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Webster, Thomaslocked

(1772–1844)
  • Nicholas Edwards

Webster, Thomas (1772–1844), geologist, was born on 11 February 1772, probably in Kirkwall, Orkney, the only son of Alexander Webster (d. c.1780) and his wife, Mary (b. 1733), daughter of Thomas Baikie, chief Presbyterian minister in Kirkwall, and his third wife, Elizabeth Traill. A natural artist, he was educated at Kirkwall grammar school and by private tutors, and then, from 1785 to about 1789, attended lectures at Aberdeen University. There he assisted Professor Patrick Copland (1749–1822), a popularizer of science. After two years as a tutor in Dublin, he received private architectural training in London and from October 1793 studied architecture, art, and draughtsmanship at the Royal Academy.

While working as an architect Webster taught building workers scientific principles relevant to their trade. Count Rumford, hearing of this, asked him to establish an artisans' school in the newly founded Royal Institution, to which Webster agreed, hoping to further his career. From 14 September 1799 until 26 April 1802, as the poorly paid clerk of works and clerk, he supervised the building work, designed and built the lecture theatre and chemistry laboratory, assisted the lecturers, and developed Rumford's theories concerning the heating, ventilation, and lighting of buildings. However, for political reasons, his widely praised technical school, begun in 1801, was soon closed. Rather than returning to architecture, Webster chose the more independent and then lucrative occupation of landscape painting in watercolours. Additionally he resumed teaching and compiled introductory textbooks. His revised and enlarged edition of J. Imison's Elements of Science and Art (1804) ran to further revised editions (1808, 1822). Also during this period, he assisted with geological field sketches and illustrations, and realized that geology offered scope for his accomplishments.

During 1811–13, on a geological commission in the Isle of Wight and Dorset for Henry Charles Englefield (1752–1822), Webster made the first geological map of the region and elucidated the Mesozoic–Tertiary stratigraphy and structural geology of the Hampshire and London basins. His major paper on the Freshwater formations in the Isle of Wight (1814), published in the Transactions of the Geological Society, and his earlier-written illustrated descriptive letters in Englefield's Picturesque Beauties of the Isle of Wight (1816) were highly regarded and established his geological career. Seven further papers followed (1821–9), including four on the Mesozoic stratigraphy of southern England.

Webster was an early member (1809), later fellow, of the Geological Society. From 1812 until 1827 he was its part-time (in reality, full-time) curator, librarian, and draughtsman; he was later also house secretary. Additionally he was draughtsman for the society's 'Geological map of England and Wales' (1820). From July 1827, after failing to gain improved remuneration and terms of employment, he lived by public lecturing on geology, consultancy work, geological illustration, and commissioned writing, including compilation of An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy (1844).

From 1841 Webster was professor of geology at University College, London. The income from his post was minimal and, by then in poor health, he existed mainly on the charity of geological colleagues and an annual state pension of £50 for services to geology. He died of bronchitis, 'apparently in straitened circumstances' (GM), on 26 December 1844 at his lodgings at 41 Middlesex Street (now Maple Street), St Marylebone; he was buried at Highgate cemetery on 2 January 1845. Although at his death Webster was still highly regarded as a geologist, his reputation was based largely on his earliest research. Significantly this was funded by a patron; thereafter lack of the means and time to pursue further major research prevented him from building on his early achievement and denied him a continuing role in the elucidation of British geology.

Sources

  • T. Webster, ‘Autobiography’, 1837, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, 121A–121B
  • N. Edwards, ‘Thomas Webster, (circa 1772–1844)’, Journal of the Society of the Bibliography of Natural History, 5 (1968–71), 468–73
  • N. Edwards, ‘Some correspondence of Thomas Webster, circa 1772–1844, concerning the Royal Institution’, Annals of Science, 28 (1972), 43–60
  • GM, 2nd ser., 23 (1845), 211–12
  • H. B. Jones, The Royal Institution: its founders and its first professors (1871)
  • W. J. Sparrow, Knight of the white eagle: a biography of Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1964)
  • A. D. R. Caroe, The house of the Royal Institution (1963)
  • H. B. Woodward, The history of the Geological Society of London (1907)
  • H. H. Bellot, University College, London, 1826–1926 (1929)
  • J. M. Bulloch, A history of the University of Aberdeen (1895)
  • [B. F. Duppa], A manual for mechanics' institutions (1839)
  • G. B. Greenough, Memoir of a geological map of England (1820)
  • R. I. Murchison, The Silurian system, 1 (1839), 256
  • F. T. Cansick, A collection of curious and interesting epitaphs, 2 (1872)
  • H. Torrens, ‘Arthur Aikin's mineralogical survey of Shropshire, 1796–1816, and the contemporary audience for geological publications’, British Journal for the History of Science, 16 (1983), 111–53
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., draft copy of Sir Henry Englefield's ‘Description of the Isle of Wight’, annotated by Webster
  • FM Cam., corresp.
  • GS Lond., drawings and papers
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, autobiography, corresp., and papers
  • U. Wales, Aberystwyth, corresp.
  • UCL, corresp. and papers
  • BL, letters to G. Cumberland, Add. MSS 3656, 36510, 36512
  • NL NZ, Turnbull L.
  • U. Southampton L., corresp. with Sir H. C. Englefield; geological notes

Wealth at Death

apparently in near-poverty: GM

Gentleman's Magazine
S. Redgrave, (1874); rev. edn (1878); repr. (1970)