A celebration of the life of

Local Hero, William Lyons

unlauded builder of a seminal shell collection


Funded by Royal Society

Researched by Dr Kathy Talbot


  • Introduction
  • William Lyons, origins, family and
  • in Tenby
  • Lyons Shell Collecting
  • Twenthieth century recognition
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography




In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shell collecting was a popular activity for gentlemen and women. The value placed on shells never reached the astronomical sums paid in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century for tulip bulbs during Tulipmania, but values were considerable and one collection was offered at 700 guineas or approximately £58,000 in 2017.


William Lyons and family


William Lyons was 83 when he died in Tenby in 1849 and he had probably lived in the town for over 50 years, yet he’s hardly known of in present day Tenby – or anywhere. His contemporaries and friends included William Paxton, Charles Norris and Frederick Dyster, all of whom’s presence in Tenby is well known – the buildings, the paintings and etchings and of course the fountain in Tudor Square. And then there are the more notorious persons who were involved in dueling and who are all part of Tenby’s folklore. But Lyons is a Local Hero for the wonderful and important shell collection that came to Tenby Museum.


Market Cross, Tenby, drawing by Charles Norris, 1810


He and his family lived in Market Street in the centre of Tenby and he died there in 1849.[1] It remained the family home until the death of his daughter Sarah, who passed away in 1885 aged 78. Tenby has undergone considerable change since Lyons was in Tenby and many of the early medieval properties were replaced with fine Georgian ones which stand today. Market Street is now named Tudor Square and the house where the Lyons family lived is now probably York House.


Lyons’ family origins

William Lyons’ family originated in Ireland and then were based in Antigua in the West Indies where, through inheritance and marriage, his grand-father, John Lyons, owned a large sugar cane plantation of 563 acres and a number of slaves. William was one of nine children born to John Lyons and his wife Jane Harman. John Lyons died in 1775 and the Groton Hall estates came to William’s brother John (known as John Jnr.) ( 1760-1816).     Members of the Lyons family returned from Antigua to live in England and by 1796 we know William Lyons was living in Tenby, Pembrokeshire


John Jnr received the bulk of the inheritance and relatively small bequests in terms of the general worth to John Lyons Snr. were made to his other children. William was bequeathed a total of £3,000 which was only received on his reaching 21 years of age in 1787. It is possible that William Lyons joined the Royal Artillery 3rd Battalion, as his cousin, with the same name, later did (1797-1881) as this was active in the West Indies. A William Lyons retired in June 1791 as being unfit after 6 years and 11 months service. This would have meant he joined the regiment at about the age of 17 in about 1783.   In 1796 he met and married a Sarah Lyons[2], who may have been a distant cousin, prior to arriving in Tenby.


Lyons descendants

Lyons and his wife Sarah had 12 children although not all survived to adulthood. Throughout their lives they appear to have kept a low profile with little notice of them in the local press or reports of the period. The Tenby Observer started publication in 1854, too late to include information on William Lyons and there is only a simple reference to Sarah’s death in 1860 in the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser, “On 1st inst. [May 1860] at her residence, Sarah, relict of the late William Lyons Esq., deeply regretted”.   Three of his daughters remained unmarried but on their deaths each one left of £3,000 in their wills; over £300,000 in 2017 values.

There is one memorial to the family in the local parish church of St. Mary’s. Three plain windows on the south side of the church have at their base the names and dates of William and his immediate family. An earlier stained glass window had been removed. The windows ‘read’ from left to right.

William Lyons’ will[3] in 1849 refers to the £2000 received from his father’s will (but not the additional £1,000 left to him by his father in a codicil). He initially left £500 to his son Anthony but in a codicil he withdrew the bequest as his son had ‘procured a position in Demerara’. Anthony Munton Lyons was appointed Stipendiary Magistrate in Guyana where he died in 1863. [4]   Lyons made no bequest to his other sons “…for the sole reason…that I have incurred considerable expense in their education and in placing them out in the world…”

Lyons in Tenby

The Lyons family were in Tenby by 1796 when their first son, Anthony Munton Lyons, was born. The first record of William Lyons arrival is in Voss’ “A guide to Tenby”, published in 1810 William Lyons and his family are listed as being among the “Principal Inhabitants” which included Charles Norris, Topographer[5], Sir Henry Mannix[6], a judge from Cork in Ireland and a William Hamilton[7].

In Piggot’s Directory of South Wales from 1834 William Lyons and Charles Norris are listed among the “Nobility, Gentry and Clergy” living in the town.

In the early nineteenth century Tenby wasn’t just the holiday destination it is now. It had a busy port and a number of ‘gentry’ making up its population as well as several natural scientists living in or around Tenby. The Rev. Gilbert Smith of Gumfreston (1796-1877) had amassed a large geology and archaeology collection during his 40 years as Rector at Gumfreston, a nearby parish. This collection became the impetus for the formal creation of the Tenby Museum in 1878.

Lyons’ Shell collecting

There were extensive markets for shells in the eighteenth century, much in the same way that stamps were more recently collected. The extent to which shells were collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would, today, be considered detrimental to the local ecology, particularly the taking of live shells

In 1878 his daughters Sarah and and Anne gifted their father’s extensive collection of over 10,000 shells to the newly opening museum on Castle Hill, together with his several reference books.

For many years the natural history display has been a major draw at the Museum and currently the collections are carefully conserved and treasured. Safely stored and indexed in boxes some of the shells are as small as a grain of sand.

