David Hiram Williams and the search for coal — from South Wales to Bengal, 1839–1848

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Sketch cross-section through the Damodar Coalfield, Bengal, in a letter from D. H. Williams to Henry De la Beche, dated August 1847. Note the reference to ‘Crystalline Rocks, and Tigers!!’ (Courtesy of National Museum of Wales)
A geological report on the Damoodah Valley By D.H. Williams. 1850. Title page.
Map accompanying Williams’ report on the Damodar Valley coalfields, published in 1850.
Certificate sent to Williams’ wife at Bath, recording the circumstances of his death from ‘fever’. No mention is made of his fall from an elephant! (Courtesy of National Museum of Wales)

By David Bate (formerly written for Archives Awareness Campaign, 2010)

In 1846 David Hiram Williams was despatched to Calcutta following a request from the East India Company for assistance in searching for coal in the states of Bengal and Bihar. From 1839 Williams had been employed by the British Geological Survey in surveying the coalfields of South Wales, Bristol and the Forest of Dean, and was thus well equipped for the task. He would also receive a much needed addition to his annual income.

Williams was obliged to leave his wife and children in England during his time in India, but was never to see them again. Indeed, in a letter to Sir Henry De la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey, he records his grief on learning of the death of his youngest daughter, which occurred shortly after his departure to India. But he soon had reason to fear for his own safety during an outbreak of cholera, which in the summer of 1846 was ‘raging in Calcutta to a fearful extent’. Here indeed was an early indication of the dangers that beset field geologists (even to this day) when working overseas, where they may be called upon to spend extended periods in remote jungle, desert or mountain terrain.

The principal mode of transport for geological fieldwork in India was the elephant, and tradition has it that elephants were trained to pick up samples of rock and hand them to their master for inspection. Thus the celebrated botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who joined Williams on one of his expeditions in 1848, records in his ‘Himalayan Journal’ that ‘Our elephant was an excellent one, when he did not take obstinate fits, and so intelligent as to pick up pieces of stone when desired, and with a jerk of the trunk throw them over his head for the rider to catch, thus saving the trouble of dismounting to geologise!’

Williams proceeded first to the Damodar Valley where coal was already known to occur, though in unknown quantity. In the following year (1847) he was able to report that the coalfield here ‘contains 200 feet of coal which so far as thickness goes contains more fuel than any coalfield in Great Britain...’ By the end of the year the survey of the Damodar Coalfield was complete, and in early 1848 he began an examination of the Kaimur Range, west of the Son River (see map).

The latter part of 1848 saw Williams surveying coalfields in the western part of the Damodar Valley, and it was here that he met with an unfortunate accident from which he never recovered. A letter written by the Assistant Surgeon to the East India Company at Hazaribagh, dated 15 November 1848, states ‘It would appear that the deceased met with a severe accident about 12 days ago, by falling from an Elephant, and again from a precipice, while employed in surveying. Jungle fever ensued, continuing until this morning when he became insensible, and four hours afterwards expired.’

In 1850 De la Beche received a request from the East India Company for a geologist to replace Williams. This led to the appointment of Thomas Oldham, whose arrival in 1851 is taken to mark the founding of the Geological Survey of India. It may be noted that the average lifespan of a geologist on the Indian Survey at this time was about nine years, the most usual causes of death being malaria, sunstroke and cholera. Oldham however lived long enough to retire in 1876, the last two years of his life being spent in England.

The letters written by D. H. Williams to Henry De la Beche, along with much other official correspondence from the early years of the British Geological Survey, are preserved at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Extracts from these letters will be found in T. Sharpe & P. J. McCartney The Papers of H.T. De la Beche (1796-1855) in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1998. Unfortunately there is no known portrait of D. H. Williams.