Barbara Yelverton

Marchioness of Hastings. Stipple engraving by Thomas Anthony Dean. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

A leading 19th century geologist, Edward Forbes, once described Barbara, Marchioness of Hastings as, “one of the most excellent (and without exception the cleverest) woman I ever met.” She was born Barbara Yelverton at Brandon House, Warwickshire, on 20 May 1810. Barbara was just a year old when her father Henry Yelverton (Baron Grey de Ruthyn) died, and she became Baroness Grey de Ruthyn.

At the age of 21, she then became Marchioness of Hastings when she married into “one of the most distinguished and debt-ridden of aristocratic families”. In 1844 her husband George Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Marquess of Hastings, died, leaving her with five children and pregnant with her sixth.

She was renowned for her considerable beauty, great intelligence, exuberance and love of both travel and gambling. The last earned her the reputation in the continental casinos of ‘the jolly fast Marchioness’.

In 1845 Barbara married Captain Hastings Reginald Henry RN, who later took the name Yelverton and eventually became an Admiral. The newlyweds moved, with her children, into Efford House near Everton.

Hordle Cliff, where Barbara Yelverton would go fossil hunting

During the next six years, the whole persona of the Marchioness seems to have changed from a gambling mother to a widely respected fossil collector. What prompted this striking transformation is not known. Maybe it was the combination of living near the fossil-rich cliffs of Hordle and the possession of an actively enquiring mind. It is thought, however, that she had first become interested in vertebrate fossils around 1840 when visiting the Isle of Wight. During the time she lived at Efford, she put together a large collection of vertebrate fossils of late Eocene age, found mainly at Hordle Cliff and in local brick and marl pits.

Barbara employed Henry Keeping of Milton as a fossil collector

The collection also grew by the purchase of specimens that had been found by local people along the coast. The Marchionesss became a highly skilled ‘preparator’ of fossils, putting together many hundreds of fossil fragments to recreate long since dead and extinct creatures.

The collection excited much interest amongst the eminent geologists of the day, such as Sir Charles Lyell and William Buckland. Many came to Efford House to marvel at the collection. She carried on a long correspondence with a leading 19th century scientist, Professor Richard Owen, who was involved in the setting up of the Natural History Museum as a separate entity from the British Museum.

It was in 1851 that Barbara’s fossil hunting came to an abrupt end. It may have been triggered by the sudden death of her eldest son or possibly by mounting gambling debts. She sold Efford House and the British Museum purchased most of her collection (around 1,500 specimens) for £300.

Illustration of Crocodilus hastingsiae from A History of British Fossil Reptiles, Volume II

The remainder of the collection was eventually acquired by the museum at an auction in 1855. It is now at the Natural History Museum in London. The prize specimens in the collection are those of now extinct species of crocodile and turtle. One of those species was named after her- Crocodilus hastingsiae.

After 1851 Barbara seems to have become something of a ‘camp follower’ of her husband, who by now was an Admiral and spending much time at sea and in foreign ports.

On 19 November 1858 she was in Italy making her way to Malta to meet her husband when she suffered a fatal stroke. She was buried in the English Cemetery in Rome.

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