An account of the discovery of Charnia

Tina Negus (Grantham)

I was born and grew up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, on Liassic sandstones and clays. I developed an interest in fossils, arising from illicit play in an abandoned pit in Upper Liassic blue clays, where ammonites and belemnites were common. This interest was furthered by the building of houses on land adjacent to ours, with subsequent trenches for foundations, and later by the construction of a by-pass around the town, cutting through undisturbed layers and exposing many fossils. Holidays in the Peak District and Kent encouraged further exploration of sedimentary deposits.

During my teenage years, I came across a monograph on Charnwood Forest geology in my local library (I now presume this was the work of W.W.Watts). We had often visited Charnwood, and many of the places mentioned were familiar to me. I copied out most of the maps from the book, and badgered my long-suffering parents for a visit as soon as possible. Actually, my mother, who hailed from South Derbyshire, and had visited Charnwood herself many times, had a fondness for the area, and needed little persuasion: picking bilberries was the ostensible reason. It must have been in June or early July in 1956, for the bilberries were not yet ripe, but I selected a few places I wished to see for geological interest.

We parked and found our way to the quarry. I knew from my reading that the deposits here were of bedded volcanic ash, laid down underwater – a new concept to me. At that time the quarry was little visited, the footpath not much more than a sheep-trod. I cannot now remember if climbers were at the rocks, but somehow I did know that they were used for climbing.

The beds were steeply inclined, too steep to attempt a climb without ropes, the layers of deposition clearly visible in steps and over-hangs. The rock was hard, slightly textured and dark grey, perhaps with a greenish or bluish tinge. At the base I stood fingering the surface, and discovered just about head height……….a fossil! I had no doubts at all that it was indeed a fossil, but was very puzzled for all the books I had seen, defined the Precambrian as the period before life began. I thought it was a fern, certainly some sort of frond, but did notice that the “leaflets” had no central rib, and that the cross-striped appearance of the “leaves” extended into the “stalk”. I was aware of other smaller pieces of similar fossil higher on the slab, but did not notice the circular “holdfasts” which I now know are there, and which probably gave rise to the quarry-men’s name of “Ring Quarry”. It is inconceivable that the fossil had been unnoticed till I saw it: perhaps it has been “found” many times in the past, but not reported at the time.

At school the following day, I approached my Geography teacher, for I thought Geography the closest to Geology I could get. I told her I had found a fossil in Precambrian rocks at Charnwood Forest. She replied, “There are no fossils in Precambrian rocks!” I said I knew this, but it was because of this “fact” that I was interested and perplexed. She did not pause in her stride, nor look at me, but said “Then they are NOT Precambrian rocks”. I assured her that they were, and she repeated the initial statement that Precambrian rocks contain no fossils – a truly circular argument, and a mind not open to anything new. I gave up, but asked my parents if we could go back there.

This time I went equipped with my father’s coal-hammer, which I now realise was a heinous crime! At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do. I had no idea that this “fern” was something new; I simply wanted a name and an explanation. I did have the sense to avoid hammering anywhere near the frond, and realized straight away that it was an impossible task – the hammer bounced leaving no impression on the rock. When I later saw the damage made by hammering, I was relieved that my memory was correct, and that it was not me that had done the damage noted later. My grandfather always carried a notebook and pencil, so I begged two sheets of his paper and made a rubbing of the frond (just as I now know Roger Mason did!). I thought that eventually I would find out what this strange thing was and why it was here.

(Above) Charnia masoni (holotype) at Leicester New Walk Museum.

(Left) Tina Negus

I visited our local little museum, which was of course useless, except for ammonites and skeletons of ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, and continued to look at every geological book I could find. Nothing was any use: I put the rubbing away into my fossil drawer. The following year (the latter part of 1957), another trip to Charnwood was proposed together with a visit to “Tina’s fossil”. When we stood at the foot of the quarry, I was dismayed to find it was not there! My mother suggested we had come to the wrong “heap of rocks” or that I had forgotten its exact location. I knew that we were in the correct place and searching the slabs found drilling holes and evidence of removal of a large piece of rock! Somebody had taken my fossil! I presumed somebody had it now in their collection, but was aware that it must have been removed with professional knowledge and equipment.

