The Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851: A science revealed through its collecting


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


Full access via the chapter links below.


Using fossils as a common currency that connected the labouring poor to the savant and the social climber, this monograph explores the emergence of geology as a cultural entity in England and Wales in the early nineteenth century. Repeatedly depicted as an heroic age of intellectual discovery in this science, this book explains how this heroism was manifested in a society immersed in a jealous world of rivalry preoccupied with fame and social ambition. John Phillips, who rose from impoverished orphan to become an Oxford professor, form a central figure for he traversed the whole culture of English geology, from supporting his uncle, William Smith, the so-called ‘Father of English Geology’, to nurturing and exploiting collectors, introducing science into the middle class philosophical societies, playing a key role in the professionalisation of the Geological Survey, and overseeing the increasingly sophisticated interpretation of fossils. Rich and expansive, the book was seen as offering a groundbreaking approach to the study of the history of geology. It is also a study of the introduction of a culture of museums into British society. I later published ‘The Road to Smith…’, in which I looked more closely at the rise of William Smith and show for the first time that ‘English Geology’ refers specifically to Smithian stratigraphic method.


Part 1: New Science – New Territory
1. A Science of Fossils

Beginning by demonstrating a pervasive interest in fossils in 1840, in London, Sheppey, Lyme Regis, Cornwall, Yorkshire, and Tipperary, this chapter explains how fossils came to the fore. It compares the elite Geological Society (Greenough, Buckland, Conybeare, Fitton, Sedgwick, De la Beche), with its initial resistance to fossil evidence, with the fossil-based stratigraphy of William Smith and his disciple, John Farey. It explains how Smith’s ideas permeated British society and how his terminology became embedded in the stratigraphic column. It argues that to see Smith’s method as wholly reliant on fossils is a simplification; in order of importance his tripartite system was based on (1) position, (2) lithology and (3) fossil content. The chapter also considers whether Smith was concerned with stratigraphic formations as temporal units as well as the implications of understanding that Smith’s method was always a work in progress.

2. A Culture of Opportunity

Beginning with an examination of Anglo-French relations after the Napoleonic Wars, with its movement and manipulation of data and fossils as each country sought to manifest what was still a juvenile science. The chapter reveals the extraordinary culture of jealousy that developed as individuals sought to make their mark. It looks at families, fashion, popular magazines, religion, romanticism, industrial development, and so on, as well as the potential of Britain to lead the world due to the richness and variety of its geology, in order to explain the extraordinary culture that drove the new science forward. It ends by explaining why Yorkshire provides critical insights into the way the culture of geology developed in the 1820s and 1830s.

Part 2: The Structure of Provincial Science
3. Geology and the Philosophical Societies

Discusses the particular purposes and functioning of the philosophical and literary societies during the 1820s and 1830s. In this period, these became the provincial home of the burgeoning and highly fashionable science and culture of geology. The chapter soon focuses on those societies established in Yorkshire and particularly those in York, Whitby, Scarborough and Hull. In a short period of time in the early 1820s there was a major eruption of these new societies. This is especially the case in Yorkshire where they appeared simultaneously and in competition with each other. Each had its own particular make up. This chapter charts their establishment and shows their attachment to the fossil above all else.

4. Building the Collecting Community

This chapter explores the complex of networks and relationships that underpinned the philosophical movement. These ensured a common purpose but they also reveal how the the philosophical society was structured from the top down so as to ensure it could realise its collecting ambitions. The Yorkshire Philosophical Society provides a model for this kind of socialised, aspirational and accumulative scientific construction, which was later copied for the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

5. Keepers of the Museum

The philosophical societies gave birth to the provincial museums’ profession. In this chapter I look at the experiences of those who took up the opportunity to be amongst the first provincial curators. These include those, like John Phillips and William Williamson, who ultimately became professors. Phillips would later acknowledge that he had been exploited as young man though he had the talent to turn this to his own advantage. Others suffered impoverished lives and hardship: the overworked Lonsdale who left the Geological Society ‘to die’; his predecessor, Webster, who felt he had ‘got among a bad lot’; Bristol’s Miller, who died from overwork; Whitby’s Simpson who failed to climb out of poverty; Whitby’s Bird who died embittered; York’s Charlesworth who suffered for his principles; and so on. Others, like Scarborough’s John Williamson, seemed to have fun.

Part 3: Geology as a Collecting Science
6. Collecting: Meaning and Direction

The philosophical societies had to establish collections rapidly; their material being was critical to their social, political, cultural and intellectual being. They were structured (ch. 4) to make this possible. Here I examine the culture of the gift which was an entirely new way for these communities to think about building local collections. I discuss how this exploited the society’s structure and the structure of society. The chapter also looks at how collectors made demands of those who published on their fossils and how much that we find in these museum collections came not from fieldwork but from middle class acts of shopping for gifts. An emergent commercial sector dealing in fossils resulted. Collecting also kept pace with the wider panorama of geological progress.

