Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British 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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Down to earth: one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey[edit]

By H. E. Wilson

Commemorating The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Geological Survey

The British Geological Survey has been part of the national infrastructure for a century and a half, since it sprang from its better-known parent, the Ordnance Survey. This is the story of its evolution and its problems — many common to other British scientific organizations — liberally spiced with anecdotes about many of the characters who have helped and hindered its progress.

In no sense an official history, this book is a record of an organization which has given valuable service and of the hundreds of men and women who have tried to maintain its reputation as 'the prototype of every other Geological Survey operating anywhere on the surface of the globe'.

Edinburgh and London: Scottish Academic Press, 1985. ISBN 7073 0473 3.


The Geological Survey of Great Britain has often been regarded as the first national geological organization, though this claim has been shown by Victor Eyles to be doubtful, as there was state-financed geological work in France and the United States before 1835. Even in the United Kingdom the geological branch of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland was active in 1825 and must contest the claim to be first with the French Corps des Mines.

Nevertheless the Geological Survey of Great Britain, dating from the appointment of the first geologist in 1835, is certainly the only geological organisation which can offer a documented and unbroken history of one hundred and fifty years and its sesquicentennial in 1985 offers an opportunity for an update of the official centenary volume, The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain by Sir John Flett, and the more idiosyncratic account by Sir Edward Bailey published in 1952.

This volume attempts to bring the record up to 1984, without repeating the details given in the earlier histories but giving some account of the first hundred years — and some of the background hitherto considered not fit for publication. The events of the last half century are recorded with, I hope, due regard for historical accuracy but are viewed with the eye of one who has always been regarded, like William Whitaker a century ago, as a 'sort of mutineer'. The author must, therefore, emphasise that this is a personal account and, though he acknowledges the help and co-operation of a host of his ex-colleagues, the views and opinions expressed are his own and in no sense those of the present Director or his staff.

I am greatly indebted to Robert Geary for his subtle chapter-head sketches.

Among those who have given me their time and memories I must especially mention Dr S Buchan, Sir Kingsley Dunham, Mrs Joan Eyles, Dr R C B Jones, Dr A G MacGregor, Mrs V M Mitchell, Dr A E Mourant, Mr J Pallister, Dr James Phemister, Mrs D Salmon, Sir James Stubblefield, Mr E Tallis and Dr A W Woodland.

I hope they will forgive me.


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

II In all directions: developments under Sir Henry's fourteen successors

III Lunch paper: the evolution of staff reports

IV The Mandarins: those set in authority over us

V A Framework for government research and development':further developments under NERC

VI Home is where you hang your hat: locations where the Survey has been based

VII Hercules

VIII From Stone-Age to microchip: the Geological Survey Drawing Office

IX Of shoes and ships and sealing wax: the conditions of service for professional staff

X Out and about: field survey and surveyors in the UK

XI Take a little water with it: a century of hydrogeology

XXI Far off fields: the development of Survey work overseas

XIII A matter of gravity: the emergence of geophysics as a separate discipline

XIV Cloak and dagger: geochemistry and the Atomic Energy Division

XV Lies, damn lies and the chequered history of mineral statistics

XVI On the shelf: geology beneath the waves

XVII The numbers game: computing and computers

XVIII What next: the future of the Geological Survey

Appendix: Songs of the Survey

Directors of the Geological Survey[edit]

Sir Henry De la Beche 1835-1855
Sir Roderick Impey Murchison 1855-1871 Director General
Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay 1871-1881 Director General
Sir Archibald Geikie 1882-1901 Director General
Sir Jethro Justinian Harris Teall 1901-1914
Sir Aubrey Strahan 1914-1920
Sir John Smith Flett 1920-1935
Bernard Smith 1935-1936
Sir Edward Battersby Bailey 1937-1945
Dr William Francis Porter McLintock 1945-1950
Sir William John Pugh 1950-1960
Sir Cyril James Stubblefield 1960-1966
Sir Kingsley Charles Dunham 1967-1976
Dr Austin William Woodland 1976-1979
Dr George Malcolm Brown 1979-1985

Superintendents of the Magnetic Observatory[edit]

James Glaisher 1838-1874
William Ellis 1875-1893
William Nash 1894-1903
William Bryant 1904-1923
William Witchell 1923-1948
Walter Jackson 1948-1950
Herbert Finch 1950-1964
Richard Leaton 1964-1970
— and head, Geomagnetism Unit, IGS 1970-1980


Anon., 1945. The Scientific Civil Service. Reorganization and Recruitment during the Reconstruction Period. HMSO Cmnd 6679 (Barlow Committee)

Anon., 1963. Committee of Enquiry into the Organisation of Civil Service. HMSO Cmnd 2171. (Trend Committee)

Anon., 1964. Report of the Committee on Technical Assistance for Overseas Geology and Mining. HMSO Cmnd 2351. (Brundrett Committee)

Anon„ 1968. The Civil Service. HMSO Cmnd 3638. (Fulton Report)

Anon., 1971. A Framework for Government Research and Development. HMSO Cmnd 4814. (Rothschild Report)

Anon., 1972. Framework for Government Research and Development. HMSO Cmnd 5056.

Anon., 1979. A Review of the Framework for Government Research and Development. HMSO

Bailey, E.B., 1952. Geological Survey of Great Britain. London. Cottrell, A., 1981. What is Science Policy? Maxwell-Pergammon Discourse, The Royal Institution.

Eyles, V.A., 1950. 'The First National Geological Survey.' Geol. Mag. No7. p. 373-82.

Flett, J.S., 1937. The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, HMSO, London.

Greenly, E., 1938. A Hand Through Time, 2 vols. London. Harley, J.B., 1971. The Ordnance Survey and the Origins of Geological Mapping in Devon and Cornwall. Exeter Essays in Geography in Honour of Arthur Davies. Exeter University.

Herries-Davies, G.L., 1981. in A Geology of Ireland. Edinburgh.

Herries-Davies, G.L., 1983. Sheets of many Colours, Dublin.

Lister, M., 1684. 'An ingeneous proposal for a new sort of maps of countrys, together with tables of sands and clays, such as chiefly are found in the north of England.' Phil.Trans.Roy. Soc.14 p. 739-746.

McCartney, P., 1977. Henry De la Beche; Observations on an Observer. Friends of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Reeks, M., 1920. Register of the Associates and old students of the Royal School of Mines, and the History of the Royal School of Mines.

Sampson, A., 1982. The Changing Anatomy of Britain. London. Thackray, J.C., 1984. 'An Experiment in Popular Education—the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street.' Mss.