Recording, conserving and promoting the landscape and rocks of the Sheffield region

Notable Geologists associated with South Yorkshire

William Sawney Bisat (1887 - 1973)
Henry Culpin (1861 - 1912)
Walter Hemingway (1859 - 1947)
Henry Clifton Sorby (1826 - 1908)
William Thorp (1803 - 1860)

William Sawney Bisat (1887 - 1973)

Born in Doncaster and educated at the Grammar School, Bisat joined H Arnold & Sons (a public works contractor) and became a respected professional civil engineer, spending the whole of his working life with that company. He lived in Doncaster, where, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, there was a thriving amateur geology group.

By his early twenties Bisat had made the acquaintance of Henry Culpin, also of Doncaster, and frequently accompanied him on field visits to local Coal Measures sites. He also attended Doncaster Technical College, where the Head, George Grace, often accompanied Culpin in the field. He clearly became interested in the issues facing geologists at the time, and went on to spend a lifetime as a part-time amateur geologist, becoming a skilled field geologist and palaeontologist, completing work that is still cited and recognized.

In 1914 Bisat published his six-year's work on the Leighton reservoirs, NW of Ripon, on the Colsterdale Marine Band, and, in the early 1920s. Building on work by Hinds, he significantly revised the goniatite stratigraphy in the Carboniferous. In 1924 he published work on a series of goniatite zones, a paper still being cited in 2002. He continued to elaborate on goniatite zonation over the next 30 years, and in 1943, in collaboration with R.G.S. Hudson, he published work on the R1 zone.

Bisat became an authority on goniatites, and for many years spent evenings (after work) describing and naming goniatites sent to him from different parts of England and abroad. He worked closely with the BGS for 50 years, notably during the early collaboration between the Lancashire and Yorkshire units of the Geological Survey. He became known for thorough, detailed and meticulous work.

During the 1920s and 30s Bisat lived near Hull and became very familiar with the ever changing glacial drift cliffs of Holderness. With his engineer's eye he was able to meticulously observe and record long sections of the locally exposed drift. His sections of the exposures were detailed and scaled.

As an amateur, in his spare time, Bisat completed work that was recognized in his lifetime by The Geological Society of London, The Liverpool Geological Society and The Edinburgh Geological Society. He was awarded an honorary DSc from Durham University in 1963 and also received the Lyell medal and the Sorby medal for his work in geology.

Ramsbottom, W.H.C. 1973: Obituary - W S Bisat. Proceedings of the yorkshire Geological Society, v. 40
Korn, D. and Tilsley J. W: A well-preserved early Namurian ammonoid fauna with Cravenoceras leion Bisat 1930 from Backdale Mine, Hassop, Derbyshire, England. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, v. 54, 111-119, doi:10.1144/pygs.54.2.111
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Henry Culpin (1861 - 1912)

Henry Culpin, born in part of Northamptonshire that is now Cambridgeshire to a farm labourer, was educated in a village school, and later at what could be called Peterborough Grammar School. He rose from humble beginnings to became, among other things, an influential and knowledgeable amateur geologist who described several important geological discoveries.

Henry joined the Great Northern Railway at 15, in 1876, and rose to become Chief Locomotive Accountant at Doncaster. His skills as an accountant were extremely helpful later as Treasurer of Doncaster Microscopical and General Scientific Society, a group he joined in 1890. In retrospect, his easy access to freshly dug railway cuttings was no doubt also helpful in his later, prolific, amateur work.

Henry's interest in geology seems to have stemmed, rather later in life, from a lecture on the Ice Age; one of the University Extension Lectures, presented at Doncaster. He became entirely self-taught, and was elected to the Yorkshire Geological Society in 1904.

Culpin is credited with "almost single-handedly, systematically examining every exploration for coal between Retford and Selby". Many of these sites, and their related collieries, are now inaccessible, which makes the importance of the work done by him even more significant.

Culpin first published in 1904, with George Grace, the Head of Doncaster Technical College. The subject was the Upper Coal Measures exposed in a railway cutting near Cadeby. In the eight years until his sudden and unexpected death he was often accompanied in the field by William Sawney Bisat (1886 - 1973) and was credited in Bisat's obituary with the early mentoring of the aspiring geologist.