7. Geology and the Collector Network

This chapter examines William Smith’s and John Phillips’s campaigns to elucidate the geology of the Yorkshire coast. In time this would become Phillips’s project and his great triumph. Published as Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire or, a Description of the Strata and Organic Remains of the Yorkshire Coast (1829), it was the final proof of Smithian method. It was built up over a number of years by studying the strata in the field but it could not have been achieved without nurturing local collectors. It also demonstrates that rather than being the product of fieldwork alone, this book and the solution to the conundrum of the coast’s sometimes confusing geology were worked out on the museum workbench.

8. Collecting in Pursuit of Answers

The discovery of exotic Pleistocene fossils and most notably hyena remains at Kirkdale Cave in 1821 was key to the formation of the philosophical societies in York, Whitby and Hull. This chapter begins by talking about this discovery and the vogue for these kinds of fossils. It is, however, mainly about a little known excavation for fossils that took place Bielsbeck in the Vale of York in 1829, which ultimately resulted in a dispute between the philosophers of York and Hull. My interest here is to understand how such an excavation was conducted this early in the history of the modern science.

9. Fossils in the Marketplace

Amongst the most extraordinary objects to be uncovered in this period, in any discipline, were the marine reptiles, the Ichthyosaurus, the Plesiosaurus and the fossil crocodile. These were the sensational objects of the 1820s. This chapter begins by showing how these fossils became recognised and established in the science. It then looks at the peculiar role played by Yorkshire in extending this fauna, looking particularly at the collecting of marine reptiles around Whitby. Particular attention is paid to Whitby’s famed 1824 crocodile and the 1841 plesiosaur that was eventually sold to Cambridge and which marked the emergence of a market in fossils free from the clutches of the Whitby philosophers.

Part 4: Endings and Beginnings
10. The problem of Free Enterprise

Henry De la Beche’s Geological Survey began in the 1830s as a small scale enterprise and contended with the self-obsessed and competitive culture of geology described in the earlier chapters. Working in Devon and Cornwall and calling upon the help of John Phillips, De la Beche had to contend with a science reliant on private collectors and performed by gentlemen savants engaged in jealous rivalries. Geology was not simply an intellectual science; it shaped lives and bestowed social status. In this chapter, and looking particularly at Phillips’s work on fossils as part of this project, I show how he attempted to resolve the far more difficult problem of understanding the geology of these two counties by resorting to statistical analyses. The most important outcome of De la Beche’s struggles with the geology, collectors and geologists of this part of Britain was not so much the scientific understanding that resulted but the way it shaped his thinking about how the science should be organised. It made him the architect of professional geology as we know it today.

11. Establishing a New Order

In the 1840s, Henry De la Beche began to shape a Geological Survey of employees working at every level. This meant he became less reliant on private collectors who might be selective in sharing their fossils. It also meant he was less reliant on the progress achieved by rival geologists. In other words, the whole enterprise of geology could be internalised within the Survey. This was, as a wrote in my chapter in Museum Revolutions, a cultural revolution in the science. In this chapter I look in detail at how the Survey conducted its field and museum work in Wales in the 1840s. With the science internalised and professionalised by the Survey, the culture of English geology was permanently altered. The provincial philosopher became the amateur, his or her potential contribution greatly diminished.

12. The End of an Age

If the Survey’s professionalisation meant a sea change in the culture of geology, it was just one factor that saw the world of individualism, that had fostered an heroic age of geology, dissolve. The socio-political conditions that had fostered the philosophical societies as ‘aristocratic assemblies’, that inducted the burgeoning middle classes into civic culture, had disappeared as society itself was reformed and democratised. Other forms of assembly developed, such as the Mechanics Institutes, which were more modern and egalitarian. With the passing of the Museum Act 1845, even the museum – which had been so central to the objectives of this generation of philosophical societies – became reimagined and under civic patronage. In this chapter, I look at what happened to the collections of these societies and how they fell into disorder. This provides the context for understanding how the Survey sought to establish a new national museum, the Museum of Practical Geology (1851), which really was a monument to the achievements of a so-called heroic age.

Part 5: The Culture of English Geology
13. The Making of a Heroic Age

This concluding chapter seeks to make sense of a period when the fossil became scientifically and culturally important. It did so mainly because it permitted rocks to be ordered and thus the history of the planet to be unravelled. The relatively lowly William Smith remains a key figure; the spark that lit an age of discovery. I describe the emergence and development of the culture of geology as a form of colonisation that superimposed itself on the landscape and on society. I consider how and why historians of science have styled this a heroic age. I look at how a search for immortality fuelled a social desire for monuments in stone, such as in a collection. Collectors were particularly keen to see their efforts immortalised in scientific works. The chapter also looks at how collecting culture changed and became professionalised. It ends by considering the nineteenth-century obsession with the making of heroes, arguing that historians of science have tended to adopt readymades; in other words, to portray these historical figures as they themselves wished to be portrayed.