Far off fields: the development of Survey work overseas

From Earthwise
Jump to navigation Jump to search
From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
The text is derived from an 'orphan' work. BGS are committed to respecting the intellectual property rights of others. After extensive effort we are unable to trace the copyright holder of this work. Despite this, we would like to make this very important work on the history of BGS, written by a former member of staff of the Survey, available for researchers. If you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found this work for which you have not granted permission please contact us with proof you are the rights holder.
XII Far off fields:the development of Survey work overseas. Chapter-head sketch by Robery Geary.
Imperial Institute Geologists in Mozambique in 1911. In true Overseas tradition precautions against dehydration were being observed.

XXI Far off fields:the development of Survey work overseas[edit]

For over a century the Survey directed its effort almost exclusively to the British Isles but from the middle of the Victorian era the demand for geological expertise in the far-flung corners of the Empire tempted many of the new breed of geological surveyors to try their skills abroad. Many of the new geological organisations in the colonies and India were set up by men who had worked under Murchison and Ramsay — Logan and Murray in Canada, Selwyn and McCoy in Victoria, Hardman in Western Australia, Oldham, Medlicott and Willson in India, Bauerman with the Boundary Commission in North America, and many others.

The first overseas work by a serving officer seems to have been carried out by Ramsay himself who, when Director-General, went to Gibraltar in 1876 to report on the geology and water supply. Geikie, obsessed with the completion of the map of Great Britain, was clearly not in favour of foreign adventure, but Teall sent Flett to report on the nuee ardente disaster in Martinique in 1902, Cunningham Craig to Trinidad and Scrivenor to the Malay States in 1903 — the latter not to return to the Survey — and Maufe (Muff) to Uganda in 1905. Like Scrivenor, he too found work abroad to be congenial and shortly after his return he resigned to become Director of the Geological Survey of Southern Rhodesia.

After the First World War Robertson and Wray were detached to work for the Colonial Office in the former German colonies of Togoland and Tanganika and in 1936 A G MacGregor went to Monserrat in the West Indies where another cataclysmic volcanic eruption was feared. Following Ramsay's example Bailey, when Director in 1943, flew to Malta to advise on the water supply position — an escapade typical of Bailey, who would have been better advised to send one of his hydrological specialists — and after 1944 members of the Special Investigations Division, later the Atomic Energy Division, worked in many areas of the world in their search for radioactive minerals.

The contribution of the Geological Survey to the development of the resources of the Empire was, however, minimal. Most of the impetus in the first half of the twentieth century came from a remarkable organisation known as the Imperial Institute, founded in 1883 to promote the development and industrial use of the raw materials of the teritories of the Empire.

A Commercial Intelligence Department collected details of imports and exports of the UK, the colonies and foreign countries, while a Scientific and Practical Research Department (a nice distinction!) set up a laboratory for the analysis and development of material sent from overseas. A good many of the specimens sent for examination were minerals and the Journal of the Institute frequently referred to work on mineral specimens, both ores and industrial minerals.

In 1903 the Institute was transferred to the Board of Trade, whose Commercial Intelligence Branch took over the statistical functions, though the renamed Scientific and Technical Research Department continued to operate. During the next decade mineral surveys were arranged by the Institute in co-operation with the governments of Ceylon, Nyasaland, Southern and Northern Nigeria.

During the early years of its existence the Scientific and Technical Research Department carried out some of the first chemical and technical assessments of what later became classical localities for particular materials. The first volume of the Bulletin of the Imperial Institute published in 1903, for example, included analyses of tin ores from Nigeria, haematite from the Bombay Presidency, India, and reports on diamonds from South Africa (including a genetic model!), the asphalt industry of Trinidad and nickel minerals from Canada.

