13 The Making of a Heroic Age

In the second decade of the nineteenth century the new science of geology found its focus. That focus was fossils and their utility in the enterprise of stratigraphy. Proclaiming a new empiricism, the Geological Society let it be known that it was sweeping aside speculative science. But equally those of the society’s empiricists who were blind and sceptical, who could be accused of supporting a religion of undifferentiated facts, were also to be swept aside by this new sense of focus. With his discovery partly attributed to the French, by 1820 his countrymen were at last beginning to recognise that Smith had been ill-used. The spirit of élitism which characterised the society in its early years had determined that if a geological messiah was to be born he would arise from their ranks. That he should arise from a humbler class was not something to be admitted or celebrated, especially if his powers could be usurped. Their motive was to fabricate perceptions of a noble science, not to be drawn down into the intellectual world of practical men. Smith’s was a biblical journey to recognition which by 1820 had still not been completed. He was to spend another ten years in the wilderness. By this time the science had sufficient stature of its own to carry the burden of such lowly associations; it had already achieved nobility and now wished for English, rather than French, parentage.

Writing at the end of the century, Geikie was in no doubt that the discovery of the intellectual utility of fossils formed the transforming moment in nineteenth-century geology. The change it brought about is apparent not just in the contemporary literature and in the shifting allegiances of the society’s membership, it is also seen in collections. At its founding the Geological Society concerned itself with the presence of ‘mineralogical collections’. Fossils were included in these collections but they were not of any especial interest. By 1822 the ‘fossil collection’ was synonymous with the ‘geological collection’. Minerals now formed a quite separate entity. Smith’s stratigraphically organised geological collection had become the established model, replacing collections ordered by biological, geographical, lithological and chemical systems of classification. His arrangement captured the three key elements of stratigraphic practice as he had determined them: superposition, lithology and fossil content preserved respectively in the collection’s arrangement, the fossil matrices and in the fossils themselves. 

This change in the function of fossils is remarkably visible but those who have undertaken long-term reviews in search of the science’s origins have seen it only as part of gradual change, not a rapid and transforming shift of paradigm.[1] But if one disentangles the dominant stratigraphic enterprise, which characterised geology in the early part of the century, from wider views of the earth sciences as they are now viewed, a rapid change of focus and method is clearly apparent. Kuhn’s explanation of scientific change helps considerably in determining the significance of these transformations, though there is little need to shoehorn the historical events described here into any theoretical model. Kuhn’s loosely defined ‘paradigm’ had two key attributes. The first was that it should represent an unprecedented achievement which attracted ‘an enduring group of adherents’. The second, that it should be ‘sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve’. A good theory had to have the essential characteristics of accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity and fruitfulness.[2]

Smith saw himself simply as an empiricist; he felt he had no theory to sell. But Farey used the term ‘theory’ to describe Smith’s method and others isolated his use of characteristic fossils as an established law. In practice Smith’s notion did perform as a paradigm; it was certainly more than a methodology. It had all the characteristics Kuhn defines. In this way it was applied to decipher rock sequences. Equally much research was aimed at its explanation and refinement. Smith never saw it as finished or complete, but always something to be tested. This is most clearly seen in the distributional analyses undertaken by Phillips, which were themselves a development of Smith’s own ideas. This research methodology, like Smith’s own ‘characteristic fossils’ and so much else, was floating, unauthored, in the intellectual ether, there to be picked up by anyone. Botanists were pursuing similar lines of investigation and Smith was certainly using plant distribution in a simple way to indicate underlying lithologies. The vertical and lateral distribution of fossils became an obvious target for such analysis. Progressively this line of research took geology into fossil arithmetic and the study of palaeoenvironments. It bound geology closely to Cuvierian palaeontology which sought not only to order and describe the fossil world but also to speculate on it as a living entity. It allied its interpretations and conclusions to empirical discoveries from modern seas – particularly those arising from dredging – and to contemporary theories of creation and dispersion. It also had an important role to play in the discovery of ‘deep time’. As a paradigm it enclosed the most important aspect of geological enterprise but this aspect was so pervasive that it reached out to embrace the whole of geology.

Geology had a high quotient of controversies in its early years. Most of these concerned issues of priority and the possession of nomenclature. The battle to have Smith’s stratigraphy adopted was more ideological. If it was a revolution, it was a quiet revolution. The forces were unmatched and Smith, a private man, was no great advocate or intellectual theorist. In this John Farey might be drawn as Smith’s Huxley, a geological radical transforming the practice of geology.[3]

The notion of characteristic fossils became one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs the science was to have in the first half of the century. As a revolution in thinking it appears all the more remarkable for being led by the relatively lowly. Those who felt they had cultural authority in this field attempted to deny it status but were only partly successful.

In the post-Darwinian era it is difficult to visualise the impact of Smith’s idea. In the natural sciences, the transformation in thinking resulting from Darwin’s theory dwarfed all others by its significance; it also gave much explanation to Smith’s ‘notion’. It was a notion which, through Phillips’s tables of figures, also affected Darwin’s thinking. In the pre-Darwinian era Smith’s idea held much mystery and relied upon such inventions as successive deluges. Though it defied complete explanation its impact on collections and philosophers alike was remarkable. This can be read from the transformation it brought about in the science culture of Yorkshire. It is also apparent from Phillips’s subsequent research direction.

The issue of priority between French and English advocates of the system is not of concern here. Certainly the Paris Basin study, and Webster’s supporting work, made graphic the power of fossils in stratigraphy. These determined the timing of the revolution. Smith and Farey’s literary contributions up to this point had been limited; Smith’s notion was widely known but simply denied. It is not important whether the discovery was entirely novel or entirely Smith’s; a moment of change had come and these practical men were deeply implicated in the transformation.

Historical narratives of this great age of geological advance have often begun with Sedgwick’s admissions of ignorance and Murchison following the hounds. The established perspective is, of course, influenced by a retrospective view which recognises the centrality of the Geological Society’s great figures in the period between 1830 and 1850, and utilises the most visible and accepted resource of the historian: the published record. Over the last two decades the historiography of this period has shifted its focus to the examination of contemporary correspondence and notebooks. While the survival of these archival materials is undoubtedly determined by literary achievement and social status, their use has transformed notions of the practice of geology in the first half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the focus has remained on the science’s great conceptual achievements as recorded in the literature and centred on the Geological Society and the old university towns. These accounts undoubtedly reveal the nature of geological discovery and correctly identify some of the defining moments in the science’s development. But their sense of focus is also influenced directly by the gentlemen geologists themselves; this is geology as these men wished us to see it – history which centres the savant and the published idea. It raises the question: what has been obscured by this process? 

Views on Smith remain mixed. For some he was powerless, inconsequential and without vision, and even purported to have never used the method for which he is celebrated; others paint him as a disadvantaged but innovative practical man. In these narratives, Farey remains in the wings barely seen; meddlesome rather than a key scientific radical shifting the research paradigm of geology out of the sceptical hands of Greenough and his mineralogists. This balance of views is an inevitable consequence of the Geological Society’s role as the science’s self-appointed legitimiser. Consequently, the practical man remains largely invisible. But these men are not the only invisible elements. We might also include the provincial philosopher and artisan. While we know a great deal about individuals we know relatively little about their geology. Other elements in the cultural landscape of geology were so prevalent, so central, that they hardly required comment. The collection, the museum, the lecture and the society held hidden complexities which played a considerable part in enabling the science’s progress. They existed in the capital but were more numerous in the provinces. They were communication devices which influenced the spread of ideas and practice, and which in a variety of ways brought into being the wider cultural phenomenon that geology was to become. They were also the means by which Smith understood and communicated his science.

A process of colonisation

Fossil-centred geology in the first half of the nineteenth century became, to use Robert Merton’s term, a ‘hot field’.[4] The competition for discovery was intense but the issue of priority was just one attribute of a science which had considerable cultural depth. In search of a metaphor through which to visualise the cultural attributes of the new science, that of colonisation is perhaps most useful. The great westward migration into the vast spaces of North America in the early nineteenth century has been well studied and provides many parallels. For the American settlers the draw was, of course, not simply that of land, but also of freedom, wealth, enterprise and so on. Geology in similar fashion opened up a multifaceted cultural space. It was not simply a battleground for priority or the pursuit of natural knowledge. It too offered freedoms and opportunities for wealth, enterprise and status. It created geographical territories where communities could stake a claim to local resources or upon which to build civic or national pride. There were also social territories where individuals could build a career, cross into the national realm of science, or establish an immortal presence. Here political and religious differences could be defused, the lowly could enter the establishment, and networks built and patronage acquired. In these spaces an education could be had, an institution erected and materials gathered to represent a cultural identity. Territories were acquired by the establishment of facts and laws, by the erecting of nomenclatures, by the naming of things. Here too were commercial territories where the enterprising could enhance their paltry wage, dealers could establish new monopolies, and networks of trade and exchange could be developed. The new science rapidly established its own communities, marketplaces, parliaments and council chambers, peopled by its own dealers, traders, labourers, connoisseurs, elder statesmen, inventors and politicians. Quite simply, a ‘New World’ had been discovered: a spatial vacuum into which a whole host of participants could be drawn to mark out various kinds of territory. The interaction between these different components resulted in a system of positive feedback, of self-catalysing interaction. And because the new economy was rooted in common materials – fossils, minerals and rocks – anyone could stake a claim. 

But the new colonists did not enter an unpopulated territory. To some it was peopled by speculative and fundamentalist savages, but others saw farmers (antiquarians) and trappers (collectors) with whom to trade. The intellectually inclined settlers brought their own religions of Smithian stratigraphy and Cuvierian palaeontology. But the rapid colonisation and development of this new territory lay not simply in ideological change but more importantly in its transparency. The immigrants to North America brought with them their own home cultures which could be superimposed and adapted to the new landscape. Geology, similarly, offered a space into which contemporary social agenda could be imported and played out. It acted as a cultural medium for the pursuit and expression of universal motives and norms. In this geology was not alone; nineteenth-century Britain held many such frontiers, from those being occupied by the new men of industry to those of the new men of poetry and art. This was an age of cultural enterprise. Here opportunities created rivalries, jealousies and battles for territory; in each the social politics were much the same. The cultural phenomenon of geology in this period cannot be read merely as fashion though most pioneer cultures can easily be perceived as such. It is a perspective which begins to answer the questions ‘Why geology?’, ‘Why geologists?’[5]

Greenough, from his gentlemanly perspective, used a similar metaphor. However, this only recognised the superficial characteristics of the age: ‘the English geologist was tempted to explore the strata of his own country by many of the same motives which in the 14th century operated so powerfully in urging on to the coasts of the new world the adventurers of Portugal and Spain.’[6] Here the far-reaching social implications remain unseen: its rewards, its methods, its jealousies and its non-gentlemanly participants. All these things, though striking now, were so ubiquitous then that they no required comment.

