12 The End of an Age

The philosophical societies, so representative of the class values of the aspiring, were easy targets for those whom they excluded, and for other social or political factions within a town. Internally, members played a game by established social rules centred on what were to be perceived, outwardly, as the lofty goals of education and research. Lyell saw the societies as regional substitutes for universities, a view which might be read as simply endorsing those overt goals. But Lyell was probably also aware that the reality of society life was rather more socially self-serving and, in this respect too, it mirrored contemporary universities. In every town there were those who viewed the philosophical societies with disdain. In Leeds the society was criticised for its ‘empty verbosity … the perfect uselessness of all its proceedings … the plagiarised papers which are weekly read before it, and the pure unadulterated nonsense which floats through the atmosphere of its hall from the mouths of its dilettante members.’ The clerical leaders of the tiny Wakefield society, for example, saw its meetings as an opportunity to develop skills of oratory. Consequently, presidential addresses were verbose and rambling, and held little substance. To the educational reformist J.W. Hudson, writing in 1851, they were merely ‘the debris of an age passed away’, ‘aristocratic assemblies’ to be derided for cultivating rather than disseminating knowledge.[1]

Changing urban culture

Hudson, an evangelist for mechanics institutes, held a narrow view and one influenced by the philosophical societies’ failure to amalgamate with these newer, more egalitarian, educational organisations. The Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society was, at this time, perhaps typical. Sunk in debt and unable to afford paid lecturers, in 1845 a merger was proposed with the local mechanics institute, then five times its size and with a membership drawn from all classes. On the grounds that the philosophical society formed the last neutral territory on which the influential political factions in the town could meet, the idea was rejected. The society’s primary characteristic was as an élite meeting place, more a parliamentary social club than a university.[2] Hudson’s voice was not untypical of the period. Education would become an increasingly central theme, especially in the society and local authority museums established in the second half of the century. 

There were also wider changes in society which dissipated the impetus of the ‘movement’. In the public life of most towns and cities, élite families, like the Aldersons in Hull, had established a monopoly of involvement. The old-style corporations had been in the control of exclusive oligarchies. Leeds, for example, had long been managed by an élite of Anglican Tory merchant families. The philosophical society there, as elsewhere, enabled the new manufacturers, who largely held Whig and dissenting views and who were excluded from civic power, to meet the town’s establishment. Progressively these new men acquired power in the Vestry and Improvement Commissions, the latter having the power to levy a local rate. The greatest change, however, came with the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which had a far greater effect on local politics than the Reform Act of three years earlier. In consequence the first elections in Leeds created a council of liberal dissenters. With urban government open and elected, the philosophical societies had lost some of their purpose. Those seeking status now had other leks in which to puff and preen. In the widespread political unrest of the period, which was combined with often localised economic depression and consequent violence, control of urban politics could contribute much to the peace, particularly as such disruption often adversely affected the manufacturing and trading communities.[3]

For nearly two decades from 1820 the philosophical societies held sway over provincial geology in many parts of Britain. Provincial museums were, for a time, at the heart of pioneering geological research. Private ‘selfless’ enterprise, built on wealth and social status, had in a few years created collections of incredible diversity and richness. They too had been transported from an age of speculation, to become an embodiment of the kind of inductivism promulgated by the Geological Society in its early years. Some were parochial debating chambers, others classrooms for the middle classes, and still others formed embryonic universities supporting local research; some were simply shallow collecting houses while others hoped their collecting would foster civic cultural development. Many attempted to nurture talent, particularly by the appointment of curators, though a lack of resources so often turned patronage into exploitation. Other societies participated purely by virtue of the fossil wealth over which they, for a time, held dominion. Since they represented a local urban or county élite, they also had the power to influence national opinion. 

It would be incorrect, and indeed there is no need, to build philosophical societies up into anything more than local communities pursuing local ends. But it would also be inaccurate to deduce from the dominance of social agenda that these societies made no contribution to science. Geology needed an audience and not just one of spectators; it needed participants too. The societies provided such an audience and fuelled interest in the local terrain, in research, debate and collection building. In this the York society was perhaps at the pinnacle of provincial achievement, containing the full breadth of commitment from active savant to social gift-giver. In other parts of the country – particularly around London where the draw of the capital’s scientific institutions often prevented the establishment of local societies or where the population density was low – their role was taken on by individuals like Gideon Mantell in Sussex, who both collected fossils and presented his discoveries, or the type of collector who contributed so much to the elucidation of Devon. 

Left to investigate regions perceived to be of known geology, local philosophers made second-class science. A few made more notable contributions which enabled them to cross into the upper stratum of the science.[4] Equally the discoveries they made – often mere facts – gave the doyens of geology materials for debate, much as the gifts and purchases which flowed into the philosophical societies became the subject matter for provincial reasoning. The intense hierarchy and individualism of British geology, which these elements represent, were critical factors in giving the science its initial momentum. Provincial men and women were also colouring the geological map of Britain, a colouring not simply achieved in literary works but more significantly by the formation of collections. What collections lacked against the singularity of the literary statement they overcame by their scientific malleability.

Geology was already acquiring a level of sophistication and rigour which was removing it from the reach of the amateur’s ‘hammer and net’ natural history. This was not a change of policy in the ‘amateur’ community, simply a change in its relevance to science; geology was no longer shackled to isolated facts. From the late 1830s the impact of government-funded science, with its integrated fieldwork, was to alter the potential of provincial geology. After 1840, increasing numbers of academic and government positions were created. The Survey would remain the dominant employer of geologists and become the proving ground for the new professional, feeding developments in the colonies. The new professionals, particularly those pursuing palaeontological description, might make use of existing museum collections but the future lay in integrated collecting. As Phillips had noted, geology would want to make its own observations and its own collections.

