The Remarkable Reverend Henry W. Crosskey
Erratic Blocks Committee
Crosskey Collection of Glacial Erratic Specimens
To download a pdf version of this page click here.
The Lapworth Museum of Geology is home to an unusual collection of rock fragments of various shapes and sizes which were chipped from glacial erratic boulders all around the country, but particularly from the Midlands (fig.1). The collection dates from 1873 after the British Association for the Advancement of Science had formed a special committee to collect details of these boulders. The new science of glaciology was gaining pace through the second half of the 19th century, and erratic boulders were gradually being matched to their source rocks, often from distant mountains in Scotland, the Lake District and Wales.
Glacial erratics now took on new significance as key evidence in determining the direction of ice flow from the ice centres in mountainous areas, but they were also rapidly being destroyed as irksome obstacles in the development of our towns, cities and transport networks throughout the 19th century. The British Association’s Erratic Blocks Committee was set up to record the evidence and halt the destruction of erratic boulders, and the Birmingham minister Henry William Crosskey was appointed as its first Secretary (fig.2). In the Birmingham and Midland area this work was carried out in liaison with the Geological Section of the Birmingham Natural History Society.
The Reverend Crosskey (1826 -1893) is best known as a Unitarian minister and social reformer, and much less for his outstanding achievements as an amateur geologist focussing mainly on the subject of glaciology. In the context of the 2021 – 23 project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund: ‘Birmingham’s Erratic Boulders: Heritage of the Ice Age’, this article aims to redress the balance, examining Crosskey’s interest in the glacial geology of the Midlands, and in particular his recognition of the importance of glacial erratics in piecing together the story of the Ice Age. For much of the following I am indebted to Richard A. Armstrong’s biography of 1895, and especially Professor Lapworth’s tribute to Crosskey contained within that biography.1 & 2 Images relating to the Crosskey Collection have been obtained by courtesy of the Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham.
Henry William Crosskey was born in 1826 in Lewes, East Sussex, the eldest of five children. The family belonged to the non-conformist Unitarian church. From an early age Crosskey was determined to enter the ministry, though he later recalled from his school days being taken to scientific lectures at the Mechanics Institute and hearing “…the famous geologist, Dr. Gideon Mantell who lived in Lewes”.1 This awakened his curiosity to go on many a fossil hunting trip in the South Downs, and possibly sparked his life-long interest in geology.
After studying at a Unitarian college in Manchester, Crosskey’s first ministry was in Derby from 1848 to 1852. This was a time of great social unrest, which added fuel to the social principles which guided Crosskey throughout his life. He spoke out passionately for better housing and conditions for the poorest in society, and for reform of the education system to provide free education for all. In 1851 he took part in the formation of the ‘National and Public School Association’ and campaigned tirelessly for a free, secular education system available to all children by law, and for it to be free from the teaching of any religious dogma, allowing for freedom of thought and conscience.
Glasgow 1852 – 1869
In September 1852 Crosskey married Hannah, the daughter of Richard Aspden who was an accountant and assistant secretary to the college where Crosskey had studied. In his tribute to Crosskey, Professor Charles Lapworth refers to Crosskey’s correspondence with his future wife. It seems that the subject of geology cropped up frequently in their letters. Hannah had visited the Isle of Wight and attended various geological expeditions and fossil collecting sessions with some lady friends. From this Lapworth inferred that their “common regard for geology… formed afterwards a pleasant possession of their married life”.2
Crosskey’s next ministry took him and Hannah to Glasgow, where they remained for 17 years, and the year 1855 marked a turning point in his devotion to the study of geology. During a holiday with his wife on Arran Island he read ‘The Geology of Arran’ by Andrew C. Ramsay (fig.3). The Crosskeys were able to visit the sites described and view them with understanding from Ramsay’s guide book. In Lapworth’s words: “Crosskey caught the infection of the true geological fever, which never leaves a patient but with death”.2
Glasgow was at that time a hotbed of geological research and discovery, and Crosskey became acquainted with many distinguished scientists and geologists, such as James Croll, Lord Kelvin, Archibald and James Geikie, and many more. He steeped himself in geological literature and methods of field research, and was swept along with the exciting new field of geology at the time – the study of glaciology. This was the talk of the town amongst geologists of the day, with endless scope for debate, and for exertion in the outdoors – both fuel for Crosskey’s new found enthusiasm.
Opposed to the floating ice theory, was the theory which eventually prevailed, that the drift material or ‘boulder clay’ made of clay, sands, rock fragments and boulders, was the product solely of ice sheets moving in direct contact with the land surface. This theory initially gained momentum after a visit from the Swiss geologist Agassiz in 1840. He saw in the British landscape glacial formations comparable with the scouring of the land surface by recent glacial action in his native Switzerland. Leading geologists such as William Buckland and Charles Lyell embraced the new thinking, but Lyell soon dismissed it and reverted to the established theory of submergence with icebergs floating away from a northern ice margin.4 With Lyell, Murchison and other leading British geologists promoting the older hypotheses, the debate lost momentum in a mire of compromise theories. It is not surprising that Crosskey embraced the prevailing theory of submergence and dropstones when he entered the field in 1855. In Britain the science of glaciology was held back for nearly three decades by the confusion of ideas.
