Making of Geology in Late-Georgian England


A review of Practical and Economic Interests in the Making of Geology in late Georgian England, by Leucha Veneer.

Practical and economic interests are often overlooked in favor of the theoretical advancements that put British geologists on the international stage during the nineteenth century. Leucha Veneer’s dissertation brings to life some of the unnoticed contributions made by members of local mineralogical societies who sought to use mining as a means of understanding the earth. Framing geologists as bankers, chemists, mining engineers, naturalists, and surgeons gives new identities to scientists who were typically much more than merely professional gentlemen. These mining enthusiasts established museums, improved technologies, published journals, and hosted public lectures. Veneer seeks to pick up where histories from geologists Sir Archibald Geikie (1897) and Horace B. Woodward (1907) have left off, highlighting the more quotidian pursuits that have enlivened the study of rocks (Archibald Geikie, The Founders of Geology, 1897; Horace Woodward, The History of the Geological Society of London, 1907).

Provincial science, as Veneer calls it, was embedded in the practical problems of geology sometimes ignored by well-known men such as Henry de la Beche or Roderick Murchison. She points out that Arnold Thackray and Steven Shapin’s pioneering scholarship, while influential, is in dire need of revision (Arnold Thackray, “Natural knowledge in cultural context: The Manchester model,” American Historical Review 79 (1974): 672-709; Steven Shapin, “The Pottery Philosophical Society, 1819-1835: An examination of the cultural uses of provincial science,” Science Studies 2 (1972): 311-336). Their reluctance to focus upon the potential of mining, agriculture, and canal building, in fact, leaves out rich material for historians of science. Veneer argues that more grey zones exist — between the rigid categories of elite, accomplished, and amateur scientists — than initially conceived by Martin Rudwick (Martin Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge Among Gentlemanly Specialists, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985; Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Leucha Veneer’s detailed consideration of these developments lends itself to examining lesser-known figures in the history of English geology within their respective institutional contexts. Through a close analysis of society records, correspondence, and journals, Veneer stresses the wide spectrum of individuals who pulled geology in vastly different directions.

The dissertation is divided into the geographic areas of London, Cornwall, Newcastle, and Yorkshire, and it functions effectively as an episodic survey of case studies that offers a diverse view of English geology during the Georgian period. Veneer aims to produce “a new image of the discipline which considers the different motivations of practitioners symmetrically” (p. 25) counter to the claims put forth by Roy Porter’s 1973 paper “The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the science of geology” (see Roy Porter, “The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the science of geology” in Mikulas Teich and Robert Young (eds.), Changing Perspectives in the History of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 320-343; Roy Porter, The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain, 1660-1815, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). Tracing the connections between city centers and outlying regions of England, Veneer seeks to demonstrate how critical trans-provincial contributions in geology were founded upon practical concerns. National prominence became a common desire for many of these societies, which strove to publicize and disseminate their findings in a timely manner.

Chapter 1 lays out the major themes of the dissertation, including historiographical treatment of existing studies on the history of the earth, the aims of provincial science, and communication networks among scientists at large. Veneer employs James Secord’s concept of “knowledge in transit” to illustrate how local sites and spaces gave rise to nuanced scientific knowledge among these societies (p. 34) (Secord, “Knowledge in transit” Isis 95 (2004): 654-672). She emphasizes her approach to “local profiling” in order to consider each set of societies in terms of its specific circumstances.

Chapter 2 takes a similar approach to practical geology in relation to some of the well-known institutions based in London at the time. Veneer foregrounds specific individuals who were essential in founding some of these organizations. For example, Unitarian minister Reverend William Turner mapped local coal fields and improved mining conditions more generally. Many of the collections established by the British Mineralogical Society were meant for educational purposes and to acquire mining terms from across the country that could be assembled into a dictionary (p. 50). One of the more notable contributions that Veneer emphasizes is George Bellas Greenough’s mapping venture to document the edges of England and Wales. On this map, coal districts were typically designated as important resources that would come under state control.

In Chapter 3, Veneer turns her attention to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall (RGSC). Mining in western Cornwall was a significant industry, responsible for a large amount of copper, up to two-thirds of world production. The Cornish tribute system did not pay its workers with hourly wages. Tutworkers responsible for sinking shafts were paid by a measure of the ground they excavated while tributers were paid a proportion of the ore that they produced (p. 74). Health and safety hazards were among the blatant dangers that mining presented.

Chapters 4 and 5 converge on practitioners in Newcastle and Yorkshire. One of the Newcastle members John Buddle was a colliery viewer for a number of pits along the Tyne, commanding a salary of over 1000 pounds. His expertise was commissioned from as far away as Portugal, Russia, and South America (p. 131). The Hancock Museum established by the Natural History Society of Northumberland exhibited curiosities from birds, stuffed animals, and a few minerals. It acted as a locus for promoting local knowledge of geology in the region and concerns for public education. The Yorkshire Museum and its gardens likewise grew from donations and came to represent the county of York as whole. These collections were also intended to be instrumental in hosting scientific forums for John Phillips and other colleagues.

Chapters 6 and 7 respectively attempt to bring together a holistic picture of these local geological societies and pose new questions of the discipline. The four case studies are summarized to elucidate how the historiographical picture of provincial science may be expanded. Mapping initiatives, museums, and mining schools occurred in parallel to many of the gentlemanly activities organized by scientists back in London. The last two chapters will be useful for historians of science concerned with the intersections of provincial science, state-funded endeavors, and military projects.

This dissertation will be essential reading for anyone broadly interested in the intellectual history of geology and nineteenth-century accounts of Georgian and Victorian scientific collections. Veneer’s thesis makes a valuable contribution to studies on the earth sciences, allowing practitioners to assume their rightful place next to the eminent men of geology.

Jennifer Ferng
Lecturer in Architecture
Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Planning
University of Sydney

Primary Sources

British Mineralogical Society
Geological and Polytechnic Society of the West Riding of Yorkshire
Geological Society, London
Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, Penzance

Dissertation Information

University of Leeds. 2009. 264 pp. Primary Advisors: John Christie and Jonathan Topham.


Image: Recumbent Fold at Godrevy in Cornwall in England, by Margaret W. Carruthers. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like