In 1916 the Imperial Institute was transferred from the Board of Trade to the Colonial Office, who set up a number of Technical Advisory Committees to control its new acquisition. One of these, the Mineral Resources Committee, commissioned a series of monographs on the mineral resources of the Empire and established a Technical Information Bureau. Three years later the Government established a separate Imperial Mineral Resources Bureau, reporting to the Lord President of the Council — a member of Cabinet who presides over meetings of the Privy Council — and for six years this Bureau and the Minerals Section of the Institute operated in parallel. In 1925, however, the Imperial Institute Act amalgamated them under the Department of Overseas Trade and the combined body continued till 1949, with the statistical and analytical divisions supporting the emerging geological departments in the colonies.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, and occasionally earlier (as in British Guiana, 1889), colonial governments in the British colonial territories had often employed government geologists, usually in individual posts in Departments of Mines or Works. Some of these had developed into Geological Survey departments before World War II — Malaya (Malaysia) (1912), Gold Coast (Ghana) (1913), Uganda (1918), Nigeria (1919), Tanganika (Tanzania) (1925), Nyasaland (Malawi) (1921), Sierra Leone (1926), Kenya (1933) — for which staff were recruited through the Colonial Office in London, though they were employed as public servants by the colonies concerned. Staff were informed of vacancies in other surveys and movement on promotion was common. It was rare for geologists to spend their whole career in one colony, and pension rights were apportioned between the colonies according to the time spent in each.

The conditions under which these colonial geologists worked are vividly described in unpublished accounts by Frank Dixey, later first Director of Overseas Geological Surveys, and John Pallister who became head of the Overseas Division of the Institute of Geological Sciences following the amalgamation of the home and overseas Surveys. Dixey had been a lecturer in University College Cardiff, and towards the end of World War I was released from the Army and sent, as he put it — 'to a geologically unknown country to …single-handed conduct a mineral survey of it with no trained staff, field maps or any (of the) facilities now considered normal for such a task'.

Sierra Leone at that time had only a limited railway system and virtually no motorable roads — or cars for that matter. The only maps available were very sketchy 1:250 000 scale. Dixey traversed the country on foot with the aid of prismatic compass, an aneroid barometer and a bicycle wheel fitted with a mileometer; journeying on footpaths with a- party of local carriers and making camp each night in a fresh location. Only occasionally did he meet other Europeans, in the form of District Commissioners and missionaries.

Though, in general, wives did not come on such safaris, Dixey records that his wife did accompany him on his second and third tours in Sierra Leone, each involving seven months of journeying. She must have been a pretty tough lady, for the only relief from walking was an occasional ride in a 'string hammock' under a covered rectangular frame, each corner of which rested on a bearer's head.

Basic though it was, this method of working allowed access to interesting areas in rough country. Dixey records an occurrence of fossil reptile remains in the Luangwa Valley, on the borders of Malawi and Zambia, from which he collected a ton of specimens, all carried out in 20 Kg loads. Many years later an elaborate motorised British Museum expedition to the same localities recorded that not all Dixey's localities could be reached 'because he was more mobile than we were'.

In 1921 Dixey left Sierra Leone for Nyasaland (Malawi) and later served in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nigeria. Much of his work in East Africa was on ground water and his Practical Handbook of Water Supply was one of the first publications to deal with ground water in tropical crystalline rocks.

Pallister first went to Africa ,c enteen years after Dixey, as a mining geologist working for a legendary character called Bancroft. Bancroft had been a Professor at McGill University in Montreal and had been engaged by the Anglo-American Corporation to organise systematic prospecting over large areas of Northern Rhodesia where they . held prospecting rights. At its peak 'Bancroft's Circus' employed over forty geologists in the field, concerned with metallic minerals rather than making maps. The methods and ways of life, however, were very similar to those of the Colonial surveys. Endless compass and cyclometer traverses of unmapped country, living off the land and moving camp frequently with a team of fourteen porters, a cook, and a 'Kapitao' or 'head boy'. A lonely, monotonous and often frustrating life which produced a breed of tough, self-reliant geologists.

After the war, in the late 1940's, Britain became conscious of responsibility for the development of her colonies and the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund was set up to pay for the expansion of services in the poorer colonies, including medical, agricultural, engineering and geological activities, while the Directorate of Overseas Surveys was established to make adequate topographic maps.

