Scratch the surface of early nineteenth-century geology and you find a phenomenon deeply representative of the world in which it found itself. This, of course, should be no surprise. Historians of science have been giving social context to discovery and scientific enterprise for decades. But if science is viewed as a cultural entity, what other cultural entities, norms and patterns surround it? This book explores the cultural context of geology in a world of science, but also in a world apart, a world without scientific intent. The way into these worlds is through fossils, their common currency. These linked labourer to aristocrat, dilettante to savant, gift-giver to local élite. Fossils took on a multitude of meanings, and it was these, as much as the fossils themselves, which had to be carefully manipulated if fossils were ever to contribute to science. To understand these meanings it is necessary to explore the processes of collecting and exchange; differing beliefs about the nature of the fossils themselves tell us little. This book, then, is essentially about people and how they used geology, and especially fossils, to satisfy their needs and aspirations. It is a perspective which I hope throws new light on how geology acquired viability, vitality and maturity in so short a period of time. But I hope it also reveals much about how geology was undertaken, the impact it had on the social world within which it was played out and its part in establishing a culture of museums in Britain.

In the early nineteenth century geology had unmatched popularity. While this popularity cannot be doubted, it can be distorted; it has never been quantified. There was an aspect to geology that set it apart from those sciences with which it is often compared, such as astronomy. Geology was not so much a science of the esoteric or abstract as of the physically tangible. Its evidence was real and could be held. Being principally an observational science, often little more than this was required to prove a fact or transform a view. 

That these objects were enigmatic, evocative and yet ubiquitous perhaps explains part of the science’s broad attraction. Yet geology was no mere fashion. To see it as such is to see it as having only superficial meaning when its participants often treated its pursuit with earnestness. Nor were these ‘real things’ simply empirical facts. The cultural facets of these objects were potentially more involved and involving than that. Neither fashion nor the pursuit of knowledge wholly explains the phenomenon of geology. Throughout this book I hope to extend and broaden the very notion of ‘geology’ in this period and in the final chapter draw conclusions as to what it was and how it has come to be portrayed in heroic terms.

Even if we choose to ignore the social world of geology, our view of fossils in science, and their transformation from natural artefact to scientific fact, can remain myopic. Being essentially a field-based science it is natural to see the field as the place of scientific discovery and the museum merely as a repository. But could we not turn this notion on its head and see the museum as the place of discovery and the field as the store? Many cross-country correlations of rocks took place in the museum, not in the field. Often the intellectual aspects of fieldwork took place back at base. Fieldworkers may have had ideas, impressions and suspicions in the field but these were often only made concrete by museum analysis. The museum collection was not, and is not, the static, immutable, non-dynamic entity it might appear to be. It is not simply a representation of gathered knowledge but a tool to enable its unravelling.

With a few notable exceptions, like Paula Findlen’s Possessing Nature and Dennis Dean’s recent biography of Mantell, museums and collections have been perceived as having only a minor role in the history of science. If they appear anywhere it is in institutional histories. Collectors, however, are beginning to appear in the form of names and as lesser individuals in pursuit of knowledge. In these studies the act of collecting (both in the field and by the formation of cabinets and museums) remains, in the language of systems, a black box. A black box, for our purposes, might be described as a component in the system of knowledge which is taken as read, that embodies in itself a complex system which need not be understood in detail. However, Bruno Latour demonstrated how black boxes could be manipulated in scientific controversies to gain advantage. That if they were opened, they might reveal all kinds of provisos and assumptions which have been lost from the argument. We see this with fossil collecting. Traditionally, in the historiography of geology, a fossil exists in the rock and then appears as evidence in a scientific paper; if there is any recognition that the object has been through a process of collecting this is usually confined to mentioning the collector’s name. Again this should be no surprise; the nineteenth-century savant made no great play of the processes of collecting – collections were simply the wallpaper of a scientific life. They were ubiquitous, and required no more comment than other tools of the trade whether pencil, compass, hammer or barometer. But look beyond these initial impressions, open the black box, and collecting is found to hold complex interactions and motives which have implications for how knowledge is created. It reveals geology in its full social and cultural context.

