William Pengelly, F.R.S.,


Undergraduate, Department of History, University College, London


William Pengelly, a Devonshire geologist whose lifetime almost spanned the nineteenth century, pursued a very active life; his wide interests fitted him to make a very successful tutor and lecturer, while he did all he could to foster local education. His method of excavation of a newly discovered cave at Brixham gave credence, for the first time, to archaeological evidence from caves, and hence was instrumental in inducing English opinion to the view that man had existed at the same time as extinct fauna. Further excavation at Kent’s Cavern – his major work – supplied additional evidence of the antiquity of man in such quantity that it could no longer be reasonably denied.

WILLIAM PENGELLY, a native of Cornwall, was the genius behind some of the earliest systematic cave research in England. Not only did he spend most of his life in Devon, his home being in Torquay, but his major research work took place in Devonshire caves; he is therefore a particularly fitting forefather of the research establishment at present being set up at Buckfastleigh. He once said that Buckfastleigh was ‘ the very metropolis of caverns, at least, so far as Devon is concerned ‘ (Pengelly, H., 1897), and on more than one occasion he remarked that ‘ British cave – hunting appears to have been a science of Devonshire birth ‘ (Pengelly,W., 1877, 1883). It is therefore, the purpose of this paper to make some appreciation of Pengelly’s importance in relation to cave research and conservation rather than to give a purely biographical survey.

One of the most striking features of Pengelly’s life is his great activity and all embracing energy. Largely self taught, and certainly receiving no formal education after the age of twelve, he began his career as a teacher in a small day school, but his interest in mathematics and natural science was such that he turned to private pupils to earn his livelihood. Fairly soon his natural curiosity drew him to geology. (Professor Boyd-Dawkins (1894) later remarked of him: ‘ Pengelly was, however, beyond all things, a geologist, devoted to the study of Devonshire ‘ ). The persistence and application which characterised his early years of studying on his own continued throughout his life. Even when he had attained some eminence he did not discontinue his habit of making long solitary rambles, carefully noting down features of geological interest. And when he wasn’t walking he was writing papers, or lecturing, or organising local societies, or making trips to the London museums and institutes and meetings of the British Association (at which he was a regular attender for many years) – not to mention a vast correspondence on all manner of scientific subjects with all manner of persons. His interests were by no means narrow; he would discourse on astronomy, anthropology, meteorology, mathematics, geology (naturally), and even local history. He would give a series of lectures in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Norwich or Exmouth; he would read papers to the British Association, the Royal Society and the Torquay Natural History Society; he would tutor anyone, from the members of the Torquay Mechanics Institute (which he was instrumental in organising in 1837) to Princess Mary of the Netherlands and the nephews of Tsar Alexander IV. As a lecturer he commanded the highest of tributes, from the notice on his lecture in the ‘ Science Series for the People ‘ at Manchester in 1873 ( ‘ his perfect knowledge of his subject … clothed his lecture with genuine eloquence ‘ ) to Henry Woodward’s anniversary address to the Geological Society of London: ‘ he had the happy faculty of making himself easily understood by persons unacquainted with science … he traveled through the country as one of the most acceptable scientific lecturers of the day ‘ (Woodward, 1895). Nor did his many engagements all over England deter his interest in local learning and education; he continued to work closely with the Torquay Natural History Society, which he helped to found in 1844, and which he served as honorary general secretary from 1851 until 1890. It was to him that the idea of a Devonshire Association occurred (for the advancement of science, literature and art in the county), and the Society, born in 1862, owed its firm structure and solid organisation to his careful handling in the early years. President in 1867, he contributed countless papers to its meetings and transactions. Both local and national institutions were recipients of his fossil collections, notably the Pengelly Collection endowed by Baroness Burdett-Coutts at Oxford, and he laboured hard to make as complete a collection of Devonshire fossils as possible, paying particular attention to the ‘ fossil fish ‘ of Cornwall: these were first identified as fishes by C. W. Peach in 1843, and on Peach’s departure to Scotland Pengelly took up his cause against current opinion, which proclaimed them first sponges, then cephalopoda, until finally described as fish by Huxley in 1863. They form the subject of one of his first papers – ‘ On the Ichthyolites of East Cornwall ‘ (Pengelly, W., 1849-50).

