This week we take a look at some geological ‘finds’ amongst the rare books, focusing on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the term ‘geology’ was first used and recognised as a subject in its own right. As canals were constructed and mines sunk, geology’s practical application was becoming increasingly important and its popular appeal can be seen in the many collections of fossils and minerals dating from this period.
One keen collector was Gustavus Brander (1720-1787) a director of the Bank of England who collected fossils from Hordle Cliff whilst staying at his country house at Christchurch. These he presented to the British Museum in 1765, the collection being catalogued and illustrated by Daniel Solander (1736-1782). The catalogue attracted much interest as did Brander’s view that the shells could only have survived in a warmer climate. Another collector, on a larger scale, was James Parkinson (1755-1824) who had been collecting fossils for many years prior to publishing his three volume Organic Remains of a Former World (1808-1811). This was aimed at the general reader and became the standard textbook of palaeontology in England.
The interest in geology encouraged the botanical illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822) to publish British Mineralogy, an illustrated topographical mineralogy of Great Britain which was issued in 78 parts between 1802 and 1817. Sowerby worked from specimens sent to him for identification by mineral collectors from around the country and in 1808 became a Fellow of the recently established Geological Society of London.
Such publications brought fossils and minerals to a wider audience, the illustrations enabling collectors to compare, identify and order their own finds and in turn to contribute to the national geological record. Often hand-coloured, the illustrations provided sufficient detail to act as a proxy for the specimens themselves.
The practical and economic significance of geology was evident in the network of canals and expansion of the mining industry in Britain during the eighteenth century. Whilst an understanding of the subject was required for these undertakings, the work itself brought further advances in geological knowledge – often supplying minerals for the collectors and illustrators.
Surveys of the soil and minerals of each county were included in the series of Board of Agriculture reports for Great Britain and Ireland published in the early years of the nineteenth century. That on Derbyshire by John Farey (1766-1826) ran to three volumes and was unusual for its extensive geological coverage. Farey’s interest in stratification stemmed from his association with the geologist, William Smith (1769-1839), creator of the first geological map of Britain, and in the report Farey published for the first time his own analysis of the geometry of faulting.
Descriptions of geological features such as landslips, cliffs and mountains appeared in many of the contemporary guidebooks, sometimes accompanied by illustrations, but it was unusual for such publications to explicitly include geological information. An exception to this was Sir Henry Englefield’s Description of the Principal Picturesque Beauties, Antiquities and Geological Phenomena of the Isle of Wight (1816). Englefield, an antiquarian with geological interests – he was a member of the Geological Society of London himself – commissioned Thomas Webster (1772-1844) a member and employee of the Society to research the geology of the Island and to contribute his findings to the book. Published as an impressive large folio with the subtitle ‘With additional observations on the strata of the island and their continuation in the adjacent parts of Dorsetshire’, the book contains illustrations of many of the geological features of the Isle of Wight and a geological map.
As well as the copies of Englefield’s book, Special Collections also holds a small collection of correspondence between Webster and Englefield (MS47). This deals mainly with the geology of the Isle of Wight, as do Webster’s notes on what Englefield described in his introduction as ‘that part of natural science lately called Geology’.