Scrope, George Julius Poulett [formerly George Julius Thomson] (1797–1876), geologist and political economist
by Martin Rudwick

Scrope, George Julius Poulett [formerly George Julius Thomson] (1797–1876), geologist and political economist, was born in London on 10 March 1797. Baptized George Julius Thomson at St Peter-le-Poer in the City of London on 11 May 1797, he was the second son of the Russia merchant John Thomson of Waverley Abbey, Surrey, and his wife, Charlotte, daughter of Dr John Jacob of Salisbury. He was educated at Harrow School, and in 1815 entered Pembroke College, Oxford. The following year, however, he migrated to St John's College, Cambridge, probably in search of more scientific studies. (It was at this time he acquired the additional name Poulett, which his father had recently adopted from an earlier and aristocratic branch of his family.) He spent the winter of 1817–18 with his parents in Naples, where he explored Vesuvius and the surrounding volcanic region. This experience first aroused his lifelong fascination with volcanoes, and he returned to Italy in the next two years to extend his fieldwork. His scientific interests were fostered at Cambridge by Edward Daniel Clarke, the professor of mineralogy, who had visited several volcanic regions during his extensive travels, and by Adam Sedgwick, the then recently elected professor of geology.

On 14 April 1821 he married Emma Phipps Scrope (d. 1866), the only child and heir of of Castle Combe, Wiltshire. Shortly before, he formally adopted his bride's surname in place of his own, presumably as a part of the marriage settlement. For the rest of his life he styled himself consistently George Poulett Scrope, generally using his two adopted ancient surnames together.

Early geological researches

Graduating BA in 1821, Scrope embarked on two years' geological fieldwork on the continent, financed by his now ample private wealth. He first spent six months exploring the extinct volcanoes of central France—particularly in Auvergne. He then travelled through Italy, and was in Naples to witness the great 1822 eruption of Vesuvius. The violence of the eruption made a deep impression on him and he extended his earlier studies of the area and also of other volcanic regions in Italy. On his way back to England he travelled through Germany, visiting the extinct volcanoes of the Eifel region. He returned to England in the autumn of 1823 with greater first-hand knowledge of volcanoes and volcanic regions than anyone then active in the Geological Society in London. The following year he was elected a fellow of that body; less than a year later he joined his contemporary Charles Lyell as one of its secretaries. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Scrope's first substantial published work in geology was his Considerations on Volcanos (1825), in which volcanic processes were treated as crucial evidence for a general causal model of the earth. Scrope adopted the hypothesis, then coming back into favour among geologists, that the earth had begun as a hot fluid body and had cooled gradually over vast spans of time. He argued that the intensity of tectonic movements of the earth's crust and of volcanic activity had declined progressively to their present levels. He held that present volcanoes, for example, were reliable guides to the past in qualitative terms, but quantitatively they might have been dwarfed by those in earlier periods of the earth's history. Like other geologists, Scrope also inferred that the slow cooling of the earth's surface could account for the fossil record of apparently tropical plants and animals in some of the earlier rock formations.

In making such inferences, Scrope, like many geologists on the continent, argued that ‘actual’ or ‘modern causes’ (processes directly observable in the present world) such as volcanoes should be used as far as possible to interpret the past history of the earth; but he also conceded that that history had included occasional events on a larger scale than any known from human observations or records. For example, like James Hall a decade earlier, Scrope suggested that a sudden elevation of a land mass or mountain range might have generated a series of huge tsunamis or tidal waves, analogous to those known in human history but on a far larger scale; and that they in turn could have produced the striking topographical and depositional features that William Buckland had recently defined as ‘diluvial’. Scrope was opposed to Buckland's use of this ‘geological deluge’ to reinforce the historicity of the biblical flood, but he was far from denying the reality of catastrophic events, particularly in the more remote past. He criticized the use of ‘catastrophes’ and ‘deluges’ in geological explanation, but only when such putative events were not related to observable modern causes. His approach to these methodological issues was closely similar to that adopted by his friend Lyell a few years later.

Scrope's attempt to formulate a ‘theory of the earth’ was not well received by other geologists, among whom such high-level speculative theorizing was regarded either as an outmoded genre in the style of James Hutton, or as grossly premature. However, in 1827 Scrope published his Geology of Central France, based on his fieldwork there, explicitly to display some of the detailed evidence for his ‘theory’. The accompanying album of panoramic landscapes, engraved from his own sketches, made vividly real to British armchair travellers a region that Nicholas Desmarest (1725–1815) had first made famous half a century earlier, and that other French naturalists had since described in detail. Scrope's text and images gave persuasive force to his argument, adopted from Desmarest, that over vast spans of time occasional volcanic activity had punctuated the continuous erosion of the valleys by the streams that still flow in them: the younger lavas flowed down the present valleys, but the older ones had been left high and dry by subsequent erosion, and now capped the surrounding hills in more or less fragmentary form.

However, Scrope strengthened Desmarest's theory by denying that there were two distinct ‘epochs’ of lava flows, ancient and modern. He plotted the longitudinal profiles of the lavas against an accurate scale of altitude, and claimed that they formed an unbroken continuum, from the most highly eroded remnants of basalt on the highest hilltops, down to the recent flows in the present valleys, many of them still connected to well-preserved cratered cones of loose volcanic ash. Scrope therefore argued that the occasional lavas formed a ‘natural scale’ on which the continuous process of erosion could be plotted: contrary to claims made by Buckland's Oxford colleague Charles Daubeny, there was no sign of any recent violent ‘deluge’ in Auvergne.

Scrope also attempted to calibrate his natural scale. He argued that even the most recent cones and lavas, which were as well preserved as the historically dated ones he had seen in Italy, must have been prehistoric, since human records back to Roman times contained no hint of any volcanic activity in central France. That suggested a rough calibration by which the still older eruptions would have to be of almost unimaginable antiquity. It made a convincing case for his claim that what was needed for more effective geological interpretation was simply ‘Time! Time! Time!’ (Geology of Central France, 165). That conclusion was far from novel, but Scrope's evidence for it was persuasively concrete; and his argument was promptly given much wider circulation, at least in Britain, when Lyell reviewed the book enthusiastically in the Quarterly Review.

Scrope's claim for the explanatory potential of a vast time-scale was expressed in terms of a vivid metaphor, which soon became a cliché among geologists: they needed, he argued, ‘to make almost unlimited drafts upon antiquity’ (Geology of Central France, 165). The metaphor made particular sense in relation to Scrope's anti-bullionist views on the banking system, as first expressed in public in his booklet On Credit-Currency (1830). Geological time was like the wholly paper-based currency that he advocated in place of the precious metals. Just as the supply of paper money could and should be kept level with the demand, so geologists could and should invoke as much time as was necessary to explain the observed effects.

Political views and activities

Scrope had become increasingly concerned with economic and social affairs since his return to England in 1823. Settling at Castle Combe, which his father-in-law had vacated, Scrope's duties as a magistrate made him acutely aware of the social problems of rural poverty, and he became a forceful critic of the poor laws. At the same time, he was well aware of current economic issues: he was close to his younger brother , who worked in the family business before becoming an MP (and later president of the Board of Trade). In 1831 Scrope himself stood for two ‘rotten’ Wiltshire seats, urging the cause of reform as a bulwark against revolution. Defeated, he turned to the nearby manufacturing borough of Stroud in Gloucestershire. He was narrowly defeated there in the general election of 1832, but that result was overturned on grounds of malpractice, and Scrope was elected unopposed in 1833. He remained MP for Stroud until he resigned the seat in 1867.

Scrope spoke only rarely in parliament: ‘a parliamentary reputation is like a woman's’, he once said; ‘it must be exposed as little as possible’ (Sturges, 25, n. 26). He preferred to make his points in essays for the Quarterly Review and in brief pamphlets, the profusion of which earned him his nickname of Pamphlet Scrope. His earlier pamphlets exposed the iniquities of the poor laws in England; later, he vehemently criticized government and absentee landlords for the still worse problems of Irish poverty. On the local level he was, in the aristocratic manner, an enlightened landlord and a compassionate magistrate; on the national level, a vehement critic of the poor laws and of Malthusian doctrines. In his Principles of Political Economy (1833), his most substantial publication on such issues, he argued that the proper aim of the economist was to promote social welfare, using the generation of wealth as a means to that end. He advocated emigration to the colonies as the best solution to the problems of poverty and over-population; indeed he was criticized for treating emigration as a panacea for all social ills. Scrope's liberal and somewhat idiosyncratic views did not fit easily into any party mould, and unlike his brother he never held office.

