Papers of Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers of Sir Charles Lyell consist of: circa 10 boxes of correspondence; 2 boxes of miscellaneous papers and lecture notes including lectures on geology, notes on sea-serpents, notes on the New Zealand earthquake, 1856, and an address on Darwin; and, circa 24 boxes of offprints of papers.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, near Kirriemuir in Angus, on 14 November 1797. During his lifetime he wrote many geological papers, mainly published by the Geological Society of London, however his reputation rests almost entirely on his work Principles of Geology, inspired in part by a European tour with Sir Roderick Impey Murchison and also his knowledge of James Hutton's Theory of the Earth. In this work, first published in three volumes (1830-1833), Lyell propounded his theory of uniformitarianism, which holds that the Earth's history is explained by gradual change over time, and that geological processes going on today (like erosion) have occurred in the past and have shaped the Earth's surface, and this had a strong influence on Charles Darwin. Lyell's other works include: The Elements of Geology (1837), Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (three editions, 1863-1873). Charles Lyell's father was an active naturalist, and Lyell had access to an elaborate library which included works on geology. Whilst at Oxford University he attended lectures by William Buckland, Professor of Geology, that triggered his enthusiasm for the subject. He became more and more interested in the subject and made many geological tours with his family in England and Scotland in 1817, and on the Continent the following year, the first of many trips abroad. In 1828 he explored the volcanic region of the Auvergne, then went to Mount Etna to gather supporting evidence for the theory of geology he would expound in his Principles of Geology. He also made numerous tours of the United States, described in Travels in North America. His writings deal with the rock cycle, which explains how one type of rock is transformed into another. Lyell also expounds notions on volcanic forces, deposition, erosion and paleontology in his writings. His work helped to establish the modern study of geology and geologic time. In addition to rock formation, he also wrote about paleontology. It was Lyell who proposed the idea of reference fossils - fossils which are indicative of certain periods of geologic time. He divided geologic time into four periods: Pleistocene, Older Pliocene, Miocene and Eocene. His final work, The Antiquity of Man, 1863, was a wide-ranging study of the human fossil record. In 1823 Lyell was appointed secretary of the Geological Society of London, and 3 years later they made him their foreign secretary. He was twice President in 1836 and 1850. Lyell was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1826. He was awarded a Royal Medal in 1834 and the Copley Medal in 1858 and in 1866 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal. In 1832 he was the first professor of geology at King's College, London, and became President of the British Association in 1864. Sir Charles Lyell died at his Harley Street home, in London, on 22 February 1875.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Sir Charles Lyell. [Online]. People of Angus.  Angus Council, Local History [Accessed: 8 March 2001] (2) Bailey, Edward. Charles Lyell. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1962. (3) Sir Charles Lyell. [Online].Emuseum.  Minnesota State University [Accessed: 8 March 2001]. (4) Howard, A.V. Chamber's Dictionary of Scientists. London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers Ltd, 1951. (5) SJSU Virtual Museum. [Online].   San Jose State University [Accessed 8 March 2001]. (6) Williams, T.I. A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists. London: A. & C. Black Ltd, 1969.

Compiled by Andrew Thomson, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Revised by Graeme D Eddie.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show various references to Lyell related material (check the Indexes for more details): Dc.4.101-103; Gen. 108-120; Gen. 525; Gen. 527; Gen. 1425-1426; Gen. 1429; Gen. 1731; Gen. 1733; Gen. 1971; Gen. 1996; JA 3787; Mic.M.957-958; and, more recently acquired correspondence. There is also correspondence to and from Lyell in the Laing Collection, La.II and La.IV. Related material is held by National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division GB 0233 MSS 2213-2217 (1844-1872). A further 9 institutions (and 1 private individual) which hold archive material relating to Sir Charles Lyell are noted in the National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission.