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.

Following Thomas’ Mentor in Jedburgh

Memorial window to Adam Mathieson now in Jedburgh Parish Church

It is difficult to pin down the exact details of Thomas’ early education after his family reached Scotland from famine-haunted County Mayo. It would seem that his family were living in a rural area in the parish of Bedrule, his parents working on the land, as evidenced by the Scottish census returns. Where did he go to school, and who was the schoolmaster or schoolmistress who noticed and fostered his eagerness to learn? He was able and apt to take on the study of French, Latin and Geometry in the garden bothy at Minto House when he commenced his apprenticeship there aged 16. His brother James, it would seem, did not benefit from much education, since he witnessed his father’s death certificate with a cross rather than a signature.

Bedrule parish, however, had a long tradition of passion for education. Jedburgh Grammar School was probably founded by William Turnbull (died 1454) a politician and bishop. He served as the Bishop of Glasgow from 1448 to 1454 and was the first Chancellor of Glasgow University. Bedrule was the seat of the Turnbull clan, and William, friend of King James II of Scotland one of its grandest luminaries.

With such a tradition of education over so many years, it is likely that the village school or schools of the Bedrule area were of a good standard. Jedburgh at this time was a particular centre of scientific and cultural endeavour. Did Thomas attend Jedburgh Grammar School? Although this is a pleasing idea: he did not begin his apprenticeship until he was 16, and does not mention any other work before that, but I feel it is unlikely. The School was at that time situated in the crypt of the Abbey, and I find it hard to imagine that Thomas would not mention such a prestigious place of learning, or such impressive and historic surroundings in the journal.

Scotland census of 1861. Thomas’ family at Bedrule. Note his sister is ‘scholar’. Thomas was already apprenticed at Minto.

He does, however, mention an important figure who guided him into his interest in Geology. Adam Mathieson was a millwright; one might assume that the need to source and inspect rocks for fashioning into millstones led him into an interest in geology. He was not the first Jedburgh man to have such an interest.

James Hutton – panel from Jedburgh Castle Museum.

Thomas writes of Mathieson that he was, at the time, curator of the Jedburgh Museum. This cannot be the present museum situated in the Castle, as at the time, the Castle was still the town’s jail. Was it perhaps the house now known as Mary Queen of Scots House? Mathieson lived only a few yards from this building.

Mary Queen of Scots House, Jedburgh

Thomas writes retrospectively of 1861:

On the first of January I went to Jedburgh. When there I visited the museum, where I got acquainted with the custodian, Adam Matheson. This man was a good geologist, and seeing me take an interest in fossils, he wished me to study geology which had been a wish of my own for some time. I had already PAGIS Text book [Planning and Geographic Information Systems], so from that day I went in strongly for geology, and from that day, Mr Matheson became my friend.

My search in Jedburgh for Adam Mathieson and the memorial window dedicated to him (above) was initially fruitless. The curator of the Castle Museum was uncertain, and could only direct me to a church recently made redundant in the centre of the town – which I was unsuccessful in locating. It was a grey drizzly day, and we returned disconsolately to our apartment.

Unwilling to be defeated, I set out to the large Victorian Parish church prominently located near the river and on the main road into town. On trying the main door, I found it, unsurprisingly, locked. A look round the back found another locked door, but finally a lighted window, and a door which proved to be open. I rather surprised the two mature ladies who were practising the organ.

They kindly switched on the main lights, and as I progressed round the church, there before me in the south aisle, was the window. It has clearly been re-sited from the older church, and stands a little proud of the plain glass window behind it ( see picture above). The two ladies showed great interest in my tale of Thomas and his friend and mentor Adam.

Adam Mathieson aged 71 and his family living at
50 High St Jedburgh in 1861

There is a final episode linked to this event. A few weeks after my visit a parcel addressed to me arrived at the home of the local vicar. When I picked it up, I found it contained a small framed postcard of the Adam Mathieson window. It had been sent to me by one of the ladies I met in the church. She had used all the clues she had to find me. Such kindness, linking people caring for one another across the ages, beginning with Adam’s mentoring of the young Thomas.

My gift from Isobel in Jedburgh

Jedburgh- in the steps of Thomas’ youth.

Duck Row, Jedburgh, where Thomas’ mother and siblings lived in 1871

In 1861 Thomas’ parents and siblings were living in Bedrule parish, four miles from Jedburgh, whilst Thomas had already embarked on his gardening apprenticeship at Minto House. His father died in 1865, and by the 1871 census his mother and his brother James were living in Duck Row in Jedburgh.

The address seems a very pleasant one, the short row of houses shown above currently command a higher than average sale price for the town. However, the census document shows that 1 Duck Row, now a Category B listed building called The Pipers house, with its own commemorative plaque to Robin Hastie, the last Town Piper, was in 1871 a house of multiple occupation. Four ‘households’ lived there; 12 people in all.

1871 census

A recent brief visit to the town suggested that this was a very appropriate area to nurture early interest in a budding geologist.

From the Castle Museum, Jedburgh

A successor to the ‘Borders Enlightenment’ scientists in the mid 19th century was local millwright and amateur archivist and geologist Adam Mathieson, who became a good friend and mentor to Thomas.

More of him in my next post.

Moving on…

Thomas Ruddy’s third journal book.

It is eight months since I last published a post here. The sudden arrival of an attack of shingles at the end of January put me out of action for about six weeks, then a slow recovery to full energy took me into the summer, and more outdoor pursuits; recording Thomas’s life is a winter activity.

However, events have moved on over the summer in a most pleasing way. Since my visit to the Sedgwick Museum last year, with an opportunity to see and handle some of the fossils collected by Thomas and deposited in the Museum by his mentor, Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes, the first three of Thomas’ journals have been accepted into the Museum’s collection, with the expectation of the other five joining them there as I complete the transcriptions.

Handling the fossils last year

Handing over the journals involved a trip to the scientific and archives site of the Sedgwick on the outskirts of Cambridge rather than going to the Museum building itself. After the administrative paperwork involved in giving articles to a museum – who has right of access, can images be published, and under what conditions, etc, Sandra, the Archivist, kindly showed me some of the items relating to Thomas’ work. First we looked at some of Sedgwick’s own notebooks. He also used quite a lot of his own shorthand to denote particular geological and paleological terms. His handwriting was tiny and not at all clear, I felt sorry for Sandra and her volunteer assistants as they attempt transcriptions.

Then we moved on to look at Thomas McKenny Hughes’ notebooks – a more easy script to read. It is not clear whether he refers to Thomas in the notebooks, but research of particular dates of expeditions involving them both might reveal some mention. It is a piece of research I might be able to undertake now that I have a formal link with the Sedgwick collections.

McKenny Hughes’ wife, a keen geologist herself, was also a very accomplished watercolour artist, and the collection includes her notebooks from times when she accompanied her husband in Britain and Europe with delightful watercolour landscape sketches.

From a research poster recording 19th century women geologists by the Sedgwick’s Archivist

So, mixed feelings as I returned home on the bus. The overwhelming emotion is relief that the journals are now safely secured in a museum – and not just any museum, but one founded by Thomas’s mentor, McKenny Hughes, and named for Hughes’s predecessor as Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge. I cannot but think that Thomas Ruddy would be delighted. As far as I am aware, Thomas himself never visited Cambridge. Alongside that, is a small feeling of loss that the journals are now out of my hands and out of my study. The many hours of transcription and the writing of this blog seem all the more important. Thomas has become one of the family.

The Kingsley Medal, 1889

Kingsley Memorial Medal obverse – awarded to Thomas Ruddy

Thomas was to receive his awarded medal on 3rd October at the Annual Conversazione of the Chester Society for Natural History

Thursday the 3rd   Frances and myself left here with the 9.37 train for Chester.  I got all my specimens into the box I have for the purpose, and took it with us in the train.  On arriving at Chester station, we took a cab and went directly to the Town Hall to leave the box of fossils, and from there to Mr. Shrubsole’s.  When leaving the box in the Assembly Room of the Town Hall, I met Mr. Griffith there who said he was very pleased to see me.  Mr. and Mrs. Shrubsole were also very pleased to see us. We felt quite at home at once with the latter, and amused ourselves until dinner was ready.  