Later geological interests

Scrope's active political life soon withdrew him from the centre of British geology, but he wrote important essays for the Quarterly Review, on the work of Lyell (1830, 1835), Buckland (1836), and Roderick Murchison (1839). In these essays Scrope reinforced his earlier theoretical arguments, for example strongly approving Lyell's use of modern causes as a key to the geological past, but rejecting his scepticism about the broadly directional character of the earth's history. In 1856 Lyell asked for Scrope's help in his renewed attack on the theory of ‘craters of elevation’, by which some larger volcanic cones were attributed to sudden crustal upheaval rather than the slow accumulation of lava flows. This brought Scrope out of geological retirement: he read an important paper on the subject to the Geological Society (1856); he revisited central France in 1857 and 1858; he revised his book on that region (1858), though in more turgid prose and with much less impressive illustrations; and he rewrote his more theoretical book as Volcanos (1862). Translations made his work well known throughout Europe, and in 1867 he received the Wollaston medal, the Geological Society's highest award.

In addition to his geology and his politics, Scrope was also active in local history: he published a fine history of Castle Combe (1852), and in 1853 he became the first president of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, writing many papers for its magazine.

Personal life and later years

Scrope's wife had been disabled by a riding accident soon after their marriage; there were no children. However, for many years he kept the actress Mrs Grey in grand style in London, and about 1838 they had a son, known as Arthur Hamilton. Scrope sent him to Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, and later purchased a commission for him; in 1856 (after the death of Scrope's father-in-law) he and his wife formally adopted Hamilton. After his wife died in 1866, Scrope sold Castle Combe, moved to Fairlawn in Cobham, Surrey, and in 1867 resigned his parliamentary seat. The same year he married the 26-year-old Margaret Elizabeth Savage, who survived him. Scrope died at home on 19 January 1876 and was buried at Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey. He left his papers to his nephew Hugh Hammersley, but they were later apparently lost or destroyed.



G. P. Scrope, Memoir on the geology of central France, 2 vols. (1827) [2nd edn, 1858] · P. Sturges, A bibliography of George Poulett Scrope: geologist, economist, and local historian (1984) [incl. biography] · G. P. Scrope, Considerations on volcanos (1825); 2nd edn as Volcanos (1862) · G. P. Scrope, Principles of political economy (1833) · G. P. Scrope, On credit-currency and its superiority to coin (1830) · [G. P. Scrope], review, QR, 43 (1830), 411–69 · [G. P. Scrope], review, QR, 53 (1835), 406–48 · [G. P. Scrope], review, QR, 56 (1836), 31–64 · [G. P. Scrope], review, QR, 64 (1839), 102–20 · G. P. Scrope, ‘On the formation of craters and the nature of the liquidity of lavas’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 12 (1856), 326–50 · [G. P. Scrope], ‘Dr Chalmers on political economy’, Westminster Review, 17 (1832), 1–33 · G. P. Scrope, History of the ancient manor and barony of Castle Combe (1852) · M. J. S. Rudwick, ‘Poulett Scrope on the volcanos of Auvergne: Lyellian time and political economy’, British Journal for the History of Science, 7 (1974), 205–42 · R. Opie, ‘A neglected English economist: George Poulett Scrope’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 44 (1929), 101–37 · S. Rashid, ‘Political economy and geology in the early nineteenth century: similarities and contrasts’, History of Political Economy, 13 (1981), 726–44 · IGI


BL, genealogical papers, Add. MSS 28205–28206 |  American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Lyell papers · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Thomas Phillipps · GS Lond., letters to Sir Archibald Geikie · GS Lond., letters to Sir R. I. Murchison


J. S. Templeton, lithograph, pubd 1848 (after E. U. Eddis), BM [see illus.] · portrait, repro. in A. Geikie, Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison, 2 (1875), 108

Wealth at death  

under £180,000: probate, 3 March 1876, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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George Julius Poulett Scrope (1797–1876): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24956