Tim Carter has prepared a substantial history of 19th century research into Malverns Geology for a forthcoming meeting of the History of Geology Group, which is affiliated to the Geological Society of London. We are archiving this valuable document on the Earth Heritage Trust website here as Malvern_Rocks and below Tim provides some background.
The nineteenth century saw both the development of geology as an observational science and the growth of holiday resorts for health and leisure. Malvern was at the centre of both.
Many of the founders of English geology studied Malvern rocks and speculated about the nature of the hills, valleys and plains around the town, sometimes as a collaborative venture but, on occasions, with fierce debates about the significance of what they found. Theories about how the hills came to be changed as new techniques of investigation and analogies with other locations worldwide played a part in helping to revise thinking. There were three facets to this: the evolution of views on the meaning of what was being observed, the views of the geologists who made and recorded their observation and ideas and the locations where key observations were made. These form the three strands of the history document,
Geology was a young, and generally amateur, science at the start of the century but by the end geology had become widely recognised as a learned profession. However, the ever more professionalised geological scientists were by no means the only people intrigued by the rocks, fossils and landscapes of the Malvern area. Interested local gentry were avid collectors of specimens and some made significant contributions to the understanding of their surroundings. They came together in societies and clubs to study natural history and they presented their investigations, wrote popular books and even displayed their collections in two museums in the town. General guidebooks, museums and popular accounts of rocks and fossils introduced visitors to the geology of the hills.
It was the hills and their waters that made Malvern a leading health resort and the landscape, geology and fossils were all seen as assets and ‘visitor attractions’. Guidebooks told visitors where to go and what to look for. To these were added students of geology from the university courses developed during the century, for whom a visit to Malvern provided amazing opportunities to study rocks and their formations in the field.
Theodore Groom looks back on the nineteenth century
The rocks around Malvern have long challenged geologists. Studies and discussions in the nineteenth century, both by nationally renowned geologists and by local enthusiasts show how ideas evolved. Theodore Groom, at the time Professor of Natural History at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester and later at Birmingham and Oxford Universities expressed these well at the end of the century:
“Easily accessible, situated in a charmingly picturesque country, and marking some of the most interesting phases in the evolution of the British Isles, the Malvern Hills have now for nearly 80 years formed the subject of geological investigations, and have ever yielded new facts of interest and importance.
Leonard Horner described the Malverns as a granitic mass intruded into the associated strata. Murchison regarded the chain as essentially of igneous origin, though including ‘Silurian’ beds altered by the intrusion. Phillips, in his masterly work on the district, maintained that the Lower Palaeozoic strata associated with the range had been deposited against the crystalline rocks.
Holl regarded the range as probably composed of pre-Cambrian metamorphosed sedimentary and igneous rocks, described the Cambrian and Silurian beds as overlapping the metamorphic series. Mr. Rutley considers that the gneissic and schistose rocks of the Malverns are a series of altered tuffs, grits, sandstones, and volcanic and other igneous rocks. Dr. Callaway, on the other hand, regards the former series as metamorphosed plutonic rocks, chiefly granite and diorite, and compares them with the Archaean Series of Primrose Hill in Shropshire. The same author recognized the volcanic series of the Herefordshire Beacon and correlated it with the Uriconian rocks of Lilleshall Hill in Shropshire.
The Herefordshire Beacon rocks have subsequently been studied by Green, and by Messrs. Rutley, Harker, and Acland. During the past year the present writer has maintained that the Malvern and Abberley Hills are the basal wrecks of an old mountain-range which arose during Coal Measure times.”
The rocks remain, theories keep changing!
Guidebook geology for the interested visitor
At the same time the hills and their springs were the making of Malvern, first as a health resort based on the hydropathic ‘water cure’, and later as a centre for education, the arts and leisure for an ever more mobile population. The geology of the area was one of its assets for visitors, as described in an early twentieth century guidebook:
“Many volumes have been written on the structure of the Malvern Hills and the plain, for to students of geology the district is one of the most interesting in the world. It is especially renowned for the unique facility it affords for studying the great Silurian system. The Malvern range is said to have once been ‘a plutonic mass of lava-like rock in the interior of the planet’ and to have ‘constituted a portion of the sea-bed of a primeval ocean, after it had become cool, crystallized, consolidated and upheaved to the surface.’ In the road below the Wyche cutting may be seen the remains of a coral reef which once surrounded the range, and on the eastern side of the hills are shingle beds and fragments of marine shells resembling those now found on our coasts and pointing to a time when the Severn was a strait of the sea.”
The text then goes on to recommend further reading based on popular texts from the nineteenth century. This was mass tourism, but for well informed and interested visitors. The Earth Heritage Trust continues the tradition of providing resources for visitors today.
Tim Carter has been interested in geology, following a brief spell of study and a field trip to Spitsbergen as an undergraduate. For most of his career he worked in occupational medicine, but geology intertwined with this, initially while the site doctor at the BP research centre, where he met many oil exploration geologists. He then joined the Health and Safety Executive as Medical Director, where the control of risks from asbestos, silica, coal dust and other toxic minerals was a key part of his work, while for a period he also had oversight of the Quarries Inspectorate. Subsequently he spent a year working on health care recovery on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat under the shadow of the volcano that covered the island in silica dust.
His historical interests are also long standing, mainly concerned with occupational health practice and risks. Studies have covered toxic substances, anthrax in Edwardian Kidderminster, and the health of seafarers. Recently he became actively involved with the history of the geological sciences, by way of the many early geologists who had medical backgrounds.
This study of geology in nineteenth century Malvern arose from a proposal for a field meeting of the History of Geology Group. It has yet to happen, despite two attempts, because of Covid! Several generations of Tim’s family lived in Malvern, giving a personal link back to the period studied.
A number of local professionals and enthusiasts have helped with this project, giving advice and reading earlier drafts. Thanks go, in particular, to John Payne, Moira Jenkins, Richard Edwards, Kay and Brian Hughes and Ian Fairchild, as well as to those who digitised the Woolhope Club transactions.