Godwin-Austen, Robert Alfred Cloyne

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Godwin-Austen, Robert Alfred Cloyne

(b. Guildford, England, 17 March 1808; d. Guildford, 25 November 1884)


Son of Sir Henry Edmund Austen of Shalford House, Guildford, and Anne Amelia Bate, Godwin-Austen was educated in France and subsequently at Oriel College, Oxford, taking his B.A. in 1830 and being elected to a fellowship of his college. He was also a student at Lincoln’s Inn. His interest in the discipline to which he was to devote his life was kindled by William Buckland at Oxford, and among his early friends he numbered Charles Lyell, Leonard Horner, and Roderick Murchison, who sponsored, also in 1830, his election to the Geological Society of London. In 1833 Godwin-Austen married Maria Elizabeth Godwin, only daughter and heiress of General Sir Henry Thomas Godwin, who commanded the British army in Burma. Upon the death of his father-in-law in 1854, Austen added the name of Godwin to his own by royal license.

Godwin-Austen is remembered among geologists for his contributions to the stratigraphy of southern England, as one of the first European paleogeographers, and for his prediction that a coalfield would be discovered beneath the younger rocks of Kent. His first original work was devoted to the limestones and slaty rocks of southeast Devon, where he had settled after his marriage. Henry de la Beche, who in 1835 founded the Geological Survey of Great Britain, encouraged the young man by relying upon him for the geological lines on the map covering the district between Dartmouth and Chudleigh. Austen was, however, sufficiently independent of mind to resist the introduction, proposed by Adam Sedgwick, Murchison, and William Lonsdale, of the Devonian system.

After 1840, when he moved to Chilworth manor house, near Guildford, Godwin-Austen began to devote his considerable energies to the geology of Surrey. Here his interests included the fossil faunas of the Cretaceous rocks, the origin of the phosphatic deposits, and the succession in the Tertiary sands; his work on the structure of the Weald led him to conclude that the folding postdated the deposition of the lower Tertiaries. Now he was beginning to view the stratigraphical data in a wider context, to derive a picture of seas advancing and retreating over western Europe. Pursuing these conceptions, Godwin-Austen visited the coalfields of northern France and studied the structure of the Ardennes. In 1856 he produced what remains his best-known paper, suggesting a possible extension of the coal measures beneath southeast England. Maintaining, on theoretical grounds, that the coal-bearing strata of England, France, and Belgium once formed part of a continuous formation, he traced its breakup by folding and erosion, calling attention to the probability that in the east-west belt between the Ardennes and Bristol, coal measures basins other than those at the two extremities should exist. Godwin-Austen’s views attracted interest, and in his last paper, published in 1879, he was still advocating them. They were not, however, vindicated until six years after his death, when a borehole drilled at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff near Dover proved coal measures beneath the chalk and led to the development of the Kent coalfield.

Godwin-Austen was also a pioneer in the elucidation of the history of the English Channel and among the first marine geologists. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1849. In awarding him the Wollaston Medal, premier award of the Geological Society of London, Murchison said in 1862 that he was “pre-eminently the physical geographer of bygone periods,” a description amply justified by the essay on the European seas, begun by his friend Edward Forbes and completed by Godwin-Austen.


I. Original Works. A comprehensive list of Godwin-Austen’s writings is given in the article by Woodward cited below. Among them are “On the Valley of the English Channel,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 6 (1850), 69–97; “On the Possible Extension of the Coal-Measures Beneath the South-Eastern Part of England,” ibid., 12 (1856). 38–73; The Natural History of European Seas, begun by E. Forbes, edited and completed by Godwin-Austen (London, 1859); and “On Some Further Evidence as to the Rangé of the Palaeozoic Rocks Beneath the South-East of England,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1879 (1879), pp. 227–229.

II. Secondary Literature. On Godwin-Austen or his work, see T. G. Bonney, “Anniversary Address of the President,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 41 (1885), 37–39; J. G. O. Smart, G. Bisson, and B. C. Worssam, “Geology of the Country Around Canterbury and Folkestone,” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey (1966), pp. 16–30; and H. Woodward, “Robert Alfred Cloyne Godwin-Austen,” in Geological Magazine, n.s. decade 3, 2 (1885), 1–10.

K. C. Dunham