Edward Tawney (1841-1882)

The first geology lecturer in Bristol, with broad research interests in regional geology and palaeontology of the Bristol district and further afield, but struck down young by ill health.

Edward B. Tawney was the first geologist employed by the University of Bristol, and he taught the entire course from the inception of the University College of Bristol in 1876, until his resignation in 1878, when he took up a post in Cambridge. Tawney was offered the post because he was already Curator at Bristol Museum and Library. He held both jobs concurrently, combining the duties of lecturer and curator, and earning an additional £50 per annum plus 2/3 of lecture fees for delivering the lectures.

Edward B. Tawney was the third child of the Rev. Richard Tawney, Vicar of Willoughby, Warwickshire, who died while Edward was young. Tawney was then placed under the care of his guardian, Dr. Bernard of Clifton, and received his early education there. As a schoolboy, he was encouraged in his interest in natural science by Dr. Bernard and Dr. Fox of Brislington. Tawney studied at Imperial College from 1860 to 1863, where he excelled, and then spent some years pursuing his personal interest in geology, writing papers about geological and palaeontological observations around Bristol, in South Wales, Devon, and the Alps. His first paper (Tawney 1866) was on the Rhaetic in South Wales.

In 1872, he was appointed as Curator in the Bristol Museum, and was able to show the collections in a well organised condition when the British Association visited Bristol in 1875. As well as performing his curatorial duties, he continued to investigate the geology, stratigraphy, and palaeontology around Bristol, and published several papers, particularly in the Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society. For the 1875 meeting of the British Association, he contributed a long chapter on the physical geography and geology of the Bristol district to a book on Bristol and its area (Tawney 1876). He continued to make contributions to the stratigraphy and regional geology of rocks of these ages, using a mix of his own field work as well as fossils in the Bristol Museum.

T. McKenny Hughes (1883), in his obituary of Tawney, makes no mention of his lecturing work for Bristol University College, but goes on to describe Tawney’s move from Bristol Museum to Cambridge, “While he was hammering along the South Wales coast he accepted the offer of a post at Cambridge, and from that dates a new era in his life and work. He now, as Assistant to the Woodwardian Professor, had charge of one of the largest collections in the kingdom, and soon made himself master of all the contents of each part of the Museum in turn”. The Woodwardian Museum was renamed as the Sedgwick Museum in 1904. In addition to his curatorial work. Tawney offered diverse teaching to the Cambridge students on palaeontology, petrology, stratigraphical geology and ‘dynamical geology’. His collection of 19 field notebooks is preserved in the Sedgwick Museum, as too is the lithograph portrait shown here (Anderson 2012). Anderson (2012) also provides a list of Tawney’s published papers.

Tawney was much loved in Cambridge, and was given an Honorary MA in 1879, but his health was increasingly poor. As McKenny Hughes (1883) describes it, as a relatively young man of 42, “He commonly dined in hall till lately, when he complained much of the climate, and did not go out at night. In December he went to Mentone, accompanied by the Professor of Mineralogy, and put himself under a foreign medical man. At first it was hoped that the warmth and fresh air, which he was now able to get out and enjoy, were doing him good; but in a few days he complained of great weakness, and on Dec. 30, before he had been out a week, he passed quietly away in sleep.” He is buried in Mentone, in a cemetery that overlooks the Mediterranean.

Tawney’s obituarist in Nature, A.G., concluded, “That with his feebleness of constitution he should have been able to accomplish so much, shows how ardent was his love of nature and how indomitable his spirit of inquiry. His devotion to truth and abhorrence of everything savouring of insincerity or sham led him to speak out freely and uncompromisingly”.

Read more

Anderson, L.I. 2012. Edward B. Tawney: an early geological curator. The Geological Curator 9, 409-418. Read the paper here.

A.G. [possibly Archibald Geikie] 1883. The late Edward B. Tawney. Nature 27, 295-296. Read the obituary here.

McKenny Hughes, T. 1883. Obituary. E. B. Tawney M.A., F.G.S. Geological Magazine 10, 140-144. Read the obituary here.

Tawney, E. B. 1866. The western limit of the Rhaetic beds in South Wales and the position of the Sutton Stone. Journal of the Geological Society of London 22, 69-93. Read the paper here.

Tawney, E. B. 1876. Physical geography and geology. Pp. 319-382 in Bristol and its Environs: Historical, Descriptive and Scientific. Houlston and Sons, Bristol, 475 pp. Read a scanned version here.