Prestwich, Joseph

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(b. Clapham, London, England, 12 March 1812; d. Shoreham, Kent, England, 23 June 1896)


Prestwich was descended from an old Lancashire family. He joined his father’s wine-merchant business and remained in that trade for nearly forty years; but his scientific energy and enthusiasm impelled him to accomplish, in his spare time, work that placed him among the foremost English geologists. He was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London (1849) and was president of that society in 1870-1872. He was also elected a vice-president of the Royal Society (1870), having received a Royal Medal in 1865. In 1874, after retiring from business, he was appointed professor of geology at Oxford. He was knighted in 1896, shortly before his death. By his will he established the Prestwich Medal of the Geological Society.

Prestwich’s most important geological investigations were those into the older Tertiary formations in southeastern England and those into the Quaternary deposits of England and France containing the traces of early man.

In a series of papers from 1846 to 1857 (with a supplement in 1888) Prestwich elucidated the previously unexplored stratigraphy of the beds lying between the Chalk and the main part of the London Clay in England, and he correlated these with the corresponding beds that had been described in France and Belgium. He called these beds the Lower London Tertiaries and divided them into the Thanet Sands, the Woolwich and Reading series, and the basement beds of the London Clay (later called the Blackheath and Oldhaven beds). He thus established the classification of this important part of the stratigraphical succession and became the acknowledged leader in the Tertiary geology of Europe.

In 1859 Prestwich began investigating claims made in France concerning the occurrence and age of shaped flints and bones of extinct mammals found by Boucher de Perthes in the valley-gravels of the Somme. Prestwich confirmed these claims and showed conclusively that the flints were man-made implements; that they were made when now-extinct mammals were living; and that the implements and bones occurred in, and were contemporaneous with, deposits laid down at an early stage in the development of the valley and were thus of an age to be measured in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. Prestwich was thus the first authority to confirm Boucher de Perthes’s evidence for the remote antiquity of man. In connection with this work Prestwich eventually demonstrated that rivers produce the valleys in which they flow, showing, in particular, that river terraces are normal features of valley development.

Prestwich’s earliest work was an important monograph (1840) on the small coalfield of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire; later he assisted the commission inquiring into the potential coal supplies of Britain. He became a leading authority on questions of water supply and also discussed the conditions affecting the construction of a tunnel beneath the English Channel. Oceanography and changes in sea level were among the other subjects on which he wrote important papers. The broad range of his research and thought was incorporated in his well-known comprehensive textbook, Geology—Chemical, Physical, and Strati-graphical (l886–1888).


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography is given in the Life and Letters (see below). His major works include “On the Geology of Coalbrook Dale,“in Transactions of the Geological Society of London. 2nd ser., 5 (1840), 413-495; A Geological Inquiry Respecting the Waterbearing Strata of the Country Around London (London, 1851); “On the Structure of the Strata Between the London Clay and the Chalk in the London and Hampshire Tertiary Systems—The Woolwich and Reading Series,“in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 10 (1854), 75-170; “Theoretical Considerations on the Conditions Under Which the Drift Deposits Containing the Remains of Extinct Mammalian and Flint Implements Were Accumulated, and on Their Geological Age,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 154 (1864), 247-309; “Report on the Quantities of Coal in the Coal-Fields of Somersetshire” and “Report on the Probabilities of Finding Coal in the South of England,” in Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire Into... Coal in the United Kingdom(London, 1871); “On the Geological Conditions Affecting the Construction of a Tunnel Between England and France,” in Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, 37 (1874), 110-145; “Tables of Temperatures of the Sea at Different Depths Beneath the Surface,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society165 (1876), 587-674; Geology—Chemical, Physical, and Stratigraphical, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1886-1888); and “The Raised Beaches… of the South of England,“in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 48 (1892), 263-343.

II. Secondary Literature. On Prestwich and his work, see H. W[oodward], “Eminent Living Geologists: Professor Joseph Prestwich, D.C.L., F.R.S.,” in Geological Magazine, 30 (1893), 241-246; [Sir] J. E[vans], obituary notice in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 60 (1897), xii-xvi; H. Hicks, obituary notice in Proceedings of the Geological Society, 53 (1897), G. A. (Lady) Prestwich, Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Prestwich, with a chapter summarizing his scientific work by Sir Archibald Geikie (Edinburgh-London, 1899); and T. G. Bonney, Dictionary of National Biography, supp. III (1901),284-287.

John Challinor