Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beche, Henry Thomas de la
BECHE, Sir HENRY THOMAS DE LA (1796–1865), geologist, the last of an ancient family, was born in a London suburb in 1796. Losing his father, a military officer, at a very early age, young De la Beche was sent to the grammar school at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, but his mother soon removed thence, first to Charmouth and afterwards to Lyme Regis, so famous for its liassic fossils, in collecting which the young student showed the first evidence of his taste for natural history. Intending to follow the profession of his father, Henry Be la Beche entered the military school at Great Marlowe in 1810; where the artistic powers of sketching, afterwards so useful to him in his geological work, were sedulously cultivated. But his military career was short. The general peace of 1815 led De la Beche, in company with Murchison and many other active and restless spirits, to quit the army.
De la Beche settled in Dorset, where the geological structure of the district engaged his attention; but he soon found the need of wider culture and information, and when in 1817, at the age of twenty-one, he became a member of the Geological Society of London, it became clear to him that he must seek abroad for deeper tuition. For the four or five succeeding years the young geologist was an ardent student of the natural phenomena of the Alps, and spending his time chiefly in Switzerland and France, he gained a sound knowledge of mineralogy and petrography. In 1819 De la Beche's observations on the temperature and depth of the Lake of Geneva were printed in the 'Bibliothèque Universelle' (reprinted in the 'Edinburgh Jovanal,' 1820), and in the same year his first geological paper, 'On the Secondary Formations of the Southern Coast of England,' appeared in the 'Transactions of the Geological Society' (vol. i. 1819).
In 1824 De la Beche visited his paternal estate in Jamaica, and among the fruits of his stay there was the publication (Trans. Geol. Soc.) of a paper in which, for the first time, the rocks of the island were described, On his return to England from Jamaica, De la Beche's pen was very busy in the preparation of other papers on the rocks of the south and west of England; the first distinct volume which he issued (in 1829) appears to be a translation of a number of geological memoirs from the 'Annales des Mines.' The list of books which may be said to have been written by De la Beche in his private capacity include 'Manual of Geology,' 1831; ' Researches in Theoretical Geology,' 1834; and the 'Geological Observer,' 1853. It is not too much to say that the publication of these works would alone have placed De la Beche in the first rank of geologists. In them he exhibits the most varied acquirements, applying almost every branch of science to the elucidation of geological facts. Notwithstanding the rapid advancement of geological knowledge, these books will long continue to be well worthy of the earnest study of every geologist.
But the great epoch of De la Beche's life was now approaching. In 1815 William Smith — the father of English geology — had published the first geological map of England, in which the position of each of the main beds of rock, or formations, is shown as they run across our island from south-west to north-east. This was necessarily a map on a small scale, not sufficiently detailed, for example, to indicate to any landowner the nature of the rocks composing his estate. But a great map of England was now in process of construction by the government department, entitled the Ordnance Survey, on the scale of one inch to a mile. De la Beche's idea was to make this 'ordnance map' the groundwork of a geological survey of each county, representing upon it, by different colours, the exact surface-area occupied by the different beds of rock, and further illustrating the relations of the strata to one another by means of horizontal and vertical sections. This great task was commenced by De la Beche at his own expense in the mining district of Devon and Cornwall. But the work was so clearly one deserving the name of 'national' that the government of the day quickly acceded to De la Beche's request for aid. In 1832 he was appointed to conduct the proposed geological survey under the board of ordnance, a sum of 300l. was granted, and in 1835 a house in Craig's Court, Charing Cross, was placed at the disposal of the new 'director of the ordnance geological survey.' With the help of six or eight field-assistants the work went on rapidly; geological maps of Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset were soon completed. Specimens of rocks, minerals, and fossils poured into Craig's Court so rapidly, that, although an adjoining house was taken, the premises were soon too small to contain the collections, which included all the economically valuable mineral substances met with in the course of the survey, such as materials for making roads, building-stones, useful metals, and all minerals having any industrial importance. De la Beche was now enabled to push forward another of his long-cherished ideas, and, with the help of Sir Robert Peel, Lord Carlisle, and other enlightened statesmen, secured the erection of an excellent building, built 'very much after his own designs,' between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly, for a museum of economic or practical geology.
Previous to the completion of the building, which was opened by Prince Albert in 1851, several other important steps had been made by De la Beche. The geological survey was transferred in 1845 from the Ordnance to the Office of Woods and Forests; a mining record office was established in 1839 for the reception of plans and information about mines, and this has since approved itself a most useful institution; moreover, between the years 1840-50, De la Beche — now 'director general' — collected round the new institution a band of distinguished scientific men, including Lyon Playfair, Edward Forbes, Robert Hunt, Dr. Percy, A. C. Ramsay, and W. W. Smyth. With these to aid him, De la Beche ventured to complete his scheme by the establishment of a 'School of Mines,' the equivalent of the famous Ecole des Mines of France. For want of suitable room the project could not be effectively carried out until the opening of the new Jermyn Street Museum in 1851.
De la Beche was elected president of the Geological Society in 1847; he received the honour of knighthood in 1848, and was awarded the Wollaston palladium medal by the Geological Society in 1855; he was also the recipient of many honours from abroad. Although, during the last three years of his life he suffered much from paralysis and general debility, he continued to work till only a few hours before his death, which occurred on 13 April 1855. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. His bust stands in the building of his creation, the Geological Museum in Jermyn Street.
Murchison, Ramsay, and Geikie have in turn occupied the post of director-general of the geological survey since the death of De la Beche. In his 'Life of Edward Forbes' Professor Geikie has described his predecessor as 'a man who for many a long year, with unwearied energy, spent time and toil and money in the service of his country and in the cause of science. The volumes which he wrote, with the survey and museum which he founded and fostered, form after all his most fitting epitaph as well as his proudest memorial.'
In addition to those of De la Beche's writings referred to above, we may name: 1. 'Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset,' 1839, a bulky and valuable volume. 2. 'First Report on Coals for Steam Navy,' in 'Geological Survey Memoirs,' vol. ii., part ii., and in vol i., part i., 'On the Formation of the Rocks of South Wales,' 1846. 3. 'Presidential Address to Geological Society,' 'Quarterly Journal,' vol. iv., 1848. 4. 'Inaugural Address,' 'Records of School of Mines,' vol i. part. i., 1852. In the Royal Society's 'Catalogue of Scientific Papers' there appear the titles of thirty-seven written by De la Beche alone, in addition to three of which he was part author only.[Quart. Jour. Geol. Soc, vols. xi. xii., President's Addresses; Geikie's Life of Murchison, ii. 177; Geikie's Life of E. Forbes, p. 376.]