An age of heroes

Viewed in this light, in an age of individualism, it is perhaps easier to understand the notion of a ‘Heroic Age of Geology’. It is a notion which has traditionally been used for literary effect but in a number of ways has much more to say about the cultural world which transformed geology into a modern science in little more than three decades. The appellation is generally attributed to Zittel who applied it to a period when the methodologies of geology were transformed from speculation to observation in the years 1790-1820. It was subsequently adopted in this form by a number of other authors.[7] But since its invention there has been relatively little agreement concerning the period to which it should apply. Tikhomirov, for example, limits the ‘Heroic Period’ to the first third of the nineteenth century. Finney describes a heroic age of natural history in England and Australia as extending from 1790 to 1860. Laudan referred to ‘the heroic tale of the “discovery of time”’ as a central strand in geology in the first half of the century and later to the ‘“heroic” period of geology (as the period from 1780-1840 used to be called)’. Morrell, Torrens, Porter and Wyatt also take a later period and centre it on such heroic figures as Murchison, Sedgwick and Lyell. Allen defined the period as one that ended when consensus replaced dispute as a mode of progress: ‘Polemics belonged with the heroics of that now-past age of geology’. A view which at least corresponds to the classical origins of ‘heroic age’ in the Trojan wars. Porter further distinguishes the period 1750-1820 as the ‘heroic days of the practical men’. That this is a period largely uncelebrated – the antithesis of geology in the three decades after 1820 – owes much to the cultural determinants of the middle-class gentlemen who had then taken possession of the subject.[8]

Hugh Torrens begins to delve into the historiography of the heroic age using Murchison’s Silurian System as a central pillar. He demonstrates that such thinking – at least in a modern sense and not in that applied by Zittel –  is in part derived from Murchison’s own rewriting of history: of claiming that his monument had been built in an intellectual wilderness when really the Welsh borders had been actively and successfully investigated for many years prior to his arrival. Murchison forms a useful model for the hero in geology, a man of science driven by social ambition. In striking a heroic pose he could look to others as role models, and none better than Humphry Davy. Davy’s pursuit of social ambition had created ‘the image of scientist as romantic hero’ in the minds of his contemporaries.[9] As Davy told a friend in 1801, ‘The voice of fame is murmuring in my ear … I dream of greatness and utility’. A recent biographer explained, ‘“Genius”, “hero”, “great man” … were effectively synonymous with Davy’s writings. Thus, for Davy, ambition and a desire for fame were not base sentiments, but noble and necessary ingredients of genius.’ Like Disraeli’s fictional Coningsby, Murchison came to learn that ‘The power of man, his greatness and his glory, depend on essential qualities. Brains every day become more precious than blood. You must give men new ideas, you must teach them new words, you must modify their manners, you must change their laws, you must root out prejudices, subvert convictions, if you wish to be great.’ In those social and cultural fields where geology had found fertile ground, the hero was not simply a messiah to guide, but could be moral inspiration, a call to the patriotic, a subject for escapism.[10]

The heroic, however, was not merely a product of pose. It also required the acquisition of territory – in geology, monumental discoveries – which had to stand the test of time. For the hero, as much as the philosophical society, a presence ‘in future ages’ was the ultimate test. Murchison openly admitted this in his presidential address to the Geological Society in 1842: ‘The perpetuity of a name affixed to any group of rocks through his original research is the highest distinction to which any working geologist can aspire … it is in truth his monument’. But others complained, ‘Murchison is too omnivorous of fame, grasping at what does not belong to him’. Here Mantell is not condemning Murchison’s fame-seeking so much as complaining of him usurping the monuments of others. Mantell looked to Murchison with admiration, for he personified what for Mantell was also the ultimate meaning of science. As he told a friend, following two lectures given in his new home town of Brighton, ‘they were the means of introducing me to all the first people in the Town, and my society was courted by the fashionables: in fact I was the Lion of the Season:  hundreds of the nobility and gentry flocked to my Museum every Tuesday the day I allowed it to be seen, and so far as notoriety was desirable the plan was successful, and my popularity continued during the season.’[11]

Mantell and Murchison’s use of science in this way was not exceptional. It was the norm. The pursuit of fame in its various forms was the pervasive determinant of participation, at least for the middle classes for whom it was an occupation of choice rather than of economic necessity. Thomas Webster was another who made these motives clear. As he told Sedgwick, ‘it would be an affectation to pretend that my sole motive was the advancement of science and the public good. I consider the acquisition of knowledge, the consideration of our fellow men, the consequence and reputation which we acquire by our exertions, are motives entirely legitimate and even praiseworthy’. In the same year he wrote to Alexandre Brongniart pointing out his priority in discoveries that had been misattributed to the Frenchman: ‘I should not have mentioned this were it not for the reflection that a love of honest fame is a just and useful stimulus to action and that reputation is frequently the only reward we receive for our labours’. Cumberland, who was also in pursuit of geological territory but struggling to acquire it, advised Webster not to worry: ‘you are slow but sure, have a good eye and I believe no prejudices and have no occasion to run races with anyone; jog on therefore at your own pace and you will come in victorious like the Tortoise at last’. But Cumberland was wrong. As the months progressed no territory remained unchallenged. Merton saw the culture of science as potentially pathogenic: everything becoming a race for priority and the fame it brings. All rests with originality, which can only be attested to by first place; to come second, even if only by a moment, amounted to failure.[12]

De la Beche, amongst others, saw this ubiquitous pursuit of fame as a plague on science: ‘“every gentleman for his peculiar fame” is sad work.’ What De la Beche was really complaining about was that which made geology so viable – that it was an open territory. As a consequence geological progress was a succession of battles, rather than a more leisurely path to immortalisation. But this wasn’t simply a product of geology but indicative of the world in which it found itself during the period when there were opportunities to transform it, intellectually, into a science. In the intelligent young, Davy detected a ubiquitous ‘desire for glory, of honour, of immortal fame and of constant knowledge … symptoms of the infinite and progressive nature of intellect’. As Corbin noted, in an age of social mobility, ‘strengthening the sense of self’, ‘the temptation of self-glorification, the hypertrophy of reassuring vanity’ became universal; ‘Anyone could now strike the pose of the hero.’[13] Every early nineteenth-century poet echoed the themes of hero, fame and immortality. It was just one variant on that constant social vying for superiority which epitomised Victorian attitudes to life and to death. As William Danby’s friend, the poet Robert Southey, put it:

My hopes are with the Dead, anon

My place with them will be,

And I with them shall travel on

Through all Futurity;

Yet leaving here a name, I trust,

That will not perish in the dust.[14]

These urges and concerns were not new but few had previously had the opportunity to feel them. Now, with a new and burgeoning middle class, they were within reach of the many.

Immortal remains

A motto emblazoned across the façade of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire reads ‘In things transitory resteth no glory’. This was not simply a belief of the Ishams who put it there but a universal doctrine overtly held. Just as ‘Merchants kept half an eye cocked at posterity’, geologists too hoped that their discoveries would live on after their death. Merchants invested in posterity through the pursuit of favourable marriages, the patronage of artists to paint the new dynasty and the erection of monumental buildings. They also erected posthumous memorials. In this way it was easy to ensure a presence beyond the grave. Thus Edward Baines, head of one of the ruling families in Leeds, died ‘in the happy assurance of a blissful immortality’. Like other great men he was remembered in numerous memorials and paintings, and in a hagiography by his son. Robert Denison, a contemporary of Baines, laid aside funds for the erection of ‘a tomb or monumental statue to my memory’. Many of the monuments geologists created followed a similar pattern. For those with wealth, social influence or government patronage there were opportunities to establish institutions. As monuments these were more than simply buildings. Like the mill, the museum or scientific institute embodied the vision of its maker. In Phillips’s view it was by this means that De la Beche would acquire immortality: ‘you will hammer out for yourself a monument of fitting dimensions’, he told him.[15] The achievements of Vernon and Young were similarly preserved.

It was part of ‘social expectation’ that a man should, in his life, strive to ensure that his name endures. This is apparent from comments about those who neglected this duty for they were exceptional. It was remarked of Thomas Colby, for example, a key figure in the topographical and geological surveys of Britain in this period, that he had a generosity ‘which led him too often to neglect the means of ensuring his own fame’. And of Charles Stokes, a London fossil collector, that he was ‘Careless of fame’. What they failed to pursue was immortality in the memory of society.[16]

For the geologist, however, the greatest monuments were not so much physical as conceptual, Murchison’s Silurian System being one of the finest. However in Murchison’s case he was also taking possession of physical space. Others would do the same. Smith, for example, had named rocks though with no intention of monument building. Smith’s stratigraphic law, through its universality of application, was considerably more important than nomenclatures or physical correlations. It did not come with any land attached, it was purely conceptual. For Phillips, his memorials were to be literary achievements – ‘perennial volumes’ – which he hoped would preserve his name into the future and which contained a scattering of broader geological constructions. This investment in the future was important. As Phillips confided to De la Beche, he wished to ‘be remembered among the Geologists of this age’; he did not phrase these aspirations in terms of contemporary recognition. Forbes’s work on the Aegean alone was sufficient to have ‘immortalized his name’. De la Beche’s contributions to the Geological Society’s Transactions would similarly ‘ever remain a monument of his zeal, his energy, and his perseverance’. Not long before his death he had a medal struck carrying the symbol of two crossed hammers with the inscription – Sis memor usque mei – ‘Remember me always’.[17]

One admirer of Mantell’s museum crystallised the sentiment of fame in one’s life matched by immortality in a ‘pretty sonnet in the Gazette’, which Mantell chose to transcribe into his diary:

Mantell! thou nobly hast achieved the praise

That but to noblest natures doth belong—

To soar superior to the triflers’ throng

And by thy deeds thy monument to raise!

for who that through thy rare Museum strays

And views with awe-struck soul the scene sublime

That seems to spurn the bounds of space and time

And wakes to view the world of other days:

Oh! who but feels that thou has rear’d a fane 

That not alone shall charm the present age

but to all time the pilgrim shall engage

To seek the spot where all thy triumphs reign?

