Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tennant, James (1808-1881)
TENNANT, JAMES (1808–1881), mineralogist, was born on 8 Feb. 1808 at Upton, near Southwell, Nottinghamshire, being the third child in a family of twelve. His father, John Tennant, was an officer in the excise; his mother, Eleanor Kitchen, came from a family of yeomen resident at Upton for more than two centuries. His parents afterwards removed to Derby, and he was partly educated at a school in Mansfield. In October 1824 he was apprenticed to G. Mawe, dealer in minerals at 149 Strand, and after the death of the latter he managed, and afterwards purchased, the business, residing on the premises. Industrious and eager to learn from the first, he attended classes at a mechanics' institute and the lectures of Michael Faraday [q. v.] at the Royal Institution. This gained him a friend, and he was also much helped by one of his master's customers. In 1838, on Faraday's recommendation, Tennant was appointed teacher of geological mineralogy at King's College, the title being afterwards changed to professor. In 1853 the professorship of geology was added, but he resigned that post in 1869, retaining the other till his death. He was also from 1850 to 1867 lecturer on geology and mineralogy at Woolwich. He had an excellent practical knowledge of minerals, and, when diamonds were first found in South Africa, maintained the genuineness of the discovery, which at first was doubted. He was an earnest advocate of technical education, giving liberally from his own purse to help on the cause, and persuading the Turners' Company, of which he was master in 1874, to offer prizes for excellence in their craft. The results of this proceeding proved highly satisfactory. When the koh-i-nor was recut Tennant superintended the work, becoming mineralogist to Queen Victoria in 1840, and he had the oversight of Miss (afterwards Baroness) Burdett-Coutts's collection of minerals. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1838, and president of the Geological Association (1862–3). He died, unmarried, on 23 Feb. 1881. A portrait, painted by Rogers, was in the collection of Lady Burdett-Coutts. A copy was placed in the Strand vestry in commemoration of services to the church schools and parish.
Tennant wrote the following books or pamphlets:
- ‘List of British Fossils,’ 1847.
- ‘Gems and Precious Stones,’ 1852.
- ‘Catalogue of British Fossils in the Author's Collection,’ 1858.
- ‘Description of the Imperial State Crown,’ 1858.
- ‘Descriptive Catalogue of Gems, &c., bequeathed to the South Kensington Museum by the Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend’ (1870), with two or three scientific papers, one on the koh-i-nor.
He also, in conjunction with David Thomas Ansted and Walter Mitchell, contributed ‘Geology, Mineralogy, and Crystallography’ to Orr's ‘Circle of Sciences’ in 1855.
[Obituary notices in Quarterly Journal of Geological Soc. 1882 (Proc. p. 48) and Geological Mag. 1881, p. 238; information from Professors T. Rupert Jones and T. Wiltshire, and from James Tennant, esq.]