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Revd. David Williams

The Revd. David Williams (1792-1850), Rector of Bleadon parish, just south of Weston-super-Mare, was already established as a local geologist and palaeontologist (Woolrich, 2004). He was elected Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1828, and had published a paper on Pleistocene bones from the Mendip caves (Williams, 1834). In 1830, Williams visited Lyme Regis, and sought to buy the Squaloraja specimen then on sale by Mary Anning. He offered £35, which was declined, and the Bristol Institution eventually obtained it, perhaps for £50 (Taylor and Torrens, 1987).

The rectory at Bleadon, Somerset, built in 1821 by the Rev. David Williams. It was demolished around 1976. Photograph by kind permission of Mrs. Margaret Cullen, shown on the left.

Through his life, Williams amassed a large collection of geological specimens from south-west England, and these included diverse Palaeozoic fossils, Mesozoic vertebrate specimens, and abundant Pleistocene bones, his first love. The collection was purchased on his death by the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in Taunton (Baker, 1852), where they now form part of the collections of the Somerset County Museum

David Williams engaged actively in the 'Great Devonian Controversy', the debate over the dating and extent of what later became defined as the Devonian system, and he published 13 papers on the subject between 1836 and 1846 based on vast amounts of detailed fieldwork in Somerset and north Devon (Rudwick, 1985). Rudwick (1985) suggests that Williams was an expert observer and collector, but in engaging in controversy with such luminaries as Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) and Roderick Murchison (1792-1871) he suffered both from their contempt of such a provincial amateur geologist, but also overstepped his knowledge in pronouncing on wider topics where he lacked experience. In 1839, Murchison wrote to Sedgwick, 'Parson Williams gave us another diatribe on Devon last meeting... The blundering Welshman has now got into a more extraordinary blunder than ever' (Thackray, 2003, p. 91). In any case, Williams was a controversialist and he was clearly a tough-minded individual in repeatedly re-entering the fray against Murchison.

Despite communication with his surviving relatives, and with a variety of archivists and historians, no extant portrait of Williams has been located. He was described by a contemporary as of 'huge build, with a farmer-like face and a head full of the strata and antiquities of Somersetshire'.

His obituarist (Anonymous, 1850) paints a kinder picture, deploring the 'disastrous extinction of a strong intelligence, and the disappearance of a name, not only dear to the science which he loved and adorned, but rendered familiar to the public as well by social position and distinguished friendships, as by the characteristic bonhomie, the independent views, and the active originality displayed by that eminent person... [T]o his geological brethern the frank open brow, the almost rustic simplicity of contenenance, the weighty frame, the almost rustic simplicity of manner, chastened by a certain refinement and repose, have been long familiar, and will be keenly missed... We remember to have made a pilgrimage to Bleadon with a distinguished member of the British Association. We found the retreat of science encumbered, within and without, with the imperishable exuviae of the ransacked hills. Not a table, a chair, or a sofa without its antediluvian occupant.'

Williams seems to have had rather distant relations with the Bristol Institution, which he does not mention in his notebooks (SOMCM), even though he had been elected an Honorary Member of the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society in 1829. Apart from a visit in late 1834, his having failed to acquire the Squaloraja fossil, and the run-in with Stutchbury over Thecodontosaurus, there is no evidence of other contact. Perhaps indicative is the report in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal (27th September, 1834, p. 2) of the British Association meeting in Edinburgh, where several officers from the Bristol Institution proposed that the Association should hold its next meeting in Bristol, where it would be hosted by the Institution. The Rev. D. Williams is reported to have spoken in favour of the proposal, but clearly as an independent individual. He was billed to give a series of lectures 'upon the bone caves of England and the continent' in 1835 (West of England Journal of Science and Literature, vol. 1, p. 36).

  • Anonymous, 1850. Biography. The Rev. David Williams. The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. 34(1756), 674 [attributed to Edward Smyth Pigott].
  • Baker, W., 1852. The evening meeting [the Williams Museum]. Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Proceedings 1852, 5-8.
  • Churchgoer [Leech, J.], 1850. Rural Rides; or, Calls at Country Churches, Second Series. John Ridler, Bristol, 262 pp.
  • Rudwick, M.J.S., 1985. The Great Devonian Controversy. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 494 pp.
  • Taylor, M.A., Torrens, H.S., 1987. Saleswoman to a new science: Mary Anning and the fossil fish Squaloraja from the Lias of Lyme Regis. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 108, 135-148.
  • Thackray, J.C., 2003. To See the Fellows Fight. Eye Witness Accounts of Meetings of the Geological Society of London and its Club, 1822-1868. British Society for the History of Science, London, 243 pp.
  • Williams, D., 1834. On the several ravines, passes, and fractures in the Mendip Hills and other adjacent boundaries of the Bristol coal-field, and on the geological period when they were effected. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 2, 79-80.
  • Williams, D., 1835. On the bones of certain animals which have been recently discovered, in the calcareo-magnesian conglomerate on Durdham Down, near Bristol. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 2, 112 [also London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, Series 3, 6, 149].
  • Woolrich, A.P., 2004. Williams, David (1792-1850). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Bleadon church guide

The paper

Benton, M.J. 2012. Naming the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus: politics and science in the 1830s. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association 123, 766-778. Download pdf of the paper.

Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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