I have framed this study in the context of a ‘culture of English geology’ but I realise the notion is somewhat contentious on a number of grounds. In geographical terms I agree with Roy Porter that as an artefact of history English geology differed from that developed in Scotland, and countries across Europe.[1] It is not an issue of nationhood but simply a means to distinguish centres of production. Unlike Scotland and England, Wales did not develop its own geological identity in terms of practice, institutions and so on, during this period. That is not to suggest that Wales was unimportant, quite the converse is true. It was possibly the most important geological territory in Britain. However, the geology of Wales was seen as a territory to be conquered, as the ‘crown of English geology’. This invasion came from an English centre, though its participants included Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen. Indeed the Geological Survey was always keen to appoint local men into its service, and did so in Wales. So by referring to ‘English geology’ I am making no reference to ethnic purity, indeed the diversity of cultural influences on English geology at this time was its greatest strength. This is particularly true of the influence of Scotland. Its more liberated educational system (both in terms of religion and science) produced some of most important geologists of the time. These, in the form of George Young, Martin Simpson, Edward Forbes, Andrew Ramsay and many others, represented a constant flow of ideas from Scotland into England. Because of these and other cultural differences between Scotland and England I have avoided extending this analysis into Scotland and for this reason too have found it necessary to refer to ‘English geology’. 

I perhaps also need to define what I mean by the word ‘culture’ in this study. I do not, for example, discuss the influence of geology on painting, literature and the arts more generally as has been explored so effectively by Dennis Dean amongst others. More could also be said about museum communication, organisation, management and so on than I say here. This book is principally about geology as a collecting science. If it is about museums (which it is) then it is about museums deeply immersed in their social and scientific context. While there is much discussion of collecting method in the construction of knowledge, I also explore the role of collecting and collections in developing institutional structures, processes of interaction, shared beliefs and so on. My interest here is in the cultural world that underpinned production, which gave geology in this period such ‘viability’ and ‘vitality’ – two words I use often. But equally this book redefines the influences and mechanisms responsible for the establishment of public museums in the nineteenth century. Those formed by the philosophical societies remain the backbone of museum provision in Britain today. The history of museums can only be understood in their wider provincial context and against a background of dominant cultural interests. In the early nineteenth century these interests were centred on the natural sciences and particularly geology. But any preconceived notions of provincial scientific enterprise, of museums in pursuit of natural knowledge, must be tempered by a whole raft of other concerns.

In terms of centres of production, the history of English geology has been dominated by perspectives focusing on the Geological Society of London, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and that roving national institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. These are certainly key influences on the development of geology in this period but they do not give a complete view of the cultural breadth and complexity of the science. There were other centres of production. Indeed the aim of this book is to look for geology elsewhere. While a broader view of the culture of English geology both begins and ends this book, its core focuses on areas more than 100 miles from the capital. Some attention is drawn to practical men whose role in the science was marginalised by gentlemen geologists and with a few notable exceptions has attracted relatively little attention from historians. However, the main focus of this book lies in the English provinces and Wales. From this perspective there is no better place to begin than in Yorkshire, with its large and rapidly expanding population, its new wealth and its rich resources of rocks, minerals and fossils. Here a fashion for philosophical societies swept across the county forming, in some respects, the provincial equivalents of the Geological Society of London. Having explored Yorkshire it is then necessary to shift the focus to other parts of Britain, particularly Devon, Cornwall, South Wales and the Malverns. With their more complex geology and sparser populations these were areas where the practice of geology was transformed. This transformation, as seen in the activities of Geological Survey of Great Britain, has been viewed as part of a perhaps inevitable process of professionalisation. But as historians have long recognised, this word and process has proven difficult to define. Its products, as seen here, might equally be viewed as the result of the Survey’s social and political manoeuvring in an attempt to remove itself from the science’s more competitive aspects. I would question that the motive was purely one of refining practice or of those broader social factors which enabled the development of a scientific career. 

Throughout I have steered a course away from both personal and institutional biography, focusing almost exclusively on motives, methods and interactions. Against the trend of recent works in the history of science, this book is not written in a purely chronological or sequential order of development or change. It does chart chronological change, as well as synthesise an overview, but in its central portion it is really saying that there is no one model of collecting, no one view of what geology was. To understand the culture of geology it is necessary to view it through a series of filters. To view the science as a social phenomenon, as an exchange culture, as a collector network, as a marketplace. A more detailed overview of the arrangement of the material in this book is thus useful. 

The first two chapters contextualise the cultural world of the geologist mainly in the period 1815 to 1822. The first sets the scene by describing the pervasiveness of geology in 1840. It then moves back in time to view the emerging science of geology in the years after the Napoleonic Wars (which ended in 1815). It is principally about the struggle for fossil-based stratigraphy and there is much review of William Smith’s geology. The second chapter begins where the last left off, by exploring the factions into which geology was divided, revealing the shared characteristic of jealousy. The reader is then drawn slowly out into the provinces through a process of contextualising the science in terms of its cultural attractions. It finishes by showing how local context can heighten these. 

The three chapters that follow discuss the growth of a geologically-focused scientific movement in England – they particularly focus on the structures that were put in place to make this possible. The first shows how an infrastructure of philosophical societies was established and how in Yorkshire many of these were closely linked to a burgeoning and broadly defined interest in geology. For these philosophers ‘it was the philosophy of Buffon rather than that of Berkeley which was thought of.’[2] Here museums and collections became central to the science. The chapter which follows disassembles the organisational structure of these societies to reveal the social components involved in producing provincial science and building collections. The final chapter in this section looks at curatorship and examines the collection as a springboard for a career in science.   

