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Robert Frederick Symes 1939-2016

guilKeeper of Mineralogy at the NHM, tireless supporter of amateur geologists and mineralogists, and prolific writer on the mineralogy of Britain.

Robert Frederick (Bob) Symes, was a prominent figure in British mineralogy and geology for around 50 years. He was born on 10 February 1939 in Harrow, London, and grew up in Eastcote, Pinner. His father was a self-employed builder in Chelsea, and his parents were both born in Chelsea.

After leaving school, Bob joined the British Museum (Natural History) on 1 October 1957, as Assistant Scientific Officer. He attended evening classes and worked his way up, via Birkbeck College, gaining his BSc in geology. Bob completed National Service in the RAF (1959-61), during which time a posting to Weston Super Mare enabled him to explore the geology and minerals of the Mendip Hills.

New technology

At the Natural History Museum, Bob was an early adopter of new technology and was largely responsible for bringing the first electron microprobes to the NHM. He was awarded a PhD in 1981 for his research on the orbicular rocks of the Channel Islands (supervised by Clive Bishop of the NHM under the auspices of Queen Mary College). This work, and the seemingly endless analysis of two unknown phases (popularly known as “Red X and Yellow Y”) from Merehead Quarry, took up much of his time. Eventually, with the assistance of collaborators these phases were characterised as the new minerals parkinsonite and mereheadite. His work in the Mendips, and at Merehead Quarry in particular, was honoured by the naming of a pink oxychloride from the Torr Works (formerly Merehead Quarry) as ‘symesite’ in 2000.

He would extol, at length, the virtues of “our wonderful calcites and fluorites” to anyone who would listen. He was NHM Keeper of Mineralogy from 1995 until retirement in 1996 – following in the footsteps of Prior, Spencer, Herbert Smith and Claringbull. In the New Year Honours list, 1995, Bob was awarded the OBE for services to the Museum and the science of mineralogy.

Bob was elected President of the Geologists’ Association (1996 - 98) and succeeded in increasing membership numbers to around 2400 and initiating a complete overhaul of the society. In 1997 he asked Dick Moody to stand as President and together they initiated the ‘Way Forward’ programme. Bob fully supported the ‘Earth Alert 1’ conference in Brighton to mark the Millennium, and ‘Earth Alert 2’ in Scarborough (2002). In 2009 Bob was invited to join the committee of the History of Geology Group and he became a Vice Chairman in 2012, serving until 2014.


Bob met Carol in 1961 and they were married in 1965. Some years ago he inherited an orchard at Broadclyst in Devon (which had been in the family since 1750). Bob hoped one day to retire there, and he and Carol moved to Sidmouth in 1999. Here, Bob found a new career at the Sidmouth Museum, serving as Honorary Curator from 2001-2015. In September last year, the former ‘Land and Man Room’, containing geology and archaeology items, was re-named ‘The Dr Bob Symes OBE Room’.

guipHe also established an informal mineralogical group, affectionately known as SMAGS (Sidmouth Mineral Appreciation Group), which met periodically at members’ houses. Members included local mineral dealer Keith Corrie, former long-time member of the Harrow and Hillingdon club Michael Gough and Roger Le Voir who Bob had met through the Geologists’ Association and the Open University.

Picture: Carol Symes, Bob Symes and Zoe Moody at the HOGG Dinner, celebrating the Bicentenary in period costume, 12 November 2007, Connaught Rooms, London.

Perhaps closest to his heart was the Harrow and Hillingdon (originally Harrow and Ruislip ) Geological Society which he helped to establish in 1973. Bob had been an extramural lecturer for London University for about 10 years and was asked to do two evening classes in Harrow and Uxbridge. Some of his students decided that it would be a good idea to form a society, and Bob had a major hand in bringing this about. The group celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2008 with a field excursion to the Massif Central.

Exeter University

Bob was made an honorary member of the Sussex Mineral and Lapidary Society on its 25th anniversary in 1997.  He served as President of the Russell Society from 1989–1993. Bob was involved in numerous local organisations, and also served as a member of the Council of Exeter University for five years, as a Trustee of Camborne School of Mines, and as Chairman, and subsequently President, of Sidmouth National Trust.

Bob was a prolific author, but I suspect that the work of which he was most proud is Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, authored jointly with Peter Embrey (1987), which set the standard for an occasional series of topographical mineralogy works, progressively covering different regions of Great Britain (picture).

Bob had time for everyone, and was interested to know all the latest news and finds. He passed away on 23 May, wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Catherine at his side. He will be sadly missed, but his memory will live on in the organisations he supported, his published work, and in the local museum he did so much to inspire and develop.

By Roy Starkey, with assistance from Dick Moody, Roger Le Voir, Chris Stanley, Carol Symes and Peter Tandy.