Griffith, Richard John

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Griffith, Richard John

(b. Dublin, Ireland, 20 September 1784; d. Dublin, 22 September 1878)


Griffith was the son of Richard Griffith. It wealthy merchant and a member of parliament. His father decided he should follow a career in engineering and mining, and in 1800 sent him to London to study chemistry and mineralogy under William Nicholson, chemist and editor of the Journal of Natural Philosophy. This was followed by visits to mining areas, first in England and Wales, and then in Scotland. In Edinburgh, Griffith attended the classes of Thomas Hope, professor of chemistry, and Robert Jameson, professor of natural history; in 1807 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1808 he was nominated as an honorary member of the recently formed Geological Society of London, a clear indication that he had already attracted some esteem.

Griffith returned to Ireland and in 1809 was appointed engineer to a commission inquiring into the nature and extent of the Irish bogs. His reports, published in 1810-1812, contained some geological details. When Richard Kirwan died in 1812, Griffith succeeded him as inspector general of the royal mines in Ireland; in the same year he was appointed mining engineer to the Royal Dublin Society. His duties for the Society were to investigate and report on the coalfields and mining areas, and he was also required to give public lectures on the geology of Ireland.

Griffith’s friend G. B. Greenough, president of the Geological Society of London, suggested that he prepare a geological map of Ireland. This was the beginning of an undertaking that evéntually resulted in the publication of the first geological map of Ireland. When Griffith was lecturing on geology in 1815, he exhibited a map he had prepared; but there is no record of its contents, and it was not published. Twenty years passed before the question of publication really arose.

The results of Griffith’s first coalfield investigation, made for the Royal Dublin Society, were published in 1814 as Geological and Mining Report on the Leinster Coal District. This was accompanied by a colored geological map on a scale of .75 inch to the mile and several geological sections. A second report, on the Connaught coal district, also with geological map and sections, was published in 1818. In these reports Griffith stated that although he used Wernerian terms, he expressly dissociated himself from any theoretical implications. A third report, on the coal districts of the Ulster counties of Tyrone and Antrim, although prepared in 1818, did not appear in print until 1829. This was accompanied by sections but not a map.

There was still no suitable topographical map of Ireland to serve as a basis for a large-scale geological map, but in 1825 a trigonometrical survey under the Board of Ordnance was begun, principally to provide a basis for the equitable adjustment of local taxation. On Griffith’s recommendation, the survey was to be executed on a scale of six inches to the mile (in England it was on a scale of two inches to the mile). The actual boundaries of the civil units had first to be determined; and since this was not the work of military surveyors, a special Boundary Department was set up with Griffith as director. This work was carried out in advance of the Ordnance Survey and was completed in 1844.

In 1829 Griffith was appointed commissioner for the general valuation of lands, an office which he held until 1868. Shortly afterward he resigned his post with the Royal Dublin Society but declared his intention of continuing his researches toward the completion of a geological map of all Ireland. With over 100 officials working under him, and traveling throughout the country, Griffith was well placed to obtain the information he required. The Board of Ordnance surveyors were also collecting geological information; but since they were following a plan that began in the north of Ireland, their notes were mostly confined to that area.

In 1835 the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Dublin, and at the meeting Griffith exhibited a manuscript geological map of Ireland which he had prepared from his notes. Although this map does not seem to have been preserved, its main features were copied by John Phillips and shown in his Index Geological Map of the British Isles, issued in 1838, on a scale of about twenty-eight miles to the inch. Phillips acknowledged the use of Griffith’s “valuable and yet unpublished map.” On this map the southwest of Ireland is colored almost entirely as “clay slate and grauwacke slate,” or “primary” rocks.

Soon after Phillips map appeared, a colored geological map of Ireland by Griffith, on a scale of ten miles to the inch, was published in an atlas of maps accompanying the second report of the Irish Railway Commission, dated 13 July 1838. The report included a twenty-five-page “Outline of the Geology of Ireland,” and this and the map were also issued separately. This map showed some major advances in Griffith’s geological knowledge, such as the substitution of large areas of “old conglomerate” and “Old Red Sandstone” where Phillips’ map had shown “clay slate.”

