The Papers of William Bernard Robinson King

Scope and Content

The collection contains notebooks from the Second World War concerning water boreholes; rolls of maps; lantern plates marked "Channel"; typed manuscripts; a presentation copy of "Work of Royal Engineers in the European War 1914-1919, Geological Work on the western Front 1922"; handwritten notes on the retreat to Dunkirk; reports on specimens; dress medals; OBE and Military Cross; a silver cigarette case from colleagues at the Geological Survey, 1916; certificates of honorary degrees and awards; and a photograph album mostly relating to Sedgwick Club geological excursions.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Bernard Robinson King was born on 12th November 1889 at West Burton, near Aysgarth, Yorkshire, the younger son of William Robinson King (1854-1921) a solicitor, and his wife, Florence Muriel, nee Theed (1865-1943). His maternal grandmother was a descendant of Dr Hey who founded Leeds Infirmary. King had an older brother, but he was accidentally killed at the age of 21.

King was educated at Mr Houfe’s school in Aysgarth and then at Uppingham School, Rutland where he achieved the school VIII in rifle shooting. In 1908 he went to Jesus College (as had his father and brother), and read the Natural Sciences Tripos. He dropped Physics in favour of botany and took Part I in 1911 and Part II in geology in 1912, attaining a First Class degree and being awarded the Harkness Scholarship [awarded for the proficiency in science of Geology and Palaeontology, established by Mrs Pearson in memory of her brother, Robert Harkness [Professor of Geology, Queens College, Cork].

King took the public examination for a vacancy on the Geological Survey, which he joined in October 1912, and undertook field surveys for its Flint and Oswestry memoirs. He was largely engaged on the mapping of Millstone, Grit, Coal Measures, Triassic and Pleistocene before mapping Ordovician and Silurian Rocks. The descriptive memoirs were eventually published in 1924 and 1929.

After the outbreak of World War 1, King was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Seventh Battalion of the Royal Welch [Welsh] Fusiliers in October 1914. In 1915 the Chief Engineer British Expeditionary Force (BEF France) requested the War Office send a geologist to advise on water supply, and King was duly sent.

After being removed from the map section of the War Office (where Tresillian Charles Nicholas, a fellow Cambridge Student was also placed) and training with Sir Audrey Strahan and George Barrow of the Geological Survey, King was based in France until the end of the war. He subsequently supervised and interpreted many of the 400 borings which were put down behind the Western Front. He also collaborated with Professor Sir Tannat William Edgeworth David on mines and dugouts.

During the War there were concerns that neutral Holland was allowing its waterways to be used for the transport of materials of military significance. A committee was established (including A.Straham, Xavier Stainier, Edgworth David, JJH Teall, and Alfred Harker), and samples were retrieved and tested by the Geological Society. King, and others, were able to show that captured concrete emplacements on the Passchendale Ridge contained Niedermendig basalt from the Rhineland.

In 1919 King returned to the Geological Survey. However, the Woodwardian Professor in Cambridge, Professor John E. Marr (1857-1933) offered him the posts of demonstrator and assistant to the Professor. This was accepted and King was elected a fellow of his old college, Jesus (and Magdalene) in 1922. He published 14 papers, mostly based on his war work in France and survey work in Wales, but also Palaeozoic stratigraphy and palaeontology, and Pleistocene sedimentary geology.

Between 1931 and 1943 King was a Non-stipendiary Fellow at University College, London as the Yates-Goldsmid chair of Geology, in succession to Professor E.J Garwood (who had also been a Cambridge University Natural Sciences student). He continued his work on Palaeozic and Pleistocene themes, and published a further 13 papers.

In 1939 King was called up from the Army Officers Emergency Reserve to go as a geologist to the Engineer in Chief, British Expediatry Force (BEF), France. He earned a Military Cross for bravery in convoying high explosives from Boulogne to Bailleul, and Cassel, before being evacuated from Dunkirk. [notes about the convoy are in the Archive].

His war time activities in 1939/1940 again centered on the role of water supply, but also the siting of airfields, and the provision of stone and gravel as constructional materials. King was attached to Northern Command for a year and then, from 1941 to 1943, to G.H.Q Home Forces which was to become for invasion purposes 21 Army Group. He worked with the planners on the invasion of Normandy, for which he initiated enquiries into water supply, trafficability, availability of construction materials and operational airfield sites on the French mainlined and on the nature and distribution of beach materials on those shores where the invasion army might land. He influenced the decision to invade via the Calvados coast, rather than the Cotentin peninsula, because the geological conditions were more favourable for the rapid construction of temporary airfields.