Old snobberies about the worth of provincial science – now remodelled as amateur science – would be used to underpin the elevation of professional science as it took off in the latter half of the century. As Thomas Henry Huxley remarked, ‘the word “Naturalist” unfortunately includes a far lower order of men than chemist, physicist, or mathematician … every fool who can make bad species and worse genera is a “Naturalist”’.[5]

Perhaps the texts of pioneering science were becoming increasingly inaccessible to all but the specialist.[6] Or perhaps unravelling such texts no longer held potential rewards for the provincial gentleman. Allen suggests that many of the great discoveries had been made; the shock of terrible monsters and of limitless ages was to be replaced by human-centred archaeology and anthropology. ‘The big and simple finds had all been made: everything after that was bound to seem undramatic by comparison and as drama attracts performers so the age of great performers was consequently dead’.[7]

In the laissez-faire economy of science, the presence of natural resources and available labour had generated local industries dedicated to its pursuit. Yorkshire’s philosophical societies were part of this. But such industries were at risk if the product of their toil ceased to have currency. Such currency for the philosophical societies depended upon scientific and civic prestige, and processes of social acclimatisation and elevation. But a new age of civic administration saw many society museums fall into the hands of local government. Provincial collections, severed from the scientific world which nurtured them, would retain their cultural significance not as monuments of a bygone age but as contemporary symbols of local sophistication, egalitarianism and so on. They remained objects of civic pride. In some towns, however, such collections would be perceived as no more than Hudson’s ‘debris’.

With the passing of the Museum Act of 1845 local government acquired the power to fund public museums from local taxation. Yet another preserve of the philosophical societies was now being usurped by government interference, though perhaps few saw it as that. Having revelled in an excessive rate of acquisition, the societies found their museums filled to the gunwales. They had no way or wish to control the collecting culture they had engendered. These museums were often embarrassingly disorganised, providing little more protection for their contents than the open field from whence they came. The Whitby society was not untypical when it recorded: ‘Several men of science who have visited our Museum, have complained of the want of a stratigraphical arrangement of fossils and rocks, and have also felt hurt at seeing so many valuable specimens lying exposed to injury.’[8] Increasingly the philosophical societies would see the Museum Act, and successive legislation, as a means to pass on their collections into local authority hands. This process, however, was drawn out and offered little more security for the collections. There were also a very few societies – and that in Whitby is perhaps the most noteworthy – where the museum would remain an integral part of their purpose.

Merger and financial crisis

The initial excitement of the 1820s was, by the late 1840s, an increasingly fading memory. That paragon of the movement, York, was typical: ‘little can be done in the furtherance of those scientific objectives for which the Society was originally established, without the revival of that general interest which the origin of the society and the foundation of the Museum elicited throughout the county of York.’[9] Even that mainstay of the York society’s operation, the monthly meeting, was no longer well attended, and this encouraged few individuals to prepare papers.

For some societies the initial excitement disappeared even earlier: ‘The Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society has now existed for eight years, and its annual Reports cannot now be expected to present much that is novel or striking.’ Three years later, the society was suffering a general malaise of interest: ‘They cannot state that much has been done in the course of the year; yet while the Society has displayed less energy than at some former periods, its power has not been exhausted, nor its progress checked.’[10] A further sixteen years later, the situation had not improved: ‘It has seldom happened, in a Society like ours … that much has occurred in the course of a single year, to call for lengthened remark.’ But there were other difficulties for Whitby. Being a port it frequently found itself at the centre of a cholera outbreak brought in by ship. Simpson also suggests that Young’s growing social isolation had a negative effect upon the organisations with which he was associated – though Simpson was hardly unbiased.[11]

The Bradford society failed to achieve even this level of success. The first feeble attempt began in 1808 and a second in 1822; both died almost immediately. The 1822 incarnation was killed by the Vicar of Bradford – the very antithesis of his Wakefield counterpart. Until now the main player had been the lawyer, botanist and geologist, Samuel Hailstone. In 1839, local surgeon William Sharp was more successful, and even acquired the patronage of that senior politician of science, the Marquis of Northampton. However, when Sharp left the city a few years later, the society went into rapid decline. Completely out of step with the rest of the nation this town finally achieved some success in 1884 by which time the whole notion of the philosophical society had changed.[12]

The universal problem of support was reflected in numerous mergers and the state of society programmes and funds. Thus in 1850 the twelve-year-old Manchester Geological Society merged with the city’s Society for the Promotion of Natural History which dated from 1821. Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society merged with that city’s natural history society in 1844, the latter having been established just eight years earlier. Equally, the largely dormant Derby Museum and Natural History Society, which had been established in the same year, merged with the much older local philosophical society eleven years later. 

In attempting to fulfil very material objectives – buildings, museums, libraries and so on – the philosophical societies frequently found themselves in debt. The York society, for example, acquired a debt of £1500 in 1829 following the erection of its building. It also participated in property deals which thrust it massively into the red in 1840, to be bailed out only by a deceased member’s bequest. In 1847 it again faced financial difficulties, having to repay the late William Gray’s loan of £1000.[13] Personal loans were frequently used to keep these societies afloat, but such monies would not be available beyond the death of the lender. The Newcastle men’s eagerness to establish a building for their philosophical institution had similarly plunged them into debt; in 1849, nearly 30 years after the foundation stone had been laid, the mortgage on the building was still £6,200. This was only cleared in 1856 through the generosity of its illustrious president, Robert Stephenson. In Whitby the scale of debt was smaller but its impact just as great. It too had to repay a loan on the death of one of its officers, and remained in debt beyond the middle of the century. Nevertheless, in the early 1850s the society took on the purchase of the Bath Company’s share in the building at a cost of £950. This thrust it even deeper into debt until 1866 when it was cleared as a result of generous bequests. For the Bristol Institution, which had only opened its building in 1823, the financial crisis began in 1836. The Bath Institution had gone into even earlier decline. The Bristol situation worsened, and in the early 1860s with questions over the future of the museum, founder member and vice president, John Naish Sanders, the uncle of William Sanders, gave £1000 towards an endowment fund.[14]

The levying of local and national taxes on these institutions further slowed the development of the poorer institutions. The Philosophical Institution in Birmingham was, like others, seeking an exemption from these in 1837. It paid 11 per cent of its income in taxes. Five years later the Whitby society was planning to lobby parliament to obtain tax relief.[15] The York society only paid 5 per cent of its income in taxes and rents at this time. 

The societies had, through loans and shareholding, squeezed sufficient capital out of the local community for the erection of buildings; should the society fail, the investment remained secure. It was more difficult to find adequate funds for the day-to-day operation of the museum in terms of staff or the provision of display cases. During the 1820s and 1830s, the societies in York, Hull, Scarborough and Whitby had great difficulty in casing their rapidly expanding collections. In the late 1820s, Whitby Museum, for example, took the financial risk of upgrading its displays, only to find the membership unwilling to offset the debt. The society’s council then had to offset this by taking out a loan of £120. But in typical fashion it continued to purchase fossils, perhaps knowing it could trade these if necessary.[16]

The society in Scarborough was even less assured of local support. The town’s collectors were largely collecting for themselves and men such as Bean were unwilling to add their material to a museum which was built around the collection of, and curated by, a rival, John Williamson. In addition, the society’s ambitions seemed constrained by its subservience to its York brethren. It provides a good and fairly typical example of the short active life expectancy of these organisations. Though many survive to the present day, none do so with anything like the vigour of their early years. For a short time the burgeoning museum in Scarborough held displays illustrating the latest intelligence on local geology. Its Rotunda was seen as the paradigm for the geological museum and the quality of its specimens was superb. William Smith had been encouraged to colour maps and a version of Phillips’s geological section of the Yorkshire coast adorned the walls above stratigraphic displays.

However, the ease with which the museum came into being disguised the difficulties which were to lie ahead. The volatility of amateur enthusiasm which underpinned the philosophical model always threatened insecurity. The society lacked the funds necessary to generate an active lecture programme and indeed the building was incapable of seating anything more than the most select audience. This building had been secured through a loan of £500 from Mrs Isabella Tindall at an interest rate of 4.5 per cent and guaranteed by 19 individuals and as such was a fragile foundation.[17]

In a town the size of Scarborough members could not afford to be complacent about their institution. The class to which it appealed was not represented by large numbers and only a fraction of these were active supporters. By 1842 deaths and resignations had seriously drained the society’s membership, dissipated its momentum and reduced its income. A circular was drawn up to encourage wider support amongst ‘those gentlemen in the vicinity of Scarborough whose general influence and warm interest in all pursuits of a scientific nature might probably induce them to lend their support to so valuable an institution, conducted as this has always been on principles purely disinterested and solely with a view to promote the diffusion of these laudable objects.’[18]

The circular had little effect and the decline continued until a point of crisis was reached in 1848 when creditors began to recall their loans. In April, executors required repayment of the £18 owed to the late Isaac Stickney for the plesiosaur. Then in June, Robert Tindall recalled the original loan of £500 on the building.[19] The survivors of the original nineteen signatories were now required to meet this debt. The Old Bank of Scarborough stepped in, offering to lend the money on the same terms but many of the original backers were now having second thoughts. It was time to look more closely into the affairs of the society.

At a general meeting of the society, a committee was formed to include all the shareholders, benefactors and subscribers to the museum. This established three subcommittees. The first was to examine the condition of the museum, its organisation and appeal; the second to look at the society’s constitution and staffing, and the debt problem; and the third to examine the accounts, including specimen sale and purchase.[20]

The subcommittees found the museum poorly organised: ‘with the exception of one or two minor departments the contents of the Museum are not arranged and named in accordance with the present advanced state of science.’[21] They had also discovered that the museum had no financial controls. There was no inventory of the museum’s contents and no way of locating those specimens acquired through purchase. Since 1842 there had also been no record of specimen sales, despite earlier records showing this to have been a highly lucrative source of income. The sales had continued but what had happened to the funds? Subscriptions had been declining for four years through general dissatisfaction with the museum and were set to drop a further 50 per cent in the following year. Receipts from admission charges had declined since 1836; other societies had seen these increase with the coming of the railways. 

However, despite gross mismanagement, income still exceeded expenditure, even if the surplus was very small. The society’s assets were estimated to be in the region of £3200. The debt of £500 was to be transferred to certain portions of the collections as well as fittings. But the ‘whole or part of the £500 bond [was] to be paid by those who are liable’ and a sinking fund established to help relieve the burden of those liable. An expansion in support was now sought. 

Tight financial controls, and improvements in specimen documentation, were put in place but the society’s fortunes did not improve. Perhaps indicating a sign of the times, Scarborough Literary and Philosophical Society amalgamated with the Archaeological Society on Saturday 30 April 1853. By 1859, the Rotunda’s chief attraction was an aquarium.[22]

The state of museum geology collections

This decline in these societies was reflected in their museums, but equally these museums had been a factor causing the societies’ decline. The history of museum geological collections is one of repeatedly unheeded warnings. In 1838, Greenough, who was a considerable collector, warned the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society of the consequences of collecting. Greenough had witnessed the neglect that the Geological Society’s collections had suffered even during the period of its first curator, Thomas Webster. In 1819, before any of the societies discussed here had really begun to collect, the Geological Society’s basement held 80 casks of rotting and unregistered material. By 1845 use of the museum was in decline and the asset was now becoming an encumbrance. However, directly as a result of the efforts of its former president, Leonard Horner, its fortunes improved and by 1863 the museum was perhaps at its peak in terms of curatorial care and accessibility. But from this point the collections drifted through a succession of debates and special meetings towards their ultimate destiny of disposal.[23] Cuckoo-like collections, which initially seemed so integral to the needs of science, soon became (to the generations which followed) monstrous impostors consuming all monies and every spare moment. 

Perhaps the most telling example of this neglect and decay was Buckland’s own museum. This was an integral part of the charismatic Oxford professor’s scientific make-up; he claimed it was, in terms of inspiring a generation of geologists, the most important collection in the country. But from 1858 to 1894 the collection remained untouched in a cellar – a non-participant in an increasingly professional science. Phillips explored this collection just before its entombment, noting that it had ‘fine things’ but ‘little arrangement’. He was responsible for the collection for much of the time it was in storage. It is rather ironic that Buckland’s daughter should at this time remark, ‘Fortunately for science, Dr Buckland sent duplicate specimens to the British Museum’.[24] The natural history sections of the British Museum remained the subject of intense criticism throughout Buckland’s career; the museum was criticised both from within and from without. At the end of the century, however, ensconced in its new South Kensington home, it had become one of the jewels of late Victorian museum culture. The neglect of Buckland’s collection obviously caused his daughter some distress, as it is frequently mentioned. This burial, of something so associated with the man, was undoubtedly a snub. 

