Lyme’s forgotten fossil hunting hero

Lyme Regis Museum (photo by Matt Austin)

THE biggest fossil in the museum’s collection is known as ‘The Beast in the Cellar’, an ichthyosaur so large we don’t really have the space to display it.

It lives on a specially built rack in our basement and has only been put on display once in the last ten years. This isn’t surprising; it needs a team of burly geologists and a serious risk assessment to get it upstairs.

But the most important thing about ‘The Beast’ isn’t the fossil itself, but its forgotten discoverer, B.H. Ellis. Bernard Henry Ellis was the son of Henry Ellis, Mayor of Lyme Regis from 1921 to 1924.

Henry was a businessman, keen amateur astronomer, musician and scientist and managed to become mayor within ten years of moving to Lyme in 1913.

Bernard must have inherited his father’s love of science as the museum holds a significant collection of his fossils collected from Lyme’s beaches.

Bernard practised as a solicitor as his ‘day job’ but he was also a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Bernard was an unusual sailor. In 1914 he belonged to the Benbow Battalion, a unit of Navy personnel who fought on the land.

He was a good ‘soldier’ and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Order. He was made an officer in October 1914.

He saw service in Gallipoli, Salonika (Greece) and on the Western Front and became commanding officer of the Hawke Battalion in May 1917.

Bernard received gunshot wounds to the neck on March 25 1918 and died four weeks later at Wimereux, France. One can only imagine the anguish of his father Henry and mother Margaret. They had lost their first son Edward in France a year previously.

Bernard’s collections were donated to the museum by Margaret following the death of Henry in September 1927. It’s our intention to bring the fossil collections of Bernard to a wider audience.

Bernard is commemorated on the Little Heath and Bentley Heath War Memorial in Potters Bar, London, but his real memorial resides in his contribution to science in Lyme Regis, the home of palaeontology.

The museum would like to acknowledge the help of Vernon Rattenbury in the writing of this article.

David Tucker Director,
Lyme Regis Museum

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