T. G. (Thomas George) Bonney.

Charles Lyell and Modern Geology online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryT. G. (Thomas George) BonneyCharles Lyell and Modern Geology → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Barbara Kosker, Bryan Ness and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at (This
file was produced from images generously made available
by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)





The Century Science Series.


* * * * *

=John Dalton and the Rise of Modern Chemistry.=

=Major Rennell, F.R.S., and the Rise of English Geography.=
By CLEMENTS R. MARKHAM, C.B., F.R.S., President of the Royal
Geographical Society.

=Justus von Liebig: his Life and Work (1803-1873).=
By W. A. SHENSTONE, F.I.C., Lecturer on Chemistry in
Clifton College.

=The Herschels and Modern Astronomy.=
By AGNES M. CLERKE, Author of "A Popular History
of Astronomy during the 19th Century," &c.

=Charles Lyell and Modern Geology.=
By Rev. Professor T. G. BONNEY, F.R.S.

=Clerk Maxwell and Modern Physics.=
By R. T. GLAZEBROOK, F.R.S., Fellow of Trinity College,

_In Preparation._

=Michael Faraday: his Life and Work.=

=Humphry Davy.=
By T. E. THORPE, F.R.S., Principal Chemist of the
Government Laboratories.

=Pasteur: his Life and Work.=
By M. ARMAND RUFFER, M.D., Director of the British
Institute of Preventive Medicine.

=Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species.=
By EDWARD B. POULTON, M.A., F.R.S., Hope Professor
of Zoology in the University of Oxford.

=Hermann von Helmholtz.=
By A. W. R√ЬCKER, F.R.S., Professor of Physics in the
Royal College of Science, London.

CASSELL & COMPANY, LIMITED, _London; Paris & Melbourne_

[Illustration: HW: Charles Lyell]






D.SC., LL.D., F.R.S., ETC.

New York


The life of Charles Lyell is singularly free from "moving accidents by
flood and field." Though he travelled much, he never, so far as can be
ascertained, was in danger of life or limb, of brigand or beast. At home
his career was not hampered by serious difficulties or blocked by
formidable obstacles; not a few circumstances were distinctly favourable
to success. Thus his biography cannot offer the reader either the
excitement of adventure, or the interest of an unwearied struggle with
adverse conditions. But for all that, as it seems to me, it can teach a
lesson of no little value. Lyell, while still a young man, determined
that he would endeavour to put geology - then only beginning to rank as a
science - on a more sound and philosophical basis. To accomplish this
purpose, he spared no labour, grudged no expenditure, shrank from no
fatigue. For years he was training himself by observation and travel; he
was studiously aiming at precision of thought and expression, till "The
Principles of Geology" had been completed and published. But even then,
though he might have counted his work done, he spared no pains to make
it better, and went on at the task of improvement till the close of his
long life.

My chief aim, in writing this little volume, has been to bring out this
lesson as strongly and as clearly as possible. I have striven to show
how Charles Lyell studied, how he worked, how he accumulated
observations, how each journey had its definite purposes. Accordingly, I
have often given his words in preference to any phrases of my own, and
have quoted freely from his letters, diaries, and books, because I
wished to show exactly how things presented themselves to his eyes, and
how ideas were maturing in his mind. Regarded in this light, Lyell's
life becomes an apologue, setting forth the beneficial results of
concentrating the whole energy on one definite object, and the moral
grandeur of a calm, judicial, truth-seeking spirit.

In writing the following pages I have, of course, mainly drawn upon the
"Life, Letters, and Journals," edited by Mrs. Lyell; but I have also
made use of his books, especially the "Principles of Geology," and the
two tours in North America. I am under occasional obligations to the
excellent life, contributed by Professor G. A. J. Cole to the
"Dictionary of National Biography," and have to thank my friend
Professor J. W. Judd for some important details which he had learnt
through his intimacy with the veteran geologist. He also kindly lent the
engraving (executed in America from a daguerreotype) which has been
copied for the frontispiece of this volume.



















