Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/Sketch of William Pengelly

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THE name of William Pengelly is most closely associated with the explorations of caves in England containing relics of men together with the remains of extinct animals, the results of which, confirming similar conclusions that had been reached in France, convinced English geologists of man's extreme antiquity. Speaking of him at the time of his death as one of the last survivors of the heroes who laid the foundation of geological science. Prof. T. G. Bonney said, "He has left behind an example of what one man can do in advancing knowledge by energy and perseverance."

William Pengelly was born at East Looe, a fishing village in Cornwall, England, January 12, 1812, and died in Torquay, March 16, 1894. The name of Pengelly is not uncommon in Cornwall, and has figured in English history—among others, in the person of Sir Thomas Pengelly, who was chief baron of the exchequer, and left certain sums for the discharge of debtors from the jails of Bodmin and Launceston. His father was captain of a small coasting vessel, and he acquired a strong attachment to the sea. He was sent to the Dame's School in his native village when very young, and before he was five years old had made so rapid progress that his mother applied to the master of a school for larger boys to receive him as a pupil. The master declined to take him, but, hearing him reading as he passed the door of the house not long afterward, concluded to grant the mother's request. At school he soon gained such a reputation for scholarship that the boys made him spend all his play hours helping them in their lessons. His school days ended when he was twelve years old, and he accompanied his father to sea, making, however, voyages that were seldom more than three days long, most of the work of which consisted in taking in and taking out cargo. The sailors soon discovered his clerkly gifts and employed him to write their letters, but did not so well appreciate his excellent conversational powers. On "tailoring days" it was understood that his clothes should be repaired for him, while he read aloud for the general benefit, and the sailors would amuse themselves by finding solutions to questions in Walkingliam's Aritlimetic. His seafaring life closed in his sixteenth year, when the death of a brother made it desirable that he should remain at home.

Though working hard all the day for a mere support, young Pengelly managed to spend several hours every night in study, seeking to master mathematics. He had no tutor and no really good text-books, but made such progress in his studies that in a comparatively short time he became "a mathematical tutor of no mean order." He bought his first Euclid of a peddler who occasionally visited the place; then, having saved up a little money for the purpose, it was a happy day for him when he walked thirty miles to Devonport and back, bearing, on his return, twenty volumes in a bundle over his shoulder; among them were the works of some of the standard authors, for he cultivated a literary as well as a mathematical taste.

He received his first lesson in geology while he was still a sailor boy, at Lyme Regis—a spot exceedingly rich in fossils. A laborer whom he was observing broke a stone, the opening of which disclosed a fine ammonite. To his question as to what the fossil was, the laborer replied that if he had read his Bible he would have known; that there was once a flood that covered all the world; the things that were drowned were buried in the mud, and this was a snake which had suffered that fate. "A snake! but where's his head?" He was again referred to the Bible, which would tell him why the snakes in the rocks had no heads. "We're told there that the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head. That's how 'tis," The second lesson came a few years later, in a reading club of which Pengelly was a member. They were reading Dick's Christian Philosopher, and came to a geological section, when the reader remarked that "as geology was very likely to be extremely dry, and as many good people thought it dangerous if not decidedly infidel in its teachings, he would propose that the selection should not be read. This was passed by acclamation, and the reader passed on to astronomy."