Field visits all around the Clyde estuary with his geologist friends saw Crosskey honing his skills as a field researcher. In the Clyde deposits, earlier researchers had recognised a lower section of glacial boulder clay and an upper undifferentiated sequence of fossiliferous sands and gravels. Crosskey entered this research when it had become recognised that there were two distinct shell-bearing layers in the formerly undifferentiated material: a lower section bearing arctic fauna, and a distinct upper sequence bearing more recent, non-Arctic fauna. Thus these and similar deposits elsewhere were re-classified as ‘Glacial’ or Post-Glacial’. Because there was confusion in the descriptions of these deposits in the contemporary literature, Crosskey saw the need to re-examine them. He collected numerous fossil specimens from the glacial and post-glacial shell-bearing strata, meticulously recording every detail, and refining the data and conclusions from earlier researchers. He was able to clarify, categorise and record data efficiently and also to express his findings with clarity.
Crosskey showed particular interest in finding comparison for the glacial and post-glacial shells he found in the Clyde with those from other areas of the country and abroad. From work done by others in Canada, he found that the shell fauna around the shores of Britain had changed more since the Ice Age than those from Canada and published a paper on this in 1868.5 Following the same train of thought, in 1867 he and his friend David Robertson paid a long visit to Norway where they were welcomed and assisted by Professor Sars and other local geologists. They studied and collected shells from numerous sites, and the result was a joint paper, ‘Notes of the Post-Tertiary Geology of Norway’ read to the Philosophical Society of Glasgow in April 1868. They found close correlation between the Norwegian and Clyde glacial boulder clay and the overlying shell beds, and evidence that glacial conditions lingered longer in Norway.
Even after he moved to Birmingham in 1869 Crosskey continued to work on Scottish glaciology, and was joint author of around 20 papers on the subject. Written along with Robertson and others, his various publications on the post-Tertiary fossiliferous beds of West Scotland long remained as authoritative reference works for their detailed accounts of the glacial strata and fauna of that area. The Palaeontographical Society’s 1874 publication ‘Monograph of the Post-Tertiary Entomostraca’ by Brady, Crosskey and Robertson, brings together much of this earlier work, with tables of fossil shell finds and locations, accompanied by 16 plates with around 500 small illustrations (fig.4).
Birmingham 1869 – 1893
It was from this background that the Reverend Henry William Crosskey and his growing family moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in 1869. He was persuaded to take on the ministry of the Unitarian Church in Birmingham and was eager to face new challenges. The Church of the Messiah was a magnificent Gothic structure in Broad Street which had been built to house a growing congregation just a few years before Crosskey’s arrival (fig.5). This was the scene of his ministry for the rest of his life. Amongst his predecessors as minister was the scientist Joseph Priestley, known for his independent discovery of oxygen. In Crosskey’s congregation were members of the eminent Martineau and Chamberlain families, particularly Joseph Chamberlain who became Mayor of Birmingham in 1873 and later an MP. Chamberlain was also the founder and first chancellor of the University of Birmingham.
Crosskey entered into Birmingham public life with customary vigour, making himself known to the non-conformist liberal reformers who were making waves to improve the lives of ordinary people in Birmingham. Before long he was a member of the Schools Board, and later its chairman. He was closely aligned with liberal politicians and public figures such as Joseph Chamberlain, Dr. R.W. Dale (Congregational Minister), George Dawson (non-conformist preacher and social reformer) and George Dixon, (variously a councillor, MP, and colleague of Crosskey’s on the Schools Board). Soon after his move, Crosskey joined the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, and began making himself known within Birmingham’s geological community. He set to work on the glacial deposits of the English Midlands armed with the knowledge and conclusions from his experiences in Glasgow. It was not long before he was elected president of that society.
Glacial Erratics as evidence from the Ice Age
There was, however, one promising source of evidence absent from the Scottish deposits of his previous research: glacial erratic boulders were to be found scattered on the surface all around the Midlands, sometimes partially buried, or found within the deeper boulder clays. Many of these had already been identified and connected with their source rock types in Scotland, the Lake District and Wales (fig.6). The earlier researchers in the Midlands seemed mostly to agree that the Great Ice Age included a period of widespread marine submergence: sands and gravels were assigned to the movement of the sea, and the boulders were dropped from melting icebergs.
Within a year of his arrival in Birmingham, Crosskey produced a paper: ‘On the glacial epoch in Britain’, and the following year (1870) along with C.J. Woodward: ‘On the Post-Tertiary Rocks of the Midland District’ which was published in the Proceedings of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society. By then Crosskey had visited many of the key local exposures of glacial deposits, one of the most significant being the California clay pits near the district of Harborne (fig.7). Here the two authors recognised a basal glacial deposit lying on a polished and striated rock floor. With the eye of faith, they assigned the basal deposit to the period of ‘land ice’, then a middle section of sands, gravels and clays to a period of ‘submergence’, and the upper gravels to a third period when the land was ‘re-elevated’. This neatly fitted Crosskey’s pre-existing theory, but he had yet to turn his attention to the systematic recording and classification of erratic boulders.
Crosskey could see that urgent action was needed in the face of widespread destruction and ignorance of the potential significance of erratics to the science of glaciology. Although researchers such as D. Mackintosh were already working on erratics far to the north and west of Birmingham, Crosskey was instrumental in bringing the subject to the notice of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) for some national co-ordination in recording data. He was duly elected Secretary of the new Erratic Blocks Committee of the BAAS which reported for the first time in 1873.
