A meteorite homecoming
To see all photos please see here
The story of the Wold Cottage meteorite and the role it occupies in the history of meteoritics cannot be overestimated. This historic meteorite was one of a few famous falls on a timeline from Barbotan in 1790 culminating in L’Aigle in 1803 that led to the general acceptance that stones do indeed fall from the sky and not only that, but that they come from space. Before moving on to the recent “meteorite homecoming” concerning the Wold Cottage meteorite I thought that I would refresh people’s memory on this historic fall.
On 13 December 1795, a 25 kg stone fell in a field by the Wold Cottage in the village of Wold Newton, East Yorkshire. It was a mild and overcast Sunday when, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, several people in the area heard something whizz through the air followed by a series of explosions described as like gunfire at sea (Marvin 1996). A seventeen-year-old ploughman called John Shipley saw a black stone emerge from the clouds and fall to the ground about 30 feet from where he was standing. He rushed to the spot and found a large stone that lay in a pit in the soil and had impacted into the underlying limestone. He described it as warm and smoking and smelling of sulphur. He was assisted by two other workers in extracting the stone from the impact pit (Burke 1986).
Major Edward Topham owned the Wold Cottage and the land surrounding it and was also the employer of John Shipley. Topham was not actually present when the meteorite fell as he was away in London. He returned home soon after the event and wrote a letter detailing the fall and accounts taken from his workers to a Mr. James Boaden, managing editor of the Oracle newspaper in London. This letter was published in the 12 February edition of the paper. Topham was also a local Magistrate, and in this role he obtained sworn statements from the three eyewitnesses and interviewed numerous other persons who had heard sounds in the area at the time. Topham wrote:
“All these witnesses who saw it fall, agree perfectly in their account of the manner of its fall, and that they saw a dark body passing through the air, and ultimately strike the ground: and though, from their situations and characters in life, they could have no possible object in detailing a false account of this transaction, I felt so compelled to give this matter every degree of authenticity that, as a magistrate, I took their account upon oath immediately on my return into the country. I saw no reason to doubt any of their evidence after the most minute investigation of it.”
Topham later arranged to exhibit the stone in Piccadilly, London, across from the well-known Gloucester Coffee House. Anyone who was prepared to pay the entrance fee of 1 shilling was able to see the stone itself and also the original testimonies of Topham and his workers. They also received a leaflet as part of the entry fee with an engraving of the stone and a written account of the story (Pillinger and Pillinger 1996). Someone who definitely paid their 1 shilling was an Edward King, Fellow of the Royal Society and one time President of the Antiquarian Society. King published a paper whereby he made comparisons between the Siena stone and that of the Wold Cottage stone, noting similarities in substance and of the metallic grains. King has not been widely acknowledged with making these observations which were made prior to Edward Howard’s later chemical analyses (Pillinger and Pillinger 1996).
It was also while the meteorite was being exhibited in London that Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, saw the stone, noticed the similarity to his specimen from the Siena fall, and acquired a sample. Exactly how this sample was obtained by Banks we do not know, but it was possibly from Topham himself. This sample of Wold Cottage and also samples of Siena, among other meteorites, found their way from Banks to Edward Howard. Howard was a young, gifted, and open-minded British chemist. He separated the samples into magnetic grains of metal, reddish iron sulphides, “curious globules,” and fine-grained matrix material. When examining and comparing these components, he found striking similarities in their mineralogy, texture, and chemical composition. He said, “These stones, although they have not the smallest analogy with any of the mineral substances already known, either of a volcanic or any other nature, have a very peculiar and striking analogy with each other.” He went on to confirm the presence of nickel in the metallic grains in the stone meteorites and also in so called “native irons” he examined (Marvin 2001). These stones and irons that were of differing types, had fallen in different countries, and at different times all had one thing in common—the presence of nickel.
