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On seeing the most rocks

Between 1946 and 1967, the Society ran field trips for Honours students, funded by the oil industry.  Geoff Townson* has collected some memories.

kjhIn the November 2016 issue (Geoscientist 26.10 p25), I noted that 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the last Geological Society ‘Students’ Instructional Tour’ funded by BP (later trips were funded by Shell), and called for your memories and photographs.  With help from you, and the Society’s Archive, I have been able to bring together a number of interesting and colourful memories of what now seems like a vanished age.

Picture: The year of 1954.  The eagle-eyed may spot Professor Gilbert Kelling (Back left), Professor Tony Hallam (Back, fourth from left) among others.

What follows is a summary of material sent to me in November and December.  I received responses for the years in bold.  Many participant names were provided, but only those I knew or recognised are included here, for accuracy’s sake.  Almost all information has been copied to the Society Archive.  I must apologise to those who are not mentioned, and offer my thanks to the 20 participants who contributed.  I hope that this article will result in further feedback.


Picture: The 1951 Tour, featuring Professor Bernard Leake in his trademark beret basque (Back, third from left).  For a full caption, readers should consult Gordon Herries-Davies's Bicentenary History (see Further reading).

kljhFollowing a donation of £750 (the equivalent of £30,000 today) by BP’s forerunners Anglo-Iranian & Burmah Oil, the first Tour was held in 1946, led by Alan Wood (Imperial College, London, then Aberystwyth).  According to a booklet on the history of Aberystwyth Geology Department: “Perhaps the only slightly embarrassing moment was the evening that Alice (Wood’s wife) joined the party. The Woods were so engrossed in talking at the dinner table, that only when a student butted in to ask ‘if Mrs Wood would care to start her soup’, that they realised that all the students were politely waiting for her to begin before starting their own meals”.  A letter of thanks was sent to the Geol Soc from a hotel in Weymouth, signed by all attendees – names include Leslie Illing, Stuart McKerrow, Wally Pitcher & Bill Ramsbottom.

The 1947 tour is not recorded, but the 1948 tour went to S England & Wales, led by W D Evans.

Eric Robinson attended the 1949 tour to the Bristol area, led by Leslie Moore.  Eric sent some memories to Society Assistant Librarian, Wendy Cawthorne.  He was awarded a place as a 16-year old schoolboy – the others were National Service or “wartime hardened men” – including Derek V Ager, Charles Downie, Derek Flinn, Trevor D Ford, Wally Mykura & Vernon Wilson.  Eric had been aiming for an Oxford BA course, but his Latin teacher persuaded him that Geology would be a better option because it was - “a subject no-one takes”.

The 1950 tour visited Central England & Scotland; 1951 (pictured), Yorkshire via Cardiff & Glasgow; 1952 Shropshire & Isle of Wight (IoW); 1953 IoW & Dorset coast.



Picture: The 1963 tour, in foreign parts.  Professor Derek Ager (Third from left) models the drip-dry shirt as the world awaits the invention of outdoor leisure gear.

The 1954 tour (pictured, top) took in the IoW, Dorset, Welsh Borders and Midlands, led by Bill (WW) Black.  Participants included John Allen, Brian Funnell, Tony Hallam, Geoff Tresise, Gilbert Kelling, John Knill and Diane Judge.  The tour was so enjoyable that John & Diane were married (afterwards)! 

John Tresise recalls: “My most vivid memory is of the Goyt valley in the pouring rain being shown an endless series of scrapes in black shale.  The point appeared to be that each contained a different marine band – big deal! “

Diane recalls: “I remember the Goyt Trough and the pouring rain. The Yoredale Shales were not at all interesting, in spite of Professor (FW) Cope’s enthusiasm.  In Yorkshire I remember the Ingletonian and John insisting the group retrace their steps as he had found inverted current bedding.  He was not very popular at that moment!”  

The 1955 & 1956 tours were led by Vernon Wilson to Central England and Southern Scotland.  The Tour admitted female students for the first time in 1956 and afterwards stated (as is recorded by Gordon Herries Davies in the Bicentenary history of the Society): “I felt the presence of the ladies helped considerably in preserving a high standard of conduct in the party”.  What can have happened in 1955?  The 1957 tour was led by Dan Gill to Central and Northern England; John Dewey took part.


The 1958 tour ventured for the first time to “The Continent”, in a trip (to Switzerland) led by Dan Gill.  John C W Cope recalls: “We travelled by overnight train to Basel, and then had a Swiss Postbus, equipped with priority-demanding horn, until the end of the trip.   We had local guides at various stages throughout the tour including Vonderschmidt and Staub and we started in the Jura from Basel, then into the Molasse Basin and thus to the Alps.  Much wine was consumed and every now and then Dan Gill would open up an attaché case stuffed with high denomination Swiss bank notes and declare: ‘Right chaps! Drinks on BP’…. Dan tried to dance with some unfortunate woman and then passed out. We had to carry him back to the hotel.”   One wonders what Vernon Wilson’s reaction would have been.

The 1959 tour was to Southern England & Wales, led by John F Kirkaldy.