Yes—thou hast reared thee an immortal shrine—

Then live or die content—a deathless name is thine![18]

Mantell had been proactive in constructing his ‘deathless name’ – one could not, as Keats suggested, wait for fame:

Make your best bow to her and bid adieu, 

Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.[19]

Fame had to be actively pursued as a work of construction for a post-mortem existence. In this there was often much scope for manipulation and not simply in the form of hagiography. Thus, in 1829, Phillips spent some time going through his uncle’s notebooks and letters. Some he gave to Benjamin Richardson as a keepsake, some he destroyed but two or three journals he retained for the writing of a memoir on Smith in the future. Phillips was making preparations for Smith’s death. In 1832, he told Smith to send him all he had on the period 1790 to 1801 – ‘the keystone to your future reputation’ – so that it could be sent to Fitton who was publishing an account in the Edinburgh Review and whom Phillips saw as a ‘powerful advocate’ for this purpose. Smith had already taken steps in this direction in 1831 when he was awarded the Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal and pronounced ‘the father of English geology’. The medal itself gave contemporary recognition but just to make sure that his claims would not be disputed again in the future, he made gifts to the society of his 1799 ‘Order of Strata’ and ‘Geological Map of Bath’, and his first draft of the ‘Geological Map of England and Wales’, dated 1801. These were material statements of his priority placed within the camp of his former detractors. The objective was to preserve his memory and his achievements – to give him earthly immortality. On his death, Smith’s fame was assured. In 1840, Buckland could confirm: ‘It was the especial merit of Mr William Smith to establish a series of types of these groups, many of which have been adopted classical, in such manner as will perpetuate his name among the original discoverers of the age in which he lived.’[20]

The impermanence of the human state was never far from the Victorian mind, whatever their social circumstances. The scientific community was not immune from the increasing rates of mortality which surrounded them in their rapidly expanding and disease-ridden cities. Here it was the death of the young which dominated the emotions – death rates were highest below the age of 25. Death had never been more prominent; for the majority life was short, its end unpredictable. The funeral was considerably more commonplace than the wedding. Inevitably society found ways of coping with this phenomenon, indeed, as is well known, it became a dominant feature of contemporary culture: ‘The lugubrious trappings of woe with which the Victorians surrounded the death of a dear one – or a national hero like the Duke of Wellington – rank high among the peculiar wonders of popular culture’.[21] The pursuit of immortality was similarly a peculiarly dominant social phenomenon.

The funeral, in many respects, performed the same functions as the monument and all the other contemporary mechanisms for manipulating perceptions of social position. These were complex affairs. Funereal expense, which was taken to excessive levels as an intimation of a family’s standing, was one such mechanism. The funeral was as much about the living as the dead: ostentatious and with social obligations, mourning became another example of that vying for position, of showing oneself, of making an appropriate statement. Great funeral processions of up to 40,000, mainly men, followed the body of locally esteemed individuals – even those of no great social station. Such events were commonplace even before Victoria came to the throne. John Alderson, for example, of the noted Hull family, received a send-off of this kind in 1829 with 12-15,000 attending.[22] Such social statements provided an inheritance of reputation just as Smith’s achievements acted as a valuable and malleable commodity for Phillips.

In the year before Alderson’s death Phillips recorded his own private feelings on death and immortality. On passing through Helmsley in Yorkshire, he observed the familiar formal practice of mourning. He felt that by this means, at least, all were assured some notice. ‘It is affecting to witness this preparatory ceremonial – it is soothing to think that one shall be at least formally bewailed. Much of the mourning is to be sure little better than mummery – the tears are forced – the groans brought forth with labour: but still I would not see the practice discontinued.’[23] He was returning from his last walk along the Yorkshire coast before the publication of his book. Then in his most romantic phase he had often sunk into melancholy. He had earlier walked, in sombre mood, along the churchyard path at Guisborough as he had frequently done before. With each visit he looked in the mirror of his own mortality. How inadequate, it seemed to him, were society’s attempts to remember those who had gone before.

No walk is more frequently trodden by me than the still unobtrusive churchyard path, along which, with equal sadness, pride & pomp, and poverty, all are carried to the grave. It makes me sad to read the assurances on their ‘pail memorials’ of mortality that the deceased will be long revered by his surviving relations and friends. The statement seems to hallow every stone. Will such a declaration be impressed upon my solitary tomb? Alas! It shall never be! Too well I know that of all the hundreds of my acquaintances, out of the scores of my so-called friends – few very few will – 

                   With aching temples on their hands reclined

                   Muse on the last farewell, I leave behind

Some will miss a companion, others a pupil, others an instructor; if I do what I dare to promise, I may be for some time remembered – my place may remain for some time vacant – but this is all – no heart will burst on my untimely grave! Nor have I desired such a deep tribute of affection. My eyes can weep for few. The world is no friend of mine![24]

Phillips, knowing that he had all but achieved his great literary goal, still feared that it might not reach fruition. Death was there to snatch away the young to an ‘untimely grave’. Both Smith and Phillips had experienced the loss of parents at a young age. ‘A quarter of all children lost one parent or both before their sixteenth birthday in the 1830s’; Phillips’s parents were not much older than he was then when they died. Neither had left an indelible mark. Phillips’s life motive is here clearly defined: to erect something more than the ‘pail memorials’ of the churchyard.  This, an almost universal goal, could be evoked as evidence of rationalist morality or a celebration of God through human endeavour. The meaning of death to the living was not simply a concern for others, as Ariès suggests, but for oneself. Death motivated action, not least in forms which would give human existence some kind of extension. Death became a pervasive cultural determinant; the cemetery ‘a sort of museum of the famous, a pantheon where national heroes were honored.’[25] But this heroic status could only be acquired in life. 

Society had long been aware that material monuments merely endured longer but that they too would fall to dust, a theme of elegy long discussed before Tennyson’s: 

We pass; the path that each man trod

Is dim, or will be dim, with weeds:

What fame is left for human deeds

In endless age? It rests with God.[26]

For the collector it seemed that immutable monuments were to be created in collections – facts were being discovered. But collections had the same kind of impermanence as all other physical monuments. Even so, many were used as a means of memorialising the collector, particularly if they were placed in a scientific institution. Thus of Edward Sanderson George, who died at the tragically young age of 29, ‘The Philosophical Hall, in Leeds, exhibits many memorials of his knowledge in geology, ornithology and other departments of science.’[27] Others, who lived to the end of the century, passed their collections to the revitalised British Museum, many reaping their financial value in the process. All collections represented financial investments and most were ultimately to be sold by their owners. But just as the industrial capitalist sold stock so the collector could dispose of assets without incurring social disadvantage. As memorials, collections were considerably more fragile than the building, statue or gravestone; their history from their inception was one of disorder and decay. If these discovered facts were to have any permanence then they needed to be converted into another form. 

The geologist had open to him an entirely different type of memorial which seemed to defy the law Tennyson’s poem describes. Conceptual monuments rooted at the birth of the science, while they too might be vandalised or decay, also had the power to multiply and grow. They were vested in Nature which, with its ability to procreate and disperse, was the most enduring medium of all; as such they were not ‘terminations’ – indeed they were quite the opposite. In stratigraphic geology such discoveries could multiply, utilising the power of fossils to spread concepts and territories across oceans. As James Secord shows, Murchison clearly relished the likes of Ramsay and the other Survey members painting Wales in the colours of the Silurian. The Silurian System by its nature and scale was an investment of such generality that it could now live on unaided and shower Murchison with glory. Phillips had expended a similar amount of time on the Yorkshire coast but the great merit of his work was in its methodology and its long-distance correlation. But even within his lifetime, as geology became a familiar cultural phenomenon, so the public’s sense of its achievement began to fade along with recollections of the context of those pioneering days. In the process this important book became little more than a fine example of a pioneering local memoir. The difference between these two works reflects both the rapid progress of geology but also their differences of social station, expectation, constraint and ambition. Murchison’s work was, conceptually, built upon that of Phillips; both were derived from the relatively new passion for fossils. But the Silurian had become a broader geological construction of widespread application.[28] By the mid-1830s Phillips knew this was where one’s efforts should lie:

The most exact details in natural science are valuable not so much for their own sake as for the solid foundation they afford for the establishment of laws of phenomena, the explanation of which is the province of theory. The search for theory, the noblest exercise of cultivated minds employed in the works of nature, would never have fallen under suspicion and prejudice, had it been conducted according to the only method likely to yield results [i.e. inductivism] …[29]

In the pioneering ‘United States’ of geology, the greatest rewards were for those who wrote its constitution. The difference between the two men was that one tried to distil generalisation and universality from the pedantic pursuit of detail while the other took a local discovery and painted the world in its colours. In contrast, Martin Simpson increasingly immersed himself in the minutiae of geological successions. A laudable attempt to increase stratigraphic resolution perhaps, but of little use to the career geologist.

The problem, for those who had similar visions of glory, was that few discoveries were of such generality, or authored and defended by such a powerful individual. For all – including Murchison – geological discovery was only the beginning of the struggle. Once established, savants of all kinds had to do battle to preserve their interpretations from misattribution and subsequent discovery. As their discoveries became segmented by later work so they would hang onto those individual components which could legitimately be called their own. Murchison’s aspirations for his Silurian, for example, were to come into conflict with Phillips’s concept of the ‘Palaeozoic’ which enveloped it. Here, very untypically, Murchison lost ground. Across Europe and America his battles to have the Silurian adopted, particularly in preference to Sedgwick’s Cambrian, were much more successful. However, in 1846, when Sedgwick at last thought the new Lingulas found in North Wales might reverse this situation, even Murchison felt vulnerable:

Things would indeed be brought to a pretty pass if the larger half of my long acknowledged & universally recognized “System” were cut away from me & the name of the tract substituted whose darkness & enigmas are only now in the way of being solved by reference to my published types! Why if friend “Adamus Cambrensis” were to prevail, my poor Silurian would be driven ignominiously from the main lands of Russia & Scandinavia to be cooped up in the Isles of the Baltic! And you know full well that in many parts of our own country it must be represented by a mere band.[30]

For Webster, ‘The Tertiary formations of the Isle of Wight form a little domain which I have erected for myself and [have] already defended in many a battle’. Challinor questioned Webster’s sense of possession.[31] But when seen not as a step in the progress of science but as one’s own personal monument all challenges become acts of defilement. This is how Webster viewed G.B. Sowerby’s attack on his work – it not only challenged his reputation, his right of priority, his potential income and his future research, but it also despoiled his great work and in so doing undermined his very being. 