But although his wide interests, his success as a lecturer and teacher, and his unrivaled knowledge of Devonshire geology fitted him to take a prominent place in English geological circles in his middle years, Pengelly’s most significant work was yet to come. In 1858 a cave was discovered by workmen at Brixham. Since it had obviously been sealed for thousands of years it immediately presented itself to Pengelly as subject meet for exploration, and he soon acquired permission from the owner for this purpose. Backed mainly by funds from the Royal Society, the excavation was in progress for about a year, under Pengelly’s immediate supervision. This excavation came to represent something of a landmark in the scientific investigation of caves; Pengelly determined to remove the entire deposit in the cave, so as not to lose any scrap of evidence (although this also involved destroying all the evidence), and to do it layer by layer, so that evidence from different deposits could not be muddled. The strictest check was to be kept on the position of every object found so that any association of objects could not be denied, and so that the historical sequence of deposits and the relation between them could be traced. Nearly forty years later P. Q. Karkeek, President of the Torquay Natural History Society, emphasized how important this was: ‘ As a scientist he Pengelly was accuracy itself. When he recorded an observation, although others might differ from the conclusions he drew from it, that observation was accepted by the scientific world as a fact; and recorded and treated as such ‘ (Harpley, 1894). Later in his life Pengelly defined the aims of this excavation and his reasons for proceeding as he did: ‘ This method i.e. of excavating layer by layer, uniformly followed, was preferable to any other because it would reveal the general stratigraphical order of the deposits with the amount and direction of such “dip” as they might have, as well as any variations in the thickness of the beds; it would afford the only chance of securing all the fossils, and of thus ascertaining, not only the different kinds of animals represented in the Cave, but also the ratios which the numbers of individuals of the various species bore to one another, as well as all peculiar or noteworthy collocations;- and it would render it almost impossible to refer bones or indications of human existence to wrong beds, depths or associations ‘ (Pengelly, W., 1883). All this may seem rather obvious to a world used to the intricacies of contemporary archaeological technique, but consider the innovation in the late eighteen fifties, when country squires were digging barrows for the treasure they would find in the centre, and anyone who felt so inclined was rooting odd bones out of his local caves and continued to do so for many years to come. ‘ Stratigraphy’ was almost an unknown word. And if Pengelly’s foot-levels hardly come up to modern standards of archaeological precision, they were a step in the right direction.

Brixham, then, and Pengelly’s work there, was an important stage in cave education – maybe the first stage. For quite apart from the specific results it gave, revealing the fauna of the cave and its geological history; and apart from the momentous conclusions it pointed to – to be expanded later – in that the discovery of artifacts with remains of extinct mammals indicated the considerable antiquity of the human race, it had a general application. It showed that caves and especially newly discovered caves could reveal information of great value: and that systematic investigation was far more profitable than poking around.

Brixham was only the first of Pengelly’s carefully planned explorations. In 1860 he undertook the investigation of the clay and lignite deposits near Bovey Tracey, Devon, which was then, as now, being worked as a quarry. He tackled a 125 ft section, in steps, thus revealing the sequence and thickness of the layers and obtaining many specimens of fossilized plants from which fifty three different species were determined by Professor Heer. Although the latter’s dating of the Bovey deposits was subsequently revised, this in no way detracted from Pengelly’s credit for the manner of the investigation. Five years later he began the major project of his life – the excavation of Kent’s Cavern at Torquay. Financed by the British Association, this was to last him until June 1880, at which point, with most of the cave excavated, it was considered unnecessary to continue any further. A letter from Professor Dawson of Montreal in 1871 illustrates how far Pengelly’s reputation as an excavator had spread: ‘ I have recently been writing some popular articles on Geology, and have arrived at the crucial point of the tacking on of geological to human time. In doing so, I propose to take your exploration of Kent’s Cavern as one of the best and most instructive examples, and almost the only one deserving of much confidence ‘. Work had already been done at Kent’s Cavern before Pengelly started, notably by the Reverend MacEnery, who had indeed realised the indications of his discoveries and whose manuscripts were published posthumously by Pengelly in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, but previous results had been little heeded. The success of the Brixham excavation stimulated interest in the occasional reports that had dribbled out of Kent’s Cavern, and the British Association was therefore easily persuaded to form an excavation committee and vote the first hundred pounds ‘worth of funds for a thorough and systematic exploration, under Pengelly’s supervision. This was even more fruitful than Brixham, for two distinct ancient cultures of man were discovered, the earlier of which Pengelly called “pre-hyaena” and which led him to conclude that the first culture was before the advent of the hyaena, and hence that, since the hyaena could not have come across the sea, it occurred while Britain was still a part of the continental mass. Daily attendance, personal supervision, careful recording and labeling, annual and monthly reports meant that over a period of sixteen years a mass of evidence on the fauna and men of prehistoric Devon was accumulated, and a mass of bones, teeth and implements was prepared for distribution to museums all over the country.

That so much evidence of the existence of man in Pleistocene Devon was necessary is attested by the prevalent inclination to deny the antiquity of man at that time. Dr. Buckland, for example, not many years previously, had written that in ‘ Kent’s Hole the Celtic knives . . . were found in holes dug by art, and which had disturbed the floor of the cave and the bones below it ‘ (Bartlett, 1841). This leads to the other vitally important aspect of Pengelly’s work: the quantity and the nature of the evidence which he produced was such that people could not continue to deny the antiquity of man. Fierce had raged the controversy, and especially so between religion and science since Darwin’s Origin of Species had brought it before the public eye; geologists had produced evidence for and against the recent origin of man, even before Darwin. Boucher de Perthes, it is true, whose excavations in the river-gravels of the Somme, in France, had been by an equally trustworthy method, was probably the first reliable protagonist of the contemporaneity of man and extinct fauna. But although he published his findings in 1847 (the same year as the first reliable Kent’s Cavern report) they were not accepted by Sir John Evans, Prestwich and Sir Charles Lyell – the leading English geologists until 1859. English opinion, and particularly religious opinion, was not easy to convert. The position demonstrated in Buckland’s Reliquae Diluvianae, published in 1823 and purporting to prove that all human remains were attributable to the period of the biblical deluge or later, was still supported by many people.

