Ancient Fossils to the New World

Journal entry March 8th 1891 Journal entry March 8th 1891

In September 1888 The fourth International Geological Congress was held in London, and following that, smaller groups of international Geologists dispersed to various places of interest around Britain.  With his talent for being in the right place at the right time, Thomas found himself invited to attend a Conversazione of the Chester Society which was attended by various international delegates, taking with him a large collection of his Bala fossils.  See https://wp.me/p5UaiG-q6

Here he met Charles Doolittle Walcott, who from 1907-1927 was administrator of the Smithsonian Institution in the USA.  He had previously worked with the United States Geological Survey, and became it Director in 1894.  At the time of his meeting with Thomas Ruddy in Chester, Walcott was 38 years old, and focussing on Cambrian strata in the USA and Canada.  He would have found Thomas’ carefully identified and labelled collection of Bala fossils of great interest.

Walcott was to go on to enjoy a highly distinguished career. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the USA in 1896, and in 1901 served as president of the Geological Society of America.  By 1907 he had become Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.  The pinnacle of his career came in August 1909, when in the Canadian Rockies he discovered the Burgess Shale,  a fossil-bearing deposit  At 508 million years old (Middle Cambrian), it is one of the earliest fossil beds containing soft-part imprints. It is famous for the exceptional preservation of the soft parts of its fossils.

Walcott, left, at the Burgess Shale in 1910 with his son and daughter

Back in 1888, Walcott expressed and interest in having some Bala fossils for the Smithsonian.  It was not until March 1891 that Thomas amassed a collection he deemed suitable to send to Walcott. Some he had gathered in an expedition on 28th February 1891:

Saturday the 28th. I left here at 3:35, got to the bridge over the Hirnant Stream Garth Goch by 4.30 and to the fork of the road near Brynyraber, a little se of the Lake by 5.5.  I lost about 10 minutes examining specimens on the way. I got specimens of the “little ash’ at the fork of the road where stone was quarried some years ago to build the Workhouse at Bala.  Most of the rock has been taken away. I found a few of the fossils that usually are associated with this ash rock, such as the Orthis alternate, O. elegantula, O vespertilio, Glyptocrinus, etc.  I went next to Penygarth, then through the field at Garnedd, and on to the road at the bridge over the Hirnant again.  I got a few specimens, notably a very fine Cythere which I was glad of for Washington.

He carefully parcelled up the specimens:

I sent him a good series of specimens, many of them of great interest, and difficult to get. The box measured 14 inches in length, 10 and a half wide, and 12 deep.  It weighed 42 lbs. I also sent him two of my reprints, one a list of my Bala fossils, and the other a paper of mine on the Bala beds, from the Geological Journal, London. Mr Walcott has written several papers on the geology of America; and quite recently has discovered a fish bed of great interest in Colorado, on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The fish remains are supposed to be the oldest known placoids, and are found in Upper Silurian or Devonian.

Added to my research is now to contact the Smithsonian to see whether they still have those Bala specimens in their collection.

1891: The weather and the birds

Sunshine recorder invented by John Francis Campbell (1821-1885)
Thomas must have used such an instrument, as he records monthly hours of sunshine. (Science Museum)

By 1891 Thomas was 49 years old, settled with his second wife Frances Harriett and father of eight children, ranging in age from 22 years old to a few months. His employer, Sir Henry Beyer Robertson, son of his original employer at Palé, had himself become a family man. There was a settled air about the estate, although perhaps its most affluent days were already waning. Thomas had needed to lay off some of his garden staff after the death of Robertson senior.

The white hot days of geological investigation were over, although its study would continue for the rest of his lifetime. The investigation of the Silurian geological period, to which his collection of fossils and in depth understanding of the strata in the Bala area had contributed so much, was largely settled. People continued to call by appointment or at random at Thomas’ door to view his fossils, and he continued, although less frequently to lead occasional geological and botanical expeditions for various scientific and field study clubs.

His mentor, Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes received the Lyell Medal for geology in 1891, and as well as his professorial duties and family commitments (he had three sons) he was deeply involved in fundraising for the new Geological Museum in Cambridge which was to be named the Sedgwick Museum in honour of his distinguished predecessor. Thomas had supplied fossil specimens to London, Cambridge, some are in the University collection in Swansea, and I suspect he had provided some to his Swedish contact, Professor Törnquist.

After the intense excitement and activity of Queen Victoria’s visit in 1889, Henry Beyer Robertson’s Knighthood and marriage in 1890, the fourth volume of Thomas Ruddy’s journals is more settled and domestic in tone. We do find new aspects of Thomas’ careful observation of the natural world, however. He has obviously been recording bird observations for some years, although he records only occasional sightings prior to 1891.

Now, with his children growing up, he records a number of ‘birding’ expeditions, alone or accompanied by Frances and one or more of the children. He obviously shared his interest with his employer, Sir Henry. Egg collection, sadly, was commonplace and not regarded as improper.

Sunday the 19th [April] After tea I went along the railway to near Garth Goch. It was very nice walking, clean and dry.  I found the nest of a thrush ready for eggs, and to my surprise saw a flock of about fifty field fares.  Sir Henry has seen a few at Gaerwen on the 21st last year, but I have no record of seeing them myself so late.  Saw no other birds of interest.

Fieldfare

Saturday the ninth [May] I got Willy and Henry to go with me bird nesting up the hills.  We went as far as Tynant old slate quarry. We found the nest of carrion crow about 30 feet up a birch tree; it had five eggs, and as they were quite fresh we took them for my collection. We also found the nest of a ring-ouzel with four eggs; these we left in the nest. We saw a flock of a dozen goldfinches high up the Brook (Calethor).