The problem was that future work would always seek to indicate and remove errors with no thought to the circumstances or achievements of the pioneer. In their Whiggish perspective of the history of discovery, one only created facts or errors. As Greenough wrote in 1819, ‘Errors emanating from men of acknowledged merit most require exposure, because they are most contagious.’ For Webster, and indeed many others, the result was paranoia. And as Pentland noted of G.B. Sowerby, he was one of many ‘men who would wish to make a great book and found a gigantic reputation of the flaws or errors which have escaped his predecessors.’ There were those, like Fitton, whom Webster knew would advance the study of his strata in a manner which credited the discoveries of his predecessors, but such men were few. In this culture of jealousy the act of discovery only gained nobility by its endurance; without this it was simply another addition to the scrap-heap of misguided studies. As discoveries were discarded as incorrect then so too would go the efforts of the supporting collectors. And as the science refined its fossil classifications and nomenclature it also overwrote earlier names which had often been established as personal monuments. In the aesthetic world of the collector further collecting always held the potential of casting a shadow over a prize possession: ‘Another heavy blow & great discouragement for Mantell from Owen who seemed to drop in by instinct just as the Doctor was holding his jaw – of the Iguanodon. Owen told him for the first time that he had a better one now under his examination.’[32]

The culture of the collector

If Murchison was to personify the science of geology to the Victorian public, then that personification was of an heroic medium.[33] But its provincial middle-class participants were well aware of the social opportunities the science held, and indeed the savants who drove forward its concepts and ideas were also aware of the need to nurture such feelings among their helpers. The collector needed to feel that an appropriate path to fame was open to him. Power in science revolved in large part around the ability to publish which in addition to literary powers, relied upon subscribers, patronage or personal wealth.[34]Collectors worked in a medium which was fluid, corruptible and singular and as such useless in itself for claiming priority. Books, papers, magazines and journals, being time-stamped, inviolate and distributed were in every way the antithesis of the collection. The merits of one were the weaknesses of the other, but often there was a symbiotic relationship between the two. Phillips saw the curation and manipulation of a collection as a point along the route to publication – whether the outcome was to be stratigraphic or palaeontological. The provincial collector followed the same  path, those in Yorkshire having learnt the trick from Phillips. This is seen, for example, in the very Phillipsian distributive studies of fossils by Hunton and Williamson in the 1830s. Alternatively, the collection could be reproduced in the form of figures and descriptions – such as Bean produced for his local Cornbrash – a statement not least aimed at demonstrating the peculiar connoisseurship skills of the collector.

But publication also carried with it many difficulties which the collector might wish to avoid: most had no wish to travel an arduous path to higher learning in order to acquire fame. Those they wished to impress had little knowledge of the science or where its achievements really lay. Geology as a broadly defined cultural phenomenon did not need to rise above the simple facts and interpretations of popular discourse. The collector’s reputation was built on the process of discovery, possession and supply. As David Williams of Bleadon put it: ‘In my geological researches my only object is to accumulate materials for “some wise master builder” hereafter to use in the structure of an edifice of Truth that shall be immortal – when once this is effected I am sure that by the wise and the good the labourer will also be remembered.’ The Sowerbys were aware that they were bestowing monuments in naming fossils after collectors. Phillips had also learnt this lesson. Of his genus ‘Gilbertocrinus’ he wrote ‘I dedicate the genus to Mr Gilbertson, whose name will ever be honourably associated with the crinoidea.’[35] One simply had to ensure that the collection was seen and used, and many collectors expended considerable energy to ensure this was so. For the provincial fossil collector, a specimen figured in a major work was akin to his child marrying wealth and distinction. Both conferred feelings of elevation.

In time many collectors recognised that they held the key to the reputation building of others and had perhaps not used it wisely. Thomas Lewis and David Williams, who freely gave up their information to a ‘wise master builder’, later wished to reclaim their part in the glory once they had seen the elevated status it gave Murchison. It had not been apparent to them that the fundamental information they supplied could have had such a social outcome, or perhaps the established system of social authority (with Murchison above and them below) so disarmed them that they gladly relinquished their possessions to the great man. Williams tried actively to redress the situation. Lewis remained frustrated even though Murchison gave him increasing credit.[36]

The provincial philosopher was also in pursuit of fame and would gladly claim it if it passed close by. William Hall Gilby, for example, in being falsely accredited with a discovery, really a century old and belonging to Strachey, was accused by Farey of attempting to ‘“manoeuvre for himself a gloria” and “plume himself” with merit’.[37] Farey was well aware that in the jealous fame-seeking world of geology the discoveries of practical men were in danger of being usurped by those who could use them as cultural accoutrements. Such concerns were not formerly a worry for the surveyor as they were excluded from fashionable circles, and geology then had no such social currency. But as George Cumberland complained, the drive to create memorials through collecting flew in the face of science, particularly as it often left the collector without credit. Referring particularly to the great female fossil collectors of the age, he complained of the lack of credit given them:

They, and a few others, gathered the materials of this fabric raised to fame, and entitled to a full share of the honours reaped by those who, without their aid, could never have brought them before the world, yet, some of whom, with a vanity that greatly impedes scientific pursuits, affix their own insignificant names to every shell they find, or purchase of some poor quarrier on the road side; so that now we have not less than twenty-three fossil ammonites, that have little or no other description to know them by than the family names of the supposed first finders! 

In almost every other department of fossil conchology, indeed, this same abuse prevails, and this tickle-toby method has now been carried too far … this scramble for notoriety disgraces the appropriators of such fragile monuments, for all must be demolished before we can know, by a marked distinction, what shell or fossil remain we are possessed of, or talking about, so as to come to a knowledge of the stratum to which it belongs. The worst is, that this greediness of fame infects even public societies, and they would cancel, if possible, the discoveries of private individuals unconnected with them, or veil them by neglecting them in their general reports, until such time as the leading members of their own institutions are prepared to amalgamate them into their papers as previously known to them; and this system of exclusiveness is not only unhandsome and unjust, but prejudicial to the discovery of truth in science…[38]

Phillips inadvertently exposed this system which linked author to collector. Usually exceptionally diplomatic, he was perhaps less adept at patronising collectors than some of his contemporaries like James Sowerby. He had come from a stratum of society more likely to be patronised than to give patronage. Consequently, he did the unthinkable in not crediting collectors in his first book, and even included veiled criticism of them in his second. This was a dangerous path, as collectors were not without power, as Dunn reminded him: ‘They have the right of property and can instantly obtain the fulfilness of such wishes by sending their specimens to London or Paris.’ Like contemporary artisan botanists, power and influence for fossil collectors revolved around the monopoly of species – equally true for artisan, middle-class collector or society museum.[39] In theory both collector and author had power; both could threaten to satisfy their needs elsewhere. However, Dunn probably understood that there would be no other great work on the Yorkshire coast, and Phillips knew that Dunn held local specimens not available elsewhere. Collectors were also aware that the viability of fossils in building personal monuments was time-limited. Other geologists, like D’Orbigny, could with ease take these ‘facts’ and superimpose them on another collection.

This gentlemanly nurturing of collectors can be seen in other ways too, such as in the use of superlatives, honorary titles and the collector’s manuscript names. In his Monograph of the Ammonites of the Yorkshire Lias, for example, Simpson remarks: ‘I have adopted the names of previous authors, and I have also paid the same respect to the excellent manuscript names of my friend Mr. Bean’.[40] In the museums in York, Whitby and Scarborough, Bean’s names were displayed on tablets bearing the fossils Bean had named in his collection. Some of these were published by Phillips but Bean remained to all intents and purposes the author even though he had not published them in any traditional sense. This was not an unfair designation as all Phillips had done was draw them, he had not described them. However, in the future, science would confer authorship on Phillips and thus undermine the primacy of the collection in taxonomy as it was perceived by Phillips and his contemporaries. Bean’s collection, which was regularly on public display, was one of the most famous in the country. In a culture where the book was through expense an exclusive entity, the lecturer and the exhibition fulfilled much of its modern functions. And the science’s élite was certainly keen to encourage collectors to perceive their exhibitions as a kind of publication. In this light Simpson’s acknowledgement becomes more than simple courtesy.

Phillips certainly saw exhibition as an object as worthy as that of publication; but his emphasis was on the intellectual constructions such collections could present when properly organised and illustrated by maps and sections. Many collectors believed that simply opening their doors to the public, to reveal the very old, the rare, the beautiful and the spectacular, achieved the same end. Phillips’s was a notion of scientific exposition which he owed to Smith; Bean’s exhibition – indeed like that of the Whitby society – had more in common with a promotional tourist guide. Phillips distinguished these two types of exhibition as ‘illustrated solution’ and ‘show collection’. Yet contemporary science culture also respected these more primitive exhibitions; expectations of such things were probably always low as few museums had the resources necessary to create and maintain them, and word-of-mouth interpretation remained dominant (much to Miller’s cost). Science could understand these materials without the need for interpretation, and the notion that collectors were achieving a level of publication did much to engender their support. If science wished to utilise these raw materials then it needed to make the collector feel that theirs was an important and noble occupation. The displayed collection as a means of public access to the discoveries of science – even if only available to the few – had tremendous potential for spreading support.

In these ways the collector was given access to a world of reputation building. In Yorkshire, under the guidance of Smith and Phillips, the art of fossil collecting reached new levels of proficiency and made a direct link to the formation of new knowledge. Earlier collections had been based on half truths and speculation; before the mid to late 1820s, collections from this part of the country could neither be identified nor stratigraphically localised.[41] Many rocks or localities were deemed unworthy of investigation in the expectation that they were barren. Smith and Phillips made sense of these collections by interpolation or inference. To most enquirers, and to the individuals who created them, they embodied little in the way of knowledge other than that acceptable to the connoisseur or which might be drawn from sister sciences such as anatomy. The methodology of Smith and Phillips, projected through their role as itinerant lecturers, curators and authors, implanted objectives into local collecting activity. It created a means to generate collections of practical worth, based on an emerging universal geological language. Certainly Dunn, Williamson, Bean, and others in Scarborough, became enthralled by geology, or at least by the fossil hunting it encouraged. Their new sport was more than a pleasurable way to utilise leisure hours or a manifestation of Sheppard’s collecting mania. Their collecting became stratigraphically motivated because this had been shown to be the path to discovery and also to reputation.