Oxford was not alone in harbouring such events but its position as an intellectual capital perhaps encouraged criticism. Buckland’s museum was simply going the way of all institutional collections. As the Revd Lansdown Guilding had earlier complained on viewing the neglect of the Ashmolean Museum, ‘And while everything was going to decay, the more valuable specimens (once said to exist in the collection), with the exception of the dodo’s head, had been stolen by those who knew their value, and seized some of the many opportunities allowed them of removing them from the trash with which they were surrounded.’ Similarly the collection of Buckland’s one-time curator, Johann Miller, which on his death had entered the Bristol Institution, was largely lost or destroyed by the end of the century.[25]Yet, as Buckland’s own collection was being packed away, Sedgwick’s had not long been available for inspection, having been in packing crates during the most intensive years of scientific debate. What these museums at times evoked, but on a massive scale, was that same kind of chaos and disorder which their founders had detected in many private cabinets and from which they hoped to separate themselves. 

The fate of the philosophical society’s collections, as for all collections, is well illustrated by the changing fortunes of the Canterbury museum. One of the first museums established under the 1845 Act, it took over the collections of the moribund Canterbury Philosophical and Literary Institution. The institution had collected with the universal sense of abandon which typified museum building in the previous era. A news item in The Times in 1826 gives some indication of this, announcing the acquisition of a single donation of 6000 poor quality fossils, the product of a decade of endeavour by Henry Wright of Boughton. The collection included three major suites of material, from Boughton, Chatham and the Gog-ma-Gog Hills of Cambridge.[26]

The new local authority museum in Canterbury had no more idea about museum building than the earlier philosophers. It seemed logical to take over a ready-made collection regardless of its condition, just as the philosophical societies had done in their early years. Rapidly the museum became indicative of the wider museum culture. As Forbes commented around this time, ‘Unfortunately not a few country museums are little better than raree-shows. They contain an incongruous accumulation of things curious or supposed to be curious, heaped together in disorderly piles, or neatly spread out with ingenious disregard of their relations.’ In 1871, George Gulliver, of the town’s East Kent Natural History Society, decided something needed to be done and launched a faintly disguised attack on his local museum. Talking generally about the state of English provincial museums, he saw them as ‘such examples of helpless misdirection and incapacity as could not be paralleled elsewhere in Europe’.[27]

The new generation of naturalist, of which Gulliver was an example, had wanted something different and spawned their own style of natural history society and field club. It was far easier to start a society and cast it in the image of one’s own time than to take over one already invested with its own traditions and burdens, with its grey-haired elders wishing to hold onto the past. The new provincial naturalists were less intent on running museums, though many did. Their preferred option was to pressure their local authorities into taking this on and acting as a support organisation. This was a role the Canterbury society saw for itself, believing it possessed the knowledge required to run a natural history museum. In this new era the intent of such organisations was the pursuit of public education. ‘Nobody in his senses can suppose that it is either desirable or practicable for a provincial society to attempt an imitation of the vast and boundless metropolitan institution’, Gulliver suggested. He knew that in rescuing the useful series, a good deal of ‘rubbish’ was likely to be encountered. The solution to this problem as he saw it was to ‘sell it if you can, or give it away; but by all means get rid of it, and that swiftly; to which end a bonfire might be the best thing’.[28] Gulliver was suggesting a process which was to be carried through with each successive generation for the next century. If material in Canterbury had survived the decline of the local philosophical society, and the neglect of the town council, would it also survive the reorganisation imposed by the newly fashioned natural history society? Ill-informed about the history which had created the collection, successive generations all too easily rationalised what they inherited, and with each rationalisation they lost that link to a past which had simultaneously created a culture of museums and a science of geology.

Canterbury’s emphasis on public education was typical. Many museums, including the Yorkshire Museum, went through a phase of believing that local collections were of little use for this purpose. They would prefer general series of archetypes. Considered equally useless in this age were those comparative collections received from distant parts – material which had often come from the very workers who supported the pioneering discoveries of the 1820s and 1830s and which underpinned contemporary geological understanding. By re-organising collections as educational illustrations of basic geological texts they lost all contact with their earlier context.

The whole notion of ‘local’ was also changing. In the 1820s local discoveries had the potential to transform science. They were the ‘epitome of the globe’. However, as the century progressed and the geological map of Britain became more complete so these localities were transformed from inventing science to being mere local examples. Just as Phillips’s book on the Yorkshire coast changed through its three editions from pioneering cross-country correlation to local memoir. 

Museums now saw themselves in the vanguard of those seeking to improve public education. Some, like the Natural History Society in Manchester, had tried to adapt to changing social circumstances much earlier. Once an exclusive private society, it opened its doors to the public in 1838 for the price of admission. Immediately its distinctive character evaporated and with it any attraction for its subscribers, men who felt no wish to subsidise public entertainment and education. The natural history society in Newcastle had offered free admission from 1835 but to such great effect that museums across the country contacted it for information on how to proceed.[29]

Canterbury was embodying a new spirit of the age which saw a need to communicate science in educational museums. By the late 1880s, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science came to review the state of museums, the cultural landscape had been transformed. What remained of an earlier age of private provincial enterprise, then so entwined with urban politics and contemporary science culture, had become emblematic of civic authorities, to be neglected or to be reinvented as the basis of a provincial educational movement. However, Thomas Greenwood’s survey of the same period found no change in the processes of museum building – chaos accompanied growth. Collections, like much else, obeyed the second law of thermodynamics which was itself a product of 1850. It spawned a wave of analogical interpretations from Dickens’s Bleak House onwards.[30] It also, so perfectly, described the inevitable disintegration of order and quality in collections. This was to be their one ubiquitous attribute. Of this one scientific law, at least, they were a perfect illustration.

