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Sir Henry Thomas De La BecheGeologist and science writer Nina Morgan* on a familiar affliction – the lost field notes…

Geoscientist 19.7 July 2009

I have a photograph of every rock hammer I've ever lost. Most geologists will know the feeling! But more distressing still is the loss of a field slip or notebook – as David Hiram Williams, a geologist in our fledgling Geological Survey, knew only too well.

Williams, who was employed in 1839 as a mapper for the Geological Survey of England and Wales by Sir Henry De la Beche (pictured) a rate of seven shillings a day, soon gained a reputation for precision and hard work. If his 20 or so surviving letters are anything to go by, his two main objects in life seem to have been to achieve accuracy and save time by careful preparation – qualities that eventually found their reward in a substantial pay rise. By 1840, Williams' salary was increased to a princely ten shillings per day.

So imagine his distress when, in a letter sent from Carmarthen and dated 17 December 1840, he was obliged inform De la Beche of a serious slip-up. "I have had a sad loss this morning" he wrote: "…while out on duty I lost 7 portfolio squares of the map of this part of the country. […] I am sorry, very sorry to say I am in great trouble about the loss of those sketches, I hope and trust I shall have the good fortune to meet with them again."

Whether he did or not is not recorded. But his letter describes the lengths to which he went to try to recover them. "As soon as I discovered my loss I immediately returned to Caermarthen [sic] and had them cried by the town crier, and I again returned enquiring at all the houses along and back again to town without the slightest information as to their recovery. I am afraid they have been found by some country person who might fancy they are pictures as two of them are coloured. Should such be the case, I am fearful they will be stuck upon the wall of some cottage."

And very nice they must have looked, too!


Thanks to Tom Sharpe of the National Museum of Wales for alerting me to this story. Sources for this vignette include The papers of H.T. De la Beche (1796 – 1855) in the National Museum of Wales by T. Sharpe and P.J. McCartney, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Geological Series No. 17, 1998; and F.J. North, Further chapters in the history of geology in South Wales; Sir H.T. De la Beche and the Geological Survey, Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, vol. 67 (1934), pp.31-103.

If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information visit the HOGG website at:

* Nina Morgan lives in Oxfordshire.