As well as interest in and records made of the local bird life, Thomas had obviously been recording the weather on a daily basis, and he now begins to give a weather summary of each month, in particular rainfall and sunshine – measured no doubt on a device such as that shown above. He looks back over his records to comment on particularly extreme events, remarking on when such a record was last made. Temperature is, of course, in Fahrenheit.

Tuesday the 12th [May] This has been a very warm day –74 in the shade. It has only been twice so warm as this so early in May since I began to record the temperature in 1875.  May fourteen, eighteen seventy-five, it was 77° in the shade, and on 11 May 1884, it was 75° in the shade.

1891 it would seem, was a year of extreme weather events. Thomas records them throughout the year.
Sunday the 4th. [January] Roads  very slippy; icy almost all the way.  Some of us managed to go to church; Frances went with us to the laundry gate, fell down once, but not to hurt, and as she could not walk without slipping, even when holding my arm, I got her to return home.

Saturday the 28th.[February]  I observed a good specimen of the Painted Lady Butterfly (Cynthia cardui) on the violets and walk near the fruit room.  I disturbed it several times, but it soon returned to the violets again.  It was sunny and fine at that time, but there had been 7° of frost in the morning. It must have been hibernating somewhere and was tempted out by the warm sunshine. I never remember seeing a specimen of the above earlier than May. The month of February has been sunny and fine, and it has been the driest month on record here. Rainfall 0.19 inch.

Exceptionally warm weather was followed by equally unseasonable cold, and Thomas hears a sad story from the past:

Sunday the 17th [May]  This has been an exceptionally wintry day for the middle of May. The hills were covered with snow in the morning, some snow during the day, and a heavy fall of snow between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock. The snow fell in large flakes, just like half crowns, and soon covered the ground and trees, although much of it melted as it fell. In the evening, the surrounding country had a beautiful but very wintry appearance. Frost is set in in the evening. 

Some of the old people about here tell me that there has not been such a snow in May since 9 May, 1854. Edward Evans, one of the gamekeepers at Palé tells me that he and his younger brother came over the Berwyns from Llanarmon D.C. on that day; the snow was blinding and drifting, as it was freezing on the mountains he and his brother were up to their waists in snowdrifts at times, because the mountain road from Llanarmon to Llandrillo was obscured with the snow.  It was a fearful journey, and after hours of it, the brother became so exhausted that Edward had to carry him on his back. Edward too began to get exhausted about 3 miles from Llandrillo (he was then about 19 and his brother that about 17 years of age), but his cries brought a shepherd from the farm of Hendwr to his assistance.  But by that time his brother was dead.

Cadair Berwyn in snow: © Richard Webb via Geograph

Monday the 18th. [May] The snow on the ground and the fruit trees in bloom with icicles hanging to them.  There were only 5° of frost, but the bush fruits and some of the apple trees in bloom were so wet that all froze and destroyed the fruit crops wholesale. It was the same all over England. The young gooseberries and currents dropped off like hail under the bushes a short time after. I have never seen anything like it since I came to Wales.

Wednesday the 24th [June] we had a severe thunderstorm in the afternoon. The lightning was  frequent and seemed very near and the cracks of thunder shook the ground and kept roaring fearfully loud and prolonged.  The rain fell in torrents for a time, accompanied by large hail– Nearly an inch of rain fell in about an hour.  The lightning struck an ash tree at the entrance to the station; it went through the tree, came out in three places and then rang down the tree into the earth, tearing off a strip of bark in its course and also making a groove in the solid wood.

The intemperate weather continued through the summer, with yet another tragedy:

Wednesday the 26th wet and stormy yesterday and the same all-night, 1 ¼ inches of rain fell since 9 am yesterday morning; this has brought down a heavy flood and did much damage to trees, flowers, vegetables and fruit. Some trees were torn up by the root and many large limbs were broken off. The flowers were almost all disfigured and the trees have been much denuded of their leaves. I have seldom seen so much damage done.

A sad fatality happened at Brynselwrn this morning. Our family from Crosby, Liverpool, occupy apartments there; the family consists of father, mother, two daughters, and two sons. All are grown up and the sons have been in the habit of swimming in the Dee every morning, and went this morning as usual, much against the wishes of their parents. 

After entering the water, they were carried away by the swift current for about 300 yards, when the younger one got out by being cast against a projecting tree and bank.  The other was carried away and drowned, and his body was found entangled in a tree about an hour afterwards, and about 300 yards from where the other brother got out. When carried away, they kept well together, swimming with the flood, and for a time a younger one supported the elder one as he was getting exhausted; they tried to reach the side but failed, and at one place they held on for a few seconds to the overhanging branches of a tree; when they let go they were sucked under water under a tree that leaned over the river, and immediately after the one got to land, he gave the alarm, and the father with Mr Hughes the farmer of Brynselwern with his ploughman searched the river sides, and the ploughman found the body near Tyndol, and nearly opposite Palé.

The month of October has been unusually wet, the wettest on record here, with the one exception, and that was January of last year. Rainfall  9.11 inch; nearly 3 ½ inches of it fell in two days; that is 1.69 inch on the 13th and 1.76 inch on the 14th. Registered sunshine, 76 hours. The corn crops were out in an almost continuous rain for about three weeks; it was much knocked about and had commenced to sprout before it was got in in the last week of the month.

And so to December:

The weather during the month–we had the heaviest rainfall in any month since I began the record in 1874. Rainfall 10.42  inch. Max temperature in shade, 57 deg.  Min 10 deg – 22 deg of frost. Registered sunshine, 32 hours.

Total rainfall during the year 1891: 57.00 inch, being 8.50 inch above the average of the last 15 years. Rainy days 231.