The publication of a large-scale (four miles to the inch) map had been delayed by the fact that the topographical map was not yet complete, but in 1838 Griffith colored geologically an unfinished proof impression and exhibited it in August at the British Association meeting at Newcastle-on-Tyne. The engraved map, uncolored, was published in March 1839. Colored copies were supplied to order. It was remarkably detailed, with tablets for twenty-six different colors to indicate the various stratigraphic horizons, as well as different igneous and metamorphic rocks. A noteworthy feature was Griffith’s division of the Carboniferous Limestone into five different groups. The main divisions of the strata were retained in later editions of the map, although the number of subdivisions was greatly increased. A reduction of the map (on a scale of about sixteen miles to the inch), dated 1853, had thirty-seven colored tablets; and the final revised edition of the large-scale map, issued in 1855, had over forty. The subdivisions were lithological and did not imply any relative age.

Griffith’s particular interest in the Carboniferous Limestone rocks led him to amass a large collection of fossils from the formation; and he employed Frederick McCoy, a young paleontologist, to describe them in a well-illustrated and valuable publication, A Synopsis of the Characters of the Carboniferous Limestone Fossils of Ireland, published in 1844 at Griffith’s own expense. This was followed by a similar work on the Silurian fossils of Ireland, collected by Griffith and described by McCoy.

In 1854 Griffith was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London for his services to geological science and particularly for his geological map of Ireland. On the final revised edition, dated 1855, Griffith stated that he had taken some boundaries in the southeast from those on the recently published maps of the Irish Geological Survey. The official survey had begun in 1845, but publication had been delayed until 1855, when the one-inch topographical maps were ready. As the maps of the Survey and the accompanying memoirs were published, Griffith’s map gradually became out-of-date.

Griffith was created a baronet in 1858. He continued to hold some public offices and was widely consulted. In 1869, when he was eighty-five, he testified before a select committee of inquiry into valuation; this evidence contains much of interest concerning Griffith’s work.


I. Original Works. A long, but not complete, list of Griffith’s papers is in the unsigned obituary in Geological Magazine (see below). There is also a list in Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III (1866), 17-18.

Works by Griffith published separately are First Report to the Commissioners on the Bogs of Ireland, Parliamentary Report (1810) and subsequent reports (1811–1812); Geological and Mining Report on the Leinster Coal District (Dublin, 1814); Geological and Mining Survey of the Connaught Coal District (Dublin, 1818); Geological and Mining Surveys of the Coal Districts of the Counties of Tyrone and Antrim (Dublin, 1829); Outline of the Geology of Ireland and Geological Map of Ireland, accompanying Second Report of the Railway Commissioners (Dublin, 1838); A General Map of Ireland to Accompany the Report of the Railway Commissioners Shewing the Principal Physical Features and Geological Structure of the Country (Dublin, 1839, 1846, 1855); and Geological Map of Ireland to Accompany the Instructions to Valuators (Dublin, 1853). Griffith also wrote Notice Respecting the Fossils of the Mountain Limestone of Ireland as Compared with Those of Great Britain, and Also With the Devonian System (Dublin, 1842); and, jointly with F. McCoy, A Synopsis of the Characters of the Carboniferous Limestone Fossils of Ireland (Dublin, 1844) and A Synopsis of the Silurian Fossils of Ireland (Dublin, 1846).

II. Secondary Literature. A lengthy, unsigned obituary notice in Geological Magazine, 5 (II Dec. 1878). 524-528, is the source of several other notices. Some additional biographical details are in H. F. Berry. History of the Royal Dublin Society (London, 1915), pp. 162 ff. A very detailed account of the progress of Griffith’s map and its geological changes is given by Maxwell Close, “Anniversary Address to the Royal Geological Society of Ireland,” in Journal of the Royal Geological Society of Ireland, n.s. 5 (1880), 132-148. Some further information is given in A. G. Davis, in “Notes on Griffith’s Geological Maps of Ireland,” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History,2 (1950), 209-211. A valuable commentary is R. C. Simington and A, Farrington, “A Forgotten Pioneer, Patrick Ganly, Geologist, Surveyor, and Civil Engineer,” in Journal of the Department of Agriculture, Republic of Ireland, 46 (1949), 2-16; in this paper the geological work of one of Griffith’s assistants is described, with much background information.

Joan M. Eyles

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Griffith, Richard John

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