"While still young, Pengelly removed to Torquay, where he spent the remainder of his life. Shortly after arriving there, he opened a small day school on the Pestalozzian system, into which he introduced the novelty of the use of chalk and the blackboard in giving instruction. Beginning with six pupils, the school grew rapidly. He had private pupils, too, and in 1846 these had become so numerous that he gave up his school, and as a special tutor in mathematics and the natural sciences found his life occupation. Some of his pupils became distinguished in after life; while others, like the two Russian princes, nephews of the Czar Alexander II, and Princess Mary, of the Netherlands, all of whom became much attached to him, were famous by reason of their position. His attention was brought for a third time to geology while looking over some books which he thought might be useful to his pupils, when he found one published by the brothers Chambers, which contained a chapter on that science. This was not much, but it was enough to inform him how much had already been done in geology, and, perhaps, to give him a hint of some of the possibilities that lay in it. From this time on, he was ardently interested in geology. The journal of his first visit to Loudon and the British Museum, in 1843, attests how he was becoming absorbed in it. He spent his holidays in geological explorations and in excursions which gradually grew larger, until his position as a geologist was recognized, and he became an authority respecting all points and phenomena which had come under his personal knowledge. A hint dropped to him by Professor Jameson as he was about to visit the Isle of Arran taught him to make his notes of observations on the spot, and greatly helped, his daughter Hester observes in the biography on which we have drawn very largely, "to form those habits of extreme accuracy which characterized all his scientific work."

In 1837 Mr. Pengelly assisted in the reorganization of the Torquay Mechanics' Institute, with which he maintained a connection for more than twenty years, and before which he delivered many lectures. In 1844 he participated in the organization of the Torquay Natural History Society, of which he became, in 1851, honorary secretary, and remained so for more than thirty-nine years, "Under his guidance it became a scientific power in the country. Year after year he lectured there, tincturing the locality with his own enthusiasm; and from the society there ultimately sprang the museum in Babbacombe Road, with its admirable collections."

His lectures, delivered gratuitously at Torquay, were very popular, and were attended by large audiences. The fame of them spread, and he was called to other places—Exeter, Exmouth, and larger towns and farther off, and to the great learned societies—where he lectured, always with success, and to the satisfaction and delight of his audiences. "Those persons living, and they are many," says Mr. F. S. Ellis in the preface to Hester Pengelly's biography of her father, "who had the good fortune to hear Pengelly lecture will bear ready witness to the complete mastery he always had of his subject, and of the faculty of imparting his knowledge. Even when speaking upon abstruse subjects to a mixed audience, he would make the matter perfectly clear without in any degree appearing to talk down to the capacity of those he was addressing.… His manner was no less pleasing and attractive than the language in which he clothed his ideas was grateful to the ear." Geology and astronomy furnished the subjects of the lectures.

It would be impracticable in a brief sketch to follow the detail of Pengelly's geological investigations previous to his engaging in systematic cave exploration. They embraced fields chiefly in Devonshire and Cornwall, and afforded subjects for correspondence and discussion with many of the most eminent British geologists, and some of other countries than England. A study of some fossil fish, first observed by Mr. Charles W. Peach in Cornwall, furnished the occasion for one of his first recorded papers, On the Ichthyolites of East Cornwall, in the Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of East Cornwall, 1849-'50; and a single volume—the seventh—of these Transactions contains nine of his papers. Another subject of interest was the beekites, curious formations of chalcedonic silica on the limestone fragments in the New Red Sandstone of Devonshire, first observed by Dr. Beek, of Bristol, concerning which he read a paper at the Cheltenham meeting of the British Association, the first which he attended, in 1856. In 1860 he completed the formation of a collection of Devonian fossils from Devon and Cornwall, which was presented by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts to the new museum of the University of Oxford, in connection with the foundation of a geological scholarship, and was named "the Pengelly Collection."

