De La Beche, Henry Thomas

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De La Beche, Henry Thomas

(b. London [?], England, 10 February 1796; d. London, 13 April (1855)


De la Beche was the son of an army officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Beach, owner of an estate in Jamaica, who had changed his name to de la Beche. He attended school at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, for a short time and then moved with his mother to Dorsetshire, residing first at Charmouth and later at Lyme Regis. In these seaside towns Jurassic rocks were well exposed in sea cliffs, and it is most probable that it was while living at Lyme Regis that de la Beche acquired the interest in geology that led him to make it his career. In 1810 he was sent to the Royal Military College at Marlow. The end of the Napoleonic Wars a few years later, however, made the future for an army officer less promising; and he abandoned the idea of a military career.

De la Beche was then a young man of independent means. In 1817 he was elected a member of the Geological Society of London; and his earliest extant diary, for the year 1818, recording geological observations made between Weymouth and Torquay, confirms that he was already keenly interested in field geology. In 1819 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In the same year de la Beche set out on a long tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy, returning through Germany and the Netherlands. During this lengthy residence abroad he made many geological observations that he later published; he also acquired a command of foreign languages that enabled him, after his return, to keep abreast of advances in geology made outside Great Britain. His first scientific paper—on the depth and temperature of Lake Geneva—was, in fact, published in Geneva (1819).

De la Beche spent the year 1824 in Jamaica, visiting the estate he had inherited. During his stay he studied the geology of the island in some detail, and after his return he gave an account of it to the Geological Society (in Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd ser., 2 [1827], 143). The first systematic account of the geology of Jamaica published, it included a colored geological map of the eastern half of the island. In 1829 de la Beche made another extensive Continental tour, the results of which are also apparent in later publications. In 1830 he published Sections and Views Illustrative of Geological Phenomena, followed in 1831 by his Geological Manual, the popularity of which is indicated by its three editions, as well as translations into French and German. In addition to these books he had already contributed a number of papers on British and foreign geology to the Transactions of the Geological Society of London and to other periodicals.

De la Beche’s pioneer fieldwork was not confined to rocks of any particular kind or age. In conjunction with his extensive reading of the literature, he had acquired a wide general knowledge of geology, and his publications added considerably to the general stock of geological facts. The value of his published work was greatly enhanced by the clear and simple illustrations, based on sketches made in the field—which, incidentally, demonstrate his skill as an artist. In recording facts he was following the original aim of the Geological Society of London, announced on its foundation in 1807: the collection of geological information rather than the promulgation of geological theories. De la Beche was an accurate observer of those details of rock structure that have a bearing on the origin and mode of formation of particular rocks. Although he has not generally been credited with any outstanding contributions to geological theory, it is evident from his writings, particularly Researches in Theoretical Geology (1834), that his interests were not confined simply to recording facts. On the other hand, he made it quite clear that theories must always be regarded as tentative until supported by a sufficient body of factual evidence. In this book he applied his knowledge of mineralogy, chemistry, and physics to a discussion of the broader aspects of theoretical geology; but the views advanced are suggestive rather than dogmatic. For example, he suggested that the original solid crust of the earth, formed by cooling, had floated on a fluid interior of molten rock and that the once continuous crust had been broken up by tidal action to form the earliest separate land masses. This was an idea well ahead of its time.

Until about 1832 de la Beche’s career had followed a course parallel to that of a number of his contemporaries, such as Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, men of independent means who pursued the study of geology for its own sake and were able to travel extensively in furtherance of that study. Changed circumstances, however, resulted in his spending the rest of his life as a professional geologist. This came about partly because the income from his Jamaica estate had diminished, restricting his freedom to travel, and more directly because he was to become closely involved in the formation and development of an official geological survey of Great Britain. He was the first to suggest that such a survey should be undertaken and was one of the prime movers in establishing it on a permanent basis.

Sometime after 1830 de la Beche had conceived the idea of making a geological survey of Devonshire, possibly because new Ordnance Survey topographic maps, on a scale of an inch to the mile, had recently become available for that area (the lack of accurate topographic maps on which to record geological information had previously constituted a serious difficulty for geologists). In 1832 he submitted a memorandum to the master general of the Ordnance, who was then responsible for the primary topographic survey of Great Britain, offering to make an accurate geological survey of the eight sheets covering Devonshire for the sum of £300, mentioning that originally it had been his intention to carry it out at his own expense but that he was no longer able to do so. Senior government officials had already become aware of the potential economic value to the nation of geological information, and his request was granted with little delay. By 1835 he had completed the task.