In that same year, 1873, Crosskey retired from his Presidential position with the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society. He chose Geology as his special subject for his retiring presidential address, and it started with an eloquent, philosophical argument for the need to elevate the importance of Natural Science in the collective mind of society. He then narrows the field to geology, and the need to prove that it is worthy of being regarded as a science by following the principles of scientific research. This is followed by an exposition of the subject matter of geology and the various theories and principles guiding research at the time. He applauds the role of the natural sciences in breaking down the superstitions and irrational prejudices associated with the old world and the dogmatic tenets of Christianity: “The unfortunate suspicion with which many sincere believers have regarded physical Science, has been intensified by the vague notion that the physical student is dealing with forces which may have secret alliances with the author of all Evil. No longer can this fancy of the devilishness of matter hold its ground”.6
This address shows the Reverend Crosskey at work as a great communicator – passionately conveying the beliefs he held dear, and acting as an ambassador for the value and joy of scientific observation and research. The following quotation encapsulates his dedication to field work clothed in the delightfully picturesque language which characterises this address, and much of his written work:
“In Geology we may be great theorizers about the problems of the universe, but neglect quarries and mud banks. We shall then be speculative cosmogonists and not geologists. The key that can unlock the innermost chambers where the sacred secrets are concealed, is hidden in some despised mud bank. The blow that can awaken the slumbering genius of the Age, so that from his lips we may hear the mystic story of the past, must be struck in the quarry by the road side”.6
With these thoughts in mind, the Reverend H.W. Crosskey relinquished his presidential position and became Secretary of the Erratic Blocks Committee, a position which he held for 20 years. He remained on the Committee until shortly before his death in 1893.
The British Association’s Erratic Blocks Committee
The full title of the Committee’s purpose is somewhat wordy, but is best quoted in full from the 1873 report to show the wide range of its aims and expectations:
“Committee appointed for the purpose of ascertaining the existence in different parts of the United Kingdom of any Erratic Blocks or Boulders, of indicating on Maps their position and height above the sea, as also of ascertaining the nature of the rocks composing these blocks, their size, shape, and other particulars of interest, and of endeavouring to prevent the destruction of such blocks as in the opinion of the Committee are worthy of being preserved. Rev. H.W. Crosskey, Secretary”.7
In this First Report we learn that the Geological Section of the Birmingham Natural History Society had already started a systematic examination of the Midland boulders. It is also reported that bags had been made for collecting specimens, and numbered to correspond with squares on the 6 inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map. Crosskey made his own catalogue so that the rock samples could be numbered, labelled and recorded (fig.8). He drew up a questionnaire (based on an existing one for Scotland) which was to be distributed to “Secretaries of Field-clubs and local Geological Societies in England and Wales, and others who may be willing to assist in their work. The Committee would especially invite the cooperation of the various field-clubs of England and Wales, whose members, in their various excursions, enjoy singular opportunities of becoming acquainted with the boulders of the country”.7 The form was divided into two sections – one for isolated boulders and one for groups of them, and it appeared in full in the Committee’s Second Report (1874). The information requested was detailed and possibly challenging for some reporters as can be seen from the first part of the form reproduced here (fig.9). There is no evidence that any fully completed forms were ever received, but nevertheless, the stage was now set for a massive influx of information and samples, and a considerable amount of personal effort from Crosskey and his local geological associates. This was the golden age of scientific and public interest in glacial erratic boulders – surely an early example of a true ‘citizen science’ project. The following is an attempt to encapsulate the magnitude of this effort and celebrate the efforts of the late 19th century glaciologists.
Glacial Erratic researchers at work in the late 19th century
The Cannon Hill Park Boulder
The third report also records the discovery of the large Cannon Hill Park boulder, dug up during the excavation of the lake. The park had opened in 1873, and this is one of the earliest examples we know of a boulder preserved specifically for its scientific interest. We also know from Charles Lapworth’s tribute that the erratic was “at Dr. Crosskey’s request, carefully preserved by Birmingham Corporation and surrounded by a railing in the Park, in the interest of the Midland public” (fig.12). This photo from the Bournville Works Magazine9 shows the boulder with railings and an interpretation board which is sadly illegible except for the title ‘Boulder’ and ‘Cannon Hill Park’. However, the caption below gives a clue to the illegible text: this would surely reflect the text on the board, and certainly chimes with Crosskey’s ‘dropstone’ theory of the origins of the erratic boulders. Since Crosskey masterminded the rescue of the boulder, I think we can safely assume that he had a hand in this original interpretation.
It is a fitting tribute to Dr. Crosskey that the Cannon Hill Park boulder has remained in situ for nearly 150 years, and has maintained its iconic status in the local community (fig.13). It quickly became a yardstick for comparison in size, weight and composition with many later finds recorded by other researchers, especially in early 20th century issues of the Bournville Works Magazines. In these the Cannon Hill Park boulder is mentioned a few times in comparison with new finds. Correspondence between the chief engineer, Louis Barrow, and Prof. Charles Lapworth has left a record that there was ongoing interest in the subject of erratic boulders at least up to the outbreak of the First World War.
