A Victorian study of the area’s geology

Howburn Dene, in Bluebell Woods, is riddled with old coal workings. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
Howburn Dene, in Bluebell Woods, is riddled with old coal workings. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Newcastle City Library has a tattered copy of the 1st edition of Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth, 1876.

In it, Mr Wilson thanks the Rev W. Howchin for his “highly interesting and comprehensive Paper on the Geology of the district”. It was not repeated in the 2nd edition and is consequently not in the widely available reprint published by the Newgate Press.

Professor Walter Howchin in 1908.

Professor Walter Howchin in 1908.

Geology is a foreign language to most of us, but here Mr Howchin struck a perfect balance between his discipline and the capacities of the average reader:

“The geology of Morpeth and its neighbourhood is mainly of a Palaeozoic character, the carboniferous series occupying by far the most important place in the local rocks; but it also embraces some interesting features in the glacial drift and still more recent formations.

“PALAEOZOIC. The Carboniferous or Mountain Limestone...occurs in the midland counties as an almost solid mass of limestone...but in the north of England (is) split up into numerous layers which are interstratified with sandstones, shales, coal, beds of ironstone, &c. In the former case, oceanic conditions with clear water...are implied; whilst the shales and sandstones, which play so important a part...in our locality, suggest the proximity of land and estuarine conditions, in which the water was often rendered turbid by river washings and the organic deposition interrupted or modified by the muddy sediments.

“The Carboniferous Limestone is within easy reach of Morpeth by rail, both to the west and north, many quarries yielding a rich harvest to the collector of fossils — Mollusca, varieties of Coral, Encrinites, Polyzoa, &c, occurring in great abundance. The intercalated shale beds are particularly good hunting ground, as the larger fossils can be easily extracted from the soft matrix in which they are embedded....The quarries of Redesdale, near Woodburn Station; Green Leighton, near Long Witton; Brinkburn, near the station of that name; and Elf Hills, near Scots Gap, may be mentioned for their palaeontological interest. At the last-mentioned place, the large and interesting Foraminifer, Saccammina Carteri occurs on the south side of the quarry, and can be gathered from the weathered side of the rock.

“The Coal Measures rest conformably on the Millstone Grit, and are mainly distinguished from the latter by the greater proportion of carbonaceous matter distributed through the series. This applies not only to the numerous beds of coal, but also to the interstratified shales, which are often highly impregnated with carbonaceous material.

“The town of Morpeth stands upon the lower beds of the Coal Measures, and at the north-western extremity of the great northern coal field. (He lists the principal seams of coal). Of these, the Low Main has been most extensively worked in this district. This seam, answering to the Hutton Seam of the county of Durham, is considered the most valuable in the coal field, both on account of its superior quality and the persistency which it maintains over so wide an area. It is worked as a steam coal in the collieries surrounding Morpeth, but in other parts varies to that of a gas coal, and again as excellent households. The North Seaton and Cambois collieries have workings beneath the sea.

“Several seams of coal crop out to the surface in the neighbourhood of the town, and may be traced in the banks of the Wansbeck. Two of these seams are worked by means of a “Drift” for local consumption...The seams thus worked are separated by about ten feet of stone, and are respectively 30in and 18in to 24in in height. There is a strong possibility that these beds form the outcrop of the Low Main, there being a bed of shale upon the top of the coal containing fish remains, which is a special feature of this particular bed of coal throughout the district...Another seam, about 2ft in height, can be traced in the dene bordering on the Asylum grounds. Also by a boring on the south side of the river, a seam of 33in has been proved at a depth of 14 fathoms below the Drift Coal. Messrs. Short & Co., the lessees of the Drift, have already received the necessary powers from the Corporation to open out this seam.

“None of the Secondary or Tertiary rocks occur in our district, we therefore pass over an immense geological interval from the Palaeozoic Division to the POST TERTIARY.

“The Glacial or Boulder Clay. Over the greater part of the British Isles...there is a peculiar deposit of clay, covering the sides of our hills and often filling our valleys and low lands to a considerable thickness. This clay, as shown from unmistakable evidence, has been deposited principally through the agency of ice. It may startle the uninitiated when told for the first time, that this country has been, even within recent times, geologically speaking, held under a severity of frost and ice equal to that which Greenland experiences today. Yet such is the truth. The tropical climate which existed in these latitudes at the commencement of the Tertiary period became gradually modified...the flora and fauna first changing to a temperate and eventually to an arctic type.

“There is an interesting section of this deposit exposed in the banks of the Wansbeck, about a mile west of the town, just above the mill dam. At this spot some interesting examples of glacial erosion may be obtained, in the polished and well-scratched facets which nearly all its associated boulders distinctly show.”

Mr Howchin was born in Norfolk in 1845, one of 11 children of a Primitive Methodist minister. He left school at 12, and was apprenticed to a printer in Great Yarmouth. He studied for the ministry in his spare time, was appointed to Shotley Bridge in 1864, then to Gateshead as an itinerant preacher in 1867, and was ordained in 1869.

He was stationed at Hexham in the 1870s as an itinerant preacher and became interested in geology. Hexham was the centre of a connexional area that included Morpeth and Rothbury, which explains his knowledge of the local geology.

His special interest was in foraminifera, small creatures, usually with shells. Fossil foraminifera are particularly useful for the dating of sediments and for identifying the same stratum at widely separated sites.

He retired due to illness, probably tuberculosis, and in 1881 emigrated to South Australia with his family. He was so ill, he had to be carried off the ship, but slowly recovered his health in Adelaide.

After working as a journalist and secretary of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, he became Lecturer in Mineralogy in the Adelaide School of Mines in 1899, Lecturer in Geology and Palaeontology in the university in 1902, and in 1918 Honorary Professor.

He described the stratigraphy of the Adelaide geosyncline, a major downwarp in the earth’s crust, and identified two glaciations in South Australia, both much more ancient than that of Northumberland, which established his international reputation.

He died in 1937, aged 92.