In 1799 Topham erected a brick monument on his land marking the site of the fall with an engraved tablet, which reads:
On this spot, December 13, 1795
Fell from the atmosphere
An extraordinary stone.
In breadth twenty-eight inches
In length thirty-six inches,
Whose weight was fifty-six pounds.
In memory of it
Was erected by
The Wold Cottage meteorite eventually ended up being sold for a nominal sum of 10 guineas to James Sowerby in 1804. Sowerby had established a museum next to his house in London and via numerous letters between himself and Topham acquired the meteorite for display there. Sowerby was obviously very proud of this particular addition to his museum as it was included in the background of a portrait of him painted by Thomas Heaphy in 1918. The Wold Cottage mass was later purchased by the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, NHM) in 1835 and still resides there today. The NHM is soon going to be having a brand new purpose-designed meteorite gallery and hopefully the Wold Cottage main mass will have a prominent place.
So the Wold Cottage meteorite played a number of vital roles in changing public and scientific opinion from the disbelief that rocks fall from the sky to acceptance that they do and not only that, but they come from space.
Number one: It was one of a number of meteorites that fell in the years between 1790 and 1803 that made it harder to ignore that stones did actually fall from the sky and were not terrestrial objects somehow falling back to Earth.
Number two: Chemical analyses showed the presence of nickel which linked it to other stones and irons. These analyses also paved the way for other meteorites to be tested to add to the growing amount of data on the subject.
Number three: Topham’s position as a Magistrate undoubtedly enhanced the perceived validity of the eyewitness testimonies taken by him. His reputation as a seeker of the truth to the point of obsessiveness carried a lot of weight at the time with the public at large (Pillinger and Pillinger 1996). This and his notoriety as a public figure brought visitors flocking to see the Wold Cottage meteorite on display. If Major Edward Topham had not been the recipient of the meteorite fall on his land and had not publicized the event as he did, then I doubt that the Wold Cottage meteorite would be as important or as well remembered a milestone in meteoritics as it is today.
In July 2009 my family and I had the pleasure of spending a week at The Wold Cottage. We had wanted to have a holiday in the area for a while and decided that in summer 2009 it was about time we did so. As we have a young daughter, we wanted self-catering accommodation so I started the search for cottages available in the area. Being a meteorite obsessive (according to my wife, but I do fully agree!), I obviously looked at The Wold Cottage and found out that as well as bed and breakfast accommodation they also offered two self-catering cottages. Well, that was it! No more information was needed and the holiday was booked. After seeing a specimen of Wold Cottage in my display cabinet, my wife put two and two together and realized my motivation for picking this particular location. Her worries about my enthusiasm for meteorites affecting my judgement on the quality of the accommodation were to be totally overridden when we actually arrived. What a fantastic place. The long driveway has lovely views over the surrounding hills and fields and as you round the last bend the red brick of the historic Wold Cottage comes into view. The self-catering cottages are built from a converted barn and are set slightly away from the actual Wold Cottage. They stand in their own enclosed garden area with a patio and barbecue area for guests’ use. A more idyllic location you would struggle to find, made all the better from my point of view with tantalizing glimpses of a nearby field where the brick monument marking the 1795 fall is situated. As we were shown round our cottage by Katrina Gray (who is the lucky owner along with her husband Derek), we were met by the smell of freshly baked bread. There was also a bottle of the locally brewed Falling Stone bitter, which I can attest to being delicious (I made sure that I brought a case home with me). This beer was brewed to commemorate the 1795 fall and has a photo of the monument taken by Derek on the label. The local pub, also called The Falling Stone, is situated in the nearby village of Thwing. They of course serve Falling Stone bitter here and I can also recommend their food. All in all there was nothing to fault about our stay and a great deal to praise, with many little touches that made all the difference. Derek and Katrina were warm and welcoming hosts, there when needed, but left us to our own devices for the rest of the time, which in my eyes is the mark of a good host.