In many ways the task of the philosophical societies had been achieved. By 1835 the York society, through its curator, had fulfilled its scientific intentions more effectively than any other society in the country. Together the societies had succeeded in gathering together the newly recognised fossil fauna and flora. The collections created during this period were comprehensive in terms of objects at least, even if the associated data were sometimes poor. At the end of his life, publishing his Yorkshire coast treatise in its last edition, Phillips could reflect on the intervening period: 

Since the former issues of this work … Not very many new forms of life have thus been discovered; but the means for specific discrimination, and for comparison with analogous fossils in the south of England, have been increased … In the museum at York two spacious rooms are devoted to collections of Yorkshire fossils; and these are numerous, and only require fresh supplies of specimens chosen for novelty, rarity, or excellent condition.[31]

Some years earlier when he compiled a great monograph on belemnites – rather mundane fossils which at the time evoked considerable interest – he contacted his old friends Bean and Jelly to see what he could borrow only to find they had little or had given up what they had. Martin Simpson kept working at geology to the end of his long life. In 1884 the Whitby Museum had long ceased trading – ‘all our duplicate fossils went to the continent many years ago, in exchange for minerals and fossils’. He was now almost a lone figure: ‘All the private collections are gone: Bean’s to the British Museum, £500, Leckenby’s to Cambridge University, £800; Woods (Richmond), £800, to York. Some time ago I went over to Scarborough in pursuit of oolite fossils for our collection, but I got none. No one was collecting.’ And, forecasting the future, he commented, that ‘the great wealth and the national prosperity of the present era scarcely sustain’ what had been collected.[32]

Locating a national collection

As the philosophical world was falling into decline and its museums in disarray, plans were afoot for a national museum of geology which would surpass all others. ‘There is a want of a national establishment for scientific geology or geology proper’, De la Beche told Phillips in 1840. ‘The British Museum does not afford it – neither does the Geological Society nor any other establishment in London where such a collection should be.’ Both men had formerly supported the provincial museum movement but these could never serve modern purposes, as Phillips remarked a few years later: ‘not to Provincial Institutions!! to be scattered like dust.’[33]

In the past De la Beche seems to have been reasonably satisfied with the repositories then supporting the developing science. In 1835 he had recommended that the products of his survey of Cornwall and Devon be split in two: those reflecting mineral resources to be placed in a new Museum of Economic Geology; those ‘illustrative of the Geology of Great Britain’ –largely fossils – to be sent to the Geological Society ‘as being that most advantageous to it’. The society, as the central forum for the advance of geology, held not only a permanent museum collection but a wealth of material which temporarily entered the building for display in support of papers presented at meetings. But as a private body it did not have sufficient resources to deal with the vast collections the Survey was gathering in the 1840s.[34]And as fossils became political territory in the previous decade so other repositories were sought, including the British Museum. 

Like other geologists, De la Beche was keen to see an improvement in the national museum: ‘Those I now send are destined for the British Museum, where all ought to labour to get up a good collection of British fossils – our national museum is sadly wanting in this respect.’ Its Keeper of Natural History, Charles König, could, in 1834, only claim that his museum had the ‘basis of a respectable geological collection’. In the years that followed he put increasing efforts into improving this part of the museum, having previously been accused of being contemptuous of fossils. Such accusations were hardly new. Its deplorable collection care, and disorganised and uninterpreted exhibits, were a national outrage. In 1826 Lyell accused the museum of being ‘wholly unworthy of the present age’. A view repeated by Davy three years later: ‘our national establishment, the British Museum, is unworthy of a great people – and is even inferior to many of those belonging to second-rate states on the continent.’ This and other criticism resulted in a review by a government select committee in 1835-1836 and Royal Commission in the 1840s.[35]

In 1837 the mineral collections (which included fossils) were moved out of the rapidly decaying Montague House and into Smirke’s new building. In the process they were separated from the zoology and botany collections. The feeling throughout this period was that the interests of natural history were being neglected at the British Museum, in favour of other disciplines, and as a consequence were out of step with the needs of science. The British Association at its meeting in Birmingham in 1839, for example, petitioned the Museum ‘to have the shells in that institution so arranged as to facilitate comparison of the actually existing shells, with fossil remains and impressions in rocks.’ Later there were calls to have the palaeontology collections reunited with zoology, and even suggestions that the natural history collections should be moved out en masse to the Royal College of Surgeons.[36]

The treatment of two collections caused particular criticism in the press. These were the collections of Gideon Mantell and Thomas Hawkins – formerly two of the most important private collections in the country. In 1841 Mantell’s was under brown paper, where it had been for many years – the paper hiding its disarrangement. The Hawkins collection was scattered over the floor of the gallery awaiting arrangement – ‘a day before that of doom’. As one disgusted visitor wrote to The Times, ‘I have no reason to find any fault with my sight but I fell and nearly broke my leg the other day over one of his fossil serpents which lay on the floor, covered in so much dirt that neither was to be distinguished.’ These collections had been purchased for the nation at great expense.[37] It soon became apparent to De la Beche that the British Museum was not the place to found a national collection, with its legacy of discontented keepers, unsatisfactory management, inappropriate trusteeship, and poor scientific reputation.

The Museum of Economic Geology was an entirely different proposition. While it fell under De la Beche’s control, it was, until July 1845, under a completely separate government department from that which oversaw the Survey. The museum, which De la Beche had applied to have established as an adjunct to his work in Devon and Cornwall, had modest beginnings in 1835 in a house in Craig’s Court, Charing Cross. Here ores, building stones, ornamental minerals, models of mining machinery and so on, were accumulated. In time the museum acquired a chemist and a keeper of mining records. In the early 1840s, then occupying two houses, it opened to the public but was considered by those who saw it as being far from adequate.[38] In its favour it was free and open every day except for Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday.