D. Mackintosh joins the Erratic Blocks Committee
In the Fourth Report (1876) the theme of erratic destruction takes centre stage in the introduction: “War is waged upon the boulders (which in many cases are our only source of information respecting the epoch to which they belong) by agriculturists, and builders, and road-makers with unceasing energy. They are built into walls, buried in the earth, used as foundation-stones, and often blasted to pieces; their preservation is difficult to secure, on account of their interference with the culture of the land. In a few years it is not too much to say that the evidence of glacial phenomena will in many districts be almost effaced”. During that year numerous boulders were found in the Harborne area by Crosskey and his Committee colleague, Dr. Deane, and in the following report (1877) the name D. Mackintosh appears for the first time as a Committee member. He reports many finds in the Denbighshire and Cheshire areas as he gathered data for the remarkable erratic distribution map which he produced in 1879 (fig.14).10 This covers the western side of Britain, showing boulder locations and ice flow direction from Criffel Mountain in Dumfries and Galloway (Scotland), from the Lake District and from the Arenig mountains in Wales, and it also shows where the paths of the distinct sets of boulders appear to cross. In the paper which accompanied the map,10 it is clear that Mackintosh held firmly to the belief that the boulders were borne by water, not ice, and he accounts for the crossing pathways thus: “it seems most likely that the crossing of the courses of great boulder dispersions occurred at different periods. The great Arenig stream of boulders would appear to have crossed the previous route of the Burton Dispersion after the land had become more deeply submerged”. Crosskey concurs with this in a summary of facts for the Erratic Blocks Committee’s report of 1890, though does not mention the order of deposition: “the boulders have been deposited at distinct periods. At least two of these periods can be well ascertained. In some cases the collection of erratics which may have been supposed to show the ‘intercrossing’ of their streams are really the remains of distinct periods of action…” The map shows the distribution and concentration of erratic types at a glance. Although we now know that the Arenig boulders were brought by ice long before the ‘Burton’ (Criffel/Lake District) dispersion, the evidence of boulder distribution has proved to be a valuable resource right up to the present day.
Erratic Blocks on Frankley Hill
In 1879 (Seventh Report), is the news that the Rev. Crosskey, Professor Bonney and W. Matthews found erratic blocks on top of Frankley Hill. The visit also revealed Permian sandstone bedrock in the Halesowen Railway cutting at the base of the hill. The fact that felsite boulders (Arenig ash) were found so high up in the Midlands fuelled the glacial debate with new evidence (fig.15). This was just the beginning of Crosskey’s involvement with the glacial deposits on Frankley Hill.
The Icknield Street Glacial Deposits
At this time, a section of glacial deposits had recently been exposed during building excavation work along Icknield Street between Key Hill and Hockley Hill (fig.16) and Crosskey threw himself wholeheartedly into researching this erratic-rich area. He had photos taken on a field visit and collected numerous samples. These have survived in the Crosskey Collection including one sample from the photographed boulder (figs. 17 & 18).
Crosskey wrote a paper: ‘On a section of Glacial Drift recently exposed in Icknield Street, Birmingham’ which was read at the meeting of the Philosophical Society of Birmingham in March 1882. This paper is summarised in the Tenth Report of the Erratic Blocks Committee, 1882. In the paper he describes the section of glacial deposits as 7′ to 8′ thick resting on a broken surface of the local New Red Sandstone. He presents three detailed illustrations showing the relationship between the glacial matrix and the pebbles, boulders and chunks of broken bedrock (fig.19). Top of the list of rock types are ‘felsites’ and ‘felspathic ashes’ and Crosskey acknowledges Professor Lapworth for informing him “that a large number of the Icknield Street erratic blocks occur in situ at the Berwyn Hills, others being found in the Arenig range”. Other reported rock types include shales, quartz conglomerate, quartzite, grit stone, and even, rarely, some Silurian fossiliferous calcareous sandstones. He made a display card to go with these samples, indicating that he regarded them worthy of special attention. The card and many of these samples are preserved in the Crosskey Collection (fig.20).
The Icknield Street deposits excited Crosskey for the sheer quantity of boulders in close-knit groups and the apparent violence of the glacial action against the bedrock. His paper established that many of the deposits were of Arenig origin, that no granites were found, and that this section represented the base of the glacial succession. In the paper he postulates that “a mass of coast ice breaking off from the Welsh Mountains during their submergence and floating away to the S.E. would be perfectly competent to do all the work required. It would readily strand upon what are now the high grounds of Key Hill and Hockley Hill… ” Though Crosskey’s interpretation did not stand the test of time, the Icknield Street paper, photos and samples left an important record of an unconformity between the bedrock and glacial deposits. His account of the erratics found in these deposits helped in establishing the main direction of ice flow.
The Rowley Hills
Shortly after the Icknield Street paper was presented in March 1882, Crosskey found time to prepare another geological paper, this time on ‘The Grooved Blocks and Boulder clays of Rowley Hill’ which was read to the Philosophical Society of Birmingham in November 1882. The Rowley Hills presented an entirely new set of glacial phenomena, and Crosskey acknowledges the assistance of his friend, Mr. C. Beale from Rowley Regis in his investigation. In the paper, the igneous intrusion of the Rowley Hills is described as “an irregularly shaped mass of basalt”, and that it is mostly hard and compact, with some less resilient areas which readily decompose in concentric layers, known locally as ‘Roche’.11 The main point of interest was the abundance of grooved basalt blocks (fig.21) littered around the Rowley Hall and Hailstone Quarries, which showed grooves (striations) in various directions. Three illustrations of these were included in the paper (fig.22). Crosskey considers at length the possible explanations, but favours the notion that the Rowley Hills stood as an island during the supposed Ice Age period of submergence, and that seasonal ice and snow could account for the grooves which were observed to be crossing each other on the loose blocks.
