History of the Department

Early years

The University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences can trace its origins back to 1876, when geology was offered as a subject at the original Bristol University College. At this time,  it operated from a house on Park Row. The staff of two professors and five lecturers offered lectures in fifteen subject areas, including geology. Classes in geology were given by Edward B. Tawney, an invertebrate palaeontologist and stratigrapher, who already occupied the post of 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 in respect of his lecturing duties.

University College’s geology syllabus for 1876 (see right) included such familiar and diverse topics as: the solid crust and its constituent minerals; causes of change of climate; classification of rocks; volcanoes and earthquakes; history of the Earth; first signs of life; Permian age and close of the Palaeozoic period – extinction of numerous organic forms; mineral veins and deposits of metallic ores. Sedimentologists today will appreciate that Tawney taught ‘sedimentary and unsedimentary’ rocks. The fee charged to students, for a course of two lectures per week for two terms, was £3 and 3 shillings (3 guineas), or £3.15. This is equivalent to a fee of £387 at modern prices.

The close link between Bristol Museum and the fledgling University of Bristol was one which continued for many years. When Tawney resigned in 1878, to take up an appointment as assistant to the Woodwardian Professor at Cambridge, he was succeeded at both Museum and College by W. J. Sollas who was paid £100 per annum plus 1/2 fees. Courses in Geology were held in Bristol Museum, then at the corner of University Road and Queen’s Road, rather than in the College’s Park Row premises, and presumably relied on the museum’s collections for teaching material.

After 1900

When the University received its charter in 1909, geology was taught within the Department of Zoology and Geology. It achieved separate status in 1910, under its redoubtable head, Professor S. H. Reynolds.

After nearly a century of very modest growth, the department moved to its current location in the neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building in 1985. Since the 1987 Oxburgh Review of Earth Sciences, the department has seen dramatic growth, investment and improvements in infrastructure, personnel, research output and rankings. In 1992 the school’s name was broadened to Earth Sciences, to reflects the breadth of our research and teaching activities. Further expansion occurred in 2003 when state-of-the-art laboratories and teaching space were added to the Inner Court building.

Bristol has been ranked in the top four UK Earth Science departments since 2001. The number of academic core staff members has risen from 13 in 1995 to 35 in 2017.