Many provincial philosophers were also striking a pose, as men of learning and culture. Science was an accoutrement – ‘some acquaintance with science had become essential standard equipment for the upwardly striving’.[42] As Mantell had found in Brighton, in fashionable society geology was culturally no different from classical art, romantic poetry, European literature or astronomy, but through its novelty and willingness to expose its rivalries, and develop its personalities, it must have at times surpassed these as an amusing topic of conversation. In polite society it required appreciation rather than deep understanding. In these circles the arcane knowledge of the collector, which had its own internal consistency aimed at meeting the needs of collecting proficiency and rivalry but which only coincidentally contained scientific ideas, made him a connoisseur. As the science progressed so it threw up a succession of localities, formations and species which became a trademark of connoisseurship and the language of a supposedly elevated mind. Yet the subject was not so extensive nor the issues so complex that they could not be followed from the popular press. This was particularly so in 1820s Yorkshire when the science was in open season. 

The cultural status of the collector connoisseur could open doors to the most illustrious gatherings, as Mantell was to find. For those in the capital the Marquis of Northampton’s lavish soirées at his Piccadilly mansion were one of the high points in the social calendar. Under the auspices of his presidency of the Royal Society he sought to bring together all those of influence in the arts, sciences, politics, economy, and manufactures – ‘a familiar and useful intercourse of wealth and talent of men of rank and men of genius and other grandees of society’.[43] The guest list extended to from 500 to 800 people; whole blocks of London society were invited en masse. Tables in each of the rooms contained mixtures of fossils and minerals, works of art, antiquities, inventions and models. The products of geological discovery were placed next to works of art and human invention; they were equally items of news – equally aspects of British ingenuity and creativity. 

There is no indication that fossils or geological specimens were in any way dominant here but it is interesting to consider how they performed in such social gatherings. The Marquis was himself a noted collector of fossils and minerals, and Mantell, a regular guest, was often asked to perform for Prince Albert, Sir Robert Peel or some other honoured dignitary. Here the purpose of the geological collection or specimen was to acquire patronage or support for science. What qualities were required to achieve this? An indication might come from the Marquis’s own collection. Northampton maintained a wide interest in the arts and sciences; that he was an aesthete can be read from his collection: Solnhofen fossils, Christian Malford ammonites, polished Devon corals, and so on.  These are ‘cabinet fossils’ in the true sense of the word; fossils which had all the appearance of works of art. His interest in collecting may well have come from his father as an inevitable consequence of the aristocratic lifestyle.[44] In the selling of science, and indeed the establishment of a cultural identity through collecting, the aesthetic was particularly important, often to the detriment of science itself. By these means the collection could simplify and communicate, and look the part of high culture.

The reputation one might acquire from the supposedly scientific and therefore culturally meritorious occupation of fossil collecting could contribute significantly to one’s social standing. As Bulwer-Lytton wrote ‘Rank gained by intellect is open to few but rank obtained by fashion seems delusively open to all.’ In Cayley’s eyes reputation was a material possession: ‘a man’s fair fame ought to be as much as his own estate.’ But if geology carried social ambitions then it was inevitable that it also created rivalries and jealousies. This is as true among the collectors as it was among the metropolitan savants. The rivalry between Bean and Williamson is a manifestation of this. It had little to do with science or acquisitiveness, like that between Murchison and Sedgwick, it was ‘more personal than scientific’. Bean simply relished his position as ‘Columbus’ just as Murchison was delighted to be crowned the ‘second Caractacus, a “King of Siluria”’. Dunn, likewise, saw the smallest discovery as capable of raising his name to fame: ‘It is but fair that those who first find should have the benefit of their discoveries.’ Given the importance of this material collectors sought to protect their supply.[45] Bean was notorious for this, but Miller and Mantell understood it too: 

fossil poachers which intrude into Quarrys bribe the Quarrymen and carry off specimens, may I say illegally, by which they annoy the zealous, intelligent Collector and injure his enquiries by frequently depriving him of the most interesting and illustrative. The best remedy against them is, as there exist no laws against them (similar to those which affect Game), to withhold the localitys until ones collection is amply supplied & all points of enquiry satisfied.[46]

The draw of geology reached out beyond the coterie of committed naturalists which inhabited every town. Soon to be chasing intricate and esoteric points of stratigraphy and taxonomy, it still managed to maintain its wider popularity. This was possible because the science was intricately entwined with its own material culture; it was still seeking its fundamental building blocks. Fossils formed the most important of these components and the whole nation was encouraged to gather them up. Objectives such as these clearly appealed to a society which turned beetle hunting into a national craze. Like botany, entomology and the other material-evidence-obsessed observational sciences, the material culture of science became the popular culture of society; ‘The study of fossil organic remains is of great importance; indeed, it is from them and the wonderful views of nature they unfold, that geology derives its great interest to general readers’.[47] Fossil collections became illustrations of newsworthy stories capable of supporting countless superlatives. Their merit here too was in their simplification of science enabling the digestion of its most remarkable facts without the need for detail or complex concepts. In many ways fossils simply needed to exist to underline the processes of discovery; the public required no more of them. 

If fossils could perform in similar ways as objects of ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ they could also transform the nature of scientific communication. The scientific meeting had a tendency to dullness. As Fitton remarked to De la Beche in 1825, certain provisions were necessary at the Geological Society ‘to make the public reading of memoirs at all interesting’: discussion, large-scale maps, diagrams and a tea party were vital. The social interaction which underpinned the society’s origins as ‘a little talking geological dinner club’ remained integral to its success. The geologists’ keenness to debate, when taken into the public arena at the meetings of the British Association, drew huge crowds – ‘a feast given to the geologists, the other sciences serving only to decorate the table’. While some speakers were undoubtedly lively, few papers conveyed much that was of such universal interest. The audience was drawn not by the intricacies of geology but to the performance – to view the edges of civilised society laid ragged by controversy; the gossip and scandal of popular culture.[48] The spectacle was more human than scientific, and fossils, as transportable evidence, were brought into the debating chamber in order to feed the dispute.

Collecting as a delegated activity

One of the most notable features of geology at this time was the way in which each social stratum involved in its pursuit gathered up, and profited from, the finds of those below it. Each stratum looked down on the inferences of those below it and dismissed them.[49] If fossils were just scientific facts then this would put the whole enterprise in jeopardy. But as gifts cementing social affiliations, as claims to cultural status or civic pride, as materials for barter or from which to derive an income, as scientific statements, fossils were eminently useful objects and thus were recognised as a universal currency. An inevitable consequence of this usability, which depended upon possession and little upon the act of collecting itself, was that the dirty and arduous task of gathering the material from the field could be delegated to others. By this process fossils became, for those in pursuit of science, sampled facts, untainted by theory, and the process of discovery a kind of inductivism. 

Of the fossils which fill countless museum drawers few have been derived from the moment of scientific discovery; the requirements of the cabinet as an exposition of that discovery demanded specimens with powers of attraction and communication. Gathered in this way, it was more likely that if they were to contribute to science, then the process of discovery would take place in the museum itself. Collecting was left to those who had the advantages of leisure, occupation, location or a special aptitude for the task. From the beginning fossil collecting was, in large part, a delegated activity, undertaken by individuals with few scientific credentials. This view contradicts that of William Williamson who, in the 1860s, told Phillips, ‘fossil hunting is now-a-days done by deputy’, suggesting that this had not been the case in his father’s time.[50] In reality Williamson was not perceiving a shift in science but of his position within it. John Williamson was merely ‘a deputy’.

Williamson was perhaps thinking of the type of employee Thomas Wilson of the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society engaged in 1841: ‘a young man to collect fossils for the museum at a rate of 21s per week for himself, and his expenses.’[51] In a more sophisticated way this was how the Geological Survey collected fossils, and how the Yorkshire philosophers utilised the fossil market. The collector in all his or her guises, and regardless of social station, became a deputy, subservient to those who pursued the new science. The intellectual prizes, and their associated rewards, were for those who could construct literary arguments from these raw materials. But this view relies upon a perception of geology as simply an intellectual pursuit when it was never simply this. While the collector may have been a deputy in this respect he or she could be pre-eminent as a finder, builder, possessor, entrepreneur or connoisseur.

At the bottom of the exploitational pyramid were the coastal labourer, miner, farmer, quarry worker, navvy and engineer. At this level fossils had long fallen foul of the hammer and pick, remaining unseen because they had little social or economic significance to this group. Evidence for the destruction of important finds during this period is considerable and continued to be so as the science developed but failed to educate the manual worker. James Parkinson’s Organic Remains, published in 1804, opens with an ammonite being destroyed by labourers. Countless other examples exist: in 1834 ‘a round heap’ in a quarry was removed with explosives, it seems to have been a dinosaur skeleton; exactly a decade later, the first example of a fossil elephant tusk to be found at Barnstaple was smashed by workers and local children. These finds were worthy of reportage in a national newspaper but exposed no mechanism for their preservation. In those years when the Whitby artisans, aware of their value, were perfecting the extraction of plesiosaurs, railway labourers constructing the Ely line destroyed a perfect skeleton. Only a paddle and tail survived.[52] Such tales were commonplace. As the landed and professional classes became aware of the possibilities for discovery from itinerant lecturers, a university education, magazines and newspapers, or the local learned society, so labourers were briefed. In 1830 Cumberland told Webster of such an instance involving another plesiosaur skeleton,

it is deposited with the owner, Mr Parker in two strong cases, well set in mortar. He is taking great care also in joining the fragmented stones and preserving every morsel that could be collected – it was fortunate that it fell into the hands of a gentleman who lived near and liked these pursuits, having collected many other specimens of the neighbourhood from his own estate. The workmen who found it told him they had found a Horse, and brought it in a cart to his door …[53]

Without being told otherwise, workmen simply assumed vertebrate fossils were the remains of cattle or horses – as was also the case at Kirkdale. As such they excited little curiosity. According to Buckland a ‘Kirkdale’ had been discovered in the same neighbourhood some twenty years earlier but nothing had been preserved.[54]

If financial inducements were added then these labourers could attain highly developed skills in finding fossils and indeed make it their trade, but their involvement in the intellectual processes of geology would remain peripheral, their role simply to find. For them geology was a commercial enterprise aimed at meeting different, though equally earnest, social needs. But the consequence of this delegation – whether to the artisan who was building his income or the provincial gentleman who was building his reputation – was that the primary data of geology often remained concealed. This problem permeated the whole of natural history:

correct information of the commonest, as well as the rarest, of their parts will be best obtained by those who make it their endeavour to collect specimens. Now, the persons who do so are generally those of no great abilities, yet have a taste for the pursuit, which the profit arising from it enhances. This profit is derived from supplying those who desire to possess, without the trouble of collecting, as well as those whose study is directing to the theoretical and physiological part. Hence we see the majority of books, published for the extension of these studies, are in error in many parts, for the want of that information which only the practical pursuit of them can give. Thus, those who publish apply for guidance to those who collect; but the pecuniary advantage they derive from secrecy on this point, leads them to give wrong dates and circumstances.[55]

Thus, immediately fossils were disinterred they became deprived of their most fundamental data attributes. Had the Bielsbeck finds been gathered with little record of their stratigraphy (as happened in the majority of similar finds) they would have held little significance for science. The situation did not improve even in the hands of those who assembled collections. Phillips, for example, was very wary of the information held in cabinets knowing that much of this may have been inferred by less qualified men than himself. It was this deficiency of information and the pursuit of fine or saleable specimens over all else that encouraged Smith, Phillips and Forbes to collect for themselves. They had little personal interest in simply gathering fossils, and were more interested in finding those specimens which were rare in the cabinet because they were fragmentary but might expose some anatomical detail or exact stratigraphic correlation.

