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REVEREND WILLIAM BRANWHITE CLARKE, GEOLOGIST (1798-1878)

This N.S.W. 1854 2d ‘Sydney View’ warn plate stamp was cancelled with barred numeral ‘39' (Cooma, N.S.W.) And was addressed to Revd. W.B. Clarke, St. Leonards, Sydney, and it had a manuscript ‘Answered’ at the top (Figure 1).

 

 

The reverse had a distorted SYDNEY/ [crown]/ JU * 1/ (18)54/ NEW SOUTH WALES postmark, another illegible postmark and red sealing wax on the flap (Figure 2).

 

 

William B. Clarke was born at East Bergholt. Suffolk on 2 June 1798 and was educated at Dedham Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he obtained his B.A. in 1821, (and later M.A.), entered holy orders, and became a curate as well as a master of a school in his birthplace. He continued his geological and mineralogical studies he had begun under Professor Rev. Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, but partly for reasons of health he decided to go to Australia. He arrived in Sydney in May 1839 at the age of 41 and became the headmaster of The King’s School, Parramatta, until the end of 1840.

He was the first trained geologist to settle in Australia and he carried out geological and mineralogical studies in isolation from centres of science overseas, but he continued his association with these centres by his frequent writing. He also took up parishes on the outskirts of Parramatta, until he became the first long-term pastor of St. Thomas’ Church in North Sydney, about 1846 (see addendum).

“Clarke was a great doer, a highly enterprising man who in short order, became a science writer and editorialist for The Sydney Morning Herald, and was hence, Australia’s first major science communicator. He conducted meteorological experiments and wrote extensively on climate and storms.” He wrote about the explorations of Kennedy and Leichhardt, collected fossils, investigated geological structure and stratigraphy of N.S.W., but his major work centred on the coal deposits and sedimentary deposits of the colony, all done in his free time from parish duties.

He was called upon to conduct a geological and mineralogical survey of N.S.W., which took him from Omeo in the south to Ipswich in the north, an area of 60,000 square miles, as a result of which he generated 29 Reports to the Government which revealed many areas where gold and other metals could be found. His enormous capacity for scientific work and educational communication was rewarded financially with monetary grants, and by colonial as well as overseas recognition.

This capacity to carry on his work was partly due to a situation in his home life. “Clarke’s wife Maria detested the colony, from the moment she set foot in Australia, she hated the convict settlements and the convict servants and, after two years, she gathered up their three children and departed, for 15 years, to Britain. Her departure was a blessing for Australian science. Left in solitary state, Clarke accelerated his scientific activities and built up an ever-expanding network of communication with overseas scientists for almost four decades.”

Clarke’s correspondence was multi disciplinary and drew in “a coterie of botanists, entomologists, physical scientists, astronomers, meteorologists, amateur naturalists, and scientific governors and public servants”, a list to which should be added zoologists, explorers, land surveyors, and British naval officers exploring Australia’s coast. Clarke retired from his large and demanding parish in 1871, after 3 decades of service. Clarke died at the age of 80 in 1878, and the Royal Society of N.S.W. founded the Clarke Memorial Medal in his honour, whereas the N.S.W. Legislative Assembly voted £7000 for the purchase of his invaluable collection of his fossils and other objects, and his scientific library. An early pencil sketch (ca. 1839, shortly after his arrival in N.S.W.) and a later wood engraving (1878) of Clarke are shown as Figure 3 & 4.

 

 

 

 

I acknowledge that the quotations are slightly altered passages from the ABC’s transcript of ‘Australia’s Pioneer Geologist’ as recounted by the historian and author Ann Moyal of Canberra, which was aired on 13 February 2005. This abridged account does not do justice to her work.

Addendum: St. Thomas’ Anglican Church: A church building called St. Thomas’ has existed on the site since 1846. The first was built amid the gum trees on top of a hill in the settlement, then named St. Leonards.

 
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