Papers of Sir William Boyd Dawkins

Scope and Content

The Boyd-Dawkins papers provide extensive documentation of his role as an economic geologist. It includes personal letters, consultancy reports, geological sections and notes, printed evidence to official committees, company prospectuses, maps and press cuttings, and reports and letters from geologists, such as William Whitaker, Henry Godwin-Austen, and Robert Etheridge. The archive also contains useful information on Dawkins' contacts with businesses involved in the exploitation of natural resources, including water, coal, clay

WBD/1, Dawkins' personal and professional correspondence, includes several interesting items concerning the acquisition of geological and palaeontological specimens, some for Manchester Museum.

WBD/2 much material relating to Dawkins' economic geology interests and activities, including consultancies and expert opinion in legal cases. WBD/2/A deals with the numerous water supply projects Dawkins was associated with, particularly in the London area, including reservoir, power and sewerage projects, and legal cases concerning the same. Further court and arbitration cases and consultancy projects can be found in WBD/2/C and WBD/2/D.

There are a number of papers concerning the Channel Tunnel project in the 1880s, from which resulted the discovery and exploitation of the Kent coalfield (WBD/2/B), a process with which Dawkins was intimately involved.

WBD/2/E is a series of papers on Dawkins' interest in the Isle of Man, including its geology, antiquities, and the Manx language. WBD/2/F is concerned with foreign geological projects including diamond mining in South Africa, oil in Australia, coal in Mozambique, and water in Peru. The collection also includes a number of Dawkins' offprint articles (WBD/3).

The abbreviation "WBD" is used to describe Dawkins in several instances in the catalogue.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Boyd Dawkins was an eminent figure in the development of geology and palaeontology during the Victorian and Edwardian era. Born at Buttington, near Welshpool in 1837, the son of a clergyman, Dawkins was educated at Rossall School and Jesus College, Oxford, where he took a first in natural sciences. In 1861, he was the first recipient of the Burdett-Coutts scholarship, which had been established to encourage the study of geology. From 1861 to 1869, Dawkins was a member of the Geological Survey, responsible for mapping parts of the Thames Valley and Kent. In 1869 he was appointed curator of the Manchester Museum and in 1874 was created the first professor of geology at Owens College. He retired from this position in 1908.

As a palaeontologist, Dawkins made his name in uncovering evidences of early man and mammal life in the British Isles. He undertook important excavations at Wookey Hole caves in Somerset, and later at Cresswell Crag caves, near Worksop. At both locations he found evidence of the contemporaneity of Pleistocene man and many extinct mammals, discovering many implements and tools made from the bones of the latter. At Cresswell Crags, he discovered a piece of bone with the incised figure of a horse's head, which proved to be the earliest example of cave art in Britain yet found. His excavations allowed Dawkins to draw up a detailed account of the succession of faunas and to show the progress of the handiwork of primitive man during the Pleistocene. His findings were published in Cave Hunting (1874) and Early Man in Britain and his Place in the Tertiary Period (1880). Dawkins also produced studies of the origins of the cave lion and the dentition of the woolly rhinoceros, and collaborated with W Ayshford Sandford on the multi-volume British Pleistocene Mammalia (1866-).

Dawkins combined an academic career with an active role in economic geology, acting as a consultant for public authorities and private businesses on a number of geological projects. In the 1880s, he advised on a Channel Tunnel project, and found that parts of East Kent might contain coal measures; he suggested using the tunnel shafts to explore for coal. This proved successful, and Dawkins played a continuing role in the development of the Kent coalfield. He was also much involved with various water supply projects for municipal authorities, including the London water supply, siting of reservoirs and the development of power and sewage facilities. At various times he was also consulted on fluorspar mining, oil prospecting in Derbyshire, compensation cases relating to damage caused by pumping of brine in Cheshire and the environmental damage caused by mining. He advised on the mining of diamonds in South Africa, oil shale in Australia and marble in Italy. As a result of this work, he was often called as an expert witness in various court cases to do with mining. In his work at Manchester University, he stressed the importance of such practical geology, and included mining as part of the geology syllabus.

Dawkins took an active role in public life in Manchester; he was a founder and first president of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society and president of Manchester Geological and Mining Society. He was also a very popular lecturer, who attracted large audiences. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1867, awarded the Lyell Medal in 1889 and the Prestwich Medal in 1918, and in 1919 he was knighted. Dawkins was twice married, and lived at Bowdon, Cheshire, where he died in 1929.


The collection has been divided into three series:

  • WBD/1 -Personal Correspondence, papers and related documents
  • WBD/2 - Projects and Consultancies: Reports, Correspondence and Maps
  • WBD/3 - Publications

Access Information

Open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The archive was deposited at the Library by Edgar Morton and Partners, consulting engineers of Altrincham, Cheshire in 1990. The papers had been in the custody of Edgar Morton, a hydrogeologist and associate of Dawkins.

Other Finding Aids

A version of this handlist was previously published as G. Tweedale and T. Procter, "Catalogue of the Papers of Sir William Boyd Dawkins in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester , Vol.74, no.2 (1992), pp. 3-36. This is now superseded by the present list.

Separated Material

Manchester Museum also has custody of some of Boyd Dawkins' papers [uncatalogued], which includes notebooks and sketchbooks. Many of Dawkins' papers relating to his palaeontological work are held by Buxton Museum (ref: series 1/1b) The Buxton material includes personal and professional papers, including ms. lectures, cuttings books, correspondence, photographs and offprints. Oxford University Museum has custody of Dawkins's letters to John Phillips, professor of geology at Oxford, 1861-1871, and some documents concerning the Somerset cave explorations.

Wells Museum, Somerset has Dawkins' diary of the Wookey Hole exploration and notes relating to quaternary palaeontology.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Related Material

Dawkins's extensive correspondence with the historians E. A. Freeman and John Richard Green is located at Jesus College, Oxford.


See Geoffrey Tweedale and Timothy Procter, "New documentary evidence on the career of Sir William Boyd Dawkins, F.R.S. (1837-1929)", Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London , Vol. 45, No. 2 (Jul., 1991), pp. 193-200, and G. Tweedale, "Geology and industrial consultancy: Sir William Boyd Dawkins, 1837–1929, and the Kent coalfield", British Journal for the History of Science, 24 (1991), pp. 435–51.