Most Unexpected Find – genealogy post #1 2017


James Newlove was born on 11 April 1785 in the town of Selby, North Yorkshire. He was christened at Selby Abbey a week later, and his christening record confirms that he was: son of James Newlove of Selby ship carpenter and his wife Mary Stones.   James and Mary had married on 7 November 1780 in York, and by the time James was born they had already had to bury their first son, also James.  James’ little sister, my great, great, great grandmother, arrived eight years later.


As a ship’s carpenter James was part of a well-established industry in the town, where shipbuilding was first recorded in the fifteenth century.   James and Mary were eventually to have six sons and six daughters, several of whom died in infancy. The one other boy who survived to adulthood became a mariner, si it was maybe surprising that young James married Arabella Allin on 28 February 1808 in St Pancras, London.

Whilst still in London James and Arabella had four children; Mary Ann, James, Arabella and Joshua. At some point between 1819 when Joshua was born, and the arrival of their last child, Fanny, the family moved to Margate, Kent. Somehow James had progressed from his humble roots in north Yorkshire to become the owner and schoolmaster of Dane House School in Margate. Their son, also James went on to run a boys academy in Margate whilst his wife, Eliza ran a school for young ladies.

Jams and Arabella were back on the outskirts of Selby when the 1841 census return was taken, and by 1851 were living in Margate, James’ occupation being described as ‘retired schoolmaster.’

Now, the theme for this posting is something surprising – here’s what surprised me: At some point round about 1835 someone in Robert’s family made an amazing discovery. Accounts vary about how the discovery was made – possibly a labourer digging in a field came across an odd hole in the ground, possibly the hole appeared when James was digging a duck pond and his spade broke – either way, when James’ young son, Joshua was lowered into the hole, he came back out with stories of a big room lined with shells. Some accounts suggest that Joshua and little sister Fanny knew all about the room of shells, and had kept quiet about it until the adults had to know.

James was quick to see the commercial potential of the place, which comprises about 2,000square feet of mosaic made from over 4 million shells. By 1837 he had opened the grotto to the public and it quickly became a popular tourist attraction. Gas lighting was used to help make it accessible to visitors, and unfortunately this has led to real difficulties with carbon dating the cave.grotto-extentrance-to-shell-grotto

Interior entrance to the grotto from the souvenir shop.


An altar, perhaps??grotto3grotto-6

No matter how many ways I try to turn this around, it refuses to be turned!!



It appears that James and Arabella became well known in the locality, though he may have been less than successful managing his finances, and it seems that he may well have ended his days having lost the school and his regular income.

In the early 21st century the Shell Grotto is still open to the public, though in need of some TLC.   It’s situated in a somewhat run down area, and very easy to miss. There is a small gift shop at the entrance, and a museum room that describes the history of the grotto.   It’s now a Grade 1 Listed building, still open to the public, and remains in private ownership. The current owners have launched an appeal to raise money to help with renovating some of the damaged/worn Roundels, with full details on their website. There are also details of several books which may be of interest to those wanting to find out more about the grotto.

Pictures used in this post are from an album that we took when we visited in 2008.


Sonia Overall has written a novel suggesting an alternative story of the discovery, which is an interesting read: Sonia Overall – The Realm of Shells, (Novel), published by Fourth Estate, 2006 (ISBN 0-00-718410-7)


How on earth did a man brought up in the shipbuilding industry in quiet North Yorkshire end up as schoolmaster and curator of this amazing grotto in the far south of the country??




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