Buckland Papers Appeal


One of the great research resources at Oxford University Museum of Natural History is the specimen and archive collection of William Buckland (1784-1856), pioneering geologist and Dean of Westminster. Buckland wrote the first scientific account of a dinosaur, proved Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire was a prehistoric hyaena den, promoted glaciation theory in Britain, and established the use of fossilised feaces in reconstructing ecosystems.

Buckland entered Oxford’s Corpus Christi College in 1801 and was appointed Reader in Mineralogy in 1813 and Reader in Geology in 1818. When he died, in 1856, a huge volume of papers and around 4000 specimens, were given to the University. These were transferred to OUMNH when it opened in 1860. Divided into three broad sections (correspondence, papers, and teaching illustrations), this collection reflects the passion for geology that permeated Buckland’s life.

The correspondence includes letters from many leading scientific figures of the time, including Henry De la Beche, Gideon Mantell and Mary Anning. As Buckland’s work was often reported in the press, there are also letters asking his opinion on geological matters or offering some of the specimens that can still be found in OUMNH today.


Portrait of a young William Buckland holding a mammal skull

The papers relating to Buckland’s research and teaching cover a wide range of topics and include notes and correspondence relating to Geology and Mineralogy, his famous 1836 ‘Bridgewater Treatise’ which summarised the state of geological knowledge at the time. The greatest part of the archive, however, comprises his original teaching illustrations, including small field sketches and topographical prints as well as detailed sections and anatomical drawings, some of which are several metres in length. There are drawings by professional artists such as George Scharf and Joseph Fisher, but also many illustrations by Buckland’s wife, Mary (née Morland), who was herself a talented illustrator.


OUMNH has recently been offered a unique opportunity to acquire another extremely important collection of material related to William Buckland. Passed by descent to the current owners, this separate archive consists of just over 1,000 items of correspondence, geological notes, works of art and family papers. They relate to Buckland himself and also other family members, including his wife Mary and their eldest son, the naturalist and author Francis (Frank) Buckland.

This additional material fits beautifully with OUMNH’s existing Buckland archive, providing missing pieces of the jigsaw. Most notably, there is a substantial amount of correspondence between Buckland, his father and uncle relating to his early life in Oxford and his efforts as a young lecturer to establish a new Readership in Geology.

The ‘new’ archive also includes over 300 letters from the 1820s–1840s when Buckland was at the height of his career. Many leading geologists and naturalists are represented including Richard Owen, Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick. There is also a rare letter from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a young plesiosaurus. In addition, working papers by Buckland cover a wide range of subjects including bogs, sandbanks, coral islands, landslips and much about animals and their fossil remains.


Mary Buckland’s enlarged watercolour of the 1839 Axmouth Landslip

Mary Buckland’s enlarged drawing of the 1839 Axmouth Landslip


If OUMNH is unable to acquire this important archive, it may well be broken up. The letters and prints of high commercial value could be sold individually, seriously detracting from the collection’s importance as a comprehensive body of material. It is also possible that it might be sold overseas and thus lost to the nation.

To prevent this, the museum has begun a major fundraising campaign to purchase this collection and then to catalogue, conserve and digitise it. If successful, we will combine it, physically and digitally, with our existing, newly digitised Buckland archive, making these important resources easily accessible to researchers and members of the public for the first time.

If you are interested in learning more or would like to donate to OUMNH’s campaign, please contact Museum Director, Paul Smith: paul.smith@oum.ox.ac.uk. You can also make donations digitally using the button below.