The internationally significant geology collection owned by the Trust offer a wealth of delights for those interested in the Lias of the immediate Street vicinity.
The collection of marine reptiles amassed by the Victorian enthusiast Alfred Gillett (1814-1904) includes eighteen near-complete Ichthyosaurs, a plesiosaur and over 180 smaller specimens. It represents the once prolific fossil locality of the Blue Lias quarries of Street, Somerset, now closed and back-filled and rivals the major collections at the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1887 the collection formed the core of a small Geology Museum in Street, but since the museum’s closure in 1948 the collection remained largely unstudied in storage. Now in the care of the Alfred Gillett Trust, the fossils are once again being made available for public access.
Several pioneering palaeontologists were attracted to the village of Street in mid-Somerset during the 19th and 20th centuries because of the marine reptile fossils found in the quarries there. These included Henry De La Beche (1796-1855) and William Daniel Conybeare (1787-1857). Thomas Clark (1792-1864), a close relative of Alfred and a member of the local Clark family of shoemaking fame, may have collected ichthyosaur and plesiosaur specimens for Conybeare to study. Another local collector, the Rev. Thomas Hawkins (1810-1889), also made extensive use of the Street quarries.
Street is built on a Jurassic sequence of limestones and shales, known as Blue Lias. This indicates a shallow warm marine depositional environment, and the collection’s smaller fossils represent a diverse assemblage of Jurassic marine life.
Alfred Gillett and many of his Clark cousins, including Thomas Clark, Cyrus Clark and James Clark were able to devote considerable time and efforts in excavating large specimens from the Lower Lias in the Street area. Several local quarries (including some owned by members of the Clark family) were generating large quantities of local stone needed for building and lime burning. The extraction and excavation turned up numerous large specimens of a type to parallel those found at Lyme Regis on the Jurassic coastline.
The Lias was relatively easily quarried by manual extraction, leading to numerous fossil discoveries and the development of the quarrymen’s skills in fossil preparation. Many of the quarries were backfilled as they were worked, and then built over as Street expanded.
Alfred Gillett (1814 to 1904) was an ironmonger from Yeovil, Somerset, who retired to Street in 1870. Here he was able to pursue his passion for palaeontology, taking advantage of the early 19th century expansion in quarrying that had developed to the west, east and south of the village to amass a fine collection of Street Ichthyosaurs.
During this time the family shoemaking business C & J Clark had become a huge success and their Quaker background encouraged local philanthropy. The Crispin Hall, a working men’s institute with reading rooms and other facilities, was opened in the centre of Street in 1887. Alfred’s collection formed a Geology Museum in one of the rooms, supplemented with specimens donated by other members of the Clark family and friends like Dr Henry Woodward of the British Museum.
After the Crispin Hall display was closed in 1948, the specimens were stored in various locations around Street alongside other archive material. They were not entirely neglected, however: on several occasions experts, including specialists from Bristol Museum and the Natural History Museum, were brought in to provide curatorial advice and carry out conservation work. There were also limited public appearances, including a short exhibition in Street’s Bear Hotel curated by Justin DeLair in 1978. One specimen also featured in Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery’s Great Sea Dragon Exhibition of 1990.
The 21st century brought the collection under the care of the Alfred Gillet Trust at the Grange, the Trust’s home in Street. In 2009 and 2010 the collections were viewed by delegates attending symposiums held at the nearby Strode Theatre, which once again brought the fossils back into the public imagination. Since 2017 the Trust has run a series of pop-exhibitions and facilitated group and school visits.
Researchers often consult the collection and many of the fossils have been featured in academic papers. There has also been scientific re-evaluation of some specimens, notably by Judy Massare and Dean Lomax identifying I. somerstensis and I. larkini.
The collection is currently being assessed for conservation as well as being catalogued and digitised by specialists and volunteers. The Trust is currently undertaking feasibility work to open a new museum featuring the fossils, once again providing a permanent public home for this important collection.
The collection is not on permanent public display, but visitors can view the fossils at the annual pop-up Sea Dragons of Street exhibition which are free to enter. However, groups may come and view the collection in store by prior arrangement for a fee.