This Rowley Hills paper is not mentioned in the Erratic Blocks committee reports, presumably because the basalt blocks were in situ in the Rowley Hills. However Crosskey does mention that basalt erratics from this source had been found in Harborne, and in Foundry Road, Hockley.
In the Eleventh Report (1883) Crosskey laments the delay in reporting the Committee’s findings, but explains that many new finds were still being reported, with this being a particularly fruitful year. Many dozens of boulders are listed here, with long, detailed contributions from Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Shropshire, Hertfordshire, the Midlands, and even a short report from Anglesey. It is also noted that “The information collected will enable distribution of the erratic blocks to be mapped with considerable accuracy”.
Fred Martin and the Railway from New Street via Stirchley and King’s Norton
The following report (Number Twelve, 1884) is much shorter, but is notable for the first mention of Fred Martin, who like D. Mackintosh was gathering evidence for an erratic distribution map, but this time focussing specifically on the Midlands. This report contains a detailed account by Martin of the glacial deposits exposed during excavations for the new 5½ mile railway loop from Birmingham New Street station via Stirchley and Kings Norton. Numerous erratic boulders were found and the account finishes with a ‘top twelve’ list which Martin tells us “have been examined and identified by Dr. Lapworth”. Martin was a key figure in helping with the collection of boulder samples, and there are many from the Stirchley and Kings Norton areas in the Crosskey Collection (fig.23).
The British Association meeting in Birmingham, 1886
The annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) were held in different venues all around the country. In 1886 it came to Birmingham, and Lapworth indicates that on this occasion Dr. Crosskey filled the post of local secretary for the Association, as well as holding his usual secretarial position on the Erratic Blocks Committee.
For the meeting ‘handbook’, Crosskey contributed a chapter on the post-Tertiary deposits of the Midland counties. It is perhaps significant that the bulk of the 1886 Erratic Blocks Committee report (the Fourteenth) is an article on this theme by Crosskey entitled ‘On the Glacial Phenomena of the Midland District’. In this he presents his case as a series of three questions rooted firmly in his adherence to the hypothesis of one continuous Ice Age divided into three phases: land ice, submergence and re-elevation. From the evidence gleaned over many years, he finds many examples to fit this theory, but stops short of giving any conclusions. Instead the article finishes with a direct statement: “Facts have to be noted in connection with the following points”. Then follows a list based on the Committee’s original criteria: the origin of the erratics; heights above sea level; inter-relationship of groups of erratics; distribution related to local geography; distribution in relation to the geography of England and Wales. This section is interesting for providing a brief summary of findings to date – presenting just the facts with no attempt at interpretation. For instance, in relation to local geography Crosskey paints this picture:
“On the table-land north of Wolverhampton, Lake and Scotch rocks are intermixed, the Scotch being abundant. Journeying westward the intermixture becomes more complete. The stream of Welsh erratics crosses the northern stream; then the Welsh erratics become more and more abundant, only a few northern stragglers being found, until at Clent and Bromsgrove not a single erratic of granite has yet been found among thousands of Welsh origin”.
The state of affairs summarised in this last point has barely been superseded to the present day, except in the loss of most of the ‘thousands’ of Welsh erratics, and in the interpretation: we now know that the ice was land-based, and many thousands of years separated the Arenig boulders from those of Lake District and Scottish origin.
The final point of interest from the 1886 meeting is to note that Crosskey and the young American geologist, Professor Henry Carvill Lewis met for the first time at this event.2 The encounter proved to be significant for both men, and ultimately for the history of glaciology. From this time onwards they became staunch friends until Lewis’s premature death in 1888. The following narrative diverts from the progress of the Erratic Blocks Committee, to elaborate on a significant sequence of events in the lives of Dr. Crosskey and Professor Carvill Lewis.
Henry Carvill Lewis and the glacial deposits on Frankley and Romsley Hills
Carvill Lewis was an American born and educated in the state of Pennsylvania, and he became professor of geology at Haverford College in 1883 (fig.24). His interest in glaciology developed while he was involved in the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania. During his research he found evidence of a terminal moraine across the region, and noted that the glacial deposits petered out gradually to the south. After studying moraines more widely in America and over breath-taking distances in Europe, he came to the view that there must have been just one ice age, with slight fluctuations in extent, and noted that the evidence generally showed that the morainic material thinned out to the south. He concluded from his observations in America and Europe, including Ireland and England, that a residual moraine could always be found at the point of a glacier’s maximum extent.
There were several glacial theories circulating towards the end of the 19th century. The predominant ones were the older ‘Submergence’ theory, (favoured by Crosskey), and two theories which favoured deep and widespread ice cover: the ‘Uni-Glacial’ school recognised only one continuous ice age, with no significant marine submergence, while the ‘Multi-Glacial’ school also abandoned the theory of marine submergence and ‘dropstones’, but recognised the need for a very long time span to explain the evidence of plant and animal remains interspersed in layers between the glacial deposits.2 Though Lewis originally favoured the idea of two epochs of ice cover, the lack of deposits found south of the terminal moraine in Pennsylvania steered him to the Uni-Glacial school of thought, with the temperate deposits accounted for by seasonal fluctuations of temperature.