Chapters six to nine give detailed accounts of collecting practice. The first looks at how societies took control of their collecting but also what the processes of collecting and donation meant to those who participated. It reveals much, in anthropological terms, about the gift-giving culture at the heart of the museum enterprise. The second focuses on John Phillips’s use of collectors, and collectors’ use of localities, in the construction of his classic work on the Yorkshire coast. The third is principally about Bielsbeck, an important but little known excavation for Pleistocene or ‘Ice Age’ fossils which shows the rigour with which this collecting science was pursued. The final chapter in this section looks at the ‘wheeler-dealing’ involved in the collection of spectacular marine reptiles from the Yorkshire coast. Together these chapters demonstrate that the practice of collecting, and therefore the practice of geology, relied upon an armoury of socially determined techniques. 

At this point the analysis is taken out of Yorkshire in order to detect how the established laissez-faire model of collecting changed under the influence of the Geological Survey. These chapters trace developments from 1835 through to 1851. Chapter ten looks at Devon and Cornwall during the years when these counties were at the heart of geological controversy. Here individuals dominated the collecting culture. This was the great testing ground for Survey practice and the problems it revealed were a major influence on field practice in the future. Chapter 11 takes the Survey into Wales and the Malverns. While strands of early practice remained, in South Wales the Survey’s fieldwork was influenced by increasingly complex and theoretical views. It also took on an entirely new aspect in terms of organisation. Chapter 12 rounds off this section by contrasting the decline of the philosophical societies with the rise of the Survey’s Museum of Practical Geology, that great monument to the past age. 

In the final chapter the book takes an overview of the culture of geology in the first half of the century. Integrating the findings of earlier chapters but including many new perspectives it discusses the meaning and development of what has become a heroic age.

While I retread much familiar ground, some of which has been covered in the best historical studies of recent years, the perspective taken here is quite different. In the main I attempt to add to, rather than revise, established views. I have been greatly influenced by the work of Jim Secord and Martin Rudwick on the geological institutions and controversies in this period that has done much to detect, explain and richly contextualise practice. The chapters here on the Geological Survey re-enter these territories and examine the practice of collecting in more detail – in effect opening the collecting ‘black box’. The ideas of William Smith form a strand that runs through this book, as much here is concerned with stratigraphy, the process of ordering and correlating rocks. This review is rather detailed as I feel Smith’s methods are not that clearly revealed in the literature, and his thoughts on museums, and use of collections, defined much later practice. I also find it necessary to respond to Rachel Laudan’s provocative book and other publications which have, incorrectly I believe, written Smith off as unimportant. In coming to these conclusions I have found Hugh Torrens’s growing catalogue of work on practical men particularly useful. Torrens has amply demonstrated that there was another kind of geology running in parallel with that which centred on the Geological Society of London. John Phillips, Smith’s nephew and ward, features perhaps more than any other figure in this book. He forms a constant and influential presence in the changing landscape of geology. His archival materials have been of key importance to the ideas developed here. Jack Morrell’s work on Phillips again adds considerably to the perspective I give. Roy Porter’s prehistory of geology forms an essential precursor to any examination of the nineteenth century. Our perspectives, however, are quite different: Porter brings together a range of cognitive activities towards the specialisation of geology; I fragment the science’s context into a range of social and cultural determinants and attributes. David Elliston Allen’s classic social history of natural history remains the best broad overview of the social world of natural history. Finally, I should mention Roger Osborne’s The Floating Egg, which appeared some two years after the submission of my PhD and when this book was all but complete. An attractive collection of extracts, précis and semi-fictional narrative it inevitably and independently covers a few of the examples I use, though from the outset Osborne’s primary objective was to produce a popular descriptive account of ‘episodes’ in local geology rather than pursue a deeper analysis of the science and its making. I tell a very different story here.

While societies form a key element I have avoided producing a traditional institutional history. This is because an outsider’s perspective of buildings and structures tends to miss much of the truth of society or institutional life. This has been particularly true of many histories of noted museums. Ask any keeper of archaeology or geology what they do and they will tell you ‘archaeology’ or ‘geology’. They are undoubtedly museum people but the museum is simply a medium through which science is explored. If it is working effectively the museum becomes transparent. One other problem with institutional histories is their preoccupation with the noble. While there is an unwelcome strand of historiography which lives off the process of demolition, the contextualisation of science must recognise the realities of work, rivalry and so on. Museums today remain often highly politicised workplaces, and there is every indication that their early nineteenth-century precursors were no different.

