Charles Lapworth, Professor of Geology

Charles Lapworth (1842-1920) was one of Britain’s greatest geologists. He had a very close connection with Galashiels having occupied the post of head teacher of the Episcopal School (now St Peter’s Primary School) from 1864 to 1875. It was during that time that he developed his interest in geology.

The story goes that, on his arrival in Galashiels from Berkshire in 1864, he suffered a spell of poor health. He was a bookish young man and his doctor advised more fresh air, and so he stepped out into the hills surrounding the town.

We don’t know what or who sparked his interest in the rocks beneath his feet and how they had been formed – perhaps his attention was drawn to the complex rock formations in the local quarries which were providing the “whinstone” for all the mill-related buildings and indeed for his fine newly built school and schoolhouse?

Soon he and his friend, James Wilson, were spending all their spare time examining rock exposures in local quarries, banks and cuttings.

Lapworth would also have been reading geology avidly and he quickly developed an astonishing ability to recognise landscape features and rock formations and to find fossils in certain strata. These fossils were graptolites, plankton-like creatures which swam in ancient oceans about 400million years ago, eventually falling into sediments on the ocean bed. Lapworth discovered that by identifying the various graptolites, he could recognise the exact sequences of rock strata. This eventually allowed him to unravel many of the extreme complexities of Southern Uplands geology, for example, that our rounded hills were just the remnants of what had been a mountain range of alpine proportions in ancient geological time. Lapworth recognised that huge forces must have been at work to distort the rocks in such a dramatic way. He didn’t know the exact mechanisms – that knowledge came 100 years later with the discovery of plate tectonics which explained the collisions of continents and the uplifting of ocean beds into huge mountain chains.  

Lapworth’s intensive work around Galashiels led to his publishing important papers in the early 1870s. Many of his brilliant interpretations were contrary to previous opinion and no doubt some members of the geology hierarchy would not have taken kindly to lessons from a Galashiels schoolteacher! 

Further intensive work in other parts of the Southern Uplands followed, especially at Dobb’s Linn near the Grey Mare’s Tail in Dumfriesshire. That work led to a seminal paper read to the Geological Society in London in 1877. It formed the basis of our modern understanding of the geology of the Southern Uplands and firmly marked the arrival of Charles Lapworth as a geologist of major stature.  

One wonders how he managed to combine his school teaching responsibilities with his new passion for geology, however, the many fine testimonials he received on leaving the school indicate that his school responsibilities did not suffer.

There also had to be time for another passion.

In 1869 he married a Galashiels lass, Jenny Sanderson, and they went on to have five children, three of whom were born in the School House in Galashiels. His son, Arthur Lapworth, another Great Galalean, followed in his father’s scientific footsteps to become a pioneer of physical organic chemistry.

In 1875, the family left Galashiels for St Andrews where Lapworth taught English at Madras College until 1881. In that year, and as an amateur geologist without any formal training, he was elected Professor of Geology at Mason College in Birmingham (later to become the University of Birmingham) where he occupied the chair until 1913.

During his professorial years he became renowned as an inspiring teacher, continued ground breaking research in many parts of Britain, became the international expert on graptolites, saw his methods on graptolite stratification adopted worldwide and had his proposal of a new geological era, the Ordovician, accepted internationally.

Lapworth died in 1920. It would not be an exaggeration to call him a genius of science.  His name is commemorated in the Lapworth Museum of Geology in Birmingham. Plaques to commemorate his life and work can be found at Birkhill cottage near Dobb’s Linn and at Madras College in St Andrews.  

In 2019, a bronze plaque was provided through the Commemorative Plaque Scheme of Historic Environment Scotland and was placed on the wall of the old Episcopal School (now Galashiels Social Work Office) at the eastern end of Church Street. Most fittingly, the plaque was unveiled by schoolchildren of St Peter’s Primary School.

Thanks to Malcolm Lindsay for submitting this story.

 

Charles Lapworth Portrait By Munns 1914

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