Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Griffith, Richard John
GRIFFITH, Sir RICHARD JOHN (1784–1878), geologist and civil engineer, first baronet, son of Richard Griffith, of Millicent, Naas, co. Kildare [see under Griffith, Richard, 1714?–1788] by his first wife, Charity, daughter of John Bramston, Esq., of Oundle, was born in Hume Street, Dublin, on 20 Sept. 1784. Educated with a view to a military career, he obtained a lieutenancy in the royal Irish artillery in 1799. On the union of the two countries and the incorporation of the Irish artillery with that of England, he resigned his commission and entered upon the profession of a civil engineer. After studying for two years in London under the supervision of William Nicholson, editor of the ‘Journal of Natural Philosophy,’ he proceeded to Cornwall in order to acquire a knowledge of practical mining. His discovery of the ores of nickel and cobalt in the refuse deposits of the Dolcoath mine attracted the attention of Francis Basset, lord de Dunstanville [q. v.], who proposed to appoint him general manager and superintendent of his mineral property. But Griffith declined this offer, and completed his studies by visiting the different mining districts in England and Scotland. In Edinburgh he attended for two years the classes of Sir James Hall, Playfair, Jameson, and other distinguished professors; and such was the general esteem in which he was held that he was unanimously elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh when only twenty-three years of age. He had always been much interested in agriculture, and having made the acquaintance of a Mr. Begbie, who was also a geologist as well as a large landowner, he became through him thoroughly conversant with the agricultural system prevailing in the Lothians and with the method of land valuation there pursued, which he afterwards introduced with so much success into Ireland. In 1808 he returned to Ireland and began his professional career there by making a survey of the coalfields of Leinster for the Royal Dublin Society. From 1809 to 1812 he was occupied as one of the engineers under the commission for inquiring into the nature and extent of the bogs in Ireland. Among those that he examined was the great bog of Allen, and to his reports on the Irish bogs he appended one on Chat Moss in Lancashire. In 1812 he was appointed mining engineer and professor of geology to the Royal Dublin Society, and about the same time he succeeded Richard Kirwan as government inspector of mines in Ireland. His labours in this direction furnished him with admirable opportunities for the preparation of his geological map of Ireland, which was first published in 1815, and for which he was awarded the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society in 1854. Consequent on the famine of 1822 he was appointed by government to superintend certain relief works in the counties of Cork, Kerry, and Limerick. Between 1822 and 1830 nearly 250 miles of road, some of the best in Ireland, were either constructed or improved under his supervision in what was then one of the wildest and most inaccessible parts of the country. In 1824 he was employed, preparatory to the ordnance survey, on a boundary survey to ascertain and mark the limits of every county, barony, parish, and townland in Ireland. On the passing of the Irish Valuation Act, 7 Geo. IV, cap. 62, in 1827, the object of which was to obtain a uniform and relative valuation of the several counties, baronies, parishes, and townlands in the country for the purpose of county assessment, Griffith, who had greatly assisted the chief secretary, Henry Goulburn [q. v.], in drafting it, was appointed commissioner of valuation, and continued to discharge the duties of that post till he was relieved of it by Mr. Ball Greene in 1868. The method of valuation adopted by him was that which he had learnt in Scotland, and was based on an examination of the active soil and subjacent rock (Report of Select Committee, House of Commons, 1869, p. 200). From 1830 onwards his duties became so numerous that there was hardly a work of public importance undertaken in Ireland, including the improvement of the navigation of the Shannon, the sanitation of the Royal Barracks in Dublin, and the erection of the National Gallery and Museum of Natural History, in which he was not consulted or which he did not personally superintend. In 1846, at a time when the public service was severely taxed by the great famine, he was appointed deputy-chairman, and in 1850 chairman of the Irish board of works, and himself managed the departments of land improvement and thorough drainage. This post he resigned in 1864, but he was afterwards retained as an unpaid commissioner. In 1851 he was made an honorary LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1858 Lord Palmerston rewarded his public services by creating him a baronet. He died on 22 Sept. 1878 at his house in Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin. He married in 1812 Maria Jane, eldest daughter of George Waldie, esq., of Hendersyde Park, Kelso, and was succeeded by his only son, Sir George Richard Waldie Griffith (1820-1889).
For a long period Griffith occupied a high position in society, and numbered among his friends the chief scientific men of his age. His ‘Geological Map of Ireland,’ revised in 1836, and published in its final form by the ordnance board in 1855, fully entitles him to rank as the ‘father of Irish geology;’ but he is chiefly known by his work as commissioner of valuation. He was a member of several scientific societies, and besides the works already mentioned, he drew up a ‘Geological and Mining Survey of the Connaught Coal District,’ and contributed many papers on the geology of Ireland to the ‘Transactions’ and the ‘Proceedings’ of the Geological Society, the ‘Journal of the Geological Society of Dublin,’ the ‘British Association Reports,’ the ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ &c. He also published ‘A Synopsis of the Carboniferous Limestone Fossils of Ireland,’ which contains 450 new species collected by himself and his friends, prepared under his direction by Frederick M'Coy of Dublin. His geological specimens are now in the museum of the Royal Dublin Society.
[Imperial Dict. of Biog.; Dublin Univ. Mag. 1874, based on a short autobiographic sketch published in 1869; Report of the Select Committee, 1869, on the General Valuation of Ireland; R. Barry O'Brien's Irish Land Question, with a supplement on Griffith's Valuation; Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1879; Nature, vol. xviii. The Irish Times and Freeman's Journal, 24 Sept. 1878, and the Times, 27 Sept. 1878, contain short sketches of his life and work.]