Geological Survey history — England and Wales

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In 1832, Henry de la Beche was appointed by the Board of Ordnance ‘to affix geological colours to maps of Devonshire, with portions of Somerset, Dorset and Cornwall’. By the end of 1834, seven sheets were completed and, after consultation, the Treasury funded the Ordnance Geological Survey, then part of the Ordnance Survey.


The mapping proceeded and, by 1839, fourteen sheets and de la Beche’s first ‘Memoir’, the ‘Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset’, were published.

In 1844, William Edmond Logan created and published the horizontal and vertical sections. The horizontal sections were meticulously surveyed on a scale of six inches to a mile while the vertical ones were usually at a scale of one inch to forty feet.

By 1845, nearly the whole of Somerset, the western half of Gloucestershire, the counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan, Carmarthen and Pembroke, and nearly the whole of Brecknock and Herefordshire together with part of Worcestershire had been mapped and published and by 1854 the whole of Wales had been completed.

Six-inch to the mile scale and superficial deposits

Mapping was still undertaken on the scale of one inch to one mile but, following the example in Ireland, the new mapping of the northern counties was done on six-inch to the mile scale field sheets.

The importance of the superficial deposits (in most cases, the sands, gravels and boulder clays deposited during the glacial period) was also recognised. Mapping of these began at about the same time.

Expansion and a recruitment drive for geologists

After a Royal Commission on Coal in 1866, the Geological Survey greatly expanded under Roderick Impey Murchison. Twenty-one field geologists were recruited during 1868–69. By this time, the survey had progressed northwards and eastwards to a line from Liverpool to Selby and as far east as Retford, Melton Mowbray, Market Harborough, Huntingdon, London, Chatham and Folkestone and parts further north of Lancashire, Westmoreland and some of the Northumberland coalfield.

Mapping stops in the 1880s!

During the 1880s there was a (short-lived) cessation of mapping at six-inches to the mile, with the aim of pushing the completion of the primary mapping of England and Wales, the latter being completed in 1883. Staff were then transferred either to Scotland or to map the ‘drift’ (superficial deposits) of the southern counties that was missed during the early surveys. Sheets continued to be produced in hand-coloured form up to 1903.

Eventually, the typically colour-printed ‘New Series’ one-inch geological maps superseded the older, hand-coloured maps. For much of central and southern England and Wales ,the New Series was on new sheet lines with different sheet numbering. In northern England, the older hand-coloured maps and New Series sheet lines coincided, although the sheet numbering was different.


1832Sir Henry de la Beche offers to geologically map Cornwall and Devon. The offer is accepted by the Ordnance Survey and surveying begins using one-inch to the mile field slips.
1835The Board of Ordnance agree to a geological survey of the English counties.
1835Sir Henry De la Beche becomes a full-time employee of the Ordnance Survey and the Ordnance Geological Survey is created.
1835The survey is located in Craig’s Court, Whitehall.
1838Sir Henry de la Beche is appointed to a commission to recommend the most suitable stone for building the new Houses of Parliament to replace those destroyed in a fire.
1839Fourteen sheets have been completed to this date covering Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset. The maps are issued hand-coloured in watercolours.
1839Mapping transfers to South Wales and adjoining areas and William Edmond Logan participates.
1839The first memoir is published, ‘Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset’, by Henry T de la Beche, FRS, &c., Director of the Ordnance Geological Survey. It serves as a model for subsequent survey publications.
1841The Museum of Economic Geology opens in the survey premises at Craig’s Court in Whitehall.
1841‘Figures and descriptions of the Palaeozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset’, the second survey Memoir, is published.
1844Published horizontal and vertical sections are introduced.
1845The Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland is set up by an Act of Parliament. Victoria Regina LXIII 31st July 1845. The act is to ‘facilitate the completion’ of the survey. The survey is transferred from the Board of Ordnance to the Office of Woods and Works.
1845A C Ramsay is made Local Director for England and Wales. The English field staff is six:

  • W T Aveline
  • W T Baily
  • H W Bristow
  • Trevor James
  • A R C Selwyn
  • D H Williams

The survey also employs Edward Forbes as palaeontologist, Lyon Playfair as chemist and Robert Hunt as keeper of the mining records.