The first of the more important geological researches with which Pengelly's name is intimately associated was the exploration of the peculiar formation at Bovey Tracey, for the identification of its fossils and the determination of its age. The plain in which the formation lay had an aspect suggesting the basin of an ancient lake, and its deposits, "very different from the solid rocks of the surrounding hills," confirmed the suggestion. They consisted of gravels, sands, and clays, distinctly stratified, with seams of lignite, for which they had been worked. The pits had already attracted some notice, and the deposits had been mentioned in scientific literature, but very little had been learned concerning their age. In 1860 the subject was mentioned by the late Dr. Falconer, an eminent paleontologist, to Miss Burdett-Coutts as one the investigation of which would be a boon to science. Miss Coutts supplied the money that was needed, and the direction of the systematic investigation was intrusted to Pengelly; on learning which, Sir Charles Lyell wrote to him: "I am very glad of the prospect of our knowing something of the Bovey coal plants. It is almost a reproach to English geology that they have been so little explored, as they are perhaps the only fossils of the Tertiary period to which they belong." In order to determine accurately the nature, thickness, and order of the successive beds, and to make a satisfactory collection of fossils, a new section of the deposit was made, measuring one hundred and twenty-five feet, down to the bottom of a seam of lignite four feet in thickness, the "last bed" of the workmen, but not at the actual base of the deposit. Thirteen of the thirty-one beds of lignite which were cut through, and two of the beds of clay, yielded distinguishable plant remains. These were sent to Dr. Oswald Heer, of Switzerland, for examination; and he determined from the collection fifty species, including ferns, conifers, figs, cinnamon trees, an oak, a laurel, vines, andromedas, a bilberry, a gardenia, a water lily, and some leguminous plants. Heer referred the group to the Lower Miocene period, but some modification was afterward made in this determination in the light of a fuller knowledge of the Tertiary flora. The deposits and work at Bovey Tracey were the subject of a memoir to the Royal Society by Sir Charles Lyell; and Dr. Heer's account of his work—The Fossil Flora of Bovey Tracey—was published in 1863.

While this investigation was going on, Lyell was preparing the fifth edition of his Manual of Geology. He invited Pengelly to suggest corrections to the text, saying that, besides positive mistakes, he would "be glad of any hints and suggestions made freely, which your knowledge of the manner in which beginners are struck may enable you to send us." The criticisms supplied by Mr. Pengelly were adopted by Lyell except where they had already been made unnecessary.

On the accidental discovery by workmen, in 1858, of a cavern in Windmill Hill, overhanging the town of Brixham, Pengelly at once thought of finding what was in it, and what story it might have to tell. He visited the place and applied to the owner for permission to explore it in behalf of the Torquay Natural History Society. But on consultation with Dr. Hugh Falconer it was decided that as that society probably had not means sufficient to bear the expense of the exploration, the Royal and Geographical Societies should be applied to for a grant. This was obtained, and the work was carried on under the superintendence of Professor Prestwich and Mr. Pengelly, on whom, as a resident of the place, the burden substantially fell. The decision to explore the cave was brought about largely by the fact that it was a virgin cave which had been inaccessibly closed during an incalculably long period, the last previous event in its history having been the introduction of a reindeer antler, which was found attached to the upper surface of the stalagmitic floor. It was therefore free from the objection urged against Kent's Cavern that, having been long known and open, it had probably been ransacked again and again. A thorough method of exploration was determined upon, beginning with the examination and removal of the stalagmitic floor; after which the upper bed should be dealt with in a similar manner horizontally throughout the entire length of the cavern, or so far as practicable; then the next lower bed, and so on, till all the deposits had been removed. By this method the general stratigraphical order of the deposits and their characteristics could be learned, all their fossils secured, and the highest possible exactness attained. The excavations were continued through twelve months, at the end of which the cave had been practically emptied. Besides furnishing interesting indications relative to its physical history, the cave yielded sixteen hundred and twenty-one bones and thirty-six flints. While most of the flints were flakes, some of which possibly might not be artificial, three were fairly well made implements of paleolithic type; and it was therefore concluded that man either frequented or at any rate sometimes entered the Brixham Cave while Devonshire was inhabited by various mammals which are now extinct. Previous to the execution of this work, all geological evidence as to the antiquity of man had been received, even by English geologists of the first rank, with what Pengelly called apathy and skepticism. After the work it soon became evident, Pengelly said in an address to the Section of Anthropology of the British Association, in 1883, that this geological apathy had been more apparent than real, "In fact, geologists were found to have been not so much disinclined to entertain the question of human antiquity, as to doubt the trustworthiness of the evidence which had previously been offered to them on the subject." The discoveries are thought to have had a considerable share in disposing Mr. Prestwich to undertake the investigation of the remains at Amiens and Abbeville in France and Hoxne in England, "which added to his own great reputation and rescued M. Boucher de Perthes from undeserved neglect." Prof. Boyd Dawkins says that they established beyond all doubt the existence of paleolithic man in the Pleistocene age, and caused the whole of the scientific world to awake to the fact of the vast antiquity of the human race. Of course, they aroused a theological controversy which was long and bitter, and has only recently died out. Pengelly had no trouble through it all. "Geologists," he said, "see no mode of reconciling the Mosaic account of creation with geological science.… For myself, I am satisfied that science can do nothing for the salvation of the soul, and that the Bible is able, through God's grace, to make us wise unto salvation." No doubts or difficulties could ever undermine his faith as a Christian.

