A thorough jobber: De la Beche and the origins of the Geological Survey

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From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
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I A thorough jobber: De la Beche and the origins of the Geological Survey. Chapter-head sketch by Robery Geary.
Thomas Henry Huxley, Professor of Biology to the School of Mines, 1854-1895, at the blackboard in Jermyn Street.

I A thorough jobber: De la Beche and the origins of the Geological Survey[edit]

The Board of Ordnance was a mediaeval body, set up by an Ordnance, or law, to regulate the manufacture of artillery for the forces of the Crown. Over the years it gradually encompassed the control of all fortresses, their stores and armaments. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the Board, and its president, the Master-General of the Ordnance, was the chief adviser to the monarch on all military matters.

When it was decided, in 1791, that the defence of the realm required an accurate map of the kingdom the body established to make it was put under the control of the Board of Ordnance, staffed by military personnel and called the Ordnance Trigonometrical Survey.

The first geological appointment to the staff of the Trigonometrical Survey was in 1814 when John MacCulloch, ranked as a Chemist in the Board of Ordnance, was appointed Geologist to the Survey, though his first geological commission had been three years earlier when he was sent to Scotland, not to prepare a geological map of the country but to locate areas where abnormal deflections of the plumbline might be expected, so that they could be avoided in the geodetic measurements to establish a meridian for the construction of the one-inch map. As he said:

… as it thus became necessary to traverse many tracts of country…. I felt that I might without any diversion of time or additional expense to the Government, note other geological facts which fell in my way, and thus produce some sort of partial surveys of the country in general.

Subsequently he seems to have had a commission to search the country for a mountain to supersede Schiehallion as a test-site to measure the specific gravity of the earth — Schiehallion having been used for his celebrated experiment by Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal in 1774. MacCulloch, who was killed in a carriage accident on his honeymoon at the age of 62, continued to work for the Board of Ordnance until 1826. Thereafter he was paid by the Treasury to complete his geological map of Scotland, until his death in 1835, by which time he had produced a number of papers on the geology of that country and had drafted a map of the whole of Scotland on the scale of four miles to one inch (1:253,440) which was published posthumously in 1836.

One of the most dynamic of the early Directors of the Ordnance Survey was Thomas Frederic Colby (1784-1852) who ended up as a Major-General but who took over the post in 1820 as a Captain. When the topographical survey of Ireland was launched in 1824 Colby, at that time forty years old, resolved to implement his ideas for a comprehensive scientific, economic, statistical and social assessment of the country. He felt, as one of his staff, Portlock, said later, that 'such a noble opportunity of connecting with a topographical survey, all those collateral enquiries by which the springs of national wealth are discovered and directed into their proper channels, ought not to be lost'.

Colby apparently first thought that the collection of geological samples by his surveyors would enable a geologist at headquarters to interpolate geological boundaries on the map and the records show that parcels of rock samples were despatched by the first field parties, in 1825, to Dublin. This interesting approach must have proved inadequate, for in the following year he appointed Captain John Watson Pringle, a veteran of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo, as Superintendent of the Geological Survey in Ireland in addition to his other duties on the Topographical Survey — and in 1827 Pringle circulated to all his field parties a seventy-page Directions for Geological and Mineralogical Observations. The burden of this work fell on junior officers and sappers of the Royal Engineers, most of whom could have had no geological training and, as Johnson said of women preaching, 'you are surprised to find it done at all!'

In fact, following Pringle's instructions — topographical notes in black, geological notes in red — his field parties produced some fairly rudimentary maps and geological cross-sections of parts of County Londonderry before the Master-General of the Ordnance despatched an Inspector, Sir James Carmichael Smith, to Ireland to see what proportion of the surveyors' time was being taken up in peripheral activities, to the delay of the first essential, the topographic survey. Though Pringle and Colby defended their efforts — the latter estimated that the extra cost of a geological survey of all Ireland would be only £5,500 — the guillotine fell at the end of 1828 and the first systematic national geological survey was over. The first French geological survey by the Corps Royal des Mines had also started in 1825 — it is not recorded which of the two countries had priority.