After dinner Francis and I went over to the Town Hall (which is just opposite to Mr. Shrubsole’s) to unpack the fossils. They carried beautifully , and as they were conveniently arranged, we were not very long in displaying them.  While we were at them, Professor Hughes and Mrs Hughes came to us and went over the specimens with us, as Prof. Hughes wished to examine them more interesting ones very carefully, I pointed them out. Prof Hughes was very pleased to see the rarities, and after he had examined the whole with care, he said there was not a man in England who could name my collection.

Cheshire Chronicle, 5th October 1889

Mr Griffith told me there was a chair or on the platform for me with my name on it, and at 8 o’clock the Chair was taken by Prof Hughes the President of the Society.  The people on the platform included in the Countess Grosvenor, and her husband Mr. George Wyndham M.P. for Dover, the Mayor and Mayoress, (Mr. & Mrs. George Dutton) Lady Edmund Talbot, Sir T.G. and Lady Frost, Colonel Scotland ( Secretary to the Duke of Westminster), Archdeacon Barber, Dr. Stolterfoth, etc.  Prof. Hughes addressed the people and gave a brief sketch of my work among the fossils, and told them why the medal had been awarded to me, and then called upon the Countess Grosvenor to present the medal to me for “having contributed materially to the promotion and advancement of some branch or department of Natural Science”. The Countess held out her hand to me and when shaking hands with me said “I congratulate you very much Mr. Ruddy” and then handed me the medal in its case. I thanked the Countess and Prof Hughes, and as there was much applause among the general audience, I turned to the people and bowed my thanks.  

Professor Hughes speaks about Thomas Ruddy’s geological contribution

Thomas and Frances spent the night with his friends George Dickson and family, the Nurseryman and fellow member of the Chester Society.

 I arranged to leave my fossil packing until the following morning. We felt at home with the warm welcome we had at Mr Dickson’s, and after supper we chatted for some time, and the medal and pin were critically examined.  We had much to talk about the Queen’s visit.  

Members of the Building Committee for the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. They were members of the Society and friends of Thomas Ruddy. Mr. Griffiths, light jacket front row mentioned above.

To Crown the Year – 1889

The Kingsley Memorial Medal of the Chester Society of Natural Science

The years 1888 and 1889 had brought both sorrow and honour to the Robertson family of Palé. Henry Robertson whose talents and acumen had brought the family fortune and honour died suddenly in March 1888, and it would seem that the family’s finances were immediately somewhat diminished as Thomas Ruddy reports having to lay off some men from his gardening team. Only just over a later Henry’s second daughter Annie Sherriff, née Robertson had died after a short but distressing illness. The young Henry Beyer Robertson, only 25 at his father’s death, immediately after the death of his sister had shouldered the not inconsiderable task of hosting Queen Victoria and her entourage for a 5 day stay at Palé Hall in August 1889.

Thomas Ruddy played an important role in the visit in a number of ways (see earlier posts) and had been rewarded with the gift of a pearl scarf pin from the Queen. In September 1889, therefore, the Robertson and Ruddy families must have been anticipating a quieter and more settled few months to end the year. However, Thomas was about to receive a shock.

Sunday the 22nd  [September]. To my very great surprise, I had a letter on this day from Mr. G. R. Griffith to say that at a meeting last Friday of the committee of the Chester Society of Natural Science, I was awarded the Kingsley Memorial medal, and that he, Mr Griffith as Secretary personally congratulated me.  This was an honour I little expected, and although I have done some good work, it has all been done as a labour of love.

