Two hundred years ago …

Friday 22nd April 2022

Kirkdale goes viral!

At least by eighteenth century standards …

On 23rd February 1822, the Yorkshire Gazette quoted a letter received from an unnamed person familiar with Kirkdale, describing “a geological phenomenon … which has much interested me … a cave of limestone, near a quarry, [containing] the bones of elephants, rhinoceroses, hyaenas &c &c”.

Shortly afterwards someone forwarded the anonymous letter, or an extract from the Yorkshire Gazette, to the Hereford Journal, where it appeared verbatim.  Then, in the course of March, the news reached the Worcester Journal, the Sheffield Independent, the English Chronicle & Whitehall Evening Post, the British Luminary, and the Cumberland Pacquet & Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser. Among other journals. Then, during April, May and June, the Caledonian Mercury, the Perthshire Courier and the Plain Englishman; and, by November, after a long sea voyage, the Bombay Gazette caught up with exciting developments in a small Yorkshire cave.

More important than accounts in the Press, of course, were the informal discussions and correspondence between the learned gentry of Europe, much of which was unrecorded, or not easily accessible: science – still generally termed ‘natural philosophy’ had not been formalised or institutionalised.  Even the term ‘scientist’ did not exist: it was coined only in 1834, by William Whewell (who was, naturally, an Honorary Member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society).

William Buckland, we may assume, was busy: because William Buckland was always busy, and also because he was tracking and tracing the dispersed Kirkdale fossils, developing his ideas on fossils, reconstructing ancient landscapes from fossil environmental data, corresponding with anyone who might be able to supply information: and, of course, preparing his monumental work on Kirkdale and other comparable caves, which was published, in 1823, as Reliquiae Diluvianae …   And, of course, there was also the day job.  Billy the hyena had by this time probably delivered all that was asked of him and entered a well-earned retirement.

Peter Hogarth