The evolving collecting model

In a pursuit noted at the time for its lack of rewards, science had created its own reward system and one rooted in the individualism which typified British science culture. A number of contemporary commentators had proposed a system of government honours ‘not for the sake of distinguishing immortality, but for the sake of elevating public opinion’.[56] However, geology had not needed such things; it had managed to achieve these (immortality and public support) as twin objectives independent of the state. In doing so it had engendered this culture of many parts – each following its own ends but simultaneously contributing to the ultimate goals of science. Inevitably cycles of development and feedback would alter perceptions of its social value, its methodologies, its goals, and these would be reflected in changes in the roles of its participants. 

On a regional scale, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society had constructed an institution which exploited these same nuances of society. Prestige pulled collections and allegiances into York. A brotherhood of shared ambition sought to elevate York above its neighbours, to assert its pre-eminent position within the county. The Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society on the other hand exerted a pull on fossils and supporters based on its ability to generate and support a market in fossils. Inter-community and international rivalries, combined with civic pride, furthered this society bonding. Fossils became symbolic of status.

Each society had its own hinterland, over which it sought dominion. The York society wished to dominate the county and some of its most senior supporters were employed to try to make this so. Despite this Whitby rapidly gained control of the most important fossil-collecting territory in northern England, knowing that only by this means could it establish a reputation; fossils took on a political aspect. The Scarborough society, which formed later, had little choice but to bow to the wishes of its larger neighbour. Beyond their ‘local’ hinterlands, societies attempted to collect representative selections of fossils from localities then making geological headlines. Such material made a physical link between their often parochial interests and the wider world of science.

Societies told their supporters what was wanted, which ranged from specific instructions to search for species to more general wish lists. They had, however, no control over field rigour and relied for the majority of their collections on chance finds and ‘presents’ which held social as much as scientific intentions. Many of these had already been through one or two pairs of hands before those of the donor. A dependence on donation meant that the society’s scientific ambitions were built by those who through gifts attempted to show their patronage, connoisseurship, intelligence, wealth, beneficence or simply to implant a personal memorial. The donor ultimately determined the direction in which an institution’s collections grew and as such these did not necessarily reflect the scientific intentions or achievements, if any, of that society.

In Whitby the collection was more fluid. Philosophers could pick material from dealers and sell on the duplicates thus created. By offering a unique agency for the sale of fossils they surmounted the problem of these already having a commercial value. They were only able to do this because the local market was underdeveloped. By viewing everything collected locally they had the best possible opportunities to accumulate all that was rare or novel provided, of course, that they had the connoisseurship to detect such specimens.

At the heart of each society were a small group of men who would make what they could of what was given. In Whitby, this was largely promotional activity; in York there were attempts to create science. Again Phillips relied upon his powers of interpolation – powers once used to establish new commercial territory were turned to building scientific knowledge. For the low resolution (though rigorous) stratigraphic studies of the 1820s, he found fossil collections a useful model for understanding field relations. 

If collections were not exploited by an inner circle of provincial scientists they might be drawn into larger national works or attract the interest of a respected observer. Most specimens, however, failed to gain scientific notice. Thus Whitby fossils were largely excluded from Conybeare’s research on marine reptiles, as were Sedgwick’s crocodile jaws and the eighteenth-century crocodile skeleton lost somewhere in the British Museum. Similarly, York’s specimen of Didelphis played little part in the debate surrounding these fossils, replaced instead by Phillips’s drawing. Other fossils, once of the highest philosophical interest, such as belemnites and coal plants, diminished considerably in interest as time went by. Perhaps the majority of these collections had no other purpose than to act as illustrations and comparative materials. Amongst collectors, motivation was directed towards a search for fossils most capable of extending the reputation of the connoisseur. Such material was also important to science, but the premium was on completeness. More fragmentary but perhaps more important finds were less likely to survive the connoisseur’s gaze.

Throughout these early years rival and subsidiary networks became entwined – they shared goals or simply sought the same materials to satisfy disparate goals. Buckland’s pursuit of geology put in place a network of observers which included the York philosophers.[57] In York, objectives included establishing a cultural identity which exploited the social utility of science. Here the philosophers found stratigraphic geology could fulfil this and other purposes. Roles were allocated to its members, patrons and specifically to figures like Smith. There was a unity which bound together the élite members of Yorkshire society. In this fossils were also given a role – or at least acquired one – which went well beyond the purely scientific. 

Rudwick’s notion of a ‘socio-cognitive topography’ in terms of a ‘gradient of attributed competence’ provides a powerful means of analysing the constraints on these roles and the movement of actors in terms of their perceived abilities or contribution.[58] Participation was controlled from above, determined by social rather than purely scientific attributes. The construction of geological knowledge was stratified, not in broad categories but on a one-to-one basis. This raised Greenough above Farey and Farey above the local engineer. Phillips in science ranked above Bean, Bean above Dunn, and Dunn above Brown Marshall. Those above attempted to control the value of the productions of those below. At the lowest levels there was not the slightest hint of philosophical intent but this made them no less important to the science. The network included those, indeed relied upon those, whose knowledge was ill-informed or focused on other fossil attributes. They were not excluded from the network – a shared philosophy was not essential – indeed the diversity of beliefs and expectations which underpinned the network made the science more viable and cut conflict. Some sought income, others status, collections and science.

De la Beche’s Geological Survey progressively changed this fossil-collecting model. Initially, in his investigation of the South West, he attempted to utilise that same network of locally based amateur collectors which elsewhere fed society aspirations and had long been the life-blood of the embryonic science. But unlike the provincial philosophers, De la Beche could not call upon local allegiance, prestige or payment as rewards to draw in collectors. Instead he offered Phillips’s curatorial services. Other workers also sought to use these collections which, like collections elsewhere, began to take a political aspect and the rivalries associated with reputation building. Free enterprise geology was, as Allen detects and recent histories have sought to demonstrate, a science of controversy – not simply of great controversies or successive controversies but of nested controversies which included the seemingly inconsequential (in terms of impact on scientific development). It was more social than scientific. While it resulted in rapid progress it also presented high risks for those who participated but whose ideas or discoveries might subsequently be invalidated or pushed to the background. The destruction of reputation was as effective a means as any to achieve scientific success.

Under this system Phillips had no alternative but to use these collections entirely inductively, leading to numerous difficulties. Here his pre-occupation with distributive studies began to dominate the Survey’s collecting mission. This, together with the highly politicised nature of Devon geology, set De la Beche to redefine geological practice and to internalise patronage, collecting, authorship, discussion, promotion and so on within the Geological Survey. Subsequently seen as a natural process of professionalisation, at the time the main purpose of this change of practice was to extract the science from the grips of the jealous and the fame-seeking. First used in South Wales, the new Survey held all the components of geological activity in absolute control. The culture of the science was transformed: camaraderie replaced rivalry and a mission was shared; training and information sharing replaced a world of secrecy. The rigour and resolution of geology was permanently altered.

This phase in the Survey’s activities produced prodigious amounts of material from what was largely virgin territory for the collector. Having begun by looking for fossils in rocks where they were rare and often poorly preserved, the Survey continued to collect fossils with little regard to aesthetics. This was an entirely different kind of collection from that found in most museums. Elsewhere aesthetics dominated thinking, as Greenough had told the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society: ‘Reject all imperfect specimens’.[59] The Survey’s collection was, in this assessment, very imperfect, but as a stratigraphic resource it was unsurpassed The countryside was cleared of anything appearing of vaguely organic origin. This style of collecting was to be useful for statistical analysis but Phillips soon found such large collections difficult or impossible to review prior to publication. Increasingly, Phillips saw the collecting of fossils on a national scale as the only way to rationalise their meaning stratigraphically. His stratigraphic thinking was conditioned by views of the creation, dispersion and extinction, of faunal transition in time and space. A final change in the Survey’s collecting model came with the establishment of its museum and its programme of publications. The museum rapidly became the national repository for fossils and collectors across the country made contact in the hope of making a sale. The Survey’s refined palaeontological monographs also continued to make use of private collections even though these no longer played an important part in its more rigorous stratigraphic enterprise. 

Through these decades the role of fossils in science seemed to be pulled between the needs of palaeontology and the needs of stratigraphy as the former became increasingly the preserve of the naturalist who introduced ideas from the study of extant faunas. By this process the division between the living and fossil worlds became blurred and the Survey’s collecting took on a motive aimed at answering environmental questions. Such complexities, however, rarely reached down to the lowly collector. Phillips and Forbes’s complex notions of fossil communities were important to the end game but in the field the Survey men remained wedded to the concept of characteristic fossils in the context of the geological section.

When Phillips contacted his collector friends in later life he found that many had disposed of their collections. The ‘fashion’ for fossil collecting appears to have declined almost as rapidly as it had begun as the key elements of the culture disappeared, not least the fossils themselves. In many regions what had once been virgin territory was rapidly depleted of fossils. William Williamson recalls this in later life: ‘Such sights as were familiar to my young eyes, are no longer to be seen on that coast; but when my father was young, such fossils were yet more abundant.’ Bean and Dunn witnessed it within a few years of the discovery of fossil-producing strata. Phillips had experienced the same phenomenon near Bath: ‘I know or knew every field for some miles thereabout, & have gathered many a fossil where none can be now had.’[60] The ‘collect everything’ mentality of the Geological Survey had similar effect in Wales and the Malverns.

