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Thomas Atthey

(1814-1880) Known for his interest in the fossil fish and fossil amphibians that he found in local coal-measures, many of which were new to science. His collection is one of the most important in the Great North Museum: Hancock.

The ‘Village Palaeontologist’, was born in Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1814. He spent his childhood investigating the natural history of areas such as Prestwick Carr, a large area of marsh wetland near Ponteland where he first met the naturalist, John Hancock.

After a time in Manchester working in the mining industry, Atthey returned to Cramlington, Northumberland where he opened a grocer’s shop.

He carried on his natural history studies and his early research was devoted to microscopic plants and a diatom he discovered at Cresswell in Northumberland was named Attheya decora in his honour.

However, he became better known for his interest in the fossil fish found in local coal-measures. While visiting Newsham colliery, near Blyth, he observed a piece of shale on a pit heap which looked like the remains of a fish.  From then on he enlisted every miner, owner and officers of the mine to locate specimens for him. Within a few years he had unfolded the life histories of many fossil fish and amphibians in both Northumberland and Durham, writing a number of papers on the fish remains.

Atthey died on the 14 of April 1880 after a long illness but his specimens were saved for the North East by Lady Armstrong who purchased them from Atthey in 1877 for the Natural History Society’s paleontological collections.

The Atthey Collection of Coal Measure Fishes and Amphibians is one of the most important fossil collections in the Society’s museum and contains many type specimens.

In his own words Thomas Atthey reflecting on his life said

I have seen scarcely any life more pleasant than my own, and no pursuits so gratifying, so ennobling.’