To control the distribution of the geological part of these funds a new organisation, the Directorate of Colonial Geological Surveys, was set up and Frank Dixey was appointed its Director (and Geological Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Colonies). For a man of his achievements a contemporary description of Dixey is unexpected — 'a quiet and reserved individual who talked slowly and formally like a Civil Service document'.

The new organisation began on 1st January, 1947, in modest offices in the Imperial Institute and it was two years before Dixey had any appreciable organisation to control. He did not spend any time however, on administration but travelled extensively, making contact with existing geological organisations and conferring with governments in the territories where work was needed but no Survey existed.

The original intention had been to set up an organisation based in Britain which would send mapping teams out to developing areas and produce the printed maps at home. Dixey realised that a geological survey was more than just maps and encouraged the colonies to expand or set up their own geological departments to provide ad hoc advice, while the limited C.G.S. resources provided specialist back-up, either in-house, with photogeology and geophysics, or with outside contractors, such as applied geochemistry at Imperial College and palaeontology at the British Museum of Natural History, while mineralogy and chemistry continued to be carried out by the Imperial Institute. Within a few years thirteen new colonial surveys had been established, though a few of these were temporary affairs, as in Hong Kong, where a few men, seconded for short periods, were able to complete the necessary work.

The first decade of Colonial Geological Surveys was a prolonged success story. By 1957 the eleven governments which had geological surveys in 1947 had been increased to twenty four. The home base, starting with Dixey and E.S. Willbourn in the Imperial Institute, expanded with the establishment of a photogeological section housed with the Directorate of Colonial (Geodetic and Topographic) Surveys, first in the temporary building in Bushey Park from which the invasion of Europe was planned in 1944, and later at Chessington, Surrey. In 1949 two Deputy Directors were appointed — Willbourne for administration and Dr S.H. Shaw for geophysics and photogeology — and the cuckoo in the Imperial Institute nest took over its Mineral Resources Department which became the Mineral Resources Division of Colonial Geological Surveys — much against the will of its staff. Their objections were the culmination of long-held grievances about the numerous changes suffered by the Institute over the last decades. At one time they did not know who, if anyone, would pay their salaries for the next month. They felt strongly that the contribution of the Institute to the development of mineral resources of the Empire had not been appreciated and they resented the disintegration of their organisation.

Under the new dispensation the Mineral Resources Division expanded and the sections of the old Department were developed to include a Geological and Mining Section, a Chemical and Testing Section, a Statistical Section and a Mining Law Section. The geological part of the Imperial Institute Library was also incorporated as the Overseas Geological Surveys Library. The remit of the new Division was to carry out investigations on samples of rocks and minerals from Colonial Territories, to deal with technical enquiries concerning the mineral industry overseas, to prepare publications relevant to the territories it set up to serve, including the annual 'Statistical Summary of the Mineral Industry' (started in 1916) and to study and advise on mining law in the Colonies and self-governing countries of the Commonwealth.

As early as 1921, following his experience in the Royal Flying Corps — later the Royal Air Force — D.R. Grantham in Tanganyika had used a plane to carry out an aerial geological reconnaissance of the northern part of that country. By the middle thirties the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company had full-time photo-interpreters on its staff who helped geologists to assess their areas before they went into the field and it is probable, too, that some government geologists in the colonies used photographs, when available, at that time. Certainly in the immediate post-war years their value in understanding structures in areas of tropical rain forest was appreciated.

An extensive programme by the R.A.F. in the late forties provided the first general air-photo cover of most of the African Colonial Territories and this was followed by higher definition photography carried out by the Directorate of Colonial Surveys, primarily for topographical mapping, but available to Geological Surveys.

When Shaw was recruited to C.G.S., by Dixey in 1949, one of his first actions was to establish a photogeology section led by K.V. Stringer, an ex-Burmah Oil geologist. Experimental work on some of the Shield areas of ancient rocks in Africa — Stringer on ring complexes and Allum on Nigerian metamorphics — established the value of photogeological techniques and all recruits to C.G.S. and to colonial surveys had an introductory course before they went abroad.