A London depot 

The Survey’s fossil collections had been found separate London accommodation in 1842, in a suite of lowly dwellings just off Whitehall. The ‘situation has a philosophic dullness as well as calmness, but the houses appear so well suited for the Museum Occupants’, Phillips assured De la Beche. ‘Two of them are lodging houses, I suppose the third is your Surveyor’s? house. That is the best, & may be worth £100, though I doubt; the others are not worth above £60 I should think. So it is no great thing to ask for.’ The new store was near the Museum of Economic Geology and close to King’s College, and the Geological and Royal Societies.[39]

As De la Beche became increasingly assured of government support for his vision of the Survey so his museum ambitions grew, supported by Phillips’s desire to head a new national investigation of palaeontology. In Phillips’s mind the museum and publication were symbiotic partners; curation enabled publication which itself fed back all kinds of graphical support to interpret fossils in the museum’s exhibitions. He advised De la Beche, ‘obtain the establishment of a good general system of classification, delineation, description and exhibition of British Organized fossils’. This was to be accomplished in ‘one central Depot for every known British species of fossil’, gathered by the Survey’s staff and through the now traditional museum mechanisms of gift and exchange. The scale of this enterprise was indicated by John Morris’s Catalogue of British Fossils, published in 1843, which listed 5000 species, though Phillips thought this many thousands short of the true figure.[40]

At that time the Survey’s collections amounted to 1000 gallons of fossils which would occupy 1000 square feet of drawer space, were that space available. Phillips urged rapid action in order to exploit that body of subconscious data which had not been translated into any tangible form since the collecting and identification of the fossils: ‘the classification may be begun & ought not to be delayed, for memory is now fresh but must grow dull.’[41] The cost of acquiring the drawers alone – £50 to £100 – was similar to the cost of the buildings themselves. The fossils would then need to be drawn, engraved and placed on public exhibition, with a work ‘on Organic Remains’ to follow some time after.

It was at this time that the Survey began to increase its rate of acquisition and precision in collecting, as was essential to its plans to take over stratigraphic description, mapmaking and the palaeontological memoir. Phillips could demonstrate the utility of the approach. It had taken him three days just to complete the figures for one species of brachiopod, Leptaena euglypha, ‘the hinges & muscular impressions of these things are difficult to make out well; & nothing but our abundance of specimens could enable any one to do it.’[42] Such materials from many locations and collections were to be harmonised into the most perfect publication and collections possible: ‘by means of most careful & systematic drawings, applicable as data in the solution of any problems connected with antient life, its nature, affinities, duration, distribution.’ The new publication was to form a central pillar in the new science and a permanent memorial to its writer: ‘I will affirm that for an individual who is honestly desirous to leave, concerning any group of fossils, a perennial volume, this is the plan for him.’[43] It represented on paper what had first to be achieved in the museum.

Despite earlier objections to museum work – ‘not however at all in the way of the Curatorship of a Museum which my health positively forbids’ –Phillips was planning, by mid-February 1843, to spend two months in London arranging the Survey collections as a prelude to their possible publication. The attraction of heading the compilation of a new definitive series on British fossils was sufficient to forego his earlier objections to curatorial work. He could mitigate these problems by walking into London from a nearby village so he could at least maintain the exercise he felt was essential to his health. Interestingly, when Forbes eventually took on this work he too required ‘breathing time’ away from town.[44]

The relationship between the Survey’s publication programme and the museum ensured not only comprehensive scientific coverage of fossils but also a high level of interpretation, and included amongst its exhibits maps and sections which were themselves new to science. Phillips was keen to see De la Beche complete a north-south section through Wales: ‘Depend on it this would be a noble thing, fit to draw on a huge scale & hang up as a specimen.’ Fossils were to be cemented onto boards or arranged in trays and placed in cabinets of, eventually glazed, drawers. A ‘three or four foot glass case’ was later to be mounted on top of each of these for the purposes of display.[45]

In the first instance, however, the main purpose of organising the collection was to aid the interpretation of fossils returning from their planned assault on Wales: ‘the collections we have got must certainly be used to interpret those we are to get, so that an arrangement thereof is most desirable, & even a sine qua non.’ The practical needs of space alone warranted this but also some rationalisation – they were to gather everything they could from the field and then decide what should be retained, ‘lest some other Son of the Hammer in some other geological age cast it in our teeth that we collected but did not select, nor dispose.’ Two hundred and eighty drawers had been acquired but Phillips wanted the number increased to 500. He also urged De la Beche to improve the accommodation – the rooms they had were fine for working on the collections, but more space was required for exhibition, which in the first instance was envisaged as being entirely in drawers.[46]

A museum of practical geology

At the end of 1844, De la Beche’s objective of combining the collections of the Museum of Economic Geology and the Geological Survey was achieved. Sanctioned by the Geological Survey Act of July 1845, plans were soon in place for a new Museum of Practical Geology. This began to rise rapidly but was then delayed while De la Beche vehemently opposed the placing of shops beneath the museum. In the meantime extra space was found for the expanding fossil collections in Buckland’s Westminster stables at a cost of £5 per quarter. In November 1849 the collections were finally installed in the new building, which was opened on Monday 12 May 1851 by the Prince Consort, Prince Albert, in the company of the science’s established élite.[47]

Fig. 12.1 The economic products of geology on display at the Museum of Practical Geology in 1851. From London Illustrated News, 12 May 1851.

The museum had two frontages, one on Piccadilly and the main one, containing the public entrance, on Jermyn Street. The museum itself was on the first floor and consisted of one large space divided into three: the main exhibition area on the floor of the gallery and two ‘light galleries’ which skirted around the upper walls. The main floor was almost entirely given over to minerals and the products of geology; it aimed to show all the practical applications of geology in the UK. At its opening, De la Beche made no mention of the extensive fossil collections. The unique quality of the museum was its service to the economy; the mineral assets of Great Britain and Ireland were then valued at £25,000,000 per annum – nearly half that of all Europe. This economic emphasis embodied the mission of the earlier Museum of Economic Geology and reflected perfectly the focus of the ‘Exhibition of all Nations’ or Great Exhibition of the same year which was also patronised by the Prince. De la Beche, and the other gentleman geologists, were aware of the powerful political point such a museum could make in linking the geology of manufacture to the geology of gentlemen. It was a three-dimensional argument for continued government patronage. The public were to be persuaded of its merits by ‘panellings, mosaics, vases, tazzas, and other decorations’, by models, minerals and evidence by scientific ingenuity, and by building stones and ores but not by serried rows of fossils. Even the most extensive press reports allocated no more than two sentences to the fossil displays; most did not mention them at all.[48]

