(b. Minsteracres, Northumberland, England, 1779; d. Lartington Hall, Yorkshire,England, 28 November 1844)
Witham was the second son of John Silvertop and Catherine Lawson of Brough, Yorkshire. He married Eliza Witham of Headlam, a niece and coheiress of William Witham of Cliffe, Yorkshire. and took the name and arms of Witham. He became the first Roman Catholic high sheriff of County Durham; and his son Thomas, a Roman Catholic priest, inherited the Larthington estate after the deaths of his three brothers.
Witham’s interest in geology and paleobotany was expressed in the founding in 1829 of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham, and Newcastle upon Tyne, of which he was a founder-member and vice-president. He was also a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Witham read the paper “On the Vegetation of the First Period of an Ancient World” before the Wernerian Society on 5 December 1829. In Edinburgh he became acquainted with William Nicol, whose method of making thin rock sections led to a revolution in both paleobotany and petrology. This technique was a development of that used by George Sanderson, an Edinburgh lapidary. Witham’s Edinburgh connections also led to his “Description of a Fossil Tree Discovered in the Quarry of Craigleith” (1831), Three specimens were found, and the first was removed to the grounds of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Witham employed the Aberdeen botanist William MacGillivray to illustrate this paper and his Observations on Fossil Vegatables (1831).
In Newcastle, Witham met N.J.Winch and W. Hutton, both interested in botany and geology. Winch wrote on the geology of Northumberland (1816) and the Tweed banks (1831), Witham subscribed to J. Lindley and Hutton’s Fossil Flora (1831–1837) and dedicated his Observations on Fossil Vegetables to Hutton. Their commons interest was partly stimulated by the great development of mining at the time.
Witham was the first investigator of Lepidodendron harcourtü, Pitus withami (the Craigleith tree), p. Antiqua and P.Primaeva (the Lennel Braes trees), Cordaties brandlingi (the Wideopen tree), and Anabathra pulcherriam (a petrified xylem cylinder of Stigmaria).
His interpretation of the Pitus trees was that they were fossil gymnosperms and not vascular cryptogams. Hence his greatest achievement was to show that gymnosperms were prevalent in Lower Carboniferous rocks.
I. Original Works. Witham’s writings include “Vegetation of the First Period of an Ancient World,” in philosophical Magazine, 2nd ser., 7 (1830), 28–29; “On the Vegetable Fossils Found at Lennel Braes, Near Coldstream, Upon the Banks of the River Tweed in Berwickshire,” ibid.,8 (1830), 16–21; “On the Red Sandstones of Berwickshire, Particularly Those at the Mouth of the River Tweed,” in Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland. . .,1 (1831),172–183; “Description of a Fossil Tree Discovered in the Quarry of Craigleith,” ibid., 294–301; Observations on Fossil Vegetables, Accompanied by Representations of Their Internal Structure as Seen Through the Microscope (Edinburgh-London, 1831), repr. as The Internal Structure of Fossil Vegetables Found in the Carboniferous and Oolitic Deposits of Great Britain, Described and Illustrated (Edinburgh-Lonodn, 1833): “On the Lepidodendron harcourtü ;” in Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland. . . 2 (1838), 236–238; and “On the Effects Produced by a Greenstone Dyke Upon the Coal, in Passing Over Cockfield Fell, in the County of Durham,” ibid., 343–345.
II. Secondary Literture. See J. Lindley and W. Hutton, Fossil Flora of Great Britain, 3 Vols. (London, 1831–1837); A.G.Long, “The Fossil Plants of Berwickshire:part 1,” in History of the Berwickshire Naturalist’ Club,34 (1951), 248–273; A.G. MacGregor and R.J.A.Eckford, “The Upper Old Red and Lower Carboniferous Sediments of Teviotdale and Tweedside, and the Stones of the Abbeys of the Scottish Borderland,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society,14 (1948), 230–252; F.W.Oliver, ed., D.H.Scott, “William Crawford Williamson (1816–95),” in Makers of British Botany (Camberidge, 1913), 243–260; D.H. Scott, Extinct plants and problems of Evolution (London, 1924),150; and N.J. Winch, “Observations on the Geology of Northumberland and Durham,” in Transactions of the Geological Society.4 (1816), 1–101; and “Remarks on the Geology of the Banks of the Tweed,” in Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland. . .,1 (1831), 117–131.
Albert G. Long