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

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.

4 thoughts on “Ancient Fossils to the New World”

  1. I have dipped in and out of your site over the last couple of years. Thomas Ruddy is someone I only have very little knowledge of. A palaeontologist myself working on palaeozoic bryozoans, (polyzoa), do you have any original material he collected or was it all donated to museums ? Adrian.


    1. Hello Adrian,
      Nice of you to be in touch. No, I don’t have any collected material from Thomas, but I believe the box in which the family papers are kept is the one he had made to transport his fossils to various meetings. I also have a small combined compass and magnifier which was among his grandsons belongings which I had to attend to as his Executor/ residual legatee.

      There are over a thousand of his specimens in the Natural History Museum (none on public display) and several dozen over two sites at the Sedgwick Museum and Geology research building in Cambridge. As you may have seen, I was able to examine some of these recently. I also discovered that there are some in the University collections at Swansea. Thomas generously gave many specimens to his numerous visitors. Some were sent to the Smithsonian, and I suspect some were taken to Sweden by Professor Tornquist.

      I am fortunate to have a handle on the geological side of Thomas’ papers, as quite by chance, although I was an arts based student at A level in the 1960’s, I did A level Geology one to one as a ‘hobby’ with one of my Geography teachers who was really a geologist. I was brought up in the Sussex Weald, so knew much more about Cretaceous palaeontology that Silurian/Ordovician- which I had to catch up with when I began on Thomas’ papers. I think Thomas was completely unrecognised until I began work on him. His son and grandson certainly had no interest in geology.

      I have my trusty copy of ‘Woods’ to help me with identification of Thomas’ mentions – although I’m sure there are far more up to date reference books. I live near the Open University, but sadly can’t get a reader’s ticket as I’m not recognised as an official researcher.

      Please do ask if there is anything else you would like to know.


  2. Hi Wendy, thank you for your reply. I totally agree that Thomas deserves recognition for the research work undertook, the material he collected and donated etc.. He obviously forged close links with many eminent geologists of the day. I am only aware of his one paper on a list of Caradoc or Bala Fossils of Bala, Corwen ….. published in 1874. That paper in itself is excellent, with very accurate and detailed faunal lists. I use it as a reference point for some of my bryozoan research work.

    Have you thought about writing a paper on the work Thomas Ruddy ? I know Geology Today would be interested in publishing such an article. Just a thought.

    Kind regards, Adrian


    1. Thank you Adrian, how good to know that even after so long you were able to find his work accurate and detailed. You were referencing the list published in the proceedings of the Chester Society for Natural Science in 1874. His major work was published in 1879 in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society vol. 35 pp 200 – 208 On the Upper Part of the Cambrian (Sedgwick) and base of the Silurian in North Wales. It is clear that this is his own work, as it corresponds to descriptions in his journal of his expeditions, finds, and even sketched sections. I am of the opinion that he would have been given assistance by Prof. Thomas McKenny Hughes in preparing it to be presented in an academic journal. It is, however, a remarkable achievement for someone with no formal academic background.

      Thank you for your suggestion of a paper on his work for Geology Today. I will certainly give it some thought. I am increasingly feeling that in some way I need an academic reading ticket which would give me access to libraries at the Open University- I live in Milton Keynes, and Cambridge. It’s something I will pursue.
      All good wishes,



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