Then, amidst all the argument, Pengelly excavated Brixham. He writes of the situation himself: ‘ The sceptical position of the authorities in geological science remained unaffected, however, until 1859, when the discovery and systematic exploration of a comparatively small virgin cavern on Windmill Hill, at Brixham, led to a sudden and complete revolution; for it was seen that whatever were the facts elsewhere, there had undoubtedly been found at Brixham flint implements commingled with remains of the mammoth and his companions, and in such a way as to render it impossible to doubt that man occupied Devonshire before the extinction of the cave mammals ‘ (Pengelly, W., 1877). Sir Charles Lyell added that ‘ The new views very generally adopted by English geologists had no small influence on the subsequent progress of opinion in France ‘ (Lyell, 1863). There was no question of a mistake since the cave was untampered with at the start. The long excavation of Kent’s Cavern was a justification and a continual reiteration of this result, in addition to the light it shed on more than one prehistoric culture. It also had the effect of renewing interest in other sites with supposed prehistoric remains, and stimulated more precise investigations of their evidence.

Pengelly’s cave-work was of especial value by virtue of the methods he used and the general conclusions he reached. Not only did it mark the beginning of reliable cave excavation thus being instrumental in making evidence from caves acceptable to the authorities it was also important in making the concept of the antiquity of man accepted in England. This was partly due to Pengelly propagating the idea in his lectures around the country.

Even after the Kent’s Cavern explorations he continued to investigate Devonshire caves, and did much work as a cave historian he wrote a vast number of papers (mostly in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association) on the literature of local caves, to add to the already huge body of his published works. But although he was now growing old he did not lose his critical faculties, as is shown by a letter he wrote to Sir William Bowman in 1884: ‘Thank you very much for your kind proposal that I should give two lectures on Kent’s Cavern at the Royal Institution next February. I have thought the matter over, and have come to the conclusion that the topic has become a little stale. Most people are satisfied that Man’s advent was not later than Pleistocene times, and are now considering whether it was not earlier; and on this part of the question I have little or nothing to say ‘ (Pengelly, H., 189 7). Nor was it left to a later age to appreciate his contributions to scientific investigations; his nature was such that gifts and testimonials and presentations from pupils and colleagues crop up throughout his life ; in 1850 he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, and in 1863 of the Royal Society; in 1877 he was awarded the Lyell Geological Fund, and nine years later received the Lyell Medal, both from the Geological Society.

Even more impressive is the flood of tributes which appeared in print after his death. ‘ It falls to the lot of but few men ‘ said Henry Woodward in his presidential address to the anniversary meeting of the Geological Society in 1895, ‘ who have spent their lives in a provincial town, to attain to so eminent a position in science, and become so widely known and highly esteemed, as was the late William Pengelly of Torquay ‘ (Woodward, 1895). But perhaps it is Professor Boyd-Dawkins who most clearly sums up the significance of Pengelly and his work: ‘ The death of William Pengelly, at the ripe age of 82, deserves more than a passing notice, because he was one of the last survivors of a scientific type represented by Sedgwick, Lyell, Phillips, Murchison, and the other old heroes who laid the foundations of geological science … The result of the exploration of the Brixham cave established beyond all doubt the existence of palaeolithic man in the Pleistocene Age, and caused the whole of the scientific world to awake to the fact of the vast antiquity of the human race ‘ (Dawkins, 1894).


BARTLETT, 1841. On the post-Tertiary formations of Cornwall and Devon. Athenaeum, 1841: 625-626.
DAWKINS, W. B., 1894. William Pengelly. Nature, Land., 49: 536-537.
HARPLEY, W., 1894. [Obituary notice of William Pengelly]. Rep. Devon. Ass. Adv. Sei., 26: 44-49.
LYELL, Sir C., 1863. The geologic evidences of the antiquity of man. London: John Murray.
PENGELLY, H., 1897. A memoir of William Pengelly. London: John Murray.
PENGELLY, W., 1849-50. On the ichthyolites of East Cornwall. Trans. R. geol. Soc. Cornwall, 7: 106-l08, 115-120.
PENGELLY, W., 1877. [Presidential address to the Geological Section of the British Association]. Rep. Brit. Ass., 47 (pt.2): 54-66.
PENGELLY, W., 1883. [Chairman’s address to the Department of Anthropology of the British Association]. Rep. Brit. Ass., 53: 549-561.
WOODWARD, H., 1895. Anniversary address of the President. Quart. J. geol. Soc. Lond., 51: xiix-ixxxviii.