It seems that last year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Precambrian fossils in Charnwood Forest may have been a shade premature. Frank Ince and Mike Howe have called our attention to a short paper by R. A. Eskrigge, ‘Geological notes made during a tour of Leicestershire’, published in the Transactions of the Manchester Geological Society for 1868, vol. 5, pp 51-57. Eskrigge’s ideas of the geology of Charnwood Forest are confused to say the least, as he did not really understand the relationship of the intrusive ‘syenites’ to the slaty rocks and suggested ages of Cambrian, Cambro-Silurian, Laurentian or pre-Cambrian (the whole concept of pre-Cambrian rocks was in its infancy then). It is the discussion following the paper which is important. Amongst the contributors to that was Mr Plant, ‘who had recently moved to Manchester’.
It is Mr Plant’s contribution on page 56 that is very significant. He realized that the rocks were pre-Cambrian and continued:
‘The only traces of organic remains which have been found in the slaty rocks are the remarkable rings seen at Woodhouse Eaves, discovered by myself and the late James Harley in April 1848. They occur with two raised rings, commencing with a sort of central boss, going round, and varying in diameter from six inches to one foot. Professor Ramsey’s opinion is that they were very likely spots where large seaweeds had been rooted, and probably by the action of the seaweed bending round by the force of the water, scooping out the mud in concentric circles’.
This quotation tells us that the rings we now know as the marks made by the holdfasts of frondose organisms such as Charnia or by medusae (jellyfish) were known as early as 1848 and that Mr Plant recognized that they were traces of Precambrian life. His friend, James Harley, was a prominent local naturalist. Professor Ramsay’s opinion was probably expressed soon after the discovery. Ten years later Ramsay included a comment in a three-page section on Charnwood rocks in a ‘Descriptive catalogue of the rock specimens in the Museum of Practical Geology’ (of the Geological Survey) (1858). Ramsay later became Director of the Geological Survey.
The quarry near Woodhouse Eaves was then locally known as the Ring Quarry, and it is thought that it had only just ceased working in 1848. The name Ring Quarry seems to have been an informal one bestowed by local people, though it was noted in a later report by James Plant to the Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society. It was also known as Pocketgate Quarry from the nearby farm. Today we know it as the North Quarry, situated on the edge of the Charnwood Golf Course. If quarrying had continued all trace of the fossils we know today could have been destroyed.
Subsequently Professors T. G. Bonney of Cambridge University and W. W. Watts of Imperial College dismissed the rings as concretions and they were forgotten. Without these expert opinions we might have known about Precambrian fossils very much earlier than their discovery by Roger Mason and his friends a century later, in 1957. As we now know they had been seen by Tina Negus a year earlier, but her observations were dismissed.
If Mr Plant and his friend James Harley saw the rings it raises the question of how they missed the impressions of Charnia and Charniodiscus but perhaps these were covered by quarry waste or vegetation. Nothing is known of R. A. Eskrigge but there were two J. Plants, both associated with Leicester Museum, John and James. John was an honorary curator when the Museum was operated by the Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society before being taken over by the Town Council, he moved to the Manchester area in 1849 so it is probable that he is the one who made the remarks in the 1868 discussion. James Plant remained in Leicester as an honorary advisor to the geological curators until the 1870s.
In the early 19th century the Ring Quarry was on the Beaumanor Estate and probably provided building stone, so perhaps the counterparts to the fossils are hidden in an unknown wall or building.
[April 1848. Letter from James Harley to Prof William MacGillivray, Aberdeen University, transcribed June 2008 by Mark Evans]
On our way to Leicester Abbey from the Outwoods side of Charnwood Forest we turned aside from the direct road that leads through Woodhouse for the purpose of making a minute examination of the slate rocks which mark so characteristically that remarkable sylvan part of the County. Our short visit was most happily chosen since we found the actual slate of the locality in question invested with certain appearances of deep interest to ourselves and also to other observers of the like phenomena. It has been admitted, and supported, you know by certain geologists, but with what kind of success I am not prepared to say, that the hypogene or clay slate rocks contain no organic remains, whatever; although of late it has been discovered beyond all contradiction that certain forms have been met with in the Llandiloes flag indicative of certain facts moreover which appear opposed to such conclusions.
However, we ourselves are not prepared to demur to such matters; neither are we careful to advance an opinion or hazard an hypothesis. These crude subjects we leave for others to determine, whose hours of conjecture and speculation may fortunately meet with more willing votaries.
On the very surface of a large portion of these slate rocks to which we have referred, and which we were careful to examine, we observed many circular and spheroid forms at first glance reminding us of certain well known impressions of Ammonites. Several of these figurations we measured, many of which were ascertained by us to exceed five and six inches in diameter. We also observed certain other forms – one especially bore some resemblance, we considered, to an Annelid, or rather a vermiform impression...
continued ……. we observed were irregularly displayed to our view over the entire surface of the rock, the phenomenon having been brought fairly to the eye by the recent operations carried on a number of workmen engaged in the business of mining and preparing slates for the purposes and use of man.
If the peculiar, and remarkable figurations to be seen on these slate rocks forms should prove on closer examination to be organic remains, as I conjecture they may; our small discovery in such a fruitful field of ingenious inquiry, and research, may result in the very fact of certain hypothesis heretofore held as tenable by some writers of modern date, and note, being partly, if not wholly, ignored.
I must not omit all notice of the iron pyrites which occur in the form of cubes in these said hypogene rocks. Such metallic deposits are by no means of uncommon occurrence in the rocks of the district which I have so imperfectly described to you in my present letter. At a distance of four or five miles from Woodhouse in a westerly direction where the clay slate appears to repose on the primitive, volcanic rocks similar proofs of the presence of pyrites and cubes of iron occur.