Roderick Impey Murchison Bart., K.C.B., LL.D., D.C.L., M.A., F.R.S., F.G.S. etc.

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Date Details
1792 Born February 19th at Tarradale, Easter Ross. Moved to Dorset. Educated at Durham Grammar School. Sent to Military School of Great Marlow.
1807 At 15 obtained commission and sailed for the Peninsula under Wellesley. Went through campaign under Sir John Moore.
1815 Left the Army and married. Took up geology. First paper “Geological sketch of north-west extremity of Sussex…..” (1825). Explored Highlands with Sedgwick.
1826 Elected F.R.S.
1827 Revisited Highlands with Sedgwick. Studied volcanoes of Auvergne with Lyell. Studied “transition” rocks in Welsh Borderland. Founded “Silurian System”.
1830 General Secretary, British Association.
1831 Work on Silurian made public at British Association. Investigations in Devon and Cornwall with Sedgwick.
1831-1832 President of Geological Society (also 1842-3).
1835-1839 Two journeys to Rhenish provinces with Sedgwick (also 1839), results published 1839 with classification.
1840 Visited Russia with De Verneuil and again in 1841 to superintend survey at Emperor’s request.
1841 Proposed adoption of “Permian System”.
1842 Travelled in Germany, Poland and Carpathians.
1844 Explored Palaeozoic rocks of Sweden and Norway. Elected President of Royal Geographical Society (again in 1845, 1852, 1856,etc).
1845-1846 Completed joint work on “Geology of Russia and Ural Mountains”. Knighted.
1846 President British Association.
1849 Copley Medal from Royal Society in recognition of having established the Silurian System.
1854 Published 1st edition “Siluria”.
1855 Produced with Morris a memoir of German Palaeozoics.
Succeeded De la Beche as Director-General of Geological Survey.
Inferred presence of auriforms deposits in Australian mountain ranges by analogy with Urals.
1859 Brisbane Gold Medal (1st) from Royal Society of Scotland [Edinburgh?] for classification of Highland rocks.
1863 Made K.C.B.
1864 Wollaston Medal.
1866 Bart.
Founded Chair of Geology and Mineralogy at Edinburgh.
1871 Died October 22nd.
For honours see – Geological Magazine (1871), p. 481

Biographies and obituaries[edit]

III. The Geological Survey under Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, 1855–1871 From: Flett, J.S. 1937. The History of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.

1855 The Murchison succession From: Bailey, Sir Edward. Geological Survey of Great Britain. London: Thomas Murby, 1952.

Obituary of Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, Bart., K.C.B., LL.D., D.C.L., M.A., F.R.S., F.G.S. (19.2.1792-22.10.1871). Geologists Magazine. v. 8 p.481-490. 1871

Prestwich, J. Obituary - Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. [In Anniversary Address.]. Proceedings of the Geological Society in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society. v. 28 p.xxix-xxxv. 1872

Geikie, Archibald. Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison. London : John Murray, 1875. 2 volumes.

Proceedings Royal Society XX (1872) p. xxx


For writings see – Geological Magazine (1871), pp. 486-490

Works listed in the BGS Library catalogue

BGS archives[edit]

There are extensive archives at BGS. Visit the BGS Archives online catalogue

Other archives[edit]

Murchison archives on the Archive Hub

Roderick Impey Murchison as Director General of the Survey[edit]

Extract from: From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985. [In all directions: developments under Sir Henry's fourteen successors In all directions: developments under Sir Henry's fourteen successors]

Murchison was the epitome of the amateur geologist — a man of position and means who had travelled extensively and done significant geological research in England and Wales, as well as in Russia where he named the Permian System, having already been responsible for the Silurian and Devonian in Britain. He is described by Flett (p.58) as an excellent Director and it is probably true that he was a good figure-head, with entrée into the governing circles in London, and with it an enthusiastic geologist. Yet to most of his staff he was a remote figure. He was elevated to the status of Director-General in 1866 and his two able 'Local Directors' became Directors.

Clearly his tenure as head was ensured success by the competence of Ramsay in England and Wales, Jukes in Ireland and, after 1867, Geikie as Director of the new Edinburgh office — and probably by the presence, during his initial years in post, of Lyon Playfair who held office as Secretary of the Science and Art Department and Inspector-General of Government Museums and Schools of Science.

Murchison was, during his time as Director, apparently very much a headquarters man. He made one field visit to Ireland in 1856 when the weather was at its Irish worst, and subsequently commented to Ramsay: 'I really must declare that the geology of Ireland is the dullest …which I am acquainted with in Europe' and made the perceptive comment, still with relevance today, about his mainly local staff: …who are really good hard working youths who can stand a life no Englishman would tolerate'.

Murchison had greatly resented the transfer of the Department of Science and Art from the Board of Trade to the new Education Department of the Privy Council in 1856, but a Commission set up to report on the Murchison empire in 1862, comprising several distinguished names including C.E.Trevelyan, was favourable, and their attention was mainly directed to the "Metropolitan School of Science applied to Mining and the Arts" henceforth to be known as the Royal School of Mines. A Royal Commission on the 'matters relative to Coal in the United Kingdom', though it did not formally report until 1871, was undoubtedly instrumental in the large increase in staff allotted to the Survey in 1867-8 when the number of 'surveyors' was virtually doubled. At this time, too, a new intermediate rank of District Surveyor was introduced — two, Aveline and Bristow, in England, Hull in Scotland, and Du Noyer in Ireland. At last there was a promotion ladder but, in the way of the Civil Service, there was a trap which was to spring thirty years ahead. The new 'Assistant Surveyors' were entering a channel with a finite number of 'Surveyor' posts. Some were to be Assistants for a very long time.

In the pursuit of his ends Murchison did not mince matters in his communications with his masters in the Department of Science and Art. In his last annual report, for 1870, he recorded:

I lament to be under the necessity of once again calling their Lordships' serious attention to the great inconvenience and necessary delay occasioned to the Survey by the want of sufficient office room in Jermyn Street (which is) exactly in the state it was 20 years ago though the number of surveyors had quadrupled!

And, anticipating a similar complaint a century later:

Notwithstanding the large additional sum granted by the Treasury to the Map Office at Southampton for electrotyping and engraving the plates for the Geological Survey, the issue of the Maps to the public is still much retarded, not less than 47 Sheets of the English survey being at present detained in that office. I most earnestly hope that the delay which has so long occurred at Southampton may soon be lessened.

In Ireland Jukes (1811-1869), who had been lured to Dublin as Local Director by De la Beche in 1851 — and who had loathed his time there though he had run a tight ship — had managed to produce maps of half the country in spite of the steady drain of his most experienced staff to India in the wake of his predecessor, Oldham. In 1869 Jukes had what would be now described as a 'nervous breakdown' and had to be replaced. The post went to Edward Hull (1829-1917), District Surveyor in Scotland, though an Ulsterman by birth.

Murchison died in harness at the age of 79 in 1871 and was succeeded by the faithful Ramsay, who had carried most of the administrative load for the last sixteen years.