Caledonia, stern and wild, may be called "meet nurse" of geologists as
well as of poets. Among the most remarkable of the former is Charles
Lyell, who was born in Forfarshire on November 14th, 1797, at Kinnordy,
the family mansion. His father, who also bore the name of Charles,[1]
was both a lover of natural history and a man of high culture. He took
an interest at one time in entomology, but abandoned this for botany,
devoting himself more especially to the study of the cryptogams. Of
these he discovered several new species, besides some other plants
previously unknown in the British flora, and he contributed the article
on Lichens to Smith's "English Botany." More than one species was named
after him, as well as a genus of mosses, _Lyellia_, which is chiefly
found in the Himalayas. Later in his life, science, on the whole, was
supplanted by literature, and he became engrossed in the study of the
works of Dante, of some of whose poems[2] he published translations and
notes. Thus the geologist and author is an instance of "hereditary

Charles was the eldest of a family of ten - three sons and seven
daughters, all of whom grew up. Their mother was English, the daughter
of Thomas Smith, of Maker Hall in Yorkshire, "a woman of strong sense
and tender anxiety for her children's welfare." "The front of heaven,"
as Lyell has written in a fragment of autobiography, was not "full of
fiery shapes at his nativity," but the season was so exceptionally warm
that his mother's bedroom-window was kept open all the night - an
appropriate birth-omen for the geologist, who had a firmer faith than
some of his successors in the value of work in the open air. He has put
on record only two characteristics of his infancy, and as these can
hardly be personal recollections, we may assume them to have been
sufficiently marked to impress others. One if not both was wholly
physical. He was very late in cutting his teeth, not a single one having
appeared in the first twelvemonth, and the hardness of his infant gums
caused an old wife to prognosticate that he would be edentulous. Also,
his lungs were so vigorous and so habitually exercised that he was
pronounced "the loudest and most indefatigable squaller of all the brats
of Angus."

The geologist who so emphatically affirmed the necessity of travel,
early became an unconscious practiser of his own precept. When he was
three months old his parents went from Kinnordy to Inveraray, whence
they journeyed to the south of England, as far as Ilfracombe. From this
place they removed to Weymouth and thence to Southampton. More than a
year must have been thus spent, for their second child - also a son - was
born at the last-named town. Mr. Lyell, the father, now took a lease of
Bartley Lodge, on the New Forest - some half-dozen miles west of
Southampton, where the family lived for twenty-eight years. His mother
and sisters also left Kinnordy, and rented a house in Southampton. Their
frequent excursions to Bartley Lodge, as Lyell observes, were always
welcome to the children, for they never came empty-handed.

Kinnordy, however, was visited from time to time in the summer, and on
one of these occasions, when Charles was in his fifth year, some of the
family had a narrow escape. They were about a stage and a half from
Edinburgh; the parents and the two boys in one carriage; two nursemaids,
the cook, and the two youngest children, sisters, in a chaise behind.
The horses of this took fright on a narrow part of the road and upset
the carriage over a very steep slope. Fortunately all escaped unhurt,
except one of the maids, whose arm was cut by the splintered glass. The
parents ran to the rescue. "Meanwhile, Tom and I were left in the
carriage. We thought it fine pastime, and I am accused of having
prompted Tom to assist in plundering the pockets of the carriage of all
the buns and other eatables, which we demolished with great speed for
fear of interruption."[3] This adventure, however, was not quite his
earliest reminiscence; for that was learning the alphabet when he was
about three years old.

