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Expenses scandal!

As Nina Morgan* discovers, when it comes to accounting, creativity knows no bounds

uiiWhen the Daily Telegraph began publishing details of expenses claims submitted by Members of Parliament in 2009, the UK public watched in fascination as a soap opera involving inflated claims, creative accounting and fanciful excuses from well known public figures attempting to defend themselves and hang on to their jobs, unrolled before their very eyes. It was a scenario that the radical Scottish MP and self-appointed guardian of the public purse, Joseph Hume (1777 -1855) would have relished.

But Hume was not the only 19th Century reformer to be exercised about expenses claims. William Whewell (1794-1866, pictured left), scientist, philosopher and sometime Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge University, went into print in 1832 with some highly disparaging remarks about the expense claims submitted by the Scottish geologist, John McCulloch (1773-1835). Whewell aired his suspicions about the accuracy of McCulloch’s accounting methods in a footnote to a lengthy and discursive review of volume 2 of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, he published in the Quarterly Review.

“By the by, we are the last persons who would decry the liberality of government in grants for scientific purposes, when these are properly applied; but we have yet to learn what adequate harvest is to be reaped from the expenditure of more than 7000l [£] on this gentleman’s [McCulloch’s] mineralogical survey of Scotland. From a return to an address of the House of Commons, dated 23rd December, 1830, it appears that Dr. McCulloch, having been allowed 1l [£] per diem for personal expenses, 2 l [£] per diem as remuneration, and 2 s per mile for travelling expenses, solemnly declared before the Scotch Barons of Exchequer, that his average rate of travelling throughout one of his scientific excursions among the rugged mountains of the Highlands, was forty-five miles per diem – and another of them fifty-two! When we consider that the doctor must have travelled hammer in hand, knocking at every crag, and peering into every crevice – and that he worked, by his own account, so hard for many months in each of these summers as never to allow himself a Sunday – and that the region he was exploring presents very considerable obstacles, both overhead and under foot, to the locomotiveness [sic] of ordinary mortals – we cannot wonder that the canny barons should have begun to suspect him of being in actual possession of the seven-league boots...we cannot sufficiently express our surprise that it should have so long escaped the notice of Mr Joseph Hume. 7004 l [£] !!!”.

McCulloch’s possession of seven-league boots was never proved, and he was never called upon to justify his expenses claims. But that was then and this is now. The same could not be said for the 21st Century MPs who resigned or faced prosecution over their claims for ‘essential expenses’ such as moat-cleaning, the building of duck houses, or the delivery of 28 tonnes of manure.


Whewell’s diatribe against McCulloch appears in the article: Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, vol 2, London 1832, published in Quarterly Review, vol 47, 103-132 (This article is cited in Rudwick, MJS, Lyell and the Principles of Geology, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 1998, v. 143; pp. 1-15. Vol. 47 of Quarterly Review is available from Google Books.]

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter visit the HOGG website at:, where you will also find abstracts for the talks and posters presented at the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting, April 2011 available free to download as a pdf file.

*Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.