1.  Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche and the founding of the British Geological Survey

David G Bate

Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche

The founding of the Geological Survey by Henry De la Beche in 1835 is a key event in the history of British geology.

Yet the Survey’s initiation actually began three years earlier when De la Beche secured financial assistance from the Board of Ordnance to map the geology of Devon at a scale of one inch to the mile.

The British Geological Survey has thus been in existence for at least 175 years and can justly claim to be the world’s oldest continuously functioning geological survey organisation.

There were early government-funded geological surveys also in France, the United States, Ireland and Scotland.

De la Beche’s notable success both in launching and sustaining the Geological Survey demanded a good deal of diplomacy, determination and deviousness!

Even so, the Survey was nearly brought to an untimely end in 1837 when De la Beche was publicly criticised for his interpretation, based on lithology and field relations, of the difficult Culm strata of north Devon.

The resolution of the ‘Devonian Controversy’ led to a fundamental change in geological practice, in which the value of fossils as stratigraphic markers, founded on an acceptance of organic change over time, was established beyond question.

Fortunately the Survey survived its early trauma and De la Beche went on to extend his influence with the expansion of the Museum of Economic Geology (also formed in 1835), and the establishment of the Mining Record Office and the School of Mines.

World’s oldest geological survey

The British Geological Survey has often been described as the world’s first official geological survey organisation.

While this statement may not be strictly accurate, the British Survey can claim to be the oldest such undertaking to have functioned continuously since its inception in May 1832 and formal establishment on 11 July 1835.

For this we must thank the Survey’s founder and first Director, Henry Thomas De la Beche (Figure 1), whose single-minded determination succeeded in placing the British Survey on a more permanent footing than earlier but short-lived government-funded geological surveys in France and the United States.

The Geological Society of London (founded 1807) also played an important part in assisting the establishment of the Survey, while the support of Thomas F Colby, Superintendent of the Ordnance Trigonometrical Survey (under the Board of Ordnance), was a critical factor in its initial success and ultimate survival.

This account charts the origin of the Geological Survey and its progress up to the year 1839 — a significant turning point which saw the publication of the Survey’s first geological memoir and the appointment of the first Geological Assistants.

This latter measure effectively laid the foundation for a permanent organisation — something by no means envisaged by the British government at that time!

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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.