A time for heroes

In the second half of the century science would be peopled by the likes of Thomas Henry Huxley for whom the new Nature was an opportunity for the destruction of old beliefs and the old order in science. The new science was also a new culture, one interpreted as symptomatic of professionalisation. But it was also one of secularism, of refashioned ambition, of the career with its partial internalisation of issues of status, one necessarily rooted in increasing egalitarianism and democracy. But this was also an age of reminiscence. The backward-looking culture of the Victorians sought to invoke its own romantic visions of the past in design, architecture and art. It established a view of itself within its own lifetime. Inevitably it would also wish to immortalise its own heroes. The aim was to create a future view of a Victorian past. If Victorian notions of the past were affected by a revulsion against the bleakness of the new industrial society then the creation of their own history in heroic terms, in terms of achievement, was inevitable.[61] If the middle-class culture of the first half of  the century was driven in part by a desire for earthly immortality, then their desires were satisfied by those who followed them. It was simply a process of resurrecting self-made heroes.

This was now the world of Tennyson’s much analysed In Memoriam of 1850, with its ‘Godless’ Nature  ‘red in tooth and claw’: 

I found Him not in world or sun,

Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;

Nor thro’ the questions men may try,

The petty cobwebs we have spun: 

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,

I heard a voice ‘believe no more’

And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep;

The tracing of the divine plan, so central to the philosophical societies, had revealed not God but the silent wastes of time and space. Paley’s portrayal of death as a transition and eternity as a means to redress sufferings and injustices on earth now made little sense. The progress of geology had ultimately changed both Nature and the nature of immortality. And in Houghton’s analysis ‘when God was dead, the gods and heroes of history or of myth could take his place and save the moral sum of things.’ These heroes, so often came self-made, already struck in the pose. A heroic age of geology becomes an inevitability, an immortalisation of heroes whose central aim was to be immortalised as heroes. Here the opportunities for manipulation were even greater; with the reality departed the idea could be made more potent. As Cannon suggests, the founders of later scientific groupings selected their ‘mythic figures’ with an eye to their current usefulness. The collections and buildings arising from this heroic era might now take on iconic form, ‘a vehicle for bringing past time into the present’. As Weiner noted of gift cultures, ‘In linking persons with things, the things are made into more than their own materiality, for the things themselves stand as the means through which individual mortality is transcended, ensuring some measure of the person’s or group’s immortality.’ This was the completion of a process the geologist and collector had begun. It was not the type of retrospective on the past which Lowenthal explores so effectively but a writing of the past by the past; the manipulation of future perspectives. The collectors’ desire had not been to own a piece of history but to create history – not the history of a collection but a history of themselves.[62] Later Victorians merely took this and exposed it as a reality. And in Victorian terms it was a reality, though to modern eyes it appears a carefully crafted process of construction.

From about 1830 communities indulged in reminiscence, publishing volumes eulogising local ‘worthies’ of the past. Discussions of the functioning of science had moved from the role of empirical observation to an appreciation of  genius.[63] ‘Every district of the country has its Heroes and Men of Renown: its Divines, Philosophers, and Poets – a line extending backward, until lost in the misty haze of the remote past’. But in typical Victorian fashion these ‘heroes’ would also include a fair sprinkling of the curious (‘giants’) and the sensationalistic (murderers and conspirators). Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship of 1841 epitomised what became a phenomenon: ‘The Victorians … carried admiration to the highest pitch. They marshalled it, they defined it, they turned it from a virtue into a religion, and called it Hero Worship.’[64] The type of destruction of heroic stature which Simpson attempted on Young’s post-mortem character was rapidly censored. Over time Young would grow in significance, a useful icon stripped of the realities of human character.

 Patronage of a whole industry – the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture – relied upon this mood. Each major city ‘proclaimed its historical, industrial and political identity in [commemorative] sculpture’. Forty years after its establishment, the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society began collecting representations of men ‘to be remembered’ with which to adorn the new society building – they were invariably of men who had by then departed. Between 1825 and 1860 the society became a patron of sculptors, commissioning numerous images of celebrities of art, philanthropy and so on. The Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, in 1882, decided to introduce into its proceedings a series of biographical sketches of eminent Yorkshire geologists. This included a celebration of Phillips but more significantly a profile of John Williamson. It is interesting that Williamson survived as a notable Scarborough naturalist when the more eminent William Bean became erased from the history books – Bean is hardly mentioned in Baker’s History of Scarborough of the same year. At this time Williamson’s son, now an eminent Manchester professor, toured societies giving a retrospective view of the pioneering days of Scarborough geology, rewriting history and placing his father, who had died not many years earlier, in high profile. In this review Hinderwell’s much desired collections were merely ‘a few fossils of small importance’. Bean had no such champion.[65]

James Sowerby would similarly have had his name preserved by his son had the latter had ‘no fear that his father’s name will ever fall into oblivion such is the excellence of the works by which his fame has been carried all over the world’.[66] The biography, to which this was the opening line, remained unpublished. Savant and collector alike expected their éloge, even if such enterprises held motives as superficial as the formal mourning Phillips had observed at Helmsley.[67] The descendants and supporters of great men had a vested interest in such hagiography, they could use the reputation so created as an inheritance. 

This process of immortalisation began even within the lives of society’s heroes; hero creation was also a matter of national pride.[68] Phillips, for example, found himself profiled in Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science and Art and the Yearbook of Facts in Science and Art in 1866, and four years later in the Geological Magazine in a series entitled ‘Eminent Living Geologists’. He was also interviewed on his life for the Athenaeum shortly before his death. 

Having been born in the twenty years before 1800, by the middle of the century, the patriarchs of geology were departing in increasing numbers, such that those who survived became increasing novelties for those indulging in hero worship. Such deaths, however, give no point of closure to this heroic age. It was not just the loss of a generation which marked the end but also the loss of the motive. In 1807 the country was a treasure house for potential discovery; by 1850 it was not. As Greenough noted: ‘These motives have now ceased to act: there is no longer any portion of England, Scotland or Ireland of which the principal features are not known to us’.[69] Perhaps the most significant indicator is Murchison’s move to the Directorship of the Geological Survey in 1855; the greatest construction of the heroic enterprise was thereby institutionalised. That other great monument to the age – the Museum of Practical Geology – then also came under Murchison’s protection. Like the age’s heroic image, it too, through its use of manufactures and minerals, embodied the same spirit of deceptive fabrication. Curiously, it claimed legitimacy for the gentlemanly science of geology through its link to a world of practical men. In doing so it was turning the whole culture of geology on its head. But many things in this heroic age were not what they seemed. The fossil collection took on a host of other meanings and roles. These were then exploited to enable the collection’s use in the construction of knowledge which itself concealed dominant and predatory social motives. Fossil collections can be viewed as the reference materials of science, and as a record of the very foundations of palaeontology and stratigraphy, but they are equally a record of a society seeking recognition, fame and remembrance, of a science with great cultural depth. Fossil collections are at once the material proofs of life in another era and of the ‘truth’ of a heroic age.

[1].         See Porter (1977: 216) and Laudan (1987: 228), for example.

[2].          Kuhn (1970: 10) for ‘an enduring’, etc. For characters of theory, Newton-Smith (1981: 112) and critique of Kuhn’s use of ‘paradigm’. Kuhn (1977: 293) for a refinement.

[3].         Thomas Henry Huxley being the great advocate of Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

[4].          Merton (1973: 331).

[5].      These questions are posed by Shortland (1994).

[6].          Greenough quoted by Wyatt (1995: 210).

[7].          Zittel (1901: 46), which is commented on by Gillispie (1951: 46). For Challinor’s later use of Zittel’s classification, see Cleevely (1974: 465).

[8].        Tikhomirov (1969: 372); Finney (1993: 1); Laudan (1987: 223; 1990: 315); Porter (1978: 817) including p. 180, ‘heroic days …’; Morrell (1994); Torrens (1990c: 657); Wyatt (1995: 209); Allen (1989: 210). Thackray (1979).

[9].         Heyck (1982: 55).

[10].        ‘“Genius” …’, Lawrence (1990: 221). ‘The power of man …’, Benjamin Disraeli (1844), Coningsby, or the Younger Generation, quoted in Houghton (1947: 312). These functions of the hero from Houghton (1947: 322); see chapter 2 for motivations for participation in geology.

[11].        ‘The perpetuity …’, quoted by Rudwick (1985: 386) and Secord (1982: 426; 1986a: 122). Rudwick (1985: 440) stresses the importance of issues of priority and credit. ‘Murchison is …’, and ‘they were …’, Mantell, Brighton to B. Silliman, 18 June 1834, Yale University Library 1. The extract also used by Torrens (1990c: 661). For Murchison’s pursuit of ‘laurels’, see Stafford (1989). See also Cleevely and Chapman (1992) and Taylor (1994: 188).

[12].        For ‘it would be …’, Webster to Sedgwick, n.d. [1821 or 1822], Challinor (1964-1965). ‘I should have …’, Webster to Brongniart, 28 November 1822, Challinor (1964-1965: 2: 168). ‘You are …’, Cumberland to Webster, [January 1826], Fitzwilliam  Museum. Merton (1973: 323). Though long recognised, Merton gave the first detailed account of this particular attribute of science culture (published in 1957).

[13].        For ‘desire …’, Davy, Consolations of Travel, quoted by Lawrence (1990: 226). Corbin (1990: 466-7). A process of ‘self modelling’, for which see Shortland (1996: 16) on Hugh Miller where heroism is equated with Victorian perceptions of manliness.

[14].        Robert Southey, 1818,  ‘My days among the dead are past’.

[15].        Edward Baines (1774-1848). For ‘in the happy …’,  A Leeds Man (1868: 26). ‘Merchants kept …’, and ‘a tomb …’, Denison quoted by Wilson (1971: 214) .For other contemporary views of De la Beche’s pursuit of ‘personal honour & glory’ see Herries Davies (1983: 111).

[16].        On Colby and Stokes respectively, 1853-1854, ‘Address of President’, QJGS9 and 10, xxvi-xxvii and xxvii. Jalland (1996: 359) for ‘social memory’.