The 1960 tour visited NW Germany, and was also led by Kirkaldy - with the help of 15 German co-directors!  Brian Fletcher and John T Renouf responded with a list of participants, whose names include Chris Wood and Colin J R Braithwaite (whom I remember from Worthing High School).

kjhThe 1961 tour was intended to be a repeat of 1960 but, because of “difficulties in connexion with visas”, the party instead studied the Carboniferous of Devon, South Wales & Southern Ireland.  Although funded by BP there was a registration fee of £12 (= £250 today).  Participants included David Elliot, Julia Hubbard, Chris Kendall, Roger Pegrum and Chris (RCL) Wilson.  David remembers “After time in SW England, we sailed to Cork, up the west coast (with a memorable ceilidh one evening) and crossed to Dublin, staying at Trinity College.  One of the tour members brought his bagpipes and played.  Another lost a boot when fording a river”.

Picture: A-frames and knotted hankerchiefs on the 1946 tour.

The 1962 tour was the first to the Paris Basin & Alps, led by Derek Ager and John Ramsay, aided by Brian Evamy .  The two-week trip involved staying at 11 hotels.  Nick McCave sent me the instructions from Derek Ager, which extol the virtues of the drip-dry shirt (“the greatest advance in geological equipment since the hammer”) plus the warning: “DON’T BE LATE!”   Participants included Dave Loftus and Phil Lovelock, both of whom I knew in Shell.

The 1963 tour (pictured above) was a repeat of 1962, attended by Chris Hughes and Robert Cliff.  I recognise Geoff Warrington (at Kings London with me) in this group photo, as well as Derek Ager.

The 1964 tour went to France, led this time by Professor Basil Charles King** & Judith Turner.  Brian D’Olier recalls: “This was my first trip to France so everything was new to me. My impressions of the trip are very hazy but I do remember finding the toilets, a hole in the floor, both amusing and amazing. I also remember that the accommodation we stayed in was at times rather primitive.”

The 1965 tour went again to the French Alps, led again by Basil King.  Malcolm Hart recalls: “It was the perfect start to my eight weeks of mapping in Haute Savoie that I did for my final degree. It also introduced me to the use of micropalaeontology in understanding structures. Considering the fact that I am still a micropalaeontologist 50 years on, the Tour has a lot to answer for!”  Bill Sowerbutts also attended, along with Tony Watts and: “the names of many of the others on the tour stuck with me and I noted how they progressed in the years that followed, when seeing their names in print”.


The 1966 tour was to Southern Spain, led by Otto Simon, Frank Moseley & Geoff Boulton.  Melville Sarginson and Ernie Rutter attended.  It had a profound influence on Ernie, leading to a lifetime love affair with Spain, its geology, language and culture.  He later ran field trips, supervised dozens of undergraduate mapping exercises and several PhD students, as well as mapping a large area solo.  He adds: “In the late afternoons we went to the totally deserted beaches of Mojacar-Palomares to swim in the wild surf. One of the reasons it stayed deserted for a long time was because earlier the same year the US Airforce lost three H-bombs from a crashed bomber. One of them burst on the beach and caused radioactive contamination. For the Pre-Betic part we stayed in Benidorm - then a tiny fishing village…”.

jkhThe 1967 tour is the one I attended, and it was the discovery of my field notebook that initiated this project. The tour (see map, left) was to Norfolk, the Welsh Borders and the Lake District led by Frank Moseley & Geoff Boulton (see picture) with regional extras Richard West, Peter Banham, Jim Lawson, John Allen, Fred Shotton (pictured) & Tony Wadge. 

Names of fellow students I knew or followed in the literature afterwards include Peter Alexander-Marrack, Roger Beck (first Editor of this magazine), Brian Coppack, Felicity Lloyd, Brian Marker & Roger Scrutton.  Of the 20 students, only two were female and, as far as I can tell, at least 10 gained doctorates.  Of the latter I think only Peter and I joined the oil industry - and that was Shell, not BP!

Picture:  A youthful Geoff Boulton and Professor Fred Shotton.

kjhBrian Marker, David Highley and Ian Thomas write: - “… at a youth hostel near Settle we were all conversing loudly after lights-out, when an apparition appeared: an elderly lady in a long white nightgown with dishevelled grey hair who began to berate us - at which the hostel warden, who was aiding and abetting us, ducked down and hid behind us until she retreated … Some students and the bus driver climbed out of a window at one of the places we stayed to visit the village pub – the next morning on Cross Fell a certain student was snoring so loudly that Tony Wadge said ‘someone roll that ****** down the hill!’”  

It wasn’t me.

Further reading

Herries Davies, Gordon L, 2007: Whatever is Under the Earth – the Geological Society of London 1807 – 2007.  Geological Society Publishing House ISBN 978-1-86239-214-4356pp (hbk).  The Student Instructional Tours feature p256 et seq. W:

*Geoff Townson DPhil BSc AKC CGeol FGS worked for Shell International 1971-2000.  He now lives on the West Dorset coast.  He is a semi-professional artist but is also a volunteer geologist at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and runs geology courses for the Lyme Regis Heritage Coast U3A.  E: [email protected]. For more info:

** Professor Basil Charles King.  This is a correction from the original version of this piece, which appeared in print, crediting the leader of these two trips as 'Brian King'.  This is not the first time the two have been confused.  Brian King writes:"I was at that time in Zambia in Central Africa (Kings College London 1956-59 and 62-64). We were sometimes mistaken in the Geological Society Library because we both just signed 'B King'!"