Colby was not a man to be frustrated by a mere Knight. By the beginning of 1830 he had persuaded his superiors on the Board of Ordnance that Smith's decision was wrong and once again there emerged a new Geological Survey Branch of the Ordnance Survey, this time under the control of another remarkable warrior, Captain Joseph E. Portlock (1794-1864), who had been responsible for the primary triangulation of Ireland and had worked with Pringle on the first geological survey.

For the first two years geological work was in a fairly low key Portlock still being mainly concerned with the primary triangulation, which involved boring delays on wet mountains awaiting good visibility — but from 1832 he devoted most, if not all, of his time to the Geological Branch, and in 1837 opened a 'Geological Office' in Belfast which included a museum. One of Portlock's eight surveyors was Thomas Oldham (1816-1878) who went on to become first Director of the Geological Survey of India.

In England, in 1832, John Wright, an assistant surveyor, sent Colby a part of the Leominster sheet with geological annotations and though Colby passed it on with his commendations to the President of the Geological Society — R.I. Murchison — he had clearly had his fingers burned over Pringle's activities because Colby's reply to Wright had the enjoiner:

I know there are persons who look on Geological examinations as a distinct labour which interferes with the operations of the Survey and retards its progress; it will, therefore, be requisite to make the Geological examinations so subservient to the Map that no delay whatever may be impugned to the Department.

In- the same year, however, Henry De la Beche (pronounced Beech), a gentleman of independent means, amateur geologist of experience, and a leading light in the Geological Society of London, wrote to the Master-General of the Board of Ordnance:‑

Having applied myself to the study of Geology for many years and having directed much of my attention to the Geological relations of this my native country …and being convinced of the great practical utility of what I am about to propose, I offer no apology for intruding myself on the notice of your Hon. Board with a view to obtaining the completion of an undertaking which has for some time past occupied much of my time and attention … I am induced therefore to offer to your Hon. Board at a price I am well assured will be considered very moderate knowing as I do that it will be much below the sum they will have cost me when completed.

What he was offering, for £300, was to add, within two years, geological information to the Ordnance Survey map of Devon, which had recently been published, and 'to lay down the detail accurately to scale and properly coloured upon each of these sheets, in so clear and intelligible a manner as to admit of it being readily transferred to the Ordnance copper plates'. De la Beche had the support of Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology at Cambridge, and had produced a cost-benefit analysis which showed that the Ordnance Survey would make a profit on the exercise.

Colby responded to this approach with enthusiasm, reporting to his superior, Major-General Sir Alex Boyce, Inspector-General of Fortifications, that though he could not be responsible for the accuracy of the information the offer was 'highly advantageous to the public'. He laid down some conditions, not all acceptable to De la Beche. The colours should be acceptable to the Geological Society and the indexes of colours, sections and memoirs should be published by De la Beche at his own expense.

De la Beche accepted the second condition but jibbed at the first, saying that his colleagues on the Geological Society's Council were 'not men of business and despatch' and that delay would be inevitable. Colby agreed to accept De la Beche's judgement as far as the work in the field was concerned; but 'when we have engraved the lines of demarcation on the copper, a copy can be coloured according to the decision of the Council'. With this compromise De la Beche proceeded '..forthwith into Devonshire; there is work enough for two years'. It was 2nd May 1832 when the Secretary of the Board of Ordnance wrote to him to accept his offer, stating that the £300 would be paid in eight equal instalments, after he had delivered each of the eight sheets in the county geologically coloured for engraving. At £37.10.0. per sheet the Board had got themselves a bargain, the like of which was not to be repeated!

