Westgarth Forster: Fame and Misfortune


I’ve just been reading a review of the 3rd Edition of Westgarth Forster’s “A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle to Cross Fell” in the May 1st 1884 edition of Nature.

It provides an interesting summary of Westgarth’s travels following the publication of “Strata” and the unhappy financial speculations on lead mines in Wales that followed.

“The volume was issued in 1809 in the same year with William Smith’s first geological map of England, and at once became exceedingly popular : and thenceforward the author was recognized as one of the leading men in his profession, and was fully engaged in many surveys until his retirement in 1833. During this active period of twenty-three years he worked in nearly all the mineral districts of England and Wales, with the exception of Cornwall and Devon, and also visited Spain and North America. The American trip was made in 1831, in pre-steamboat days, in the fine packet-ship Napoleon, making a fairly good voyage of thirty-two days across the Atlantic. The districts visited were Pottsville and Mauch Chunk, in the anthracite district of Pennsylvania, which had then been discovered only eight years, and the Phoenix Copper Mines in Connecticut.

The later years of his life were clouded by misfortunes due to losses in working some lead mines in Wales, and before the spring of 1829 he had spent nearly all that he possessed in abortive trials, at a period of extreme depression of the lead trade. In 1833-34 failing health led him to retire from active work, and on November 9, 1835, he died at Garrigill, in Cumberland, in his sixty third year.”

The Pottsville district of Pennsylvania visited by Westgarth in 1831 later became a famous source of Carboniferous plant fossils, the Pottsville Formation at St Clair being particularly well known.

Carboniferous seed fern fossils (Alethopteris and Neuropteris) from St Clair, Pennsylvania.

Interesting to note is how the careers of later geologists in the Forster and Forster Brown clan (for example Thomas Forster Brown, Westgarth Forster Brown and Mark Westgarth Forster Brown) shifted from a focus on metal mining towards coal mining. I happen to have an affinity with the Carboniferous myself, having grown up on the "Rough Rock" of Yorkshire.

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