Fifty and One Years of the Geologists’ Association

A. S. Kennard, A.L.S., F.G.S.

Proceedings Geological Association 1947

[271] The Geologists’ Association was founded in 1858 in London by Londoners, and as one of the founders, George Potter, told me, was intended as a mutual help society for beginners. There was but little money then in the science, and every geologist was so born. Hence there was no distinction between "amateur" and "professional," and nearly all of the prominent men were men of means and leisure who certainly "got the footings in well." The only "professional" men were the more intelligent of mining managers, a few badly paid teachers, a few dealers and a few museum and Geological Survey officials. To many of these, geology was a "calling"; they were ready to accept a precarious living for love of the work, and no one ever chose geology as a lucrative career. ...

[273] It was certainly the "Golden Age" for collectors, for the steam navvy and the grab were never seen, and all digging was done by hand. The diggers were not overpaid, and they saved everything that might bring the price of a "pot" (not of tea), for they were thirsty souls.

The "Chalkies," i.e., the chalk diggers, had keen eyes, and a visit to a chalkpit then with a little small silver meant a heavy load to bring home. It may be noted that though only the "river" or the "water" (it is never called the Thames) separates the Kentish from the Essex chalk holes, as the men called them, yet it was such a barrier that the tools differed. In Kent they used a long, heavy jumper, and in Essex a short one with a handle. It did not matter what excavation you went in, if there were fossils the men had them safely hidden, as a rule in caches, which they called "tots," a word of which I cannot trace the origin. The famous Whitechapel rag-and-bone merchant, James Smith, was always called "Totty Jimmy" and we owe much of our knowledge of early London to him. All the money so obtained was usually pooled, though sometimes man would buy from his mates. There were many wealthy collectors who were quite prepared to pay high prices, and it is known that one chalk collector would buy everything the men had and smash what he did not want. Such is human nature. On the East Coast the fishermen and longshoremen kept a sharp look-out for bones washed from the receding cliffs, and at Kessington one man used to plough the foreshore and so obtain bones. At Brighton the fishermen knew all about the "Elephant bed," and 2s. 6d. was the usual price for a molar. . . .

[277] Amongst the members were W. J. Atkinson, a prominent member of the Association and our Librarian, 1894-1900, H. Fleck, who succeeded him and retired in 1903, G. F. Harris, H. W. Burrows and W. J. Lewis Abbott. ... Abbott was a born collector and I once heard E. T. Newton remark: "He is such a man. Put him in Trafalgar Square and he would find fossils in the granite basins." Alas he was gone when my predecessor began his work on granite, for Abbott would have made a valuable ally. He was a short, stocky man, with a ferocious moustache, nearly always wore a boater in the field and came from a remote part of Essex, the Dengie Hundred. Abbott at first was a frequent speaker at outdoor meetings, defending orthodox religious views, but at one meeting a working man asked some awkward questions based on geology, of which Abbott knew nothing; so he made up his mind to learn. Wherever he went he found. Living in North London, he worked at the Admiralty section, a new section at Gray’s and at Highgate Archway, the results being published in our pages; and at the same time he collected from all the old sections, Crayford, Loampit Hill, Charlton, etc. Removing to Seal House, Sevenoaks, succeeding Prof. H. G. Seeley as a tenant, he worked the Ightham Fissure, shown to him by Benjamin Harrison, the discoverer and was the first to describe the group of worked flints, now wrongly termed "mesolithic," since this form had already been used by Spurrell for a different group. Prehistorians are very prone to defy the laws of nomenclature and transfer names, thus causing confusion. J. G. Clark has endeavoured to discredit Abbott’s work at the remarkable tumulus at Seal. I can only say that I saw the excavations, and collected from them within a week, and Abbott was right. At this time he was taking a class at the Polytechnic and was writing [278]

on agates. Removing to Hastings in 1898, he continued his exploration of the Kitchen Middens there which he had found some years previously. We now know that there has been extensive slipping and that the objects found there date from Early Holocene to Medieval, and depth is no criterion as to age. His later claim to be the discoverer of that enigma Dinocochlea ingens , B. B. Woodward is not correct, and the specimens he gave to the British Museum (Natural History) were taken from the excavations without permission.