[17].        Phillips’s aspirations in Phillips, York to De la Beche, 30 January 1841, NMW Phillips. On Forbes and De la Beche, 1855. ‘Address of President’, Proc. Geol. Soc. QJGS11, xxix and xxi. The medal from McCartney (1977: 66).

[18].        Mantell quoting an anonymous verse [M.B.], 15 September 1836 (Curwen 1940: 134). ‘Fane’ = temple.

[19].        John Keats, ‘On fame I’.

[20].        Phillips is clear about his intentions: ‘I have saved two or three old journals of 1791-2 &c. to give me some dates for a memoir of your life & doings’, Phillips to Smith, 2 November 1829, OUM Smith collection. His memoir on Smith was published in 1844. For ‘the keystone …’, Phillips to Smith, 29 September 1832, OUM Smith collection. This refers to Fitton (1833) ‘Notes on the history of English Geology’. Torrens (1990c) gives the background and politics to this paper; see also Morrell (1989) for more on the building of Smith’s reputation. Gifts to the society listed in Judd (1897: 440), for context, Eyles (1985: 37). Buckland quoted in Eyles (1967: 177). Sedgwick described Smith’s rock names as ‘uncouth’, Arkell (1933: 2). 

[21].        For death of young, see for example recent biographies of Huxley and Darwin. John Williamson lost two sons before the age of six from hydrocephalus (Williamson 1885: 304). For life expectancy, diet and disease see Woods (1992: 58-60); for the new prominence of death in the early nineteenth century, see Ariès (1985: 241) and Curl (1972: 20). For ‘the lugubrious …’, Altick (1973: 7); It is neither possible nor desirable to provide a wider discussion of death in Victorian society. For the celebration of death,  Morley (1971) and Vincent (1981: 56); Curl (1972) is useful for the meaning of the funeral. Wheeler (1990) introduces more complex readings from contemporary literature.

[22].        See Curl (1972: 20) and particularly Schor (1994: 231) for the acquisition of rank through funereal expense. For northern examples of grand funerals, see also Bebb (1992: 17) and Garrard (1983: 35), and Richardson (1989: 106, 116) on the phenomenon more widely. On Alderson, Sheahan (1864: 503) and Luffingham (1995: 23).

[23].        OUM Phillips Box 82 folder 19. 1828, 28 June 1828.

[24].        OUM Phillips Box 82 folder 19. 1828, 27 June 1828.

[25].        ‘A quarter …’, Houlbrooke (1989: 2). Ariès (1985: 243) and p. 238 for ‘a sort …’.

[26].      Tennyson, In Memoriam (1850). For a recent analysis of In Memoriam, and its exploitation, see Wheeler (1990). Dean (1981: 122; 1985) and Rupke (1983b: 225-31) are amongst those who have analysed the geological content of this poem. Rupke (1983b: 248) goes on to show how Buckland in the 1830s tried to reconcile death, carnivorism and the goodness of God. Tennyson had long been infatuated with the relative brevity of human existence, both of the individual and the species: ‘Man is as mortal as men’ (quoted by Dean 1985: 23). Shelley’s Ozymandias also epitomises this sentiment.

[27].        Taylor (1865: 320).

[28].        Lowenthal (1985: 175-81) on the psychology of decay, and p.323 on monuments as terminations and other functions.

[29].        Phillips (1836: 174)

[30].        Murchison, London to De la Beche, 23 December 1846, NMW 1018. 

[31].        On Murchison, Secord (1982: 436; 1986a: 134). Webster’s domain, Webster to Sedgwick, n.d. [1821 or 1822], Challinor (1964-1965: 2: 148) also n. 46 for his questioning of possession.

[32].        ‘Errors …’, Greenough (1819: iii). Paranoia, Webster to Sedgwick, n.d. [1821 or 1822], Challinor (1964-5: 2: 148). Pentland to Buckland, 29 October 1821, criticising G.B. Sowerby’s intentions in his battle with Webster, in Sarjeant and Delair (1980: 281). On Owen’s prize and Mantell’s disappointment, Forbes to De la Beche, 2 June 1848, NMW 568.

[33].        Secord (1982: 414) for Murchison personifying geology.

[34].        For power of print see, for example, Secord (1994: 289) and Vincent (1981).

[35].        ‘In my …’, Williams’s notebook for 1835-1836 quoted by Rudwick (1985: 151). Williams proved himself a reasonable field geologist. Gilbertocrinus, Phillips (1836: 207).

[36].        Lewis (Thackray 1979: 191-2);  Williams (Rudwick 1985).

[37].        Farey (1815b: 341).

[38].        Cumberland (1829: 348).

[39].        Secord (1994: 287) on artisan botanists. Merton (1973: 294) discusses the lack of property rights in scientific discovery (as Webster experienced) but where the possession of real objects is involved the issues are potentially more complex.

[40].        Simpson (1843).

[41].        Torrens (1990c: 658) demonstrated this with regard to Robert Townson’s work in Shropshire in 1799. Until the appearance of Conybeare and Phillips’s book these problems, with a few notable exceptions, were universal; this work, however, did little to clarify the situation in Yorkshire.

[42].        Allen (1997: 205).

[43].        Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton (1 January 1790-17 January 1851). The soirée was a society tradition, quote from Northampton’s predecessor, the Duke of Sussex, in MacLeod (1983: 67).

[44].        His father saw collection building as one consequence of hunting, having offered several specimens to James Sowerby. Northampton to Sowerby, 19 September 1803, 28 April 1817, Natural History Museum, London, thanks to Ron Cleevely for bringing these to my attention. The Marquis’s collection is preserved in Northampton Museum.

[45].        ‘Rank …’, Bulwer-Lytton (1830: I: 27); ‘more personal …’, Samuel P. Woodward to Sedgwick, 1854, quoted by Secord (1982: 437) and p. 440 for ‘second Caractacus …’.

[46].        Miller to Mantell, October 1821, Mantell Papers, Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

[47].        From a circular circulated by the Natural History Society in Newcastle (reprinted in Russell Goddard 1929: 31). See Secord (1994: 270) for similar perspectives in contemporary botany and artisan science.

[48].        For ‘to make …’, Fitton, Bristol to De la Beche, Lyme Regis, 11 November 1825, NMW 531; ‘a little …’, Moore et al. (1991: 52); ‘a feast …’, Justus Liebig quoted by Gillispie (1951: 188 note 11) who further demonstrates the dominance of geology. For gossip, see, for example, Secord (1986a: 24, 262-5), Rudwick (1985) and Allen (1997: 209).

[49].        See Rudwick (1985: 424) for a discussion of gradients of competence and their implications for the collector. Also Secord (1986a: 254) for collectors’ lack of influence. 

[50].        Williamson to Phillips, 8 November 1865, OUM 1865/220, my emphasis.

[51].        Davis (1889: 159). Thomas Wilson (26 September 1800-17 January 1876) was the mainstay of the society, see Davis (1889: 49-52)  and Morrell (1983; 1988b).

[52].        ‘Fossil remains’, The Times, 28 February 1834, 7b; ‘Devon – fossil remains’, The Times, 19 February 1844, 7e. Anon. (1849) for Ely plesiosaur, and London Illustrated News, 26 May 1849, 367.

[53].        Cumberland,  Bristol  to Webster, 25 May 1830, Fitzwilliam Museum, referring to a plesiosaur find.

[54].        Buckland (1822: 227).

[55].        K (1825) discussing zoology; the situation in geology is further complicated by stratigraphy. He suggests that collectors should be given a medal to encourage them to reveal their data. In the late 1980s, the Geological Curators’ Group and the Palaeontological Association both considered doing just this to encourage more rigour in collecting.

[56].        Bulwer-Lytton (1830: II: 178). By ‘elevating public opinion’ the author means encouraging a taste for science. Merton (1973: 294) shows recognition and fame as a reward system integral to science.

[57].        In Callon’s (1986) language this is ‘problematisation’.

[58].        Rudwick (1985: 418-26; 1988: 263).

[59].        Davis (1889: 154).

[60].        ‘Such sights …’, Williamson (1885: 301). ‘I know …’, Phillips, York to De la Beche, 18 March 1842, NMW.

[61].        On new Nature, Turner (1974: 9ff). When referring to its own heroes, I use the word Victorian loosely; the culture of the hero was already established well before the Queen came to the throne. For Victorian view of past see, for example, Altick (1973: 96-106) and Lowenthal (1985: 96-105). Lowenthal (1985: 97) for the role of past in a revulsion against contemporary industrialisation.

[62].        Time and space, Tennyson’s ‘terrible Muses’, see Dean (1981: 115, 122-3; 1985). Paley and death from Turner (1993: 108). For ‘when God …’, Houghton (1947: 322). Cannon (1978: 29). For ‘a vehicle …’ and ‘In linking …’, Weiner (1985: 210) who finds this a universal result of anthropological studies of peoples and their possessions. See also Thomas (1991: 23). Lowenthal (1985: 43) discusses collections as a means to possess history.

[63].        Yeo (1986: 271). Houghton (1947: 310) suggests 1830 marked the beginning of hero worship, but clearly fame was in the minds of scientists long before the century began.

[64].        ‘Every district …’, Ross (1878: 3). ‘The Victorians …’, Edmund Gosse (1918) quoted in Houghton (1947: 305); Thackray (1990: 39) discusses the historiography of ‘Great Man’ studies; also Merton (1973: 301) for commemorative function of historiography.

[65].        For ‘proclaimed …’, Read (1982: 112) on Manchester, see also Cavanagh (1997: xi). On Newcastle, Watson (1897: 100ff) and Read (1982: 123). Davis (1889: 423). Williamson (1885).

[66].        Simpkins (1974: 402).

[67].        Secord (1986: 303) discusses the rewriting of the lives of Murchison and Sedgwick. Geikie on Ramsay is an example; Robert Balgarnie’s (1864) tribute to the Scarborough collector, Peter Murray, entitled The Beloved Physician, is yet another.

[68].        Britain, for example, long sought a figure of the stature of Cuvier: ‘Unfortunately Britain now possesses no naturalist who has a reputation that may be called European, and I am afraid we shall long want the genius and arranging spirit of a Cuvier’, Sir Humphry Davy, London to Vernon, 21 January 1824, (Morrell and Thackray 1984: 16). National monument building in the first half of the nineteenth century gave pride of place to the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars (Read 1982: 85). 

[69].        Greenough, quoted by Wyatt (1995: 210).

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).