As well as this King initiated studies of the floor of the English Channel to facilitate laying of piped fuel supplies to sustain military operations. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on 22 October 1943 before succeeding Professor O.T Jones (1878-1967) as Woodwardian Professor (Geology) in Cambridge.

After the Second World War, King established a pool of Geologist officers within the reserve army, and worked on a number of geological topics, at a time when his field was expanding. He edited volume 15, "Application of Geology" of the Royal Engineers textbook "Military Engineering".

King became a fellow of the Geological Society in 1912 (secretary, 1937-1940, 1944-1946 and President 1953-1955, and a council member for 17 years in total), a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1949 (council member, 1954-6), and a foreign correspondent of the Paleontological Society of India, the Geological Society of America, and the Geological Society of France. In 1949 and 1950 he was President of the Yorkshire Geological Society, and in 1951 was president of section C of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS).

He was awarded the Wollaston Fund in 1920 and Murchison Medal in 1951, the societe Geologique du Nord Gosselet Medal in 1923, and the Prestwich Medal in 1945 from the Geological Society of France. He was made a DSc of Cambridge University in 1937, and received honorary doctorates from Lille in 1947 (for his military geological work during the two world wars), and Rennes in 1952, for his work on the Geology of the English Channel.

King married Margaret Amy Passingham on 7th June 1916 at Eastnor in Herefordshire. They had two daughters, Margaret and Cuchlaine. [Cuchlaine King became a reader in Geography at Nottingham University]. King and his wife retired to Worton near Askrigg, Wensleydale in 1955. He subsequently had a minor operation in Friarage Hospital in Northallerton and died of a thrombosis 23rd January 1963. He was survived by his wife and 2 daughters.


The records appeared to have no original order, aside from a series of numbered notebooks, relating to work undertaken for the Geological Survey.

The records concerned geological work and Kings war-related service, and included general photographs and some personal material. The collection was arranged into 4 series to reflect the subject of the records.

The collection has been arranged (intellectually and physically) into the following series. NB: a number of sub-series exist within each series to reflect the type of records maintained by William King.

  • WBRK 1 Scientific Work
  • WBRK 2 War Service
  • WBRK 3 Photographs
  • WBRK 4 Personal

Access Information

The papers are open for consultation by researchers using Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

The Geological Conservation Unit [Brighton Building] is open from Monday to Friday, 10:00-13:00 and 14:00-17:00. A prior appointment made at least two weeks in advance, and two forms of identification are required.

Acquisition Information

The collection of records, photographs, and maps was deposited with the Sedgwick Museum in July 2012. It was acquired from Jane Ritchie, the grandaughter of William King, via Richard Nolan and Professor Nick McCave, a former Woodwardian Professor of Geology.

Other Finding Aids

A printed word document of the catalogue is available on request

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

The records have been repackaged by Museum volunteer Cherry Booth. The maps in the collection are mostly rolled and require staff assistance to access.

Archivist's Note

This collection level description was created by Sandra Freshney (nee Marsh) of Sedgwick Museum in January 2014 using information from Kings Obituary by F.W Shotton ‘Memoirs FRS’ volume 9 (1963) and the Dictionary of National Biography.

The collection was listed and catalogued by the late Dr Colin Forbes (former Curator of the Sedgwick Museum and contemporary of WBR King) and Sandra Freshney between January and May 2014.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies, photographs, and printouts from scanned images may be provided. Charges may apply. Readers may also use their own digital cameras subject to copyright legislation and in-house rules.

Researchers wishing to publish excerpts from the papers must obtain prior permission from the copyright holders and should seek advice from Sedgwick Museum Staff.

Please cite as Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Papers of William Bernard Robinson King.

Custodial History

The boxes were repackaged into 8 conservation grade boxes in 2012-2014.

The records were transferred from the Sedgwick Museum [Downing Street, Cambridge] to the Geological Conservation Unit [Madingley Road, Cambridge] in the summer of 2012.


No more records are currently expected.