It was Dr Dyster who publicized the receipt of the Lyons collection of shells into the Tenby Museum in March 1878 when he wrote to the Tenby Observer. The terms of the gift were quite specific and required that Lyons’ nomenclature “shall be preserved and fresh names being added where necessary”. Edward Laws the Hon. Secretary of the Museum at the time noted the collection was of great importance and that it “made a valuable contribution to our infant museum”.[8]


There are thousands of shells in the collection and the most significant is Lyonsia norwegica.

Lyonsia norwegica (actual size approx 3.5 cm)

Tembm 1963 4740

It is a small pearl-white bivalve shell. The shell was found by Lyons in Tenby and he recognised its distinctive character from other similar shells. However according to Arthur Leach, curator of the Museum in the 1940s, it was Lyons’ friend, Charles Norris, who enquired further with the foremost conchologist of the day, George Montagu (1753-1815). He confirmed that it was a new discovery[9].   Charles Norris (1779-1858) was known to William Lyons as he created a drawing of shells from Lyons’ collection and they shared the same book publisher/binder in Pembroke.

Conchology of Tenby, Drawn by C. Norris engraved by S. Rawle and Published for the Repository at Tenby 10 April 1813, Museum collection

Odostomia rufa

Museum ref Tenbm 1983 4351

There are many thousands of individual shells in the collection. The eighteenth century method for cataloguing was to stick the shells to small pieces of wood and although the shells are now stored in conservation grade phials and bags the original labels have been retained.

According to other original labels attached to the shells Lyons collected from South Sands, which is believed to be present day South Beach Tenby, as well as Caldy [sic] and Bear Haven in Cork, Ireland.

In 1944 A.S. Kennard , ALS, FGS (1870-1948) wrote a short article called The Lyons Collection in The Tenby Museum. Kennard confirms that Lyons wrote nothing [that is recorded] about his collection or collecting but others refer to him in their writings and by 1815 Lyons’ collection was attracting interest of other conchologists. However, in his the labels and in his library books there is some evidence of his hand writing.

These are the only identified handwritten notes by Lyons, other than the original labels accompanying the shell specimens, and it can only be surmised that he did write more fully but the evidence is lost. The books in Lyons’ collection are now in the Museum library.


Twentieth Century recognition

 It was not until 1942 that any local recognition of Lyons’ collection appears to have been made. Arthur Leach, who was Curator of the museum at the time, wrote two articles for the Tenby Observer. On 19th March 1942 in an article entitled A Notable Tenby Shell Collector Leach thanks Colin Matheson, Keeper of Zoology and National Museum of Wales and also A.S. Kennard ex-president of the the Malacological society for discovering Lyons’ Lyonsia norwegica, and it can perhaps be inferred that these two men visited the Museum and its collections.   On 26th March 1942 Leach’s article was entitled William Lyons and Charles Norris and refers to the copper plate engraving entitled ‘Conchology of Tenby’ (see above). Leach concludes that although Lyons’ name does not appear it is likely that these two eminent men knew each other and Lyons had supplied the shells.


William Lyons’ work brought together a great number of natural historians both locally and further afield and despite our inability to piece together his daily life in Tenby, there remain traces of his importance in the mid nineteenth century both to shell collecting and in the town, through the references in other people’s articles, the brief notes on the specimen labels and what must have been a once magnificent stained glass window in Tenby’s parish church. However, his greatest and heroic legacy is the shell collection he amassed and was so generously donated to the nascent Tenby Museum and Art Gallery

Shell collecting remained and remains a popular pastime, with shell collecting clubs in the UK and abroad[10]. Children today delight in collecting and arranging shells in patterns and hopefully will come to understand how wonderful are the creatures who have left their homes on the sand.


‘Mermaid’ on Saundersfoot Beach, Pembrokeshire,

made from cockle shells. Cerastoderma edule

Dr Kathy Talbot

Tenby Museum & Art Gallery

August 2017


Full thanks are given to the Royal Society whose funding has enabled this research to be undertaken to discover our local hero. Thanks are also given to Dr Graham Oliver who first highlighted to us the importance of William Lyons, to Dr Christian Barr and his team who also worked on the collections and to the many people who have contributed to this research including Tom Lloyd, Kevin Jones, Julian Orbach, John Thomas Ferrand, Jill Ensom, Alun Adams and to Mark Lewis, Curator at Tenby Museum, who has helped in identifying further information.



[1]  Pembrokeshire Herald, 23rd November 1849 “On the 17th inst at his residence, Tenby, Mr William Lyons, aged 83”

[2]  Ancestry.co.uk, Sarah Lyons was possibly born in Philadelphia USA

[3]  Will of William Lyons, 1849, National Archives

[4]  Ishmael, Odeen The Guyana Story – from earlier times to Independence, e-book, 2013

[5]  Charles Norris (24 August 1779 – 16 October 1858) was an English topographical etcher and writer who is best known for his landscape work of the Welshcountryside, especially the area around Tenby.

“Charles Norris in Pembrokeshire 1805-1841, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, 2012

[6]  Sir Henry Mannix’s illegitimate son, Henry, was to be involved in a duel in Tenby in 1839.

[7]  Wm. Hamilton died in 1819 and had extensive property in Sussex as well as a house and land in Tenby

[8]  Beynon, John, The Origins of Tenby Museum 1878, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery

[9]   Transactions of the Linnean Society, 1816 Vol XI, Part 2, pp 129,

[10]  The British Shell Collectors’ Club, www.britishshellclub.org