Robert Ferguson MP: newly-discovered correspondence
Press release issued: 10 May 2010
A unique archive of material belonging to Robert Ferguson FRS has just been purchased by the University of Bristol Library’s Special Collections. The archive, until now owned by the Ferguson family, was uncovered by historian of geology, Dr Cherry Lewis, while she was researching the early history of the Geological Society for her book, "The Making of the Geological Society of London".
A unique archive of material belonging to Robert Ferguson FRS has just been purchased by the University of Bristol Library’s Special Collections. The archive, until now owned by the Ferguson family, was uncovered by historian of geology, Dr Cherry Lewis, while she was researching the early history of the Geological Society for her book, The Making of the Geological Society of London.
Ferguson was a Scottish mineral collector, a wealthy patron of science and a strong supporter of the newly-founded (1807) Geological Society of London in its difficult early years. A large part of the correspondence is between Ferguson, one of the Society’s first four vice-presidents and Count de Bournon FRS (1751–1825), one of the founders of the Geological Society. The material, mostly from the early 19th-century, sheds light on developments within the Geological Society during its first years.
Dr Lewis said: “Count de Bournon was a refugee from the French Revolution who came to England in 1792. He was immediately elected to the Royal Society because of his advanced expertise in mineralogy and soon became a leading figure within scientific circles in London.
“Mineral collecting was very much in vogue at this time among the wealthy elite who spent vast sums on their collections, and Bournon was employed by some of these men to look after and enhance their collections. Unfortunately, in 1809 his main patron, Sir Charles Greville, died rather unexpectedly, leaving Bournon with a much reduced income, so when the British Museum decided to purchase Greville’s mineral collection for the nation, Bournon, who had worked on the collection for 18 years, rather naturally expected to be given the job of cataloguing it.”
The correspondence between Bournon and Ferguson documents Bournon’s mounting frustration when he is first offered a derisory salary for doing the job at the British Museum and his later despair when it transpires that Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, has appointed someone else to the job. Bournon determines to ‘leave mineralogy for ever’, despite Ferguson’s attempts to persuade him otherwise.
Michael Richardson, librarian of the Special Collections, said: “This is an exciting find, offering insights into the earliest years of the Geological Society and the mineral collectors of that time. Of particular interest to us is that it complements materials already held in our Eyles Collection.
“As well as the correspondence mentioned above, the new archive includes a rare copy of the Geological Society’s Charter of 1838, a considerable amount of material sent out by the Society in its very earliest years, contemporary notes on chemistry and geology, correspondence with other mineralogists, and the original labels for several meteorites, including the famous L’Aigle meteorite.”
A meteorite shower of more than 3,000 fragments fell on the town of L'Aigle in France in the early afternoon of 26 April 1803. It was this meteorite shower that finally confirmed to men of science that stones really did fall from the sky. Ferguson obtained a piece from the main body of the meteorite that sold at Christie’s in 1998 for £30,000.
The archive can be viewed by making an appointment with Michael Richardson.
Further informationThe Eyles Collection
Formerly considered to be the finest accumulation of early geological publishing in private hands, the Eyles Collection consists of correspondence, papers, maps and volumes collected by Victor and Joan Eyles as a library on the history and practice of geology. Victor Ambrose Eyles (1895-1978) was the son of W.H. Eyles, one-time Lord Mayor of Bristol. In 1955 Victor graduated as a Doctor of Science at the University of Bristol. After his death in 1978, his wife Joan continued to work on amassing the Eyles Library and on the history of geology. On Joan’s death, the Eyles Collection came as a bequest to the University of Bristol Library. She also left an endowment for the purchase of early geological materials to augment the Collection.