Charles was kept at home till he had nearly completed his eighth year,
when he was sent with his brother Tom to a boarding-school at Ringwood.
The master was the Rev. R. S. Davies; the lads were some fifty in
number, the Lyells being about the youngest. They seem, however, not to
have been ill-treated, though their companions were rather a rough lot,
and they were petted by the schoolmaster's daughter. The most
sensational incident of his stay at Ringwood was a miniature "town and
gown" row, a set fight between the lads of the place and of the school,
from which, however, the Lyells were excluded as too young to share in
the joys and the perils of war. But the fray was brought to a rather
premature conclusion by the joint intervention of foreign powers - the
masters of the school and the tradesmen of the town. In those days
smuggling was rife on the south coast, and acting the part of revenue
officers and contrabandists was a favourite school game; doubtless the
more popular because it afforded a legitimate pretext for something like
a fight. The fear of a French invasion also kept this part of England on
the _qui vive_, and Lyell well remembered the excitement caused by a
false alarm that the enemy had landed. He further recollected the
mingled joy and sorrow which were caused by the victory of Trafalgar and
the death of Nelson.

The brothers remained at Ringwood only for about two years, for neither
the society nor the instruction could be called first-class; and they
were sent, after a rather long holiday at home, to another school of
about the same size, but much higher character, in Salisbury. The
master, Dr. Radcliffe, an Oxford man, was a good classical scholar, and
his pupils came from the best families in that part of England. In one
respect, the young Lyells found it a change for the worse. At Ringwood
they had an ample playground, close to which was the Avon, gliding clear
and cool to the sea, a delightful place for a bathe. In a few minutes'
walk from the town they were among pleasant lanes; in a short time they
could reach the border of the New Forest. But at Salisbury the school
was in the heart of the town, its playground a small yard surrounded by
walls, and, as he says, "we only walked out twice or three times in a
week, when it did not rain, and were obliged to keep in ranks along the
endless streets and dusty roads of the suburbs of a city. It seemed a
kind of prison by comparison, especially to me, accustomed to liberty in
such a wild place as the New Forest." One can sympathise with his
feelings, for a procession of schoolboys, walking two and two along the
streets of a town, is a dreary spectacle.

But an occasional holiday brought some comfort, for then they were sent
on a longer excursion. The favourite one was to the curious earthworks
of Old Sarum, then in its glory as a "rotten borough," one alehouse,
with its tea-gardens attached, sending two members to Parliament. On
these excursions more liberty seems to have been permitted. The boys
broke up the large flints that lay all about the ground, to find in them
cavities lined with chalcedony or drusy crystals of quartz. But the
chief interest centred around a mysterious excavation in the earthwork,
"a deep, long subterranean tunnel, said to have been used by the
garrison to get water from a river in the plain below." To this all
new-comers were taken to listen to the tale of its enormous depth and
subterranean pool. Then, when duly overawed, they felt their hats fly
off their heads and saw them rolling out of sight down the tunnel. An
interval followed of blank dismay, embittered, no doubt, by dismal
anticipations of what would probably happen when they got back to the
school-house. Then one of the older boys volunteered to act the sybil
and lead the way to the nether world. Of course they "regained their
felt and felt what they regained" - literally, for the hole was dark
enough, though we may set down the "many hundred yards" (which Lyell
says that he descended before he recovered his lost hat) as an instance
of the permanent effect of a boyish illusion on even a scientific mind.

But the restrictions of Salisbury made the liberty of the New Forest yet
more dear. Bartley was an ideal home for boys. It was surrounded by
meadows and park-like timber. A two-mile walk brought the lads to Rufus
Stone, and on the wilder parts of the Forest. There they could ramble
over undulating moors, covered with heath and fern, diversified by
marshy tracts, sweet with bog-myrtle, or by patches of furze, golden in
season with flowers; or they could wander beneath the shadows of its
great woods of oak and beech, over the rustling leaves, among the
flickering lights and shadows, winding here and there among tufts of
holly scrub, always led on by the hope of some novelty - a rare insect
fluttering by, a lizard or a snake gliding into the fern, strange birds
circling in the air, a pheasant or even a woodcock springing up almost
under the feet. The rabbits scampered to their holes among the furze; a
fox now and again stole silently away to cover, or a stag - for the deer
had not yet been destroyed - was espied among the tall brake. Those, too,
it must be remembered, were the days when boys got their holidays in the
prime of the summer, at the season of haymaking and of ripe
strawberries. They were not kept stewing in hot school-rooms all through
July, until the flowers are nearly over and the bright green of the
foliage is dulled, until the romance of the summer's youth has given
place to the dulness of its middle age. In these days it is our pleasure
to do the right thing in the wrong place - a truly national
characteristic. We all - young and old - toil through the heat and the
long days, and take holiday when the autumn is drawing nigh and Nature
writes "Ichabod" on the beauty of the waning year.

