Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Clarke, William Branwhite

CLARKE, WILLIAM BRANWHITE (1798–1878), divine and geologist, was born at East Bergholt, Suffolk, on 2 June 1798. He was educated chiefly at Dedham grammar school. He entered Cambridge in 1817, becoming a member of Jesus College, and in due course took the degrees of B.A. and M.A., joining the senate in 1824. In 1821 Clarke took holy orders, and between that date and 1824 he acted in his clerical capacity at Ramsholt and other places by an especial arrangement, which allowed of his following his inclination for travel, and of his making fifteen distinct geological excursions on the continent; of his being present at the siege of Antwerp in 1831; and making geological explorations in this country. In those early days the activity of Clarke's mind was shown by his poetical efforts. In 1822 he produced three poems, entitled respectively ‘Lays of Leisure,’ ‘Pompeii,’ ‘The River Derwent,’ and in 1839 ‘Recollections of a Visit to Mont Blanc,’ and several religious poems. About this time Clarke appears to have given much attention to astronomical and meteorological phenomena. He published three papers on meteors between 1833 and 1836; on electrical phenomena in 1837. From these observations he turned to geological ones, publishing in that year two papers on ‘The South East of Dorsetshire,’ on the country between ‘Durlston Head and the Old Harry Rocks,’ and in 1838 an abstract of a paper by him appears in the ‘Proceedings of the Geological Society’ on ‘Suffolk and Norfolk.’ In 1839, being at that time in delicate health, Clarke was advised to try the influence of long sea voyages. He left England for New South Wales, and even then determined to examine the structure of the rocks of Australasia. During his voyage he lost no opportunity for making observaobservations, falls of dust in the Atlantic especially engaging his attention, on which phenomenon he published two papers in the ‘Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal’ and in the ‘Proceedings of the Geological Society.’ From the time of his arrival in New South Wales until 1844 Clarke was in clerical charge of the country from Paramatta to the Hawkesbury river; and for a portion of that time he conducted the King's School. In 1844 he took charge of Campbelltown; but in 1847 he became the minister of Willoughby, which office he held until 1870. At this latter date, his health requiring it, he retired from his ministerial duties, which he had most faithfully fulfilled for twenty-five years, receiving from his friends in the church a testimonial, and sincere expressions of sympathy and regret.

The name of Clarke is intimately connected with the discovery of gold in Australia. In 1841 he wrote to a friend in New South Wales, informing him that he had found gold. In April of that year he took his first journey from the east coast of Australia to the westward of the parallel of Port Jackson. In the alluvium of the river Macquarie, which is spread out over a valley, the first gold was found. Clarke made a hasty survey of this auriferous district, and he calculated that in this tract alone gold must exist over an area of not less than seven or eight hundred square miles. He wrote: ‘It was in this alluvium that the first grains of golds were found—finer in places more remote from the mountains, and coarser in creeks at their base.’ In 1843 Clarke communicated the fact of his discovery of gold to the government of New South Wales, who enjoined him to silence, fearing the influence of the discovery on the rude population of Sydney. In 1839 Count Strzelecki is said to have discovered traces of gold in New South Wales, and to have informed Sir G. Gipps of the fact. The governor now, as later, thought it desirable to keep the count's discovery a secret. Strzelecki never afterwards reverted to the subject. When his own book was published in 1845 he does not allude to it. Sir Roderick Murchison had recently returned from his geological survey of Russia. He was struck by the similarity of the count's specimens from Australia with those which he had brought from the Ural Mountains. Murchison expressed his opinion that gold must exist in New South Wales, and in 1846 he advised Cornish miners to emigrate to that colony [see Murchison, Sir Roderick Impey]. On 18 July 1860 the governors of the Australian colonies signed a certificate stating that the discovery of gold was made by the Rev. W. B. Clarke, of Sydney, in 1841, but no attention was attracted to the subject until 1851, when Mr. E. H. Hargraves announced the existence of an extensive goldfield throughout Australia. This, of course, settles beyond dispute the claims of Clarke as an original discoverer of the precious metal. Beyond this, to him must be given the credit for developing the valuable coalfields of the colony. In 1877 his labours in determining the age of those carboniferous deposits were rewarded by the presentation to him, by the president of the Geological Society of London, of the Murchison medal. Clarke had laboured for nearly half a century on this subject, and had surveyed great depths of rocks. ‘Science,’ says the president, ‘owes much to Mr. Clarke for the consistent and persistent manner in which he has upheld his opinion regarding the age of the Australian carboniferous series.’ Clarke's labours also resulted in the discovery of tin, an account of which (‘On Mining’) he published in the ‘Sydney Herald’ on 16 Aug. 1849.

In addition to his clerical duties, Clarke held various honorary appointments. He was fellow of St. Paul's College from its foundation in 1853; a trustee of the Australian Museum, and of the free public library. He was offered a seat in the first senate of the university of Sydney, and the position of professor of geology; but he felt the claims already made upon his time would not allow of his burdening himself with the heavy duties of instructing students.

Several attempts had been made to carry out a Philosophical Society in Sydney, but they were not successful. Eventually, in 1856, the Philosophical Society of New South Wales was originated. Clarke was the active vice-president, and delivered several addresses at the commencement of the sessions. In 1867 Clarke delivered an address to inaugurate the Royal Society of New South Wales. On 11 May 1876 he delivered his last anniversary address, and urged the desirability of obtaining a charter, of building a permanent home, of forming a library, and of arranging a scientific collection. These ideas were carried out, and the legislative assembly voted 7,000l. for the purchase of Clarke's collection. In 1856, and again in 1860, he visited Tasmania for the purpose of examining the country around Fingal and the Don River. In 1859 diamonds were found by him, and in his anniversary address in 1870 he read a paper on the ‘Natural History of the Diamond,’ in which he described his discovery. Clarke was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1876, it being especially stated on his reception that this was in recognition of his discovery of the gold in Australia.

Few men who have been so busily engaged as Clarke was, with his ministerial duties and his official engagements, have found the undisturbed leisure required for the production of so many scientific memoirs and descriptive papers. The ‘Sydney Mail’ in 1872 published a list of 180 scientific papers written by him, and these were not all. The catalogue of the Royal Society gives the titles of thirty-nine papers contributed to societies and scientific journals in this country. With all this it is stated that Clarke officially reported on no less an area than 108,000 miles of territory. On his eightieth birthday he completed the fourth edition of his ‘Remarks on the Sedimentary Formations of New South Wales.’ He died on 17 June 1878, after an attack of paralysis. On 3 July the president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, announcing his death, said: ‘On the last day of his life he busied himself in arranging fossils, and in writing a letter to Professor de Koninck.’

[Phillips's Mining and Metallurgy of Gold and Silver, 1867; Count Strzelecki's Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land; Report from the Select Committee on the Services of the Rev. W. B. Clarke (Blue Book), 1861; Claims of the Rev. W. B. Clarke, Sydney, 1860; Murchison's Siluria, 1854; Geikie's Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison, 1875; Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1855; Journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1879; Geological Magazine, vol. v. 1878; Annals of Natural History, 1862.]

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