Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Prestwich, Joseph

PRESTWICH, Sir JOSEPH (1812–1896), geologist, the eldest surviving son of Joseph Prestwich, a wine merchant in London, and of Catherine, daughter of Edward Blakeway of Broseley, was born at Pensbury, Clapham, on 12 March 1812. He was descended from an old Lancashire family, which lived, till the troubles of the civil war, at Hulme Hall, on the banks of the Irwell, now part of Manchester. The last owner, Thomas Prestwich, was created a baronet on 25 April 1644 by Charles I for services to the royal cause, and it was believed that Joseph Prestwich was in reality heir to the title. When five years old he was sent to a private school near home; next to one at Forest Hill, and to a third in South Lambeth, whither his parents had removed. In 1823 he was a pupil at a school in Paris, boarding with a French family, so that in the two years of his stay he learnt the language well. On his return to England he went to a school at Norwood, and was then for two years under Richard Valpy [q. v.] at Reading. In his seventeenth year he joined University College, London, where he was attracted to science and chemistry. At the age of eighteen he entered his father's office, but though most conscientious in his attention to business, he devoted every spare moment to science, working till late in the night ; this habit, and living too sparingly so that he might spend more on books and instruments for his studies, probably did harm to his constitution, for though he lived to be old he was far from a healthy man.

Gradually Prestwich's interests concentrated on geology, and he began to study the coalfield of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, which he described in two papers read before the Geological Society of London. The second of them at once established his reputation as a geologist. While in London he settled down to that close study, first of the Eocene and then of the Pliocene deposits, on which were founded his most important contributions to science.

His parents removed to Devonshire Street, Portland Place, in 1840, and in 1842, at a rather anxious crisis, the father ceded his place in the firm to the son, who then lived at the offices in Mark Lane. To his study of the tertiaries he had added that of water supply, and in 1851 published an excellent volume on the water-bearing strata round London. In the same year came the first of a series of most valuable papers on the Eocene strata of England and their continental equivalents, but the series did not close till 1888. He also closely studied the Pliocene deposits of the eastern counties, especially during the decade commencing with 1845, but the three papers which were the result were not published till 1871 ; though containing less new matter than those on the Eocene, they are models of exhaustive work. In one the iron sands on the North Downs, which at Lenham contain ill-preserved fossils, were classed as lower Crag. This identification was afterwards contested, but further investigation has confirmed Prestwich's view.

Late in the fifties he began to work at the antiquity of man, co-operating first in the exploration of Brixham cave, and then, in the spring of 1859, visiting the Somme valley in company with (Sir) John Evans, to examine into M. de Perthes's evidence for the existence of man when the gravels with remains of the mammoth were formed.

The results were embodied in a paper read to the Royal Society in May 1859, showing that, though M. de Perthes had been occasionally imposed upon, the main facts were indisputable. Then came the news that a human jawbone, supposed to be contemporary, had been found in the gravel at Moulin Quignon, Abbeville. Prestwich went with some English experts in 1863 to examine the specimen, and afterwards attended a conference on the subject at Paris, when they maintained the jaw to be much more recent than the gravel in which it had indubitably been found. The questions thus opened up engaged Prestwich's attention to the last, some of his latest papers being on certain flints found by Mr. B. Harrison and others on the North Downs, sometimes as much as 600 feet above sea level. Prestwich regarded them as bearing the marks of human workmanship, but some good judges maintain the fractures to be natural.

In 1864 he was placed on the Water Commission, and in 1866 was appointed to the Royal Coal Commission, on each of which he took a very active part, making most valuable contributions to their reports. As his health was suffering from such continuous strain, he determined to have a breathing place in the country, so he began to build near Shoreham, Kent, in 1864, Darent Hulme, a quaintly ornamented and very attractive house, in the garden of which he found a lifelong pleasure. But the loss at the end of 1866 of his sister Civil, who had been his devoted companion for the last ten years, overshadowed its completion.

February 1870 was marked by two important events: he became president of the Geological Society, of which he had already been secretary and treasurer, and a few days afterwards married Grace Anne M'Call, daughter of James Milne of Findhorn, and niece of Hugh Falconer [q. v.] In 1872 he found himself able to retire from business, and thus to indulge the desire of his life, and devote his whole time to scientific studies. But in June 1874, on the death of John Phillips (1800-1874) [q. v.], he was offered the chair of geology at Oxford, which after some hesitation he accepted. It was late in life to begin to teach, and Prestwich was not naturally a facile speaker or lecturer, but he threw himself vigorously into his new duties and the cause of scientific education in the university. Not the least of his services to it and the city was applying his special knowledge to obtain a better water supply. He received the degree of M.A. on 11 Nov. 1874, and was admitted a member of Christ Church soon after entering upon his duties. In 1879 he refused the presidency of the British Association, fearing the strain of additional work, and in February 1885 was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences. Early in 1888 he vacated the professorship, being succeeded by Alexander Henry Green [q. v. Suppl.], and published the second volume of his 'Geology, Chemical, Physical, and Stratigraphical' (the first having appeared in 1880), receiving later in the year the degree of D.C.L. from the university. He was president of the International Geological Congress which that year met in London, but Darent Hulme was henceforth his only residence.