1845By this date, the maps of nearly the whole of Somerset, the western half of Gloucestershire, the counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan, Carmarthen, and Pembroke, and nearly the whole of Brecknock and Herefordshire together with part of Worcestershire have been completed and published.
1851The Museum of Practical Geology (formerly the Museum of Economic Geology, formed in 1841) opens. The Geological Survey moves to 28 Jermyn Street.
1852The last one-inch map of the primary survey of Wales is published.
1853The survey is transferred to the Department of Science and Arts, under the Board of Trade.
1854By this date the survey of the whole of Wales has been completed and published and field work is advancing eastwards into the central counties of England.
1855Sir Henry de la Beche dies and is succeeded by Sir Roderick Impey Murchison as director.
1856The Department of Science and Arts moves and is now under the Education Department of the Privy Council.
1858The first quarter-inch to the mile geological sheets are published.
1858The one-inch maps spread eastwards to complete the Midlands coalfields and approaches to London.
1860Edward Hull starts mapping in the Lancashire coalfield, on the scale of six-inches to the mile. Mapping at this scale is adopted for the whole of Northern England.
1860The first six-inch maps are published:

  • Lancashire (1860)
  • Scottish coalfields (1861)
  • Northumberland (1867)
  • Durham (1868)
  • Yorkshire (1871)
1862Maps published to date:

  • 35 one-inch whole sheets
  • 91 one-inch quarter sheets
  • 15 six-inch sheets
  • 55 horizontal sections
  • 27 vertical sections
1866Royal Commission on coal. There is growing interest in coalfield areas and in drift mapping, the latter for use by agriculturalists, civil engineers, medical authorities and town planners.
1867–1868Expansion of the survey. Twenty-one field geologists are recruited. Total staff in England and Wales is 36 and Ramsay is the senior director for England and Wales.
1871The area covered by published maps covers most of the country south-west of a line drawn from Kendal to Southend on the Thames.
1872Andrew Crombie Ramsay succeeds Murchison as director general. Bristow becomes the director for England and Wales.
1872The School of Mines leaves the survey and is passed to Imperial College to become the Royal School of Mines.
1871Maps published to date:

  • 41 one-inch whole sheets
  • 124 solid and 3 drift one-inch quarter sheets
  • 87 six-inch sheets
  • 80 horizontal sections
  • 40 vertical sections
1881Maps published to date:

  • 43 solid and 1 drift one-inch whole sheets
  • 153 solid and 24 drift one-inch quarter sheets
  • 217 six-inch sheets
  • 119 horizontal sections
  • 66 vertical sections
1882Archibald Geikie succeeds Ramsay as director general.
1881There is a cessation of publishing six-inch maps so that staff can focus on the completion of one-inch scale maps.
1883The Mining Records Office leaves the survey and comes under the Department of Inspectors of Mines at the Home Office.
1885The number of staff employed in England reduces to 12 from 23 with transfers to Scotland and Ireland. The survey’s focus is on drift mapping.
1886–1893Geikie brings microscopic petrology to the fore in the survey with the appointment of  five petrologists:

  • J S Hyland
  • W Pollard
  • W J Sollas
  • J J H Teall
  • W W Watts
1889Whitaker’s Geology of London is published.
1883The last one-inch map of the primary survey of England is published.
1890–1904Geikie develops a series of great stratigraphical memoirs on the Pliocene, Jurassic, Cretaceous and Silurian rocks of Britain.
1889–1896Colour-printed quarter-inch to the mile maps are published.
1893New Series one-inch geological maps (solid and drift) based on the revision of the Old Series sheets begin to appear and are colour printed.
1893–1900Serious dissatisfaction is felt by the staff of the survey. An official enquiry is set up in 1900.
1898The last hand-coloured sheet is produced: Sheet 100, Isle of Man.
1900A committee is set up to ‘Enquire into the organisation and staff of the Geological Survey and Museum of Practical Geology’ (the Wharton Committee).
1900Total survey staff falls to 41.
1901Jethro Justinian Harris Teall takes over from Archibald Geikie with the diminished title of director.


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