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Written in History appeal

Letterbook header

Support our Written in History appeal to conserve twelve important volumes of correspondence of the Assistant Secretary’s office of the Geological Society, 1834-1880.

The majority of the archive collections of the Geological Society, which cover the history and evolution of geological science in Britain and abroad, are catalogued and open to researchers. One significant series is not. These are the in-coming letters of the Assistant Secretary which date from 1834-1880. Seven volumes of the letters were conserved in the 1980s, but the remaining 12 have been closed-off to researchers due to their extremely poor condition. 

Conserving these volumes will cost £40,000 and it will ensure that the letters will finally be fully accessible for researchers and academics studying the development of geology at this important turning point in the history of science. Donations of any amount are welcome to help us reach our target.

About the Assistant Secretary's Letter Books

Letterbook sample
The typical quarter leather binding of the Letter Books
Historically, the Assistant Secretary was generally the first point of contact with the Society. As the post holder also acted as journal editor and frequently as Librarian & Museum Curator, the majority of the Society’s day-to-day business and administration came through his office.

The letters are therefore one of the primary records of the activities of the Society as a central repository of geological knowledge in the 19th century. Topics covered include:

• Fellows’ interaction with the Society, from their initial introduction, election, changes of circumstances, to finally resignation or notices of decease
• Submission and the editorial process of papers
• Circulation of the Society’s publications and maps
• Donations of material such as museum specimens, books and maps
• Recruitment of and recommendations for geologists for exploration surveys
• Notices and descriptions of new geological finds and other discoveries
• Award nominations and letters from awardees
• Contacts with international geological organisations and foreign geologists

Click on the below to see examples of the letters found in these volumes:

Brunel thumb
Darwin thumb
Georama thumb
Abolition thumb
Election of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1844  Charles Darwin complains about his Library book, [1844]
‘GEORAMA or the World at one view’, 1846
Campaign to abolish slavery in the French colonies, 1847

What is the problem?

There are around 8,000 letters split across 19 volumes. Volumes 1-7 were conserved in the 1980s, but the remaining 12 letter volumes are still in their original format of cheap, guard-book bindings. Guard-books were a very common and economical way of collating loose papers, which would be pasted onto the page stumps inside.

The poor quality leather spines have degraded and split, leading to the collapse of the binding. Two centuries' worth of soot and London pollution has coated the letters inside, which has formed a fine dust that is moved and transferred when the volumes are handled. The dirt causes extensive acidic deterioration and discolouration which makes the paper hard and brittle.  This is particularly noticeable along the edges, which curl and flake, with corners breaking off.     

Letter book d
Letterbook damage
Top left: Various sizes of letters pasted onto guards. 

Top right:
The poor-quality leather dries out, developing red rot. It also becomes brittle and splits, with the front and back boards detaching.

Bottom: The open nature of the binding allows soot and dirt from two centuries' worth of coal fires and London pollution to cover and stain the letters. The exposed edges become brittle and curl.


The condition of the volumes means that cataloguing the collection is difficult without causing further damage. An incomplete and very rudimentary listing of some of the volumes was undertaken by work experience volunteers in the 1980s. Five volumes (nos.14-18) dating from 1853-1871 are not listed at all.

What if nothing is done?

In spite of these poor listings, the letter books are frequently requested by researchers but have now had to be closed off due to their condition. This causes a significant gap in the history at a time of great change in science. It is a period where geology becomes more recognisably modern – for example coinciding with the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and the proofs of the Antiquity of Man (1859). 
Letterbook 14
The binding on this volume has collapsed, pushing the block of letters outside of the boards. As a result the letters are being damaged on all sides.

How can you help?

Your donations will enable us to have the letters conserved in such a manner that they can finally be catalogued properly and fully opened to researchers.

Donations of any amount are welcome to help us reach our target, from sponsoring a single letter up to an entire volume. For donations over £100, your name will appear on a roll of honour bound with one of the volumes. If you would like to sponsor a different amount, please contact us - [email protected]

If you would like further information about the letter-books please contact the Library on [email protected]

Recommended donations

Sponsor one letter
Sponsor two letters   £20
Sponsor five letters   £50
Sponsor 10 letters (Roll of honour bound in a conserved volume)    £100

Donate Online

Sponsors of complete volumes can have a dedication of their choice recorded on a special bookplate bound within. Please contact us for further details - [email protected]

Volume 8 (1843-1844)
Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 9 (1844-1846)
  Sponsored in memory of Pieter Michiel Maurenbrecher, FGS (1945-2021)
Volume 10 (1847-1848)
  Sponsored by Graham Goffey
Volume 11 (1848-1851)   Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 12 (1851-1853)   Sponsored in memory of Elspeth Urquhart, PhD, FGS (1949-2019)
Volume 13 (1853-1856)
  Sponsored by Richard Stabbins
Volume 14 (1856-1859)
  Sponsored in memory of Anthony Stephen Batchelor, PhD, FREng (1948-2022)
Volume 15 (1859-1863)
  Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 16 (1863-1864)    £3625
Volume 17 (1863, 1865-1866)   Sponsored by The de Laszlo Foundation
Volume 18 (1867-1871)    £4015

Donations by cheque can be made to 'The Geological Society of London' at Geological Society Library, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BG. Donations can also be made via bank transfer, please contact [email protected] for more information

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