Between 1906 and 1909 Culpin published a series of papers, including very significant work on marine bands in the Yorkshire Coal Measures. These had both practical as well as scientific value, and Culpin was able to assist mining engineers with their exploration for coal.

Culpin was a prime mover in the formation of Beechfield House, which in 1964 became Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, and donated many specimens to form the basis of the palaeontology collection. Today there are 130 individual specimens of Culpin's, representing specimens no longer available for collection, locally.

In his brief time as a functioning geologist, Culpin collected many specimens of flora and fauna new to geological science. As a mark of respect, one species of the near-perfectly preserved bivalves he collected from Brodsworth and Bentley collieries (now both closed)) was named after him by Hind in 1908: Auviculopecten culpini.

SOURCES: Gibson, W. January 1918: Henry Culpin, in Memoriam. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, v.19, 317-318
Lomax, D. 2014: Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, v.60 (2), 85–90
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Walter Hemingway (1859 - 1947)

Walter was born in Barnsley, and in his early years worked in the Dearne Paper Mill at the bottom of Old Mill Lane, and also the collieries, but his main interest was in Natural History, and he was destined for other things. Many other things.

By his early 20s he was knowledgeable about both local plants and fossil plants found in the local Carboniferous rocks. He seemed to have a lot of contacts in the mines, and was tipped off when serious finds were possible at a variety of local pits, including Monkton Main, Oaks, Wooley and Brierley Common. However, he was much more than just a collector.

The Barnsley Naturalists' Society records show in 1882 he was involved in producing a register of local plants, including some fossil ones, a piece of work that shows he was well known to other workers in the field. He published work in the Quarterly Transactions of the Barnsley Naturalists' Society on Carboniferous ferns and arborescent lycopods. He continued to publish descriptions of Carboniferous plant finds well into later life, showing a particular interest in the reproductive structures (carpons) of Carboniferous plants.

Although he doesn't seem to have any formal training he is credited by one who had, William Lower-Carter, with some field skill. In 1885, whilst writing his piece on The Glaciation of the Dearne and Don Valleys, Lower-Carter described Walter Hemingway of Barnsley as having "recently traced two tongues of this drift (drift is a word for glacial deposits) into the valley of the Dearne, and has recorded a section of contorted shale with pockets of erratics from the excavation for the Barnsley gasometer". Walter's letters on this subject reveal he was knowledgeable enough to have waited until "after Thursday morning's rain" before he went looking.

In 1894 the Yorkshire Boulder Committee (YBC) turned its attention to "the hilly country around Barnsley" and "cordially recognized" its debt to Hemingway for the extensive collection of "foreign rocks" he had collected, carefully mapped, over several years, and had donated to them for investigation, thereby saving them a great deal of work.

By 1882, he was known as a maker of microscope slides of rocks and fossils. This is a skilled and precise job requiring the end product to be finely milled to an exact thinness. Judging from the range of organisations that bought material from him, and referenced him in their writings, he made a good living. His advertisements offering "swop" arrangements with other collectors appeared in several publications, using the Old Mill Lane address. He also developed a reputation for "correct labelling", which no doubt drew on his considerable geological knowledge.

In 1901, Robert Kidston, in his two papers on "Flora of the Carboniferous Period", often cited Hemingway, including a specimen discovered by Walter and named Equesites hemingwayi. Kidston had studied botany at Edinburgh University, and was well known in his field.

Barnsley Naturalists Archive, Barnsley Archive Centre. Ref: A/57/G/9/3 - 8
Stevenson, Brian July 2016:
Tate, T. 1894: The Yorkshire Boulder Committee and its eighth year's work. The Naturalist.
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Henry Clifton Sorby (1826 - 1908)

Henry Clifton Sorby was a brilliant Victorian polymath, whose intellectual curiosity spanned many disciplines. His many discoveries were not always appreciated initially, but with time his genius was recognised and eventually he was acknowledged as a truly world-class scientist.