The fossils upon which the whole science had really advanced were arranged stratigraphically in the two balcony galleries in table cases which overlooked the floor of the museum. Opposite these, in wall cases, larger specimens were arranged. The lower of these galleries held the Palaeozoic fossils; two-thirds of the cases displayed fossils from Murchison’s stratigraphic territories – the Silurian and Devonian (Sedgwick’s Cambrian was not represented but he was co-author of the Devonian). Secondary and Tertiary fossils were placed in the upper gallery. The back wall was curved giving continuity to the arrangement, a homage to Smith’s notion of the stratigraphic museum so perfectly captured in Scarborough’s Rotunda. In another way too Smith’s presence could be observed right to the end of the century. His notion of characteristic fossils (rather than Phillips’s more sophisticated distributional interpretations) held sway in Survey thinking: ‘To assist the student of palaeontology, who will probably at first find so large a collection rather bewildering, the characteristic fossils in each formation are indicated by red spots. The green spots seen here and there on certain fossils indicated that the specimens have been figured’.[49]

Despite the Survey’s uncontrolled collecting, and perhaps because of it, the vast collections the museum held were not always appropriate to public exhibition. Collecting had not been undertaken with display in mind, and it seems that Phillips felt illustrations might illuminate the more obscure specimens. As plans for the museum had become more elaborate so it had been necessary to gather up specimens of illustrative quality. The huge collections of duplicates the Survey had amassed now became a means of buying favours. The Survey was still collecting vast amounts of material. In 1852 alone, around 9000 fossils comprising some 650 species were sent in by its fieldworkers. Donations were also received including material from abroad. Surplus duplicates were sent to form secondary suites in Scotland and Ireland, with the remainder – several hundred – being used for exchanges with private collectors and institutions. In this year material was sent to museums in Ipswich, Bristol, Vienna and Perth, as well as to some of the best-known geologists internationally.[50] The Survey was behaving exactly as had Whitby museum decades earlier. But where Whitby only laid claim to its local cliffs, the Survey, with its clearing of whole areas of fossils, took possession of vast tracts of Britain. It too would attempt to create the best possible collection by a process of distillation.

Those who contributed to the new museum viewed it in different ways. Some saw it as a new buyer and a way to capitalise on a collection, but others saw donation as an act of patriotism perhaps egged-on by the Survey’s own staff. Thus Forbes set out to convince a collector by the name of Clark in Sandgate, Kent, to give up what, in Forbes’s opinion, was the ‘finest existing collection of Gault fossils (always difficult to get good) … The owner is a patriotic individual …’. And on this impulse Clark donated his material, which went on display immediately. Charles Green of Bacton, Norfolk, on the other hand, approached the museum very early on, hoping to sell to it a collection of 5000 fossils (and 1052 species) for £150. Here, however, the collection seems to have been declined and purchased instead by the British Museum.[51] At the same time countless other specimens were being rediscovered in parcels, some dating back to the Devon survey.

By the time of De la Beche’s death, the museum was referred to, informally, as the Geological Museum of the British Isles. As Murchison remarked, ‘Then arose, and very much after the design of the accomplished Director himself, that well-adapted edifice in Jermyn Street, which, to the imperishable credit of its author, stands forth as the first palace ever raised from the ground in Britain which is entirely devoted to the advancement of science’.[52] A school of mines was attached to it and courses of lectures introduced for the miner, the smelter and their like. De la Beche’s impact on the institutionalisation and professionalisation of geology had been greater than that of any other contributor. Murchison vowed that the Geological Society would ensure the survival of the Geological Museum into the future. It was Murchison’s monument; it was the Society’s monument. In this it was more than De la Beche’s personal achievement, it was also his gift (with all that that implies).  

[1].          Lyell (1826a). For ‘empty verbosity …’, Leeds Monthly Magazine in the 1830s, quoted by Allen (1987: 247) and North (1956). Torrens (1990a: 185) exposes similar views of the Bath society in 1829. Chapter 3 for similar views of York and Whitby societies. Hudson (1851: 167).

[2].          Arscott (1988: 143-4); Morris (1990: 238).

[3].          For Vestry and Improvement Commissions, Wilson (1971: 174). For Municipal Corporations Act, see Eastwood (1997: 83); for effect in Leeds and elsewhere, Wilson (1971) and Fraser (1979: 51); for economic depression amongst others, Altick (1973: 89); Wilson also gives a detailed insight into the unrest and fluctuating fortunes of mercantile Leeds.

[4].          Rudwick (1985: 418ff) discusses these kinds of movement and relationship in detail.

[5].          Huxley quoted by Turner (1993: 184).

[6].          For difficulty of texts, Gillispie (1951: xi) and Allen (1989: 211).

[7].          Allen (1997: 209).

[8].          The Act for Encouraging the Establishment of Museums in Large Towns permitted the setting of a halfpenny rate to fund museum development, if the urban population was over 10,000. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1850 removed this power. ‘Several men …’,  WL&PS (1837) Annual Report15.

[9].          YPS (1847) Annual Report for 1846.

[10].        ‘The Whitby …’ and ‘They cannot …’, WL&PS (1830 and 1833) Annual Report, 8 and 11.

[11].        ‘It has seldom’, WL&PS (1849) Annual Report27. Simpson, ‘On the Rev Dr Young’, three mss lectures transcribed by Parry Thornton (1998), WL&PS.

[12].        Scruton (1900); Morrell (1985).

[13].        For debt and Gray’s loan, YPS (1830 and 1847) Annual Reports for 1829 and 1846, respectively.

[14].        On Stephenson, Watson (1897: 98, 128); Whitby Bath Company, Browne (1946: 61, 63). On Bristol, Hume (1853: 138), Torrens (1990a: 185) and Taylor (1994: 190). Neve (1983) sees Bristol as a poor cousin to other urban philosophical societies, when in reality it was typical. Presidential address [John Naish Sanders], Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society26, xlii.

[15].        Phillips, Birmingham to Harcourt, Isle of Wight, 6 July 1837, and editor’s comments, in Morrell and Thackray (1984: 245). Minutes of WL&PS, 10 March 1842.

[16].        WL&PS (1830) Annual Report8; Browne (1946: 61). 

[17].        The strip of paper containing this contract remains in the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough.

[18].        SL&PS Minutes of Council proposed 10 January 1842, approved 14 February 1842.