At Salisbury, Lyell had two new experiences - the sorrows of the Latin
Grammar and the joys of a bolster-fight. But his health was not good; a
severe attack of measles in the first year was followed in the second by
a general "breakdown," with symptoms of weakness of the lungs. So he was
taken home for three months to recruit. This was at first a welcome
change from the restrictions of Salisbury; but, as his lessons
necessarily were light, he began to mope for want of occupation; for, as
he says, "I was always most exceedingly miserable if unemployed, though
I had an excessive aversion to work unless forced to it." So he began to
collect insects - a pursuit which, as he remarks, exactly suited him, for
it was rather desultory, gave employment to both mind and body, and
gratified the "collecting" instinct, which is strong in most boys. He
began with the lepidoptera, but before long took an interest in other
insects, especially the aquatic. Fortunately his father had been for a
time a collector, and possessed some good books on entomology, from the
pictures in which Charles named his captures. This was, of course, an
unscientific method, but it taught him to recognise the species and to
know their habits. There are few better localities for lepidoptera, as
every collector knows, than the New Forest, and some of the schoolboy's
"finds" afterwards proved welcome to so well known an entomologist as
Curtis. But when Charles returned to school he had to lay aside, for a
season, the new hobby; for in those days a schoolboy's interest in
natural history did not extend beyond birds'-nesting, and his little
world was not less, perhaps even more frank and demonstrative than now,
in its criticism of any innovation or peculiarity on the part of one of
its members.

The school at Salisbury appears to have been a preparatory one, so
before very long another had to be sought. Mr. Lyell wished to send his
two boys to Winchester, but found to his disappointment that there would
not be a vacancy for a couple of years; so after instructing them at
home for six months, he contented himself with the Grammar School at
Midhurst, in Sussex, at the head of which was one Dr. Bayley, formerly
an under-master at Winchester. Charles, now in his thirteenth year,
found this, at first, a great change. The school contained about seventy
boys, big as well as little, and its general system resembled that of
one of the great public schools. He remarks of this period of his life:
"Whatever some may say or sing of the happy recollections of their
schooldays, I believe the generality, if they told the truth, would not
like to have them over again, or would consider them as less happy than
those which follow." He was not the kind of boy to find the life of a
public school very congenial. Evidently he was a quietly-disposed lad,
caring more for a country ramble than for games; perhaps a little
old-fashioned in his ways; not pugnacious, but preferring a quiet life
to the trouble of self-assertion. So, in his second half-year, when he
was left to shift entirely for himself, his life was "not a happy one,"
for a good deal of the primeval savage lingers in the boys of a
civilised race. It required, as he said, a good deal to work him up to
the point of defending his independence; thus he was deemed incapable of
resistance and was plagued accordingly. But at last he turned upon a
tormentor, and a fight was the result. It was of Homeric proportions,
for it lasted two days, during five or six hours on each, the combatants
being pretty evenly matched; for though Lyell's adversary was rather the
smaller and weaker, he knew better how to use his fists. Strength at the
end prevailed over science, though both parties were about equally
damaged. The vanquished pugilist was put to bed, being sorely bruised in
the visible parts. Lyell, whose hurts were mostly hidden, made light of
them, by the advice of friends, but he owns that he ached in every bone
for a week, and was black and blue all over his body. Still he had not
fought in vain, for, though the combat won him little honour, it
delivered him from sundry tormentors.