A holiday at West Runton produced those much-debated "Worked flint from the Forest Bed," though an earlier find by J. Allen Brown had failed to attract attention. Abbott accumulated a large mass of material, the first part of which went to the Tonbridge Museum when he removed to Hastings. His specimens from the Ightham Fissure went to the British Museum (Natural History) and his final collection was shared between the Geological Museum and the Wellcome Institute. He bought the Rupert Jones Collection of Stone implements, including some figured by Larter and Christy. These are probably in the Wellcome Institute. His claims to have found Diestian fossils on Beachy Head, though doubted for some time, is now known to be correct. Abbott was possessed of great imagination, but little clarity of exposition, and his papers are the worse for it. No one can understand exactly where the specimens came from at the Admiralty section and it is a most important one. He described a mass of fossil ivory as occurring at Grays, but the foreman of the pit was most emphatic that it never was there and I am afraid that his newspaper articles, though amusing, must be classed under fiction. Certainly his discovery of "a nearly complete skeleton of a mammoth" at Grays became, on examination, a few foot-bones. He had an extensive exhibit at the White City (Franco-British Exhibition, 1908), including a complete skeleton of the Arctic Fox from the Ightham Fissure. It was a complete skeleton, but included many bones of the Hare, but that did not matter for no one was any the worse and the exhibit received a high official award. If the stories I have heard are to be believed, in his later years his imagination had complete control. Nevertheless, he did save a vast amount of evidence that would otherwise have been lost and for this we should be grateful. . . .

[280] I had one amusing experience at Waggon’s pit, Aylesford, the well-known site for Pleistocene bones and flints and, I may add, a classic locality for Early Iron Age relics. When I entered this pit the men were busy digging and screening, and I asked one if he had any fossils.

He replied, "Fossils? What are they? "Bones," was my reply, and he said they did not find any. A second man confirmed this, but a third said, "I think that boy over there has some bits of bone." I tackled the boy, and from a "tot" [281] he produced some Rhino teeth and I paid him. To my surprise he asked, "Do you want any Elephant molars?" and he produced three from another "tot." His next question was "Do you want any flint knives?" and it was a heavy load I carried away.

. . .

[288] ... I cannot see any trace of human work in the Eoliths from Piltdown. . . . One thing that I have noticed is that the strongest supporters of Eoliths are the flint hunters, the men who pace the ploughed fields yard by yard, critically examining the exposed flints, whilst most of the chief opponents are the collectors, now nearly extinct, who value them as curios and whose standard of value is the amount of work spent on the specimen. Be that as it may, we held an excursion on 13th July 1896, to the Kentish Plateau to examine the sites where the Eoliths had been obtained under the guidance of Lewis Abbott (Proc. Geol. Assoc., vol. xiv, pp. 196-8).

Dublin, Ireland 10 June 1981

Dear Professor Blinderman,

I was most interested to hear from you as I had been intending to write to you having heard of your paper from Kenneth Oakley. I am sorry to have been so long in writing myself, but I have been away, and in any case my schedule would not have allowed me to be in London during the dates mentioned in your letter.

I am afraid that the Piltdown affair is of an incredibly complicated nature which none of the publications, such as Weiner's book, make clear. I gather from Kenneth that you rather favour Abbott as the guilty party (or one of them). This was an idea much favoured at the Museum when the hoax was uncovered, and if one were suspicious Abbott had some bad points against him. But here for instance is a passage from a letter he wrote to Dr Woodward on 24 November 1912, asking for more information about 'the skull' news of which had just surfaced in the Manchester Guardian and The Times: 'Did Mr Dawson show you the fragments of one he has got. . . . the fragment of the skull was very remarkable, thicker than anything I have ever seen before'. Abbott had not realised that the skull in the papers was Dawson's skull! If he had been involved Abbott would have been sure to try and capture as much credit as he could, but he did not. Then again in his last years, in great poverty, he could have sold the story for a large sum to the more sensational newspapers. I have copies of letters from Abbott to a Belgian scientist for this period as well, and they also suggest he was not in on the hoax.

Still, if you have a copy to spare, I would be most interested to read your paper and to hear about your researches.



Peter Costello

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