The evidence accumulated at Brixham suggested the propriety of a re-examination of other evidences of man's antiquity, and particularly, in England, of those from Kent's Hole, or Cavern, at Torquay. The existence of this cave had been known from time immemorial, but the first recorded exploration of it was made in 1824 by Mr. Northmore, of Cleve, looking for organic remains and an ancient temple of Mithras. Mr. W. C. Trevelyan followed him, and first obtained results of value to science. The Rev. J. MacEnery, a Roman Catholic priest, began a four years' exploration of the cave in 1825, and prepared a narrative of his work, which was not published for several years after his death, having been lost, and found by Pengelly after a long search. He showed that the cave had been inhabited, practically at the same time, by man and various extinct animals; but the antiquity of man not being yet a live subject, little regard was paid to his evidences. With a grant of a hundred pounds from the British Association, the work was begun under the direction of a committee of which Pengelly was the leading spirit and the working member. It opened a new chapter in his life, his daughter says, "for he not only superintended the exploration of the cavern, but undertook its entire management, throwing himself, heart and soul, into the numerous duties which it entailed. The labor was arduous, and severely taxed his energies for fifteen years; but it was a congenial employment, and most faithfully performed.… After undertaking the exploration, Pengelly became such an enthusiast in the progress made that, when in Torquay, he never (unless prevented by illness) failed on a single week day to visit the cavern, while he devoted many hours at home in the examination of the specimens exhumed. He even abridged his short holidays, and all idea of living in London was abandoned on this account." In the investigation, the surface accumulations having been removed and preserved for examination, the floor of granular stalagmite was stripped off, so as to lay bare the cave earth, and this was dug out ultimately to a depth of four feet in a series of prismatic blocks, a yard long and a foot square in section, layer by layer. This material was examined in the cave by candlelight, then at the door by daylight. A box was appropriated to each "yard," in which all the objects of interest found in that particular earth were put. The boxes, with the record of what they contained, were sent daily to Pengelly, who cleaned the articles and repacked them, and kept regular records of his day's works. Other materials were dealt with with similar thoroughness in ways according to their nature. "Whatever was discovered beneath the stalagmite flooring must have been sealed up by it for, at the very least, two thousand years, probably for a much longer time." The exploration was completed June 19, 1880. The more than seventy-three hundred prisms of material which proved productive yielded, besides fifty thousand bones examined by Prof. Boyd Dawkins, numerous implements, including those of bone, the work of man. Two deposits were evident, one of "cave earth," and one of breccia beneath it. A glance at the implements from them showed that they were very dissimilar. Those from the breccia were more massive and ruder in every way than the others, and none of them were of bone. "In short, the stone tools, though both sets were unpolished and coeval with extinct mammals, represent two distinct civilizations. It is equally clear that the ruder men were the more ancient, for their tools were lodged in a deposit which, whenever the two occurred in the same vertical section, was invariably the undermost." Various conditions in the deposits united in indicating that the interval between them must have been very considerable. Other caves were examined by Pengelly, but his most important discoveries were made in those of Brixham and Kent.

