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Can't stand the rain

Sopwith cartoon, William Buckland

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan investigates some ingenious ways of keeping dry.

Geoscientist 21.08 September 2011

  • Image: Cartoon by T Sopwith showing Professor William Buckland in bespoke field attire…
Finding clever ways to overcome wet weather has always been one of the challenges of fieldwork. As a student I recall being wildly impressed on hearing that geologists in the Irish Geological Survey had taken to replacing their field notebooks with small Dictaphones – then the white heat of technology – to enable them to avoid ‘soggy illegible notebook syndrome’ and continue mapping during the notoriously rainy Irish field seasons.

But Dictaphones were not an option for geologist John Phillips when mapping with the Geological Survey in the very wet wilds of south-west Wales during the autumn of 1841. In a letter to his sister Anne written from 'St Clares' [i.e. St Clears] in October 1841, he reports that: "Five days it has been raining fiercely; & we have each day confronted the storms, getting wet as neptunian geologists ought ever to be."

But whatever else it did, the rain must also have stimulated Phillips's creative imagination to come up with an ingenious way to keep dry. In November 1841, he wrote again to Anne, requesting her to go to a local umbrella shop and have made up "a thin oiled silk Cloak" to his precise specifications. "Don[']t get it too long, he entreated. "I only want to protect the body, & don't like the Mackintosh stuff. Send it to Fishguard, as soon as possible – you can tell the proper size by tying it on."

It must have done the trick. In a letter to Anne sent at the end of November 1841 from Carmarthen, Phillips remarked that "I had a day’s pleasant walk and [in] spite of much rain am quite well & free from colds." And that year his field season carried on until the end of the year!


  • The sources for this vignette include three of the 234 letters written by John Phillips to his sister Anne which are preserved in the archives in the Hope Library at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
  • 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:, where the programme and abstracts from the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting are available as a pdf file free to download.

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