MARGARET Gatty was no ordinary housewife.
While most 19th century women were expected to stay at home, crocheting, embroidering and chatting, Margaret – a vicar’s wife from Ecclesfield – was knee-deep in a rockpool with her skirt hitched up, looking for seaweed.
Margaret, known simply as Mrs Gatty, became one of the most important figures in natural history.
She didn’t just collect scraps of seaweed from this country but had an army of marine biologists doing it for her all over the world. Her researchers would send her samples from across the globe, and Mrs Gatty, with her antiquated microscope, would collate and label the samples.
Margaret took rockpooling one step further than just a hobby.
Alistair McLean, curator of Natural History at Weston Park Museum, said: “Rockpooling was a pastime popularised with the invention of the aquarium.
“The idea was to gather stuff from one’s holidays. But Margaret was fortunate enough to have a microscope, and she started analysing what she found and communicating with people to establish what her specimens were.”
And she went straight to the top.
“Margaret contacted the best minds, corresponding with people such as George Busk who was a retired naval surgeon who devoted his later years to natural history.”
Over the years marine biologists became well acquainted with Mrs Gatty and even started to name new species after her – in her honour or because she found the specimen herself.
“I’ve managed to isolate 11 species named after her - including Adeona Gattyae, a kind of sea mat,” said Alistair.
In pursuit of her passion she willingly ditched 19th-century feminine delicacies. She wrote: “As regards my own sex many difficulties are apt to arise, the foremost of which must be the risk of cold and destruction of clothes. Anyone therefore really intending to work in the matter must lay aside for a time all thought of conventional appearances, and be content to support the weight of a pair of boy’s shooting boots.”
When Mrs Gatty wasn’t donning boy’s shooting boots or peering down a microscope, she was editing her own family magazine.
Proceeds from the magazine, known as Aunt Judy’s Tales, paid for a cot at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. She also wrote a collection of morality tales known as Parables From Nature.
Her life had been intriguing from the start.
Her father, Alexander John Scott, was the chaplain on Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory. He could speak a dozen languages – and worked as Lord Nelson’s spy.
But Mrs Gatty’s life was extraordinary even outside her naval espionage heritage and marine biology.
She bore 10 children and was the first woman in Sheffield to give birth using chloroform, which was, in 19th-century Britain, considered quite a taboo.
One of her children, Juliana, became a prolific writer and one of her tales included characters called Brownies which, more famously, inspired the name of the worldwide junior Girl Guide movement.
One of her other daughters, Horatia, took on her mother’s seaweeding pastime and continued to collate and collect specimens and correspond with marine biologists after her mother’s death.
It is thanks to Horatia that Museums Sheffield now possesses Mrs Gatty’s natural history collection.
Her artefacts are not currently on display, but remain part of Weston Park Museum’s permanent collection.