Sorby was born on 10 May 1826, the only child of Henry and Amelia Sorby at Woodbourne, an outlying country house, east of Sheffield, close to the River Don. As a child he attended the Collegiate School in Leopold Street, but concerns about his health meant that he did not go to University; instead the family engaged a tutor. Henry Sorby and his brother, John, ran a prosperous business as edge-tool manufacturers and they sold it in 1844 making a healthy profit. Unfortunately, Henry died in 1846, but his fortune enabled his son, known in the family as Clifton, to devote himself to a scientific life. His Uncle John gave him a copy of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which stimulated an interest in the subject. In 1853, Sorby and his mother moved to Broomfield Hall, 6 Beech Hill Road, on a site which is now occupied by Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital. It was in this house that he set up a laboratory and continued with his many experiments. His mother died in 1873. Although Sorby had many varied interests, the following notes refer mainly to his geological achievements.

In 1847, Sorby recognized "current structures" in a quarry at Handsworth. He deduced that they must have been produced by the action of the currents present during the time of deposition. His subsequent experiments led him to understand the dynamics of sediment transportation and how ripple marks formed. Having made these observations, it was not long before he found similar structures in the sandstones of the Coal Measures and Millstone Grit in the surrounding area. Sorby continued to record the azimuths of current bedding throughout his life and he used this information to make the first palaeographical maps.

The first microscope used by Sorby was purchased from Smith & Beck of London in 1848. His second microscope was a more powerful instrument, also purchased from the same makers. The Weston Park Museum in Sheffield has a superb brass instrument, similar to Sorby's second model by Smith, Beck & Beck. This is now believed to be a microscope bought by Sorby for the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society.

Although he did not invent the quartz wedge, Sorby used it to study the behaviour of polarised light in minerals. Through repeated experimentation he progressively improved his instruments until in 1867 he had invented a "spectrum microscope" with both a scale of measurement and a means of observing the spectrum simultaneously. Sorby used this instrument to examine the absorption spectra of a wide variety of substances; he even gave evidence at a murder trail based on his forensic investigations using this technique.

The one thing that Sorby did not do, was "invent the thin section", nor was he the first person to look at thin sections with a polarising microscope. Earlier examples of mineral, bones and teeth sections are known. However, Sorby stated in his Presidential address to the Sheffield Literary & Philosophical Society in 1897 that he had, in 1849, made "the first transparent microscopic section of a rock ever prepared". His first publication describing the properties of a rock in thin section appeared in 1851: On the Microscopical Structure of the Calcareous Grit of the Yorkshire Coast.

Sorby combined the results of field study, microscopic investigation and experimentation to demonstrate the importance of pressure in the development of slaty cleavage. He was able to show that the cleavage developed in Devonian limestones was the result of mechanical movement of the mineral particles and that when re-crystallisation occurred the cleavage was destroyed. This paper was cited as a basis of his election to the Royal Society and for the award of the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1869.

In the 1850s it was postulated that the chalk was made up of minute granular bodies or "crystalloids" of uncertain origin. In 1861 Sorby showed that these bodies were in fact coccoliths, the remains of phytoplankton. He also demonstrated that the chalk was largely composed of fragments or complex tests of foraminifera and other shells. His work on limestones was summarised in his Presidential address to the Geological Society in 1879.

In 1858, Sorby's paper On the Microscopical Structure of Crystals indicating the origin of Minerals and Rocks was published. In it he demonstrated that much of the origin and history of igneous rocks could be ascertained by means of the microscope. He showed how it was possible to differentiate the various minerals, even in fine-grained rock; in addition he was able to determine the order in which they had crystallised, the conditions of pressure and temperature in which their solidification had taken place and the alterations which the rock had subsequently undergone.

There can be little doubt that Sorby was led from the study of the fused products of igneous rocks to the investigation of meteorites, and from there to metallurgy. Sorby's publications on meteorites were few in number. In an important paper, published in 1864, he showed that the olivines of stony meteorites contained cavities, identical to those in olivines found in terrestrial igneous rocks.

He was an Honorary Member, Member, Foreign Member or Corresponding member of at least twenty learned societies, ranging from the Royal Society to the Academy of Lynxes of Rome, and at various times he was President of no less than six of them. In 1875, Sorby was elected President of the Royal Microscopical Society, in 1876 he was elected the first President of the Mineralogical Society and in 1878 he became President of the Geological Society of London. His Presidential Address to the Geological Society of 1879 was: On the Structure and Origin of Limestones and that of 1880: On the Structure and Origin of Non-Calcareous Stratified Rocks. In 1879, the Yorkshire Naturalists Union elected him President, and finally in 1880 he became President of the Geological Section of the British Association. He was honoured by his fellow scientists with the award of the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society in 1869, the Boerhaave Medal of the Dutch Society of Sciences in 1870, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1874 and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Cambridge in 1879.

In 1878, in the middle of his pre-occupation with learned societies and education, Sorby bought a 15-ton yawl, the Glimpse, which he equipped as a floating laboratory. His interests had extended to marine biology and for the next twenty years he spent five months every year cruising the coasts and estuaries of the East Coast. He continued to study geology, botany, marine biology, architecture, archaeology and palaeography (ancient writing, including Egyptian hieroglyphics).

Despite failing physical health after December 1899, Sorby continued to review his research and contribute to scientific study. Members of the Geological Society of London wrote to him on the occasion of the society's centenary in 1907, addressing him as the Father of Microscopical Petrography. Sorby continued to work despite increasing frailty. His last paper was sent to the Geological Society at the end of 1907, and in his absence a brief abstract was read at the meeting of 8th January 1908. Sorby died on 10th March 1908 and his paper On the Application of Quantitative Methods to the Study of the Structure and History of Rocks was published posthumously in the May issue of the Quarterly Journal in 1908.

Sorby left a considerable sum of money to the University of Sheffield as an endowment for a professorship of geology. The new department was established in 1913 and many geologists were trained in the discipline. Although the department itself has now closed, there is still a Sorby Professor in the Department of Geography. Material from Sorby's extensive collections are held by the University of Sheffield and by Museums Sheffield.The Sorby Natural History Society was formed in 1918 and members continue to observe and record the natural world of "Sorbyshire". The Yorkshire Geological Society inaugurated the Sorby Medal in 1960 and it is awarded as an acknowledgement of distinguished contributions to geological knowledge of either 1) Yorkshire and the North of England or 2) to a person associated with Yorkshire or the North of England by birth, training or locus of research and is restricted to not more frequently than once every two years.

Higham, N. 1963. A very scientific gentleman: The major achievements of Henry Clifton Sorby, Pergamon Press, Oxford
Humphries, D.W. 1979. Henry Clifton Sorby, LL.D., F.R.S. (1826-1908), Journal of the University of Sheffield Geological Society, v.7, 181-193
Hunter, R.A. 2015. Sorby's Legacy: Geology at the University of Sheffield 2nd Edition
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William Thorp (1803 - 1860)

The Reverend William Thorp, in common with a number of other parish clergy in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, was a cleric with a good education who had an active curiosity, a comfortable income and sufficient spare time to devote to alternative pursuits. Some of these men were amateur antiquarians or historians, while others were interested in the natural sciences, occasionally with the objective of discovering geological evidence for particular biblical events.

William was born in 1803, the second surviving son of Samuel Thorp Esq., of Gawber Hall (Darton) and Banks Hall (Cawthorne), by his second wife, Mary Hirst. Samuel was the proprietor of a glassworks at Gawber Hall and a small colliery at Banks1 and it is possible that William's interest in geology originated by collecting specimens from his father's mine2. Following local schooling, he was sent to work for Littledale & Co., a trading and brokerage business in Liverpool3. Soon tiring of this profession, he applied in 1824 for admission to Jesus College, Cambridge, to study theology4. Graduating in 1830 with a B.A. degree, his first clerical appointment was as curate to the Vicar of Doncaster, and he later served as curate at Womersley, near Pontefract. In 1848, probably assisted by Earl Fitzwilliam's influence, he was appointed as Vicar of Misson, near Bawtry, where he lived until his sudden death in 1860. He married Anne Preston in 1832 and together they had six daughters and two sons.5