When Derek and Katrina found out about my interest in meteorites, they showed me some of the Edward Topham memorabilia in the main house and also some historical photos of the meteorite itself that are on display. In 1999 they even had the main mass of the Wold Cottage meteorite brought back from the NHM by Dr. Monica Grady to celebrate the bicentenary of the erection of the monument by Major Edward Topham. They had to have a police officer on guard duty during its temporary stay, not withstanding the fact that Dr. Grady had carried the meteorite in a rucksack all the way through London by herself! (Gray, personal communication).
It was during this tour of the Topham memorabilia that I was astounded to discover that they did not actually have a specimen of the Wold Cottage meteorite at all. I really was dumbfounded as more than anywhere else, I thought that this would be the one place where a specimen should be on display. I promised Derek and Katrina that I would keep an eye out for them, but not to get their hopes too high as specimens of Wold Cottage rarely appear on the market. I duly let them know about the specimens on offer in Rob Elliott’s auction, but they were unfortunately out of their price range. What they sought was a specimen of a few grams that could be framed and displayed along with the other memorabilia. I subsequently noticed a 1.44 g fusion crusted slice offered for trade only by Dave Gheesling on his website (www.fallingrocks.com). I contacted Dave and told him the story of Derek and Katrina and asked whether he would be prepared on this occasion to sell the specimen rather than trade it. He agreed with me that it was a travesty that they did not have a specimen on display and made the very generous gesture of offering it to them for nothing. All he wanted in return was a photo of Derek and Katrina standing next to the specimen on display in their home. Well, to say that they were delighted was a gross understatement. This was something that they had been trying to achieve for years and now finally they would be able to display a piece of Wold Cottage in the actual Wold Cottage that gives the meteorite its name.
As I had acted as a conduit for this event, I thought that the least I could do was to get the specimen properly framed along with a photo of the monument to make a suitable display for hanging on the wall. During my visit in the summer I had taken numerous photos, one of which I was quite pleased with, taken on a gloriously sunny day with The Wold Cottage in the background. I decided that this would look just right and set about organizing the framing. Due to work commitments, this took longer than expected but once finished I contacted Derek and Katrina to arrange to present the framing to them.
By this time the story of a piece of Wold Cottage coming home had attracted quite a bit of publicity and I had been contacted by numerous reporters and been interviewed by BBC Humberside radio. BBC Humberside had also arranged for a live radio interview with me early on the morning when I was due to leave for the presentation. So on 16 April 2010, after a night of no sleep looking after a poorly two-year-old daughter, I was interviewed live on Andy Comfort’s Breakfast Show (so anyone who has listened to the piece online, please forgive any inaccuracies; I was not feeling 100% there). I then drove up to The Wold Cottage for the presentation and was faced with quite a few photographers and also a BBC TV and radio crew. It was quite a media circus and Derek, Katrina, and I were kept very busy all day—although I have to say that it was all good fun and I did really enjoy myself. I was happy and honored to be able to make the presentation and to play a small part in this story. It was only a shame that Dave could not be there to present the specimen personally. Derek and Katrina were overjoyed about everything. “To have a piece of the Wold Cottage meteorite back home is going to be amazing.”
The framed Wold Cottage specimen now hangs proudly in the dining room among all the other meteorite and Topham memorabilia, a fitting home for it and a true meteorite homecoming!
To see all photos please see here
Burke, J G. 1986. Cosmic Debris—Meteorites in History. University of California Press.
Gray, D and Gray, K. 2009. Personal communication.
Marvin, U. B. 1996. Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756–1827) and the origins of modern meteorite research. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 31:545–588.
Marvin, U. B. 2001. Stones which fell from the sky. In Meteorites—Their Impact on Science and History, Zanda. B and Rotaru. M. Eds. Cambridge University Press pp 16–29.
Pillinger, C. T. and Pillinger, J. M. 1996. The Wold Cottage meteorite: Not just any ordinary chondrite. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 31:589–605.