‘type specimens’. There are 120 types in Montagu’s collection. 

Type specimens of Alvania zetlandica (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

In 1816 the Journal of the Linnaean Society in London published a paper by Montagu. In it he described these shells as a new species and named the species Alvania zetlandica.

Type specimens of Helix trochiformis the tawny snail or brown hive snail, Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Type specimen of Trochus tenuis the European granulated top-shell, Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Type specimens of Trivia monacha and arctica - cowries, Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Even though the collection is over 200 years old it is still of great interest to scientists today. Many of the names introduced by Montagu are still in use and scientists from over 20 different countries have used the type specimens in their research.   

Sea shell Cytherea circinata (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Records of early aliens, or just his friends playing tricks?

Montagu received shells from his friends. They said they found them on Britain’s coastline so he included them in his book. Yet today we know that some of these species do not occur there naturally. It is possible his friends deliberately gave him foreign shells.

Bivalve shell (Lamelliconcha circinata), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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White-spot periwinkle (Littoraria pintado), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Land snail shell (Subulina octona), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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It is also possible that many of these exotic shells came from the ballast of wrecked sailing ships – a common occurrence at this time. While most of the foreign shells were found dead, some were collected alive. These may be some of the earliest records of alien and invasive species arriving in the British Isles.    

Red pheasant shell (Tricolia pullus) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Montagu’s collection shows that British shells can be just as beautiful as those found on tropical beaches. Some have spines and ridges. Others are intricately patterned or delicately coloured. Some even have mother of pearl hidden within. Which is your favourite? 

Common wentletrap (Epitonium clathrus), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Brown lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Variegated scallop (Chlamys varia), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Tuberculate cockle (Acanthocardia tuberculata) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Whirlpool ramshorn snail (Anisus vortex), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Dog whelk (Nucella lapillus), Colonel George Montagu, circa 1800, From the collection of: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
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Fan mussel (Atrina fragilis) (circa 1800) by Colonel George MontaguRoyal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Credits: Story

For more information on the Montagu collection at RAMM please visit our website.

Thank to the John Ellerman Foundation and Arts Council England for supporting research on this collection.

Images by Simon Tutty photography (shells on slate and pages of Testacea Britiannica) and Dr Graham Oliver (shells on black background).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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