No records survive to inform us how William developed his knowledge of local landscape and geology but in 1837 he was a founding council member of the Geological and Polytechnic Society of the West Riding of Yorkshire (forerunner of the Yorkshire Geological Society) - the other members of the council all being either coal or iron masters6. In 1838 he read his first, brief account to Society members on the subject of the Yorkshire Coalfield in general and by 1840 he was presenting and publishing much longer accounts of Coal Measures stratigraphy7. It is clear from these papers that William Thorp was very familiar with the distribution of coal seams and sandstone beds over a wide area and was capable of challenging other, better known geologists such as William Smith when it came to the study of detail within his own county.

About this time he had also been asked by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to prepare a report on the geological constitution of soils in various districts in the county after their first choice of candidate, Professor John Phillips, declined the work because of other commitments. The outcome of this survey was a series of papers published in the Proceedings of that Society as well as those of the GPSWRY. One wonders when he found time to preach sermons or undertake pastoral work at his parish, although he is recorded in marriage announcements as having conducted ceremonies.

Another subject which caught the attention of William Thorp was the major fault structure which displaces the Coal Measures strata along the Don Valley between Sheffield and Conisborough. William Thorp and Henry Hartop, a fellow council member at the Geological and Polytechnic Society, held different views on this subject - not only on the cause of the disturbance (i.e. lateral vs vertical movement) but also the correlation of strata across it. Their debates on this subject are recorded in local newspapers and in the minutes of the Society's meetings. They are important for studying the evolution of geological understanding even if, with the superiority of our knowledge today, we know that their interpretations were more than occasionally incorrect. In this particular instance, Hartop's argument that the lateral displacement of strata between the north and south sides of the Don Valley is the result of vertical fault movement is the correct interpretation (although in different debates on other subjects at other times, Hartop could equally be in error).

Other subjects which William Thorp wrote about included the causes of varying mortality rates in West Yorkshire towns, the ventilation of coal mines, a design of safety lamp, the growth of wheat in relation to climate, alluvial gravel beds, the discovery of oolitic ironstone near Pickering and - in what was to become his last paper - the postulated expansion of the earth's crust8.

Thorp's most significant contribution to the geology of the Yorkshire Coalfield is probably his large diagram showing a regional cross-section of strata which he had privately published in 1850, in a very limited edition. The construction of his cross-section was unconventional in format and it has long been forgotten, with surviving copies being extremely scarce. Its value lies with the detail it records from long-disused colliery shafts and boreholes - information which is difficult or sometimes impossible to obtain from other sources today. However, the correlation of strata between shafts, boreholes and outcrops is not always correct - for instance, in the extract shown below, he depicts the Upper Chevet Rock of Hooton Roberts quarry (pale blue colour) as being higher in the sequence than the 'Salmon coloured rock of Rotherham' (pink colour). We now know that these two sandstone beds are both part of the same unit - the Mexborough Rock. Thorp's confusion here was caused by the Don Valley disturbance, which displaced the sandstone into separate outcrops and enabled one of them to become reddened by later alteration9.

Section by Thorpe (Image reproduced with kind permission of Steve Grudgings, owner of the original section)

1. John Goodchild Collection, Wakefield.
2. After the death of their father, William and his brother Richard both became partners in North Gawber colliery.
3. Davis, J.W. (ed.), 1889. History of Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, 1837 - 1887, with biographical notices of some of its members. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, New Series, v. 10.
4. Alumni cantabrigienses, Part II, Volume VI, 1954.
5. Parish Register, St. Andrew, Newcastle upon Tyne, & 1851 census for Bawtry. 6. From 1844 Thorp held the position of honorary secretary and treasurer and from 1854 he was a vice-president.
7. Proceedings of the West Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, v.1, 1839-1842.
8. Proceedings of the West Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, v.4, 1859-1868, p.1.
9. Hunter, J. 2017 (in press) The Rotherham Red Rock: an example of Permian, structurally controlled, deep secondary oxidation. Mercian Geologist.
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