The educational system of the school stimulated his ambition to rise in
the classes. "By this feeling," he says, "much of my natural antipathy
to work, and extreme absence of mind, was conquered in a great measure,
and I acquired habits of attention which, however, were very painful to
me, and only sustained when I had an object in view." There was an
annual speech-day, and Charles, on the first occasion, obtained a prize
for his performance. "Every year afterwards," he continues, "I received
invariably a prize for speaking, until high enough to carry off the
prizes for Latin and English original composition. My inventive talents
were not quick, but to have any is so rare a qualification that it is
sure to obtain a boy at our great schools (and afterwards as an author)
some distinction." Evidently he gave proofs of originality beyond his
fellows; since he won a prize for English verse, though he had written
in the metre of the "Lady of the Lake" instead of the ordinary
ten-syllabic rhyme. On another occasion he commemorated, in his weekly
Latin copy, the destruction of the rats in a neighbouring pond, writing
in mock heroics, after the style of Homer's battle of the frogs and

The school, like all other collections of boys, had its epidemic
hobbies. The game of draughts, coupled unfortunately with gambling on a
small scale, was followed by chess, and that by music. To each of these
Charles was more or less a victim, and his progress up the school was
not thereby accelerated. Birds'-nesting also had a turn in its season.
His love for natural history made him so keen in this pursuit that he
became an expert climber of trees. But his schooldays on the whole were
uneventful, and he went to Oxford at a rather early age, his brother Tom
having already left Midhurst in order to enter the Navy.


[1] Born 1767, died 1849 (also son of a Charles Lyell); educated at St.
Andrew's and at St. Peter's College, Cambridge, where he proceeded to
the degree of B.A. in 1791 and M.A. in 1794.

[2] In 1835, the _Canzoniere_, including the _Vita Nuova and Convito_; a
second edition was published in 1842; in 1845 a translation of the
Lyrical Poems of Dante.

[3] Life, Letters, and Journals, vol. i. p. 3.



Lyell matriculated at Exeter College, and appears to have begun
residence in January, 1816 - that is, soon after completing his
eighteenth year. At Oxford, though not a "hard reader," he was evidently
far from idle, and wrote for some of the University prizes, though
without success. Several of his letters to his father have been
preserved. In these he talks about his studies, mathematical and
classical; criticises Coleridge's "Christabel," and praises Kirke
White's poetry; describes the fritillaries blossoming in the
Christchurch meadows, and refers occasionally to political matters. The
letters are well expressed, and indicate a thoughtful and observant
mind. While yet a schoolboy he had stumbled upon a copy of Bakewell's
"Geology" in his father's library, which had so far awakened his
interest that in the earlier part of his residence at Oxford he attended
a course of Professor Buckland's lectures, and took careful notes. The
new study is briefly mentioned in a letter, dated July 20th, 1817. This
is written from Yarmouth, where he is visiting Mr. Dawson Turner, the
well-known antiquarian and botanist. He states that, on his way through
London, he went to see the elephant at Exeter Change, Bullock's Museum,
and Francillon's collection of insects. At Norwich also he saw more
insects, the cathedral, and some chalk pits, in which he found an
"immense number of belemnites, echinites, and bivalves." He was also
greatly interested by the fossils in Dr. Arnold's collection at
Yarmouth, particularly by the "alcyonia" found in flints.[4] A few days
later he again dwells on geology, and speculates shrewdly on the
formation of the lowland around Yarmouth and the ancient course of the
river. In one paragraph a germ of the future "Principles" may be
detected. It runs thus:

"Dr. Arnold and I examined yesterday the pit which is dug
out for the foundation of the Nelson monument, and found
that the first bed of shingle is eight feet down. Now this
was the last stratum brought by the sea; all since was
driven up by wind and kept there by the 'Rest-harrow' and
other plants. It is mere sand. Therefore, thirty-five years
ago the Deens were nearly as low as the last stratum left by
the sea; and as the wind would naturally have begun adding
from the very first, it is clear that within fifty years the
sea flowed over that part. This, even Mr. T. allows, is a
strong argument in favour of the recency of the changes. Dr.
Arnold surprised me by telling me that he thought that the

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryT. G. (Thomas George) BonneyCharles Lyell and Modern Geology → online text (page 1 of 16)