The Reverend Crosskey kept abreast of new developments on glacial theory, and having met Lewis, was keen to show him that, contrary to Lewis’s theory, there was evidence to the south west of Birmingham of high level glacial deposits with erratic boulders derived from the Arenig Mountains in Wales (fig.25). These were on Frankley and Romsley Hills at heights of 793 and 897 feet respectively (now revised to 823 and 922 feet). Referring to Frankley Hill, Crosskey reports: “On a previous visit I had counted 20 felsites, 2 basalts and one mass of vein-quartz. Several of the felsites were of considerable size… On the opposite hill – Romsley Hill – separated from the Frankley Hill by a narrow valley, three other boulders occur at a height of 897 feet. These are also felsites of the same type as on Frankley Hill”.11 (Figs. 26 & 27.)
Carvill Lewis accepted Crosskey’s offer to accompany him to these hills. At first Lewis thought that the boulders must have derived from a local deposit of the same rock type, although earlier evidence gleaned by Crosskey and others (including Professor Bonney) had shown that it consisted of Permian clays and sands, in keeping with other local bedrock. On a subsequent visit made by Crosskey and Lewis in October 1887, excavations were made on both hills which supported Crosskey’s findings. Crosskey colourfully describes their approach to this visit: “…we took with us two strong ‘navvies’ and attacked the hill itself”. He also noted in his introduction to the posthumously published volume of Lewis’s ‘Papers and Notes’ 13 that in the light of the evidence from Frankley and Romsley Hills, Lewis’s ice-dammed lake theory would have required a holding wall at least 900 feet above sea level to have sustained the deposition of glacial deposits around their summits. The Submergence theory would have had some difficulty explaining this depth of submergence, but it was simply not possible to reconcile this evidence with the ‘Midlands Fringe’ of the Uni-Glacial theory.
Lewis’s new thinking may seem to chime with the dual glaciation postulatd by the Submergence theorists, but this was not his view: “English geologists, almost to a man, have adopted the view that they prove a great marine submergence of 1,350 feet or more, and this view has unfortunately retarded the progress of geology to an immeasurable extent, both in England and on the continent of Europe”.14
Lewis elaborates on the new direction of his thoughts in a postscript dated November 1887 to one of the papers published in the ‘Papers and Notes’: “Since the paper was read… I have found traces of the existence of a very much older series of glaciers than those here described. Since the period of these ancient glaciers… earth movements have occurred and erosion has removed almost all their deposits… so that the region subject only to the older glaciation now resembles a non-glaciated area. The glaciers and their bordering lakes… should therefore be considered as belonging to the second or last glacial epoch”.14 In the context of modern interpretation, we can assign Lewis’s ‘ancient glaciers’ to the Anglian advance (around 450,000 years ago) and the ‘glaciers and their bordering lakes’ to the Devensian advance, which we now know to have reached its maximum only around 20,000 years ago, and being the most recent, has left the most clues in the landscape.
There is no doubt that Lewis’s encounter with Crosskey, and the discoveries on Frankley Hill changed the course of this influential young geologist’s life and work. We can only guess at what may have come next from Lewis’s pen but for his untimely death from typhoid fever during a trip to Manchester in 1888.
Before Lewis died, he made it clear to his wife Julia that “All the papers and drawings relating to my last and best work upon the Glacial Phenomena of Great Britain you must give to my true friend, Dr. Crosskey, with my warm and parting greeting, asking him to arrange, criticise, and edit them for me, should his strength and time permit”.13 Although Crosskey and Carvill Lewis belonged to differing camps in the glacial debates which raged at the end of the 19th century, it speaks volumes about Crosskey’s integrity and the depth of their friendship, that it was Crosskey above all others who Lewis trusted with this onerous task. Crosskey himself was suffering from declining health, but this was a task he was determined to finish. The result undoubtedly did credit to both men, and it is a poignant thought that the volume turned out to be a final testament to the life and work of both Henry Carvill Lewis and the Reverend H.W. Crosskey.
The importance of Frankley Hill is confirmed by Lewis’s widow Julia who wrote some notes within Crosskey’s introduction to the volume containing Carvill Lewis’s ‘Papers and Notes.’13 Firstly she reports: “The first unmistakable evidence which he found of a prior period of glaciation, either in America or Great Britain was in October 1887, when, in company with the Rev. Dr. Crosskey, he made a critical examination of the deposit on the summit of Frankley Hill”. Then later she reports in the same document: “From the nature of the drift on Frankley Hill, and from the direction of the trail of scattered boulders of Arenig rock lying between that point and the Welsh frontier, Professor Lewis felt convinced that here were the genuine traces of ‘a very ancient glacier’ between which and the phenomena he had just been studying as vast an interval of time had elapsed as between those of the great glacial epoch and the present day”.13
Julia Carvill Lewis proved to be a vociferous ambassador for her late husband, and Frankley Hill was clearly on her mind. In the letter already quoted12 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science magazine published in May 1892, she elucidates the future intentions of her late husband: “It was his intention, had he remained in this world, to make a thorough re-examination of all England, lest similar deposits had elsewhere escaped his notice; but he never at any time associated the Frankley Hill till and gravel with the ‘fringe’ of the glacial period, from which it was wholly distinct.”