A third section of Pengelly's scientific work reviewed by Prof. T. G. Bonney in the summary he has added to Miss Pengelly's biography, from which we have quoted freely, includes miscellaneous papers on geology and kindred subjects, relating almost exclusively to the southwest of England. As a rule, the papers are comparatively short, being the fruits of researches which either did not demand a long time, or could be carried on at intervals as circumstances allowed, and appeared mostly in the transactions of local societies.

Pengelly was one of the prime movers and a leading spirit in the organization, in 1862, of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, at Plymouth, and was its president in 1867-68. The objects of the association were "to give a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific inquiry in Devonshire, and to promote the intercourse of those who cultivate science, literature, or art in different parts of the country." It worked according to the methods of the British Association, with literature and art added to its objects, besides giving some attention to history and archæology. The first meeting was held under the presidency of Sir John Bowring. In 1872 the president was the bishop of the diocese. Dr. Temple, now Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1863 Pengelly was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

From 1856, when he read a paper at the Cheltenham meeting, Mr. Pengelly was almost a constant attendant upon the meetings of the British Association, and gained, as the years advanced, a prominent position among its leading members. He was president of the Geological Section at the Plymouth meeting, 1877. At the jubilee meeting of the association, held at York in 1880, he made the acquaintance of Prof. Asa Gray, which ripened into a friendship and resulted in a visit of Professor Gray and Mrs. Gray to Torquay. He met another distinguished American man of science, Prof. O. C. Marsh, recently deceased, at the International Geological Congress in London, in 1888. In 1891 he received a visit from Prof. G. F. Wright. He opposed the transference of the meeting of the British Association to Montreal in 1884, on account of the expense and the sacrifice of time which he thought many who would like to attend could not afford, and did not go himself. In March, 1874, he was visited at Torquay by Professor Phillips and others in behalf of a number of members of the British Association, and presented with an illuminated parchment containing the signatures of the contributors and a check, as a testimonial "in recognition of his long and valued services to science in general, and more especially for the exploration of Kent's Cavern. Replying to the addresses, he said he had done the work in connection with Kent's Cavern simply because he liked it.… He had experienced intense pleasure in it, and he could assure them that, on his finding a Machairodus latidus, after seven years and a half exploration, the discovery of that one tooth, in his opinion, was worth all the money that had been spent in the exploration of the cavern."

Besides geology, Mr. Pengelly had a living concern with astronomy, on subjects of which he lectured and read papers, and in folk-lore, and was "extremely interested" in the religious history of Cornwall. He became a member of the Society of Friends about 1853, and married his second wife, Lydia Spriggs, in that body. She assisted him in his scientific work, preparing diagrams.

Of Pengelly's character as a man. Professor Bonney speaks of the great charm in his personality, and the union in him of "such strong mental powers, and no less strong sense of what was just, true, and right, to such genuine humor and hearty enjoyment of wit." Sir Archibald Geikie speaks of his "genial, kindly, and helpful nature, and his invariably bright, cheery, and witty talk." Prof. Rupert Jones characterizes him as "a good example of a religious man—earnest, persevering, and exact in scientific research." The Rev. Robert Hardy says, "He did not obtrude his theological opinions, but it was easy to perceive that he was a man of true religious character." Sir Joseph Lister, looking back to the times of his acquaintance with him, recalled "vividly the impression of his great intellectual powers, his genial benevolence, and his sparkling humor."

As a lecturer his style is described as having been "most attractive. It is incisive, clear, and at times there are touches of humor. His perfect knowledge of the subject, combined with intense earnestness, clothed his lecture with genuine eloquence."

Miss Pengelly's biography abounds with illustrations of her father's rare faculty of attracting and interesting workingmen. A letter from one such man expresses gratitude, mingled with great pleasure, for the lasting happiness he was "so anxious and constant to impart to us young men during the Young Men's Society and afterward at the Mechanics' Institute, … and I have often felt and said I owe more gratitude for the small amount of knowledge I possess, to Mr. Pengelly, of Torquay, than to any living man, and I think there are a few now in Torquay who might truly say so too."