Mr Bean’s amazing sea shells

Mr Bean's sea shells
Mr Bean's sea shells

Written by Jeannie Swales

On the left, Turbo Nicobaricus from the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean; on the right, Turbo Sarmaticus Linnaeus, or South African turban shell – both types of sea snails collected by the extraordinary William Bean of Scarborough, once described by a contemporary as ‘a very prince of collectors’.

The first William Bean is described in county records as a ‘market gardener’, although the description is perhaps a little disingenuous – he appears to have been an entrepreneur of his day, buying and selling land and founding pleasure gardens in the town in the late 1700s which his son – also William (1787-1866) – 
appears to have inherited and sold, thus gaining the financial independence he needed to pursue his interest in the natural sciences.

His son, the third William Bean (1817-1864), was a keen botanist. It is, however, the middle Bean that interests us here, as he was a keen conchologist (shell collector) and geologist, and it was he who amassed a huge and notable collection of shells from around the world, many of which later became part of the Scarborough Collections, along with their exquisitely handwritten labels.

Bean was a member of Scarborough Philosophical Society, which founded and ran the Rotunda Museum, and may even have been related to his close friend and fellow member William Smith, the renowned scientist know to this day as the ‘father of English geology’. But he also appears to have opened his home up as a museum from time to time: in Theakston’s Guide to Scarborough of 1845, we find the following description:

“The private museum of Mr Bean, comprising decidedly the best collection of British shells in the kingdom, is politely thrown open for public inspection about six days; at indefinite periods, during the season, when all strangers are kindly admitted on being properly introduced… the drawers of every cabinet are displayed in the various apartments of the house of the proprietor; so that the whole suite of rooms is, on these occasions, appropriated to the purpose of a museum. His geological specimens are equally valuable, and have been long celebrated. Mr. Bean’s collection of Corallines is choice; and by the novel manner in which they are displayed, being in a style quite different from any we have hitherto witnessed, an increased effect is given to their minute beauties; and the whole collection is truly worthy of the taste of the possessor, and shows his penetration on subjects connected with natural history, to distinguished advantage.”

As well as his international collection, Bean took an interest in mollusca closer to home – in the 1820s, he discovered the ‘Scarborough snail’, a brand new species.

William Bean’s shells are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.