The final words on this subject go to Julia Carvill Lewis from the end of her letter for Science magazine: “Permit me to say in closing that the unlimited courtesy and generosity shown me by Dr. Crosskey and many others among the English geologists – some of whom are entirely opposed to my husband’s conclusions – are beyond all praise and any acknowledgement which it is in my power to give”.12
The Midlands Boulder Distribution Map by Fred Martin
Returning to Crosskey’s work with the Erratic Blocks Committee, in the Fifteenth Report (1887), he fleshes out the findings reported in his 1886 essay, and applauds the formation of a Boulder Committee in connection with the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union. Not surprisingly this report is dominated by numerous boulder finds in and around Yorkshire. Fred Martin also reports a significant number of finds around Shifnal, Tong and Codsall, with an observation by Crosskey that the boulders found in this area are an intermingled collection from S.W. Scotland and the Lake District, with no finds from Wales.
The Seventeenth Report (1889) is once again dominated by the new-found enthusiasm of the Yorkshire researchers, but Fred Martin is mentioned again, this time in relation to his boulder distribution map (fig.28). This concentrates on the Midlands region, and like the earlier and western focussed Mackintosh map, is to this day proving to be a valuable resource for continuing research into the Ice-Age legacy. In Crosskey’s words: “It is strongly recommended that similar maps should be prepared in other districts, erratics of different types being recorded in different colours. Only by mapping will the remarkable facts connected with their distribution be brought clearly out.”
The Glacialists’ Association (initially the ‘N.W. of England Boulder Committee’)
The Nineteenth Report (1891) brings news of the formation of the N.W. of England Boulder Committee, with Mr. Percy F. Kendall as its secretary. Crosskey mentions the previously reported results gleaned from the erratic researches in the Midlands, but he reports that the wealth of new information collected recently makes it not yet possible for “systematic generalisations” on a wider scale. The haunting theme of destruction takes on a new urgency: “The destruction of erratics … is going on so rapidly that already many of those described in the reports of this Committee have disappeared, and in a few years these reports will be the chief evidence of the very existence of a large series of phenomena of great importance in glacial geology”. As if to emphasize the magnitude of the task, this introduction is followed by 22 pages of boulder lists, mostly from the north of England and even from the Isle of Man.
The Twentieth Report acknowledges the assistance given by the Yorkshire Boulder Committee and the Glacialists’ Association (formerly the N.W. of England Boulder Committee) and Crosskey confidently reports that: “In previous reports the facts obtained by an exhaustive survey of the Midland counties have been classified, and a series of valuable results has thus been established”. Although this was not yet the case in areas further afield due to “the constant accumulation of new material” Crosskey remains optimistic that the “facts are capable of orderly arrangement, and it cannot be doubted that the distribution and grouping of the erratic blocks of Great Britain will throw light on some of the most intricate questions of Glacial Geology”. This proved to be the last word on the subject written by the Reverend Crosskey as Secretary of the Glacial Blocks Committee.
The Twenty-first Report shows that Dr. Crosskey was still a member of the Committee at the meeting held in Nottingham in September 1893, but Percy F. Kendall had taken on the role of Secretary, a position which he held until 1907. The report is presented in a similar style with details of boulder finds, but with the emphasis now shifting northwards with numerous finds reported from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Significantly there is no report for the year 1894. The Reverend H. W. Crosskey had been plagued with failing health for a number of years, and died at home in Birmingham on the 1st October 1893. This was within a month of the Nottingham meeting of the British Association, and very shortly after he had finished editing the ‘Notes and Papers’ of Professor Henry Carvill Lewis.
Crosskey bequeathed his entire collection of Glacial Erratic specimens to Mason College which later became the University of Birmingham, and it was presented with an inscribed sign which still survives (fig.29). Additions were made to the collection sporadically until the 1930s, but the majority of the collection belongs to the time of Crosskey and his associates.
The post-Crosskey years of the Erratic Blocks Committee
At the 1894 meeting, Percy Kendall stated that there had been very few reports during the previous year, but also observed that in its 21 years of existence the Erratic Blocks Committee had received no reports at all from many counties where erratic blocks were abundant, though “admirable work had been done in Warwickshire”. Strangely, there is no mention of the contribution made by the Reverend Crosskey during those 21 years, or indeed any reference to Crosskey at all after his death.
The Twenty-second and Twenty-third reports were presented in 1895, and during that year the Committee was reconstituted to encompass the whole of the British Isles. Kendall expressed pleasure that the plea for reports from newly added regions was fruitful, with Ireland and Lincolnshire amongst other old and new contributors now sending reports of erratic finds. The following year there is the first report from the committee with its new title ‘Erratic Blocks of the British Isles’. Reports are mainly from the north of England, the Isle of Man and Ireland.
Percy Kendall15 had become well established as the new Secretary. He taught geology in Manchester, Stockport and Yorkshire College in Leeds, becoming Professor of Geology when Yorkshire College became the University of Leeds in 1906. After meeting Professor Carvill Lewis in 1879, he became one of England’s leading exponents of the Uni-Glacial theory of the Ice Age. Throughout his time on the Erratic Blocks committee he presided over the recording of a huge increase in finds from the northern and eastern regions of the country, with erratics from Northumberland, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Lancashire and Cheshire, plus the Isle of Man and Ireland adding to the ever growing tally of thousands of recorded erratics throughout Southern Scotland, England and Wales. Kendall remained on the Committee until 1908, after which the reports continued to consist of lists of boulder finds, but with less accompanying comment. The final report was filed in 1913, some 40 years after that initial submission for the BAAS meeting in 1873, which was inspired by the initiative and enthusiasm of the Reverend Crosskey.