By 1835 the Board of Ordnance had been impressed by De la Beche's work in Devon — not surprising, as he had covered, single-handed, over 1000 square miles of Devonshire in three years — and the Master-General asked the President of the Geological Society and the Professors of Geology at Oxford and Cambridge their opinion 'as to the expediency of combining a geological examination . . . with the geographical survey now in progress'. Their joint report naturally emphasised the great advantages of the project and was apparently accepted not only by the Board of

Ordnance but also by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who authorised the Treasury 'to defray the additional expenses … incurred in colouring geologically the Ordnance county maps'. So in 1835 De la Beche became a full-time employee of the Board of Ordnance and the Geological Survey may be said to have commenced as a one-man department of the Ordnance Survey.

Back in Ireland the labours of Portlock's 'Geological Office' in Belfast, which by now included no less than 35 geologists, botanists, zoologists and collectors, had produced the 'Templemore Memoir', published in 1837, which was the first, and last, parish memoir published under Colby's ambitious scheme.The geological content was limited but the book did indeed contain a vast amount of information on the natural history and social conditions of the parish. The critical acclaim accorded to this volume buoyed up Portlock and his cohorts and for the next three years they worked through the northern counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Tyrone and into Fermanagh, following, at increasing distance, the topographical surveyors and recording natural features in detail on maps at the six-inches to one mile scale.

At the same time De la Beche in England was covering very much larger areas, mapping on the one-inch to one mile scale and producing maps at a very small cost, while Portlock's search after perfection was publishing nothing.The result was inevitable and in 1840 Portlock was instructed to cut his staff, cease his fieldwork and concentrate on bringing the Survey of Co Londonderry to completion. The Belfast office was closed, the maps and specimens transferred to the Ordnance Survey's Irish headquarters at Mount-joy in Dublin and Portlock was given the assistance of Lt Henry James (1803-77) to help him complete the Derry maps.

As the research of G.L.Herries Davies shows, Colby and the Board of Ordnance had concluded that, however desirable the concept, the multiple survey of the Templemore type was just not economically possible. Indeed it seems generous of them to have allowed Portlock the opportunity of bringing the work already done to the stage of publication, which he did in the astonishing Geological Report on Londonderry and parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh, published in 1843, by which time the perfectionist Portlock had been 'relieved of his duties with the Ordnance Survey' and transferred to the Royal Engineers in Corfu. He ultimately became a Major-General and President of the Geological Society of London but had no further part in the Geological Survey. He was clearly the model for many of his successors in the geological field, in his reluctance to finalise his work because something new might be found next week.

Colby on the other hand, was the first of a succession of Directors frustrated by slow production. In the light of recent 'customer' demands he was also ahead of his time in wanting, as output, not detailed geology but what might now be described as environmental or 'applied geology' maps. His note to Larcom, in charge of the Irish Office of the Ordnance Survey in 1840, is instructive:- 'In truth geology has run too much into fossils — is too much made up of minute research — and has not yet a sufficiently obvious connection with reality'.

With the departure of Portlock in 1843 the Geological Office was controlled by Lt Henry James, who was given the task of rearranging the collection which had been transferred to Dublin in 1840. He had been seconded to the Geological Survey branch of the Ordnance Survey in England for a period in 1842 to work under De la Beche. Since 1840 no further field work seems to have been undertaken in Ireland, but there had been a great deal of political pressure to resume work and in 1843 Colby proposed that the geological work in Ireland should become the responsibilty of De la Beche. Colby was, however, keen to keep the work in Ireland under the military, staffed by army personnel under Lt James.

The proposals were considered by a commission appointed by the Prime Minister (Peel) which recommended that De la Beche should take over; accepted his estimate of £1,500 per year for ten years to complete the work in Ireland; agreed that the concept of parish Memoirs, dear to Colby, should be abandoned and that Museums of Practical Geology, modelled on that in Craig's Court, London, be established in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Though this recommendation was an acceptance of most of Colby's recommendations, the succeeding events were more like present day 'soap opera' than our concept of Victorian government.