It would seem that Thomas initially declined the offer (although he does not state this in the journal) giving as his reason his nervousness at the thought of receiving the medal personally in public, and his concern at leaving Palé during the absence of Mr. H B Robertson, who was to visit the Paris Exhibition at that time – although he might also have scruples at the slight of hand Mr. Griffith proposed to give Thomas the residential qualifications enshrined in the bye-laws – the counties of Chester and Flint – Thomas did not in fact ever stay at Llantysilio Hall.

It took a further letter from Mr. Griffiths and one from a third party, Thomas’ friend George Dickson, nurseryman and member of the Chester Society, to persuade Thomas to accept.

Mr. Griffiths’ second letter

By September 23rd Thomas was ready to write a gracious and self-deprecatory reply, accepting the honour.

Thomas’ acceptance letter part 1
Thomas’ acceptance letter part 2

And so it was arranged, that Thomas Ruddy, geologist, entirely self-taught and without academic qualification or membership of a learned society, became the 12th recipient of the Kingsley Memorial Medal.

The next post will describe the occasion when he received it from the Countess of Grosvenor.

The sad story of Annie Robertson

Annie Robertson (1855 – 1889) was the second daughter of railway engineer Henry Robertson.  Her elder sister Elizabeth was four year older, then came Henrietta in 1858 and finally brother and heir Henry Beyer in 1862.

Annie was born in Shrewsbury, and in the 1861 census, when Annie was 6, the family were already living in some elegance. The household then consisted of the parents and three daughters, Mrs. Robertson’s mother, Ann  Dean and Mrs Robertson’s brothers Charles, also a civil engineer and Joshua, Secretary of a railway company, also 17 year old nephew John. They were supported by a Governess, Coachman, Cook, Nursery Maid and three housemaids.  Clearly a family on the up.

A Georgian house in St Mary’s Court, Shrewsbury, possibly the Robertsons’ home?

During the census of 1871 the Robertson family, parents and children were living at 13 Lancaster Gate, London, a home which they retained during the rest of Henry Robertson’s lifetime.  Henry, aged 55,  is by now described as Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant – presumably of Merionethshire, not London.  The Dean family no longer lived with them.  As well as Governess, Housekeeper, Cook and three Housemaids there were a Ladiesmaid, Butler and Under Butler.

Some time before this, Henry Robertson had acquired the Welsh estate of Crogen, and then bought the Palé estate and had Palé Hall built.  The family moved in on September 18th 1871, the carriage in which they arrived being pulled up from the Lodge to the Hall by the estate workmen. The 16 year old Annie must have been delighted by the splendid and luxurious house and its beautiful grounds.  The family maintained the ownership of Crogen, renting it out.  The Robertson family continue to live at Crogen.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress from 1840. Victoria set the fashion for white wedding dresses

Only just over a year later, in December 1872, Annie Robertson married Alexander Sherriff. This was somewhat surprising, since her elder sister had not yet married, and there would have been an expectation that the eldest married first. Since Annie was only 18, it is likely that this was a love match. Alexander was 8 years older than Annie. He had been born in Leeds, but in 1871 had been living with his extended family at Prospect House, Sunbury. His father was M.P. for Leicester, other relatives were members of the Stock exchange, so it is likely that Annie met her future husband through her father’s network of city and political friends.

In May 1878 Annie, Mrs. Sherriff, was visiting Palé Hall with her sisters in law. A visit to see Thomas’ fossil collection led to several days’ expedition with Thomas, and including Henry Beyer Robertson when some enthusiastic fossil hunting took place and Mrs. Sherriff also did some water colour painting. This shows the degree of trust and respect existing between the Robertson family and their Head Gardener.

May 3rd Miss Robertson brought Miss Sherriff, and Miss Alice Sherriff to see my fossils and general collection; they were very much pleased. After seeing them we went together in the wagonette to Garnedd [SH896355]to see the Bala beds and to collect fossils. Mr. H.B. Robertson went with us. We got several nice fossils and walked back together.