His later work dealt more especially with quaternary deposits, such as the so-called Westleton shingle, a gravel of which he believed the equivalents could be found over a large part of England. An important paper on this subject was published in 1889 with another on the flint implements found by Mr. B. Harrison, as already mentioned. 1895 saw the publication of a volume entitled 'The Tradition of the Flood,' of another entitled 'Collected Papers on some Controverted Questions of Geology,' of a reissue, with additions, of the 'Water-bearing Strata of the Country around London,' and of an article in the 'Nineteenth Century' on the 'Greater Antiquity of Man.' Health, however, was now gradually failing; continuous exertion, whether physical or mental, became more difficult, though his interest in geology and in his garden never flagged ; but a sudden failure of strength occurred on 1 Nov. 1895, which was the beginning of the end. He lived to receive one more recognition of his services, for on New Year's day 1896 he was gazetted a knight. He died on 23 June 1896 and was buried in Shoreham churchyard. Lady Prestwich, herself well versed in geology and his constant helpmate, survived to write a memoir of her husband, which appeared in June 1899, but in September she also, after long ill-health, passed away at Darent Hulme.

As a geologist Prestwich's strength lay in stratigraphy. There his work is masterly. In physical questions also he took great interest, but it may be doubted whether he was so uniformly successful in dealing with them, while to petrological, like most geologists of his generation, he gave little attention. As an observer he was remarkable for accuracy, patience, and industry ; no pains were spared in collecting materials, and his work on the tertiary and quaternary deposits will on this ground have a permanent value, even though some of his conclusions may fail to command general acceptance. These, however, will not be numerous. His position in regard to geology was a somewhat exceptional one ; for, while accepting on the whole the uniformitarian views maintained by Charles Lyell [q. v.], he did not entirely abandon some tenets of the older school, such as the occasional intensification of natural forces on a rather large scale. For instance, he held that a flood had spread over England, and much, if not all, of Europe, in quaternary times, which partly destroyed palaeolithic man. While assigning to the latter an earlier appearance than would be conceded by some geologists, he placed the glacial age within twenty or twenty-five thousand years of the present date.

His writings, according to the list printed in the 'Memoir,' are 140 in number, including two papers posthumously published. Of these, six were books ; one, however, consisting only of republished papers ; several of the remainder were pamphlets, reports, or reviews, the rest contributions to scientific periodicals, especially of the Geological and Royal Societies. Some of the more important have been mentioned above, but those on the agency of water in volcanic eruptions, the thickness and mobility of the earth's crust, and underground temperatures, published in the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society,' and that on the ' Parallel Roads of Lochaber,' published in the ' Philosophical Transactions' (vol. xvii.), must not be forgotten. In the last-named he supposes the terraces to have had their origin on the shores of a freshwater lake formed upon a glacier, the lower portion of it being raised to a higher level by a jamming of the ice. The idea is ingenious, and avoids some difficulties in the two rival theories, usually in favour, viz., seaside terraces produced during a submergence, and terraces on the side of an ordinary lake, the mouth of which is dammed by ice, but is not without grave difficulties of its own.

In personal appearance Prestwich was well above middle height, thin, and rather fragile in aspect, with delicate features, a remarkably fine forehead, and attractive expression, corresponding with that singular kindness of manner and courtesy, even to opponents, which, with his inflexible integrity, made him no less beloved than respected. He was the last representative of that generation of great geologists who were born within a few years of the beginning of the present century, though with them he was always 'Young Prestwich,' while he was the Nestor of that which he left behind.

Besides the honours mentioned above, Prestwich was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1833, and received the Wollaston medal in 1849, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1853, and was awarded a Royal medal in 1865. He was also a fellow of the Chemical Society, of the Geological Society of France (1838), and was an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers, as well as being an honorary member of several English and foreign societies, among them the Lincei of Rome.

A painting (presented by Lady Prestwich) is in the collection of the Geological Society, and reproduced photographs are also there and in the 'Life' by his widow.

[Personal knowledge; obituary notices in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, vol. liii. Proc. p. xlix; the Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lx. p. xii, and Geological Magazine, 1896, p. 336, referring to a fuller notice, with a portrait, 1893, p. 241. These, however, are superseded by the Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Prestwich, by his widow, 1899.]

T. G. B.