Colby was an ambitious and competent soldier and wished to keep the geological branch of his Ordnance Survey as a part — a prestigious and developing part — of his empire.De la Beche was an equally ambitious man who, with his entree to society and his acquaintanceship with the Prime Minister, was determined to advance his science — and his personal prestige — as far as he could.

For the first four years after his appointment in 1835 he seems to have worked single handed, mainly in Cornwall, with only occasional assistance from some of the Ordnance Survey surveyors. As we shall see, however, he had in 1835 started negotiations through his social contacts, for the establishment of a museum in London to be paid for, not by his masters in the Ordnance Survey, but by the Board of Public Works. By 1839 he had his Museum of Economic Geology, with a Curator and assistant and a Mining Records Office with a Keeper. Over the next five years he added seven field geologists and two palaeontologists to his staff.

The conventional view of De la Beche as an innovator of geological science, trying endlessly to advance his infant survey for the benefit of society, must be amended somewhat when we read the comments of some of his contemporaries. Murchison, for instance, writing to Sedgwick: 'De la Beche is a dirty dog, there is plain English and there is no mincing the matter. I know him to be a thorough jobber and a great intriguer'.

Or Ramsay, who noted that though he pretended to be open, frank and cordial, he was really — an artful dodger, for ever working for his own interest, heedless of that of others'.

Or Joseph Beete Jukes: 'Poor Sir Henry started the survey very much for his own honour and glory'.

These views of Sir Henry (he had been knighted in 1842) put the events of the mid-1840s in some perspective. Though he accepted Colby's offer of hegemony over Ireland as well as Great Britain this was only part of his longer-term ambition to extract his Survey from the ambit of the Master-General of Ordnance. The future of the Irish office was the second gambit — the first had been the establishment of the Museum of Economic Geology under the Commissioner of Woods, Forests, etc — divorced from the Board of Ordnance.

At first it seemed that Colby had the master hand.The commission of Enquiry had accepted his proposals and endorsed his choice as local director in Ireland — Lt James. De la Beche had his own candidate for this role — John Phillips, who in 1843 was appointed to the new chair of Geology in Trinity College, Dublin. Phillips had worked on the Geological Survey since about 1840, having been Professor at King's College, London since 1834, and he, and De la Beche, assumed that his Dublin chair would be combined with the local directorship of the Irish branch of the Survey. But in 1844 this battle seemed lost and the new geological branch of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland was established with James in command and De la Beche nowhere.

Colby's triumph was to be short lived. He was undermined by De la Beche's political manoeuvring and the ineptitude of James who, though he was ultimately to rise to head the Ordnance Survey, proved a hopeless leader of his geological troops.The former factor was decisive. Though Peel had some reservations about De la Beche and his 'roundabout way of doing a job' they were social aquaintances and the memorandum which Peel produced in late 1844 had all the hallmarks of Sir Henry's influence. The Prime Minister observed that the attempts to combine topographical and geological surveys had proved inconvenient and wondered whether a separate civilian department for the latter would not be better.He noted that the Museum of Economic Geology had been established under the First Commissioner of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings and wondered whether it would not be desirable to have the Commisioner assume responsibility for the Geological Survey too? Things then moved at a speed unthinkable today. On 27 December 1844 a Treasury minute to the First Commissioner suggested this possible arrangement: on 13 January 1845 the Commissioner, Lord Lincoln, sent a detailed memorandum explaining how a new combined Geological Survey would operate under his aegis with De la Beche as General Director, A.C.Ramsay as Local Director in England and Wales and James, seconded from the Royal Engineers, as Local Director in Ireland. The Treasury accepted these proposals on 31 January and the battle was over before the unfortunate Colby even knew it had been joined. Then, as now, it was not what you knew but who you knew!

The new arrangements were codified in an Act of Parliament on 31 July 1845 — Victoria Regina Cap. LXIII: An Act to facilitate the completion of a Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland, under the Director of the First Commissioner for the time being of Her Majesty's Woods and Works. It is worth noting that the Act was to 'facilitate the completion' of the Survey — not to guarantee its survival, but one of its provisions empowered officers of the Survey 'after notice had been given in writing, to enter into and upon the land of any owner for the purpose of making a geological survey', a provision which has been enshrined on Official Passes for over a century — and which the Masters have always avoided testing in the Courts when the few obstinate owners have refused permission to enter!

