5.  Enter, Henry De la Beche

Such, as outlined in the previous section, was the climate of officially-sanctioned geological survey activity into which De la Beche was to make his own entrance in the early 1830s.

In Britain this was a period of political and social revolution: the Age of Reform, in which for the first time there was a growing recognition of the possibility of improvement for the generality of the population.

1830s: Britain

The 1830s witnessed the Reform Act of 1832, the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, the New Poor Laws of 1834, and the growth of the railways leading to a greater demand for coal and a significant increase in the trading of metals.

The creation of a Geological Survey, with a remit to make systematic and detailed geological maps for the use of the mineral developer, civil engineer and agriculturalist, would thus appear natural and appropriate in an age where industrialisation, improvement and self-help were the dominant themes.

Yet the establishment of the Survey seems to have been the result merely of an accident in the events of De la Beche’s life. A few words therefore must now be said about De la Beche himself

Early years: from Beach to De la Beche

Henry Thomas De la Beche (pronounced Beach) was born at St Marylebone in London on 10 February 1796.

His father, born Thomas Beach (1755–1801), had the family name changed to De la Beche in 1790 on the strength of a tradition that they were descended from an ancient family of that name from Aldworth in Berkshire (Chubb 1958).

Henry’s grandfather, also called Thomas (1715–1774), had been Attorney General and Chief Justice of Jamaica, and through marriage acquired the estate of Halse Hall in the parish of Clarendon, which included a sugar plantation.

Henry was only five years of age when his father died in June 1801 while the family were visiting their Jamaican estate.

1812: Lyme Regis

Figure 7. Fossils from the Lias of Lyme Regis and Axminster, illustrating De la Beche’s acount of the coast of Dorset and Devon (from Transactions of the Geological Society, 1822).

He returned to England with his mother, and after various moves, mostly in the south-west of England, came to reside at Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1812.

Prior to this, in 1810, he had entered the Royal Military College at Great Marlow, where it seems he acquired the skills of surveying and perspective landscape drawing that were to serve him well in later life.

He was, however, dismissed from Marlow in the following year for insubordination, bringing to an end any prospect of following in the footsteps of his father who had been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the cavalry (McCartney 1977).

At Lyme Regis he made the acquaintance of Mary Anning, the celebrated fossil collector. It is usually thought that his active interest in geology developed at this time, although new evidence suggests that he had an interest from his schooldays (personal communication, Tom Sharpe).

1817: Geological apprenticeship

De la Beche inherited his father’s Jamaican estate, which provided him with a comfortable living (about £3000 per year) and enabled him to pursue his interest in geology and to become a Member of the Geological Society in 1817, at the age of just twenty-one.

His first paper, ‘Remarks on the geology of the south coast of England, from Bridport Harbour, Dorset, to Babbacombe Bay, Devon’ (Figure 7), was read before the Society on 5 March 1819 and subsequently published in the Society’s Transactions in 1822 (see Sharpe & McCartney, 1998 for a full list of De la Beche’s publications).

1819: Fellow of the Royal Society

He followed this in 1821 with the reading of a paper describing the geology of the north coast of France around Caen in Normandy, which he successfully correlated with the sequence observed in southern England. The French geologist Dufrénoy, who, it will be remembered, was one of the principal authors of the 1841 Carte géologique de la France, was later to describe this paper as the foundation stone of the study of geology in France (Sharpe & McCartney 1998, item 473: letter to De la Beche dated 25 January 1843).

In 1818 De la Beche married Letitia Whyte at Bristol, the daughter of Captain Charles John Whyte of Loughbrickland, county Down, Ireland (Sharpe 2008).

This was followed in the summer of 1819 by a tour of the Continent which lasted a year and included a period of residence in Switzerland.

His daughter Elizabeth, always referred to as ‘Bessie’, was born at Geneva on 2 December 1819.

During the course of this tour he made detailed geological notes, established contact with leading geologists and natural historians (such as Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart) and visited museums and private collections in France, Italy and Switzerland (McCartney, 1977).

On 23 December 1819 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1822: Map of Pembrokeshire

Figure 8. Geological map of southern Pembrokeshire, surveyed by De la Beche in 1822 (from Transactions of the Geological Society, 1826).

De la Beche decided to spend the summer of 1822 mapping the geology of south Pembrokeshire, the results of which were published in the Geological Society’s Transactions in 1826.

A great difficulty generally experienced at this time was the need to secure an adequate topographical basis for geological maps.

The frustration felt by MacCulloch in Scotland on account of this inadequacy has already been mentioned, while the publication of Griffith’s geological map of Ireland was delayed many years for want of a reliable base-map.