De la Beche then proposed that a similar survey should be extended to other parts of the country. This request required more serious consideration, and the government sought the advice of an independent committee of geologists. Their report was favorable; and in the same year the official Geological Survey of Great Britain was established, with de la Beche as director at an annual salary of £500. Work commenced in Cornwall, then an important center of metalliferous mining; and when this area was completed, the survey was extended to the coalfields of South Wales. It was later extended to areas other than those in which mining was active. At its commencement the survey was virtually a one-man affair, but during the next fifteen years de la Beche gradually enlarged the field staff and secured the appointment of such specialists as a paleontologist and a chemist. He also assembled large reference collections of fossils and minerals.

The culmination of de la Beche’s official career was reached in 1851, when the Museum of Practical Geology, specially built in Jermyn Street, London, with offices for the survey staff, was opened to the public by Prince Albert. Thereafter he had under his direct charge not only the Geological Survey but also the museum, the School of Mines, and the Mining Records Office. Not long after the opening of these establishments the museum was described by Roderick Murchison as “the first Palace ever raised from the ground in Great Britain, which is entirely devoted to the advancement of Science.” The expansion of the Geological Survey and the establishment of its important subsidiary activities on a permanent basis were very largely, if not entirely, due to the imaginative drive and administrative ability of de la Beche. What was perhaps of equal importance, in the long run, was that he succeeded in convincing governmental circles of the desirability of considerable state support for scientific research and the teaching of science.

De la Beche’s new responsibilities did not prevent him from carrying out geological work himself. In 1839 he published in London his Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset, a work that remained valuable for many years because of the mass of mining information it contained that otherwise would probably have been lost. It was the first of the long series of official publications issued by the survey, a series that is still continuing. De la Beche contributed to later memoirs, and he continued to publish papers in scientific periodicals. In 1851 he published (also in London) The Geological Observer, an expanded version of an earlier work, How to Observe (1835).

While de la Beche, over a period of nearly forty years, contributed much to the general stock of geological knowledge through his publications, his wholehearted and determined efforts to advance the then comparatively new science of geology by every means in his power were no less important. Recognition of the value of his contributions to the science came from the government, in the form of a knighthood conferred on him in 1842, and from his fellow geologists, by election to the presidency of the Geological Society of London in 1847 and the award of this society’s highest honor, the Wollaston Medal, in 1855. From about 1850 de la Beche suffered from a form of paralysis, but he continued to attend to his duties until two days before his death.


I. Original Works. In addition to the works cited above, de la Beche published A Selection of the Geological Memoirs Contained in the Annales des Mines (London, 1824; 2nd ed., 1836), an annotated translation, with a correlation of British with French and German strata.

He also contributed a number of papers, mainly geological, to periodicals. The more important were published in either the Transactions of the Geological Society of London or their Proceedings. They are listed in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers 1800–1863, Vol. II (London, 1868).

De la Beche’s official publications (in some instances written in collaboration with other authors) include “Report with Reference to the Selection of Stone for Building the New Houses of Parliament,” in Parliamentary Papers for 1839, vol. XXX (London, 1839); “On the Formation of the Rocks of South Wales and South-western England,” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, 1 (1846), 1–296; and “First and Second Reports on the Coals Suited to the Steam Navy,” in Parliamentary Papers (London, 1848, 1849) and in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, 2 , pt. 2 (1948), 539–630. These reports contain a detailed examination of the physical and chemical characteristics of various British coal seams.

De la Beche’s “Inaugural Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the School of Mines and of Science Applied to the Arts,” in Records of the School of Mines, 1 , pt. 1 (1852), 1–22, is of historical interest as an authoritative contemporary account of the formation and objectives of the Geological Survey and its associated institutions.

II. Secondary Literature. No biography of de la Beche has been published, although a number of his diaries and letters are now held by the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Accounts of his career are included in J. S. Flett, The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1937), pp. 23–56; and E. B. Bailey, Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1952), pp. 21–51. The former deals especially with his official career, and the latter also assesses his capabilities as a geologist. Some additional matter, based partly on unpublished material, is contained in three short articles by F. J. North: “De la Beche and His Activities, as Revealed by His Diaries and Correspondence,” in Abstracts of the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, no. 1314 (June 1936), 104–106; “H. T. de la Beche: Geologist and Business Man,” in Nature, 143 (1939), 254–255; and “The Ordnance Geological Survey: Its First Memoir,” ibid., 1052–1053. L. J. Chubb has described in some detail de la Beche’s ancestry, his connection with Jamaica, and the geological work he carried out there in the De la Beche Memorial Number of Geonotes, the Quarterly Newsletter of the Jamaica Group of the Geologists Association [of London] (Kingston, Jamaica, 1958).

V. A. Eyles

Beche, Henry Thomas de la

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Beche, Henry Thomas de la (1796–1855) Founder of the British Geological Survey, the Museum of Practical Geology, the Mining Records Office, and the School of Mines, all of which are in Britain. De la Beche was a careful observer and skilled cartographer and artist, who emphasized the importance of stratigraphy and pioneered the reconstruction of ancient environments.

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Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche

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