The 1928 Harmer map of ‘England and Wales showing the distribution of Glacial Erratics and Drift’
One final link between Crosskey and the Erratic Blocks Committee is associated with his successor, Percy F. Kendall and Mr. F.W. Harmer who was a member of the Committee from 1902 until its demise in 1913. Harmer was an enthusiastic amateur geologist who worked with a friend, Searles Wood to produce a comprehensive map showing all the boulder sites in the British Isles. His geological activity was somewhat sporadic, and I suspect it was thanks to a visit from Prof. Kendall in 1922 that some of his important work was saved. Harmer was 88 and in poor health at the time of Kendall’s visit, but the map and accompanying paper were more or less completed, and the meeting clinched an agreement that the Yorkshire Geological Society could publish them. Harmer died before publication, and the accompanying unfinished paper was edited by Kendall and published with the map in 1928 under the title: ‘The Distribution of Erratics and Drift – A Paper and Contoured Map’ by the late F.W. Harmer.16
Kendall’s introduction to the paper states: “I cannot doubt that this, the first detailed mapping of the distribution of erratics in England and Wales, will be of great service to workers in Glacial Geology, and will serve as a basis upon which further discoveries can be recorded.” The map is a remarkable attempt to include boulders from the earliest finds to the most recent, including all the work that had been achieved in the eastern regions of the country. It may be that the earlier maps by Macdonald and Martin were not so comprehensive, but they sowed the seeds, and it is possible that Harmer was aware of Crosskey’s statement from the 1889 report (quoted earlier) referring to the progress of Fred Martin’s map: “It is strongly recommended that similar maps should be prepared in other districts, erratics of different types being recorded in different colours”. Standing on the shoulders of those who went before him, Harmer’s map, as far as I am aware, was the last attempt to make a visual representation of the fast disappearing erratic boulders.
Crosskey’s influence on the science of glaciology is undeniable, yet largely forgotten. His lectures and papers brought the subject of geology to a wide public; the Erratic Blocks Committee became established through his drive and determination leaving valuable records for posterity; the collection of Erratic Boulder samples which he started survives to the present; one of the most iconic of all Birmingham’s boulders in Cannon Hill Park was saved by his intervention; those who followed (such as Louis Barrow in the 20th century) had his example to follow; his integrity and courtesy gained him the respect of all those who knew him and his friendship with Carvill Lewis helped to change the course of glacial history.
Crosskey regarded his geological exploits as a hobby to take his mind away from the societal issues which weighed heavily on his mind. Yet the time he spent on field work, research, and an astonishing output of geological papers belies the fact that this was a mere sideline to his life’s work. The Reverend Henry William Crosskey must surely rank highly in the roll call of Glacial Erratic Heroes.
Julie Schroder, April 2023
1. Armstrong, R.A. ‘Henry William Crosskey: His Life and Work’. 1895.
2. Lapworth, C. ‘Scientific Researches and Publications’, Chapter 10, pp 307-365 in Armstrong R.A., ibid.
3. Hoffman, Paul F. ‘The Tooth of Time: James Smith of Jordanhill’, Geoscience Canada, 2015.
4. Hansen, B. ‘The Early History of Glacial Theory in British Geology’, Journal of Glaciology, 1970.
5. Crosskey, H.W. ‘On the relation between the Glacial Deposits of Scotland and those of Canada’. Glasgow Geo. Soc. Transactions II pp. 132 – 138.
6. Crosskey, H.W. Presidential Address to the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, 1873.
7. 1st Report of the Erratic Blocks Committee, in the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) 43rd report, 1873, p.188.
8. Go to the project website: https://erraticsproject.org/ to follow references to the project: ‘Birmingham’s Erratic Boulders: Heritage of the Ice Age’.
9. Bournville Works Magazine, April 1908. Courtesy of the Cadbury Archive, Mondelēz International.
10. Mackintosh, D. FGS. Map illustration in ‘ Results of a Systematic Survey, in 1878, of the Directions and Limits of Dispersion, Mode of Occurrence, and Relation to Drift Deposits of the Erratic Blocks’…(etc). Paper for the Geological Society, 1879.
11. Crosskey, H.W. ‘The Grooved Blocks and Boulder Clays of Rowley Hill’. Philosophical Society of Birmingham, November 1882.
12. G.F. Wright (quoting a letter by Julia Lewis), referring to ‘H. Carvill Lewis’s Work on the Glacial Phenomena’. Science, Vol. 19, No. 486 (May 27, 1892), pp. 305-307 published by the AAAS.
13. From the introduction to: H. Carvill Lewis, ‘Papers and Notes on the Glacial Geology of Great Britain and Ireland’ Ed. from unpublished MSS with an Introduction by H.W. Crosskey, (inc. Notes by Mrs. Julia Carvill Lewis),1894.
14. H. Carvill Lewis, ‘Papers and Notes on the Glacial Geology of Great Britain and Ireland’ Ed. from unpublished MSS with an Introduction by H.W. Crosskey, 1894.
Yorkshire Philosophical Society.
16. ‘The distribution of Erratics and Drift – A Paper and Contoured Map’ by the late F.W. Harmer. Pub. Yorkshire Geological Society, 1928.