The Strange Case of the St. Margaret’s Toads-in-a-hole
'In 1842 the vicar, Robert Liddell, stripped the plaster from the walls, piers and arches, and after demolishing the Cambell [sic] chapel placed a new east window in the inner north chapel.' (1)
According to The Scotsman of 5th January 1842, five toads were found alive in Barking Parish Church after being buried for 70 years in the fabric of the building. The discovery was made during work carried out at his own expense by 'the Hon and Rev Mr. Liddell' to enlarge the chancel, necessary because of the increasing population of the area. While workmen were engaged in removing from a large pillar the thick crust of plaster which was known to have been in place for 'upwards of 70 years', they 'discovered five toads, two of which were of a good size and the others smaller. The reptiles, on being released from their place of lengthened confinement, jumped about the place, and seemed perfectly healthy, and were picked up and put in a place of security. In removing some wooden skirting from the wall, near the same spot, a live bat was found, which must have been confined quite as long as the toads, and which was also secured by the workmen.'
A belief that such things were possible persisted until the nineteenth century, in spite of attempts by early scientists to prove otherwise, but in 1825 William Buckland, a prominent geologist, set about investigating the 'toad-in-a-hole' phenomena by performing a gruesome set of experiments in which he encased toads in different kinds of stone for a year. He observed that the subjects completely shut off from air, water and food died, but that those in porous limestone lived (though emaciated), having had access to at least water and air. Buckland also remarked that workmen might easily overlook a small opening that would allow nourishment to reach a creature that was apparently completely sealed up.
Another old explanation for the discovery of entombed reptiles was that they had generated spontaneously. Since ancient times it had been thought that life could be created from inorganic combinations. Jan Baptista van Helmont (seventeenth-century Flemish physician, philosopher and chemist) even published a 'recipe' for producing mice:
'Place a dirty shirt or some rags in an open pot or barrel containing a few grains of wheat or some wheat bran, and in 21 days, mice will appear. There will be adult males and females present, and they will be capable of mating and reproducing more mice.'
It was not until the late nineteenth century that Louis Pasteur performed an experiment that showed that life was not generated in the absence of organisms.
Back to the Barking Five. Sadly, we have to conclude that the newspaper story isn't entirely accurate, and that either
1) The workmen didn't actually see the creatures emerge directly from the pillar and merely assumed they had done so - clouds of dirt and dust might have made it difficult to observe properly.
2) The plaster was so old that there was a crevice which the amphibians were originally small enough to creep into and live off the various bugs and moisture that were around, but then were unable to escape. They could not have survived for 70 years, however, as the maximum life of a toad under optimum conditions is 40.
So, there we have it. No septuagenarian toads living in the pillars of St. Margaret's. But whatever actually happened, it's entertaining to imagine the scene as they hopped all-round the bemused workman all those years ago.
Diana Rossborough, January 2014
(1) 'The ancient parish of Barking: Abbeys and churches founded before 1830' A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5 (1966), pp. 222-231
Available from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42726
Accessed 7th January 2014
Fankhauser, DB. and Stein Clark, J. (1997). Spontaneous Generation [online] Available from http://faculty.sdmiramar.edu/dtrubovitz/micro/history/Spontaneousgen.html
last modified on Thu 13 Dec 2007.Accessed 7th January 2014
Gordon, E. Oke (1894). The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, D.D., F.R.S. reprinted 2010 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Available from http://tinyurl.com/oq37b85 . Accessed 6th Jan 2014
Huxley, T.H. (1870). Biogenesis and Abiogenesis (Collected Essays Vlll)
Critiques and Addresses 1870 , The Huxley File Clark University, Mass. 1998
Available from http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE8/B-Ab.html
Accessed 6th January 2014