May 18th I went with the Misses Sherriff & Mrs. Sherriff [nee Robertson]to Gelli Grin, to geologise. The first two worked uncommonly hard at stone-breaking. –I never saw more enthusiastic ladies fossil hunting. Mrs Sherrif was painting a sketch. They all enjoyed themselves very much and were very courteous.

May 21st. The above party went went with me to Cynwyd, where I first showed them Cynwyd falls. I next led them up to the fossil ground, but it was raining, so that it was not very encouraging, but the ladies were cheerful and willing to proceed. When we got up two miles, the rain suddenly ceased, and it turned quite a fine day. On looking back we could see the Arenig white with fresh-fallen snow. We got several interesting fossils at the first ground. After luncheon we went to work at the upper beds at Bwlch-y-Gaseg, where we were unusually successful. Miss Sherriff was continually calling out that she was getting fat ones–that is large shells. We got Trilobites, shells and corals. Mrs. Sherriff sat sketching the distant view. They were very free, courteous and kind, and we got home well pleased with our trip, although it was a hard day’s work.

Just over eight years after their marriage, which was childless, Alexander died on the 8th February 1880 at the Robertson London family home in Lancaster Gate, leaving Annie a widow at 26. It is difficult to know how Annie spent the few remaining years of her widowhood. From Thomas’ journal of 1887 we can see that she spent some time on the Continent at Nice, and that her regard for Thomas and memory of his collections remained in her mind:

Tuesday the 29th [March 1887] Mrs. Sheriff, who has been staying at Nice for a time, very kindly brought me a Roman tear bottle; it is a small glass vessel bulb shaped, with a longish neck. Mrs Sheriff saw it dug up in a Roman cemetery at the town of Ventimiglia, in the north of Italy, and in the ancient province of Liguria. Many other curious articles were found in the same place.

The next mention of Annie is in March 1889 when she falls ill:

March Monday 4thMrs Sherriff ill, was at church yesterday, and in the garden with me on Saturday, but seems to have caught a chill. 

Mrs. Sherriff very ill during the night, her old malady erysipelas has again got hold of her.

Sunday 10thMrs. Sherriff so very ill that I had to stop the turret clock. Everything done inside and outside the Hall to keep down noises. 

Wednesday 13 Mrs Sherriff has been very ill day and night, Dr Waters of Chester and Mr Williams of Bala with her all night.  Everybody about it very anxious about her, and great sympathy felt with Mr Robertson and all of them.

Wednesday, April 3  Mrs. Robertson told me that Mrs Sherriff was taken into Mr Robertson’s room, which is over entrance hall; she is now watched night and day by three nurses, who take it in turns. I am sorry to say that her mind seems to be unhinged.

Saturday the 20thMrs Sherriff taken to Eryl Aran near Bala I am sorry to say that she is no better; bodily she is, but mentally she is not. I put on the turret clock again after Mrs S. left here.

Sadly, in July Annie died at the private nursing home in Bala where she had been since her illness affected her mind:

Wednesday the 24th July Mrs Sherriff who has been unwell since her severe illness in March), died at Eryl Aran this morning at 3:30 o’clock.  Mrs Sherriff has been of late much better, but was taken very ill two days ago, and suffered severely yesterday and during the night from suffocation with sore throat. We all deeply sympathise with Mr Robertson and his sisters, for they have had a large share of trouble since Mr Robertson died. Mrs Sherriff has been very confidential with me about their troubles, and ready to assist me in any way possible since I had to reduce the men. Mrs Sherriff also was ever ready to lend me books, and it was very pleased with my success in Natural History, and was at all times interested in any additions to my collection. Very few ladies were so talented as Mrs Sherriff herself, she had splendid abilities, and worked hard; painting being her special study, and at this she was very successful. I fear that she overworked her brain, and thought herself to an untimely end.

Mourning angel, Cookham churchyard, Berkshire

So Annie was buried at Llandderfel, a few months after her 34th birthday, and only just over a year after the death of her father. Thus it was with these two family deaths still fresh, that the young Henry Beyer Robertson had to plan and take responsibility for entertaining the Queen and her extensive household just five weeks later.