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Stebbing Family - Authors and Entomologists

The Stebbing Family
Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing, FRS, FLS & Mary Ann Stebbing (nee Saunders)
Grace Stebbing and Beatrice Braithwaite-Batty (nee Stebbing)

The Stebbings were a large talented family and four of the family are buried in the cemetery. Beatrice, Grace and Thomas were the children of the Rev Dr Henry Stebbing, D.O., F.R.S. Henry Stebbing was a noted Clergyman, British poet, historian, author and editor. Henry and his wife Mary Griffin had 14 children in all. Beatrice and Grace were authoresses, Thomas was a Zoologist, and his wife Mary Ann (nee Saunders) was a Botanist.

Both Thomas and Mary were entomologists and scientific researchers of the natural world. Thomas was noted for being a British Zoologist, who described himself as ’a serf to natural history.’ Mary was known as a Botanist and botanical illustrator and was famous for being one of the first women to be admitted to the Linnean Society. They both pursued their own lines of interest throughout their careers but also worked together on topics related to the natural world.

Thomas was born on 6th February 1835 in Eaton Square, London, the 7th child and 4th son of Rev Henry Stebbing. He began his education at King’s College School and then at King’s College London where he studied classics. He then went to Lincoln College, Oxford before studying at Worcester College, Oxford gaining a BA in Law and Modern History in 1857 and a MA in 1859. Like his father he moved to the Church and was ordained into the priesthood by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford in 1859. Thomas held mainly positions within the College until he resigned his fellowship in 1868 due to lack of finances.

Whilst working as a tutor in Reigate, Surrey, in the early 1860’s, he met the entomologist William Wilson Saunders, whose daughter Mary Anne was a botanist and illustrator. Around this time Thomas started studying natural history and he married Mary Anne in 1867.

Mary and Thomas started married life in Torquay, Devon where Thomas continued teaching and began writing his first paper on the natural world. It was here he met the geologist, William Pangelly, who was credited in turning Thomas’ attention away from literary works and towards natural science. He became fascinated with the natural sciences and wrote his first paper on Darwinism in 1871. Although he remained a committed Christian, throughout his lifetime, due to his outspoken views on the natural world he was banned from preaching and was never offered a parish.

In 1877 Mary and Thomas moved to Tunbridge Wells where they lived on the edge of the Common. This move enabled Thomas to be closer to London where he continued to teach and make use of the many libraires, museums and scientific circles in the capital. As finances improved, he gave up teaching to concentrate on his studies and writings and his career as a published natural scientist began. Among his many achievements he wrote several articles for The Zoologist, and he contributed articles to the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1911. He wrote over 100 papers and two major monographs mainly on the subject of Crustacea, many of which were published by The Linnean Society, in London. He also published several books on scientific subjects from 1871-1913. His most important work being the History of Crustacea, published in 1893.

He was identified with many societies throughout his lifetime and was made a fellow of the Linnean Society on 5th December 1895, a fellow of the Royal Society on 4th June 1896, and was awarded the Gold medal of the Linnean Society in 1908. He was one of the Fellows who advocated the admittance of women to the Linnean Society and obtained a supplementary charter to allow it; his wife, Mary, being among the first women to be admitted. He became an active member of the Tunbridge Wells Natural History and Philosophical Society, and he founded the South-Eastern Union of Scientific Societies in 1896.

Thomas died at Ephraim Lodge on 8th July 1926. His funeral was held on 13th July at St Paul’s Church, Rusthall, where he used to officiate when requested. Rusthall’s churchyard was thought to be inadequate, and he was buried in the town cemetery.

One obituary, which appeared in the Evening Despatch on 10th July 1926, summed up his extensive career referring to him as having had a distinguished University career engaged in literary and scientific pursuits. It goes on to state that he was ably seconded by his wife, Mary Anne, who is also a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Following his death, ‘The Stebbing Collection,’ which consisted of his personal library amounting to over 100 items, was donated to King’s College London by his wife Mary. This collection has now been catalogued and can be searched online. The British Society of Literature and Science acknowledged Thomas’ distinguished literature and scientific career in an article published on their website in September 2010.

Mary was born on 11th September 1845 in Broadwater by Worthing, Sussex, the youngest daughter of William Wilson and Mary Anne Saunders. William was a renowned botanist and botanical illustrator, and Mary was to follow in his footsteps. Whilst growing up Mary assisted her father in the gathering, identifying and sketching of his many specimens. She was also interested in and took care of the family garden. She was very enthusiastic about nature and as a botanist attempted to illustrate British flora in watercolour. Her early work has been described as closely resembling a flower painter rather than a botanical illustrator. Unfortunately, most of her early drawings were destroyed in a house fire in 1881. In her later work her sketches became more detailed including multiple sections of the plants together with details on the location of where the specimen was found, and she became widely known as being a ‘serious and skilled botanical illustrator.’ Fourteen of her botanical drawings are now held in the archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Mary met her husband, Thomas, through the Holmesdale Natural History Club which had been set up by her father. In his autobiography Thomas described Mary’s family as a ‘very nest of naturalists.’ They married in 1867 and as a wedding gift Mary presented him with a volume of orchids, she had especially drawn for him.

On 19th January 1904, Mary, along with ten others, was one of the first women to become a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Lord Crisp, the husband of one of the other female Fellows being admitted commissioned a painting of the event. In the original painting Mary was a central figure, however Lord Crisp objected to this as having paid over £300 for the painting he preferred that his wife should be the central figure. He went on to say that ‘Mary Stebbing lacked scientific merit and the central figure of the painting should be one that had achieved something and not one without a record.’ Several newspapers of the time, including The World, commented on this picture stating ‘the picture was rendered somewhat comic by the figure in blue in the foreground.’ When the picture was presented to the Linnaean Society in 1919, by the artist James Saint, Mary had been painted over and replaced with an empty chair! Despite a lack of official records Mary was believed to have regularly attended meetings of the society.

In addition to her own work Mary assisted Thomas in his. She helped him classify species and assisted with sketches for his many books on Crustacea. Despite this Thomas published all his works under his name only and Mary never published any research under her own name. They were often seen working together and in 1917, on the occasion of their Golden Wedding Anniversary, they spent part of the day drawing together.

After her beloved Thomas died in 1926 Mary continued to live in the family home at Ephraim Lodge, The Common. She died, at home, on 21st January 1927, aged 81, just seven months after Thomas and was buried alongside him on 25th January. They had been married for 59 years and did not have any children. Probate was granted on 28th February to Mary's brothers William Joshua Saunders, gentleman, and Leonard Dymock Saunders, medical practitioner.

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