The organisation which De la Beche set up in 1845 after his triumph was essentially that which Lord Lincoln had foreshadowed in his memorandum. A.C.Ramsay (1814-1891), who had joined De la Beche in 1841 was made Local Director for England and Wales at the age of 31. James, aged 42, was Local Director in Ireland, though after a year he returned to the Royal Engineers. Richard Phillips and Trenham Reeks were in charge of the London Museum and Robert Kane in charge of the new Dublin museum, though he was responsible directly to the first Commissioner, not to De la Beche. The English field staff was six — W.T. Aveline, Trevor James, D.H.Williams, H.W. Bristow, W.H. Baily and A.R.C.Selwyn (1824-1902) (later to lead the Geological survey of Victoria and the Geological Survey of Canada). The Irish field staff was Wyley, Lewis, Willson and McCoy (1823-99) (also to become a pioneer as first Professor of Natural Sciences in Melbourne), while Edward Forbes was Palaeontologist and Lyon Playfair was Chemist, and Robert Hunt was Keeper of Mining Records — a responsibility given to De la Beche in 1839. W.W.Smyth was appointed to the new position of Mining Geologist. The total scientific staff of the Geological Survey was twenty four.

De la Beche was now using all his considerable influence to get the resources needed to forward his scheme for a new and larger museum and a School of Mines. His success was crowned by the opening in 1851 of the new Museum of Practical Geology on a site between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street and soon the Government School of Mines and Science Applied to the Arts (a name to suffer several changes) was functioning in the new building with Professors of Geology, Chemistry, Natural History, Mechanical Sciences, Metallurgy and Mining with Mineralogy, though the number of full-time students seems to have been small.

From 1845 De la Beche apparently left the conduct of the field survey to Ramsay and Thomas Oldham, who had succeeded James in Dublin in 1846 and who held the joint posts of Local Director and Professor of Geology in the University of Dublin. Oldham's successor, when he left to be Director of the Geological Survey of India in 1850, was Joseph Beete Jukes, who had worked with Ramsay in Wales and had just completed the first coalfield survey, in South Staffordshire. Jukes' move to Dublin was an illustration of De la Beche's duplicity, in that he assured Jukes that the cost of living in Dublin was less than that in England, though knowing well that Oldham had left because he could not live on his salary!

In 1845 the control of the Survey and Museum — and the Metropolitan School of Science Applied to Mining and the Arts passed from the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests to the Department of Science and Art, itself a product of the reorganisation engendered by the success of the 1851 Exhibition and the establishment of the world's first 'Science Park' in the Exhibition Road area of South Kensington. In the same year, 1854, the Survey extended its activity to Scotland, when Ramsay himself spent a few months in East Lothian, and work continued there on an out-station basis until an Edinburgh office was established in 1867.

De la Beche died in 1855 and, though he may have been a 'thorough jobber', his single-minded determination to build a public service department resulted in the organisation which, after its first twenty years, had a notable record in its published results. In this he was helped by his ability to pick out outstanding recruits. His School of Mines staff was unique — Lyon Playfair, T.H.Huxley, Edward Forbes, Joseph Hooker, John Tyndall, John Percy and G.G.Stokes were all scientific giants of the time — while Ramsay, Selwyn, McCoy and W.W.Smyth were geologists of international stature. As Colby had forseen, while trying to keep the Irish geological work for the military side of the Ordnance Survey, many of these men moved on to other fields, but their contribution to the infant organisation was crucial.

De la Beche was succeeded by another patrician, the undisputed leader of British Geology, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, then aged 63 — an age at which present-day geologists are adjudged to be 'past it'. With his accession the Geological Survey may be said to have received the imprimateur!