In England and Wales the situation only began to be remedied following the establishment in 1791 of the Trigonometrical Survey, under the Board of Ordnance, which instituted a programme of topographical mapping for publication at a scale of one inch to a mile (1:63 360).

The first map, covering Kent, appeared in 1801, but the systematic series, now better known as the Old Series one-inch maps, commenced publication in 1805.

When De la Beche came to map south Pembrokeshire, evidently with the encouragement of his good friend, the Reverend William Daniel Conybeare, he was able to utilise the newly published one-inch Ordnance maps for Pembroke (1818) and Haverfordwest (1819).

He records how Conybeare had earlier been defeated in his attempt to geologically survey the region for want ‘of any thing deserving the name of a map’.

With respect to the Ordnance maps, De la Beche felt bound to state that ‘it is scarcely possible to appretiate too highly the assistance which this and the other parts of that splendid survey of England are calculated to afford to the geologist’ (De la Beche 1826).

The geological map that accompanies his paper (Figure 8) is at a scale of just over two miles to the inch, and uses as its basis a redrawn and simplified version of the Ordnance map.

Many years later, on the occasion of De la Beche being awarded the Wollaston Medal, the President of the Geological Society, W J Hamilton, was to commend this map ‘in which I think we may trace the commencement of that system of geological illustration which he has subsequently perfected in the maps of the Ordnance Geological Survey’ (Hamilton, 1855).

1823: Trouble in Jamaica ... and at home

In November 1823 De la Beche visited his estate in Jamaica, prompted perhaps by British government recommendations made earlier that year for ameliorating the condition of slaves employed in the British West Indian sugar plantations (Deerr, 1950, pp.303).

The government’s ultimate aim was the gradual abolition of slavery, and it is therefore unsurprising that its proposals were violently resisted by the West Indian planters, leading in turn to unrest among the slave population.

De la Beche may be regarded as one of the more enlightened plantation owners, attending to the education and good treatment of his slaves.

He went so far as to publish a small book on the subject, pointing out that ‘the accidental circumstance of inheriting West Indian property’ should not be taken to imply that he supported slavery (De la Beche, 1825; Sharpe, 2008). He was to continue there for just over a year, while his wife and child remained in England.

Figure 9. Geological map of the eastern part of Jamaica, surveyed by De la Beche in 1824 (from Transactions of the Geological Society, 1827).

1824: Mapping Jamaica

In between attending to his business affairs and the welfare of his workforce, De la Beche took time out to study the geology of the island (Chubb 1958), the result of which was a detailed memoir in the Geological Society Transactions (De la Beche 1827).

It stands as the first systematic account of the geology of any part of Jamaica and is accompanied by a geological map of the eastern half of the island (Figure 9).

In later years De la Beche came to be regarded as an authority on scientific matters relating to the island and is today celebrated as the father of Jamaican geology.

1826: Divorce

Some months after his return to England, in 1825, he was confronted by a request from his wife for a legal separation, and in the following year he obtained a divorce in the ecclesiastical court.

It appears that De la Beche had not placed sufficient trust in Letitia and had used ‘hasty expressions ... being such as to render it impossible for her to live with him’ (McCartney, 1977, pp.26). Their daughter Bessie remained in her father’s care and lived with her grandmother at Lyme Regis when De la Beche was away.

1827: Devon geology

Despite his domestic troubles, De la Beche was able to conduct further geological investigations of the Dorset and Devonshire coast. He subsequently read two papers before the Geological Society. The first, in December 1825, discussed the Chalk and Upper Greensand in the vicinity of Lyme Regis and Beer; it was followed in November 1827 by a paper ‘On the geology of Tor and Babbacombe bays, Devon’ (Figure 10).

The latter, as published in the Transactions (De la Beche 1829), includes a small geological map at a scale of about two miles to the inch, the topographic base for which was evidently redrawn from part of Ordnance one-inch sheet 22.

During 1827 De la Beche suffered a decline in his health, possibly brought on by the strain of separation and divorce.

To escape the northern European winters, he undertook two further tours of the Continent, the second of which was concluded in June 1829 (McCartney 1977, 26-7).

1831: A Geological Manual

Over the next two years he published numerous papers and several books, including his widely acclaimed A Geological Manual (1831). This book went into three English editions, followed quickly by French, German and American editions.

These successes, however, were to be overshadowed by further problems in the West Indies which would oblige De la Beche to relinquish his status as a gentleman of independent means and assume the role of a government employee.

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Bate, D G.   2010  Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche and the founding of the British Geological Survey.  Mercian Geologist, 17 (3). 149–165.