Histories of societies sometimes suffer similar constraints to those examining museums. The questions asked are inevitably inward looking and focus on processes of aggregation. But it is also essential to look out from these groups and examine patterns of interaction with other societies and individuals. The most important papers in this field are now a quarter of a century old, and are led by Arnold Thrackray’s classic study of the Manchester philosophical society. It redefined the role of these societies as places of legitimisation, a conclusion subsequently reached in countless other society profiles. Thackray admitted that the resources at his disposal were limited due to the destruction of the society’s archive. Nevertheless his conclusions stand secure and are echoed here. However, the philosophical societies in Yorkshire are documented by an extremely rich archival resource. This is particularly so if the focus is on one aspect of their activity (fossils, collecting and geology) and on the interaction between societies rather than on an individual institution. The materials I have examined include museum registers, specimen labels, published annual reports, minutes of council meetings, records of lectures, diaries, letters, contemporary publications, newspaper cuttings, field notebooks, collections and localities. I have found that each source tells a very different story. For example, fossil dealing in Whitby can largely be read from surviving letters but not from committee minutes; in Scarborough the converse is true. Published reports give information on the gift culture and the social structure of the membership but say little about the day-to-day activities of that membership. They give a very institutional view – a statement of how they wished to be viewed rather than their actuality. Museum registers and diaries give a contrasting view of the clique which drove things forward in these societies, what they did day by day and what they talked about. Together these materials indicate what was, and even what was not, being communicated. The core of this book has been built up from an extensive examination of these archival materials, followed by a very interdisciplinary review of the literature 

Finally, I should say a few words about collections, strata and fossils for the reader who is not a curator, geologist or historian of geology. Without on-going effort the materials which constantly flow into museums can destroy them. Museums are about knowledge and its communication; the natural condition of collections is chaos. The strengths and weaknesses of museums will become apparent as the story unfolds; many early nineteenth-century museum builders saw only the former. Exhibitions of real objects had a peculiar importance in the era before cheap illustrated magazines. It is now difficult to visualise their impact. As for fossils names, I have, made few translations of the terms used by the geologists themselves. Often these were imprecise and cannot easily be converted. The specifics of fossil identification are not of great importance to the arguments developed here. On strata, too, I have used contemporary language. A knowledge of the order of the strata will help a little with understanding this book but is not essential – in general one can simply read terms as ‘names’ without knowing more about them. Table 1.1 gives the strata at two points in time. The column on the left gives the terms used by William Smith in 1815, those on the right were in use in 1833. Below the rocks represented in this table were even older strata – known as the Transition Series or Rocks, or Greywacke or Grauwacke. These older rocks represented the most challenging aspect of the new science in the 1830s and 1840s. During these decades they were divided into three Systems (classificatory pigeonholes for periods in the Earth’s history). In order of age (oldest to youngest) these were the Cambrian (1835), Silurian (1835) and Devonian (1839). Throughout this period the boundaries between these and other groups of rocks were hotly disputed. Geologists will notice that the Ordovician does not appear here. It was squeezed between the Cambrian and Silurian much later in the century (1879). The Carboniferous rocks, as they were known in 1833, included the Old Red Sandstone, a distinctive rock which was later included in the Devonian. The rocks from the Carboniferous to the Chalk were known as the Secondary strata. These include highly fossiliferous strata and it was on these that most geologists cut their teeth before embarking on an exploration of older and more difficult rocks. The rather confusing term Oolite or Oolitic strata refers here to the rocks we today call Jurassic though again boundaries at the top and bottom have shifted backwards and forwards. In using contemporary language I have avoided the use of Jurassic. Above the rocks given in this table are the superficial beds which were, in the 1820s, associated with the biblical deluge. In the 1840s they were recognised as products of a great ice age and the term ‘Pleistocene epoch’ became established.

The rocks discussed here are all sedimentary – most were formed at the bottom of seas and thus preserve in their fossils evidence of life in former times. In Yorkshire these rocks form fairly easily recognisable layers of limestone, sandstone and mudstone – the latter can be very soft even though perhaps 200 million years old. They belonged to the Secondary formations, as they were then known. They readily produce fossils and are fairly easy to study but are not without their difficulties, especially when attempting to correlate strata across a country the size of Britain. In Wales, Devon, Cornwall and the Malverns the rocks are far older, much harder, and have been folded and faulted into a complex jigsaw. Fossils in these rocks can be difficult find and any casual visitor to these areas cannot but marvel at the achievement of those who first understood their order. The reader who has no knowledge of geology has a great advantage in understanding the task which lay before the newly emerged science in 1815, for at that time similar individuals were beginning to think about how some sense could be made of the apparently chaotic pile of rocks which surrounded them. 

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).

[1].     Porter (1977:218).

[2].     Watson (1897:31).