Whilst I was in the sixth form, a new Geography teacher came into the school who had studied Geology at Durham. She was young and enthusiastic: I approached her with the idea of taking an O or A level in Geology, which she welcomed. However, a few days later she told me she had asked the head, who had utterly vetoed the idea. I did not think to tell her about my fossil, possibly being too dispirited.

Later (1961) I read Zoology, Botany and Geography at Reading University, eventually specialising in Zoology and with two years post-graduate research into the ecology of freshwater mussels. A trip was organised to the Natural History Museum and the Geological Museum in London, and I thought that here I would find my answer. I worked my way backwards through the display cases of fossils Silurian, Ordovician, Cambrian……Precambrian, to find NOTHING! Now I was utterly astounded. I wrote home for my rubbing, and at last had the idea of finding somebody in the Geology Department at the University to help me. Diffidently, I presented my evidence. I was given a funny look, but a paper was found for me describing the frond, which had “recently” been written. This was a copy of the paper by Dr Trevor Ford: they had only one copy so were not prepared to part with it. I learnt that the discoverer had been a Leicester schoolboy, in 1957 (around April 19th, I now know) and that the frond was named Charnia masoni after him. The fossil was in a museum in Leicester, and had been removed to prevent damage in September 1957. I had mixed feelings about this news: a sense of grievance that he had been believed while I had not, but also one of relief that I was correct, and that the fossil was in proper hands.

The rubbing was put inside a folder of geological sections, which had been drawn as part of my Geography course, but unfortunately disappeared when I lent the folder to a friend who was subsequently ill, and never returned it. The story lay dormant, revived when the Blue Peter children’s TV programme visited Bradgate Park and showed “my fossil”. This must have been in the late 1970’s. They showed the quarry, but called it Bradgate, perhaps to preserve the secrecy of the site. I found that other fossils had been found in Bradgate Park itself.

When I began writing poetry, I thought to set down this story in verse form, and completed “The Fossil” in June 1997. I felt it went some way to settling the events in my mind. I remember at some point hearing of further discoveries in Canada and in Australia, but nothing further happened until Alan Titchmarsh presented his “History of Britain” on BBC television in 2004. Suddenly the cameras were in Charnwood Forest, and I could hardly sit still when they zoomed into the well-remembered quarry, and I was pointing and shouting, “There! It was just there!” And at the foot of the rocks was Titch, with.........Roger Mason! Roger told the story of climbing here and finding the fossil. As soon as the programme ended, I looked up Roger on Google on my computer, found a site with his email address, wrote to him and attached my poem. I rapidly received an answer, and I wrote again clarifying dates and my attempts to identify the specimen. Roger passed on my letters to Trevor Ford, including my poem, which was later published in the Charnia newsletter and on this website.

Unexpectedly, Trevor phoned me, and asked pertinent questions, especially relating to the hammering around the fossil, which he fortunately accepts was not my handiwork. Later still, Roger put me in contact with Dr Helen Boynton, and sent me a cast of the fossil, now a prized possession.

The whole sequence of events came to fruition on March 10th 2007, when I was invited to attend the Saturday Seminar celebrating the 50th anniversary of Charnia’s discovery by Roger, at Leicester University. Roger, Trevor and Helen were speaking, and experts worldwide would be gathered and presenting their findings – a truly memorable occasion, culminating in the cutting of a “Charnia cake” in the museum, by Trevor, Roger and me! During his talk, Prof Martin Brasier of Oxford described Charnia as the central form of the Ediacaran assemblage and “probably one of the most important fossils ever found”.