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Etheldred Benett (1775-1845)

 Silhouette of Etheldred Benett Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [?1837]. Published in: H B Woodward, ‘History of Geology’ (1911).  One of the only three known likenesses of Benett, made during a trip to Bath.

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of Thomas Benett. The geologist and botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert, her sister-in-law’s half brother, encouraged her and her sister Anna Maria to study natural history. Whilst her sister concentrated on botany, Benett took up the newly fashionable study of fossils.  

By at least 1809, Benett had begun to acquire a significant collection of material. Her independent wealth (she never married) meant that she was able to collect high quality specimens from the many working quarries in the area, as well as from her holidays to the Dorset coast. Such was the importance of her collection that it became the first port of call for geologists studying the Wiltshire area. In addition Benett was in regular correspondence with geologists such as James Sowerby [who included drawings of a large number of her specimens in his ‘Mineral Conchology’], George Bellas Greenough [who included the stratigraphical information she provided in his map of ‘England & Wales’], Gideon Mantell and William Buckland. She also sent duplicate specimens to museums all over the country (including the Geological Society) and published books on her collection.

Her unusual first name and achievements in what was perceived to be the masculine science of geology, meant that she was regularly mistaken for a man. For instance in 1836 the Natural History Society of Moscow made her a member but the diploma was ascribed to 'Dominum [Master] Etheldredus Benett'.

 Detail of chicksgrove quarry section   Section of Chicksgrove Quarry, 1815
 Fossil sponge 2   'Sketches of fossil Alcyonia...', 1816
 Lithograph of a fossil sponge   Lithograph of a fossil sponge, [1819]
 Sketch of a Meteor   Watercolour of a meteorite, [1825]