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Mystery man

Nina Morgan tracks down the man with the name nobody can spell

Words by Nina Morgan
1 March 2022

Pity the poor person whose  name has an unusual spelling. Such was the fate of Joseph Whidbey [1757 – 1833], a member of the Royal Navy who circumnavigated the globe between 1791 and 1795 with the Vancouver Expedition. He became famous as a naval engineer, and in 1805 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1806, Whidbey, along with the engineer John Rennie [1761 – 1821], was asked to design and arrange the construction of a breakwater to protect ships from tides and storms in the natural harbour in Plymouth Sound. The pair opted for a type of breakwater known as pierre perdue (“lost stone”) in which large amounts of limestone blocks were to be deposited on the seabed and settled by the action of the waves. Whidbey arranged to source the two million tons of Devonian limestone needed from land leased from the Duke of Bedford at Oreston, about four miles from the site of the breakwater.

Cave men
When quarrying began, Whidbey’s friend and correspondent, Joseph Banks [1743 – 1820], asked him to look out for any caves that might contain animal bones – and in 1816 Whidbey found his first bone-bearing cavern. Then, in 1822, when Whidbey discovered a cavern with a very large number of bones, he wrote to John Barrow [1764 – 1849], second