[19].        SL&PS Minutes of Council, 14 April 1848, 13 June 1848.

[20].        General meeting of SL&PS shareholders, 30 August 1848; Meeting of shareholders committee, 4 September 1848. Both recorded with SL&PS Council Minutes.

[21].        Reports of subcommittees 5 October 1848, recorded with SL&PS Council Minutes.

[22].        Theakston’s Visitors Guide to Scarborough (1859).

[23].        An overview of the cyclical development of geological collections, Knell (1996). For Greenough, see Davis (1889: 154-5). Moore et al. (1991: 57-9) for the Geological Society museum.

[24].        For ‘fine things’, Phillips, Oxford  to De la Beche, 1 February 1854, NMW. Phillips became Keeper in 1857, Morrell and Thackray (1981: 439). ‘Fortunately …’, Gordon (1894: 52-3, 140).

[25].        Guilding (1835). On Miller, Perceval (1907).

[26].        Canterbury, Anon. (1871: 381) and The Times, 18 September 1826, 2d.

[27].        ‘Unfortunately …’, Forbes (1853). Gulliver (1871: 35).

[28].        Ibid., p. 36.

[29].        For Manchester, Kargon (1977: 14); see Chapter 3 for Newcastle admission.

[30].        On educational museums, Forbes (1853: 11). BAAS review, Knell (1996) and MacGregor (1997: 22). Greenwood (1888). Bleak House, Altick (1973: 111). The second law might be paraphrased: disorder increases unless kept in check by the expenditure of energy.

[31].        Phillips (1875: 193).

[32].        For ‘all our …’ and ‘all the …’, Simpson, Whitby Museum to Dr W.J. Veitch, 15 September 1884, reprinted in Sheppard (1918: 313). For ‘the great wealth …’, Simpson (1884) and ibid. p. 303.

[33].        ‘There is …’, De la Beche, Bridgend to Phillips, York, 3 May 1840, OUM DLB37; ‘not to …’, Phillips, York to De la Beche, 23 January 1843, NMW.

[34].        For ‘as being …’,  De la Beche, Camelford to T.W. Philipps, 21 July 1835, BSG GSM 1/1 Entry book in-out letters 1835-1842. Society resources, Forbes, to De la Beche, 11 November 1844, NMW 543. See Moore et al. (1991: 59ff).

[35].        For ‘those I …’, De la Beche, Falmouth to Phillips, 31 May 1837, OUM Phillips DLB6. Charles König (1774-1851);  ‘basis of …’,  from Miller (1973: 226); Etheldred Benett wrote of König’s contempt, see Torrens (1994: 69). For criticism, see, for example, B (1828b), Anon. (1828b), Lyell (1826: 155) and Davy (1840: 361-5). See also Stearn (1981) and Desmond (1989: 145-51) for Select Committee Review. Gunther (1980) for Royal Commission.

[36].        Movements and proposed movements of collections, Miller (1973: 232, 234-6). On this petition, Magazine of Natural History (NS), 3, 512.

[37].        A Geological Student, The Times, 15 May 1833, 4b. Also Anon. letter, The Times, 21 November 1834, 4a, complaining about Hawkins’s Ichthyosaurus chiroligostinos covered by green baize, part of a collection which had been purchased for 500 guineas which was now obscured from view. Falling over Hawkins’ material, Philo-sophos, The Times, 1 March 1841, 3f. See also Anon. (1838). For more on Hawkins see Taylor (in press).

[38].        McCartney (1977: 36-7); Sopwith (1843) describes the museum’s contents.

[39].        Phillips, Malvern to De la Beche, 13 November 1842, NMW. This accommodation is referred to as Scotland Yard between November 1842 and April 1843 and then 3a (Old) Whitehall Yard. Rudwick (1985: 35) for centre of geological world. 

[40].        Phillips, York to De la Beche, 29 December 1842, NMW. Number of fossil species, Phillips, York to De la Beche, 7 October 1843, NMW.

[41].        Ibid. In later life Phillips often received queries asking him to recall the details of some previously observed geological section or locality.

[42].        Phillips, York to De la Beche, 23 January 1843, NMW. On Leptaena, Phillips, London to De la Beche, 26 July 1843, NMW.

[43].        Ibid., 26 July 1843.

[44].        For ‘not however …’, Phillips, Taunton to De la Beche, 27 April 1840, NMW. For health, Phillips, York to De la Beche, 10 February 1843, NMW; Forbes, Isle of Man to W. Gourlie, 7 September 1851, BGS GSM 1/312 Forbes letters.

[45].        ‘Depend on …’,  Phillips, York to De la Beche, 5 March 1842, NMW. Presentation methods, Phillips to De la Beche, 16 February 1843, NMW.

[46].        For ‘the collections …’, Phillips, York to De la Beche, 1 February 1843, NMW; ‘lest some …’, Phillips, Wotton under Edge to De la Beche, 19 May 1843, NMW. Drawers, Phillips, Cork to De la Beche, 10 August 1843, NMW.

[47].        McCartney (1977: 37-8). Buckland to De la Beche, 3 March 1846, BGS GSM 1/12 Correspondence of the Director General 1836-47/67. The new name was in place by this time. Anon. (1851a).

[48].        For ‘panellings …’, Anon. (1851c), see also Anon. (1851a, b, d, e). Ramsay in 1877 clearly stated the underlying need for the Survey, in its early years, to appear of practical and economic value, Ramsay quoted by Torrens (1999).

[49].        Museum of Practical Geology (1896: 129).

[50].        BGS GSM 1/219 Palaeontology Department Reports and Lists of Fossils 1846-1863.

[51].        Forbes to De la Beche, [n.d.], NMW DLB 580. Green to the Secretary, Museum of Economic Geology, 21 August 1843 BGS GSM 1/12 Correspondence of the Director General 1836-1847/45. Cleevely (1983: 134).

[52].        Murchison receiving the Wollaston Medal on behalf of De la Beche for 1855, QJGS11, xxiv. Address of President, 1856, QJGS12, xxxvii.

From: Simon J. Knell. The Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851: A Science Revealed Through Its Collecting (Aldershot/Burlington USA/Singapore/Sydney: Ashgate Publishing, 2000).