The use of air-photographs in the United Kingdom started in the late forties when R.A.F. coverage became available, but early applications were largely confined to position-finding in the Scottish Highlands and Northern Ireland, because of the general availability of good topographical maps and the generally moderate quality of many photographs. After the amalgamation of the home and overseas surveys in 1965 the photogeology courses were open to home-based field geologists. Since then groups from the home: field divisions have alternated with groups from Overseas Division and from the developing countries, the latter benefitting from the availability of aid funds administered by the British Council. The declining availability of this funding in the 1980s has unhappily greatly reduced the numbers of third-world candidates.

The Colonial Geological Survey's headquarters remained in the Imperial Institute buildings in South Kensington but redevelopment of the site by Imperial College forced the remains of the Institute out. The Plant and Animal Products Department of the Institute became the Tropical Products Institute of DSIR and moved to new buildings in Gray's Inn Road in 1957; the Institute's educational and exhibition departments moved to Holland Park as the Commonwealth Institute, under the Department of Education and Science, and finally the Overseas Geological Surveys, after threats of banishment to old buildings at Kew, moved to a new building in Gray's Inn Road in 1960, a year after Dixey retired at the age of 67.

By the end of 1956 the total number of staff employed in London was about 60, w hilst those abroad, though employed by the colonial governments and not directly by C.G.S., numbered about 220 so that the total linked with the Imperial Institute base was nearing 300.

By this time, however, the first of the colonial territories was approaching independence (The Gold Coast became the independent state of Ghana in 1957) and within a few years others followed and Colonial Geological Surveys was discreetly renamed Overseas Geological Surveys.

The inevitable progress of 'localisation', the replacement of expatriate by indigenous staff, and the run-down of many of the surveys meant that the O.G.S. became gradually cut off from the people and countries which it evolved to serve. Anticipating this process, the Department of Technical Co-operation, one of the numerous new and short-lived sections of government which appeared in the 50s and 60s, appointed in 1962 a committee chaired by Sir Frederick Brundrett to consider, among other matters, the future of the Directorate of Overseas Geological Surveys (and the Atomic Energy Division of GSGB).

As a result of its deliberations the Committee made some observations and recommendations which have proved notably perspicaceous in retrospect — though they did not seem so at the time to all concerned. They saw disadvantages in separate home and overseas establishments, and considered that a combined organisation would be more efficient in administration and better equipped to meet changes in the balance of work. They also thought that a proportion of home-based staff would welcome the opportunity to work abroad.

The recommendations of the committee might, however, have been more tactfully expressed: they suggested that OGS should be transferred from the Department of Technical Co-operation to DSIR and incorporated in the Geological Survey of Great Britain where it would be combined with the Atomic Energy Division.

The Brundrett Report reached the Minister for Science — who was also Lord President of the Council — in 1964, seven months after the Trend Report on the Organisation of the Civil Service, giving the opportunity for far-reaching reforms, in which OGS became involved.

At the end of March 1965 DSIR ceased to exist and the Geological Survey of Great Britain was briefly administered directly by the Department of Education and Science until GSGB and OGS were merged under the control of the new Natural Environment Research Council in June 1965. Their staffs ceased to be Civil Servants, though continuing to enjoy Civil Service gradings and terms of service.

The marriage was certainly not based on mutual trust. OGS, if people seconded to or employed by overseas governments were included, had a scientific staff of well over 200, while the GSGB numbered only about 120. The loss of OGS's identity to an apparently smaller but older and, to OGS eyes, hidebound and unimaginative home survey was bitterly resented. Matters were not improved by the implied views of the GSGB staff who regarded overseas experience as irrelevant or second class. As Sydney Shaw remarked: 'They said we did not do "proper" geological mapping'.

It required considerable diplomacy between Stubblefield, now Director of the combined organisation, and Shaw, now finding himself head only of one of the divisions of a Survey about which he knew little. Things were slightly 'rationalised' in 1967 when the hierarchy was reorganised to have the Director, now Dunham, supported by two Chief Geologists — one responsible for GSGB (Buchan) and the other for overseas and Minerals (Shaw), who remained Geological Adviser to the Minister of Overseas Development.

This arrangement lasted only until Shaw retired in 1968, when the role of Adviser was assumed by Dunham and the new head of the Overseas Division, Pallister, was an S.P.S.O., though he was promoted to Assistant Director (D.C.S.O.) the following year. Looked at in retrospect, without knowledge of the internal struggle, it does seem that, at the time, the ex-OGS staff suffered a loss of status, particularly overseas. There they no longer represented the Ministry of Overseas Development but had to admit to being from the unknown Natural Environment Research Council.

Apart from its world-wide perspective, the Overseas Geological Surveys brought the new organisation three fields of expertise in which the home survey had become very deficient. Probably most vital was the laboratory facilities for geochemistry at Gray's Inn Road. Hitherto geochemical work in the GSGB had been conducted by a small group of chemists seconded from the Laboratory of the Government Chemist who operated a small laboratory on the third floor of the Exhibition Road offices. With the advent of the Gray's Inn Road building and its extensive analytical and ceramics laboratories, and the Isotope Geology Unit, based in Oxford, the foundations for a Geochemical Division were available. Also new to the home survey was the Photogeological Unit with its two decades of experience in systematic photogrammetry and photogeology overseas. The third vital accession was the Statistics and Mining Law section, which provided the nucleus of the Mineral Resources Division of the new combined surveys and filled a gap which had existed in the home survey since the departure of Mining Records Office in 1883.

Another centre of excellence was the O.G.S. Library, derived from the old Imperial Institute archives in part and containing a unique collection of literature and records. This retained a separate existence for a time, moving from Gray's Inn Road to the 'Lower Bridge' at Exhibition Road when the new Overseas Division moved to the Princes Gate office in 1967. When the Division moved to Keyworth its library was incorporated in the station library there. Traumatic though the fragmentation of the OGS organisation was to its members in 1965-8, the expertise brought to the new combined outfit was an essential part of the new and fast-growing Institute which developed in the 1970s.

The Overseas Division which emerged consisted at first only of the Special Surveys Unit and the Photogeology Unit, each headed by an S.P.S.O., David Bleackley and Gordon Whittle respectively, under John Pallister as Head of Division. The Geophysics section was merged with the Geophysics Department of the home Survey at an early stage — a merger made easy by the character and professional reputation of William Bullerwell, first Head of the combined group.

Dunham's style of Directorship was not at all conciliatory — he had a clear view of what was needed in the new Institute and was determined to achieve it. There was immediate friction when the long-standing direct liaison between the head of Overseas Division and the Ministry of Overseas Development was forbidden, but his direct approach and publicly expressed opinion that cross-fertilisation would be good for both sides of the Institute brought a gradual acceptance from the Overseas staff. Unfortunately, it seemed to them that in spite of the Director's views, other members of the home hierarchy were less cordial.

On interview boards for geological staff it became apparent that the type of geologist sought was somewhat different as between Overseas and Home appointments. In the former a good all-rounder with self-reliance and personality was often preferable to a man with the high academic attainments sought for home posts. Thisgave rise to the unfortunate impression that Overseas requirements were less exacting and that a poorer standard of applicant could be accepted.

The misunderstanding was not lessened by the fact that, though part of the same organisation, experienced members of the Overseas Division failed to get promotion to senior posts in the home divisions, apparently because it was felt that the reconnaiss ance nature of much of the overseas mapping programme did not qualify them to take charge of 1:10 000 scale mapping in the UK. (It must be said that few home-based geologists were trusted with the supervision of overseas programmes).

Promotion opportunities were therefore few, despite the fact that by the mid-1970's Overseas Division officers on secondment under the Overseas Services Aid Scheme to posts as Directors or Chief Geolosits in Botswana, Malawi and the Solomon Islands had been granted the temporary rank of SPSO. By 1975 it became possible to extend the temporary SPSO arrangements to the project type of Overseas aid as increased funds enabled larger programmes to be mounted, but it was not until 1978 that the number of senior posts reached the reasonable figure of ten, including Regional Geologists with responsibility for Africa, Asia, South America arid the Carribean, and the Pacific.

One senior post which required long argument before it was approved was that of Mining Adviser. The Ministry of Overseas Development, in the 1960s and 70s, turned to Overseas Division for advice on mining matters which geologists were not really qualified to give. Because IGS was not concerned with mining problems the idea of appointing a senior mining engineer at SPSO level was long resisted, but finally accepted in 1976, while in 1979 a special post of Hydrogeological and Geothermal Adviser was established.

The work of the Division since 1967 falls into three main fields. Most significant in the terms of numbers of staff employed, and diversity of location, has been Technical Co-operation — known at various times as Technical Aid or Technical Asistance and paid for by the Ministry of Overseas Development, later to become the Overseas Development Administration of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1970), a separate Ministry again (1974) and back to ODA in 1979. These technical projects are of two kinds long-term assignments with staff remaining in overseas countries for two or three year tours, working on major field surveys with local 'counterpart' geologists, and short assignments in which staff work on limited projects for a few months. From the early 1970s there has been a tendency for the long-term projects — as in Iran (1968-71, 1972-5), Bolivia (1976-83), Indonesia (1974-80), Ecuador (1972-80) — to become an increasing proportion of total effort. At its peak in the mid-1970s the Technical Assistance programme was operating in over 30 countries throughout the 'third world'.

The second major field of work has been the secondment of staff to geological survey departments in ex-colonial Commonwealth countries under the Overseas Service Aid Scheme. As these territories have become more self-reliant the number helped under this heading has fallen from about ten to five (1981).

The third area of activity is in providing general advisory services to the Overseas Development Administration, including the work of the Mining and Hydrogeological Advisers. In the sixties and early seventies the Division assisted in the recruitment of staff on ODA contracts for work abroad, either in colonial or ex-colonial surveys or on technical assistance projects, where they sometimes worked with seconded IGS staff, but in general all staff are now IGS personnel. The Division also made recommendations on applicants for United Nations contract posts abroad and a few IGS staff have been seconded to United Nations Development Agency teams for periods of one or two years.

Though the level of funds available for work overseas has varied somewhat, the total number of staff involved in the work of Overseas Division in the last two decades has increased gradually to over a hundred, two thirds of whom are on the divisional strength and the remainder seconded from various specialist units on short-term assignments. Though there is still a cadre who have always been in overseas work, there is an increasing number of field staff in the home divisions who have had one or more tours overseas and given the changing pattern of aid to the less developed countries, it may be that field geologists, as well as specialists, will become completely interchangeable in the future.

Stories about the activities and eccentricities of individual geologists abound; this is to be expected of men who work in remote situations and inhospitable terrain where they may be the only expatriate ever to have been seen. Unlike most military men, they often have to lead a hastily assembled team of local inhabitants who are not only untrained and unfamiliar with the work in hand but are not bound to their leader by any formal disciplinary structure. In such conditions, much depends on the individual geologist's force of character, resourcefulness and ability to communicate.

A long-term observer of the British geologists who serve overseas has identified their main characteristics as initiative, a stoic acceptance of the inevitable and an innate kindliness. These three can admirably be demonstrated by this account of a brief sally into relative civilisation by one of their number during a long campaign of arduous jungle traversing. This man was staying in a Vientiane hotel. He phoned down to the desk to ask for a pot of tea to be sent up to his room and then went down for a swim in the pool. When he returned to his room he found that there had been a mix-up in the orders; there was no pot of tea but in its place and in his bed there was a personable and stark naked young woman. At this point he amply demonstrated those characteristics of which overseas geologists are all so proud. He showed initiative by not batting an eyelid, he stoically accepted the inevitable, and before doing so demonstrated his innate kindliness by giving a passing thought to the unfortunate chap elsewhere in the hotel who had received the pot of tea.