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A Dinosaur in Fletton

Although Alfred Nicholson Leeds was not born in Fletton, it was in part the discoveries that he made in the Fletton brickpits which contributed to his great success as an amateur palaeontologist. 

Alfred was the youngest child, born at Eyebury Farm, Near Eye, to Edward Thurlow Leeds (1802-51) and Eliza Mary Nicholson (1815-92) on 9th March 1847. When Alfred was just 4 his father died leaving his mother Eliza, just 34 years old, to manage the families 372 acre farm, which employed 23 men. Although they were comfortable financially, Edward left his wife £15, 168 14s 11d in his will, just over one million pounds in today’s terms, this must have still been a struggle and huge responsibility. Alfred and his older brother Charles were separated by just a year and so were educated together. First at home by a governess and then at King’s School, Warwick where they lodged in the household of John Montague a maths master.

Charles went on to study at Oxford wheras being the second son Alfred returned home to run the family farm. The 1871 census records Alfred living at home with his mother, sisters Emily, Margaret and Alice and Emily’s two children John and Lilian. On the 19th October 1875 Alfred married Mary Ferries Fergusson, native of Govan, Lanark, 10 years his senior.  By the time the photograph below was taken in 1906 Alfred and Mary had five boys: (Lewis) Alfred, Edward, Alexander, Charles and Keith.  

Alfred’s brother Charles collected fossils around Eyebury and Alfred assisted him. Alfred developed an innovative way of disinterring the fossils from their clay resting place. He ensured that all fossils remained in situ by paying the brickyard labourers, at Fletton, to notify him of any fossils they found. This ensured that the bones were removed safely and he could also witness them in context. The Fletton brickmen must have been very bemused by the fascination that the clay they dug held for collectors from all over the country. After Charles emigrated to New Zealand in 1887 Alfred continued fossil hunting, aided by his wife and son Edward Thurlow Leeds, who would later become Director of the Ashmoleon, Oxford.

Alfred created one of the largest collections of fossils from a single geological area anywhere in the world. Renowned worldwide for it’s marine reptiles, the Leeds Collection also contains dinosaurs and fragments of a pterosuar. These finds came primarily from the Peterborough Member of the Oxford Clay Formation although a single sauropod came from the underlying Kellaways Formation. In 1898 Alfred discovered a probable reptile egg which was later attributed to a dinosaur. Alfred, his wife and son Edward would reassemble the skeletons at Eyebury farm in the ‘bone room’ often taking months to re-create a single skelton.

The photograph below, with Alfred on the left, shows the hind limb and pelvis of the Cetiosaurus leedsi. This dinosuar was discovered in 1887 and at that time was one of the greatest British Saurian specimens known. It was displayed in the British Museum of Natural History. Another of Alfred’s discoveries in 1886 was named after him- Leedsichthys problematicus- one of the largest bony fish of all time. Alfred was a fellow of the Geological Society and in 1893 was awarded part of it’s Lyell Fund.

As previously mentionned Alfred’s son Edward Thurlow Leeds, pictured below (29 July 1877-1955), accompanied him and Mary on their fossil hunts. Edward attended Uppingham School and then Magdalane. But it was perhaps his early experiences that prompted him to take a position as assistant keeper of antiquities at the Ashmoleon Museum, 1908-1928. From 1928 to 1945 Edward was Director of the Ashmoleon and from 1938 to 1945 he was a fellow at Brasenose.

Alfred died on 25th August 1917 at Eyebury aged 70. Mary died in Oxford on the 22nd September 1922.

It has been stated that the impact of Alfred Nicholson Leeds (together with Mary Anning and Steve Etches) has been critical for the development of Palaeontology as a science, and without whom palaeontology, with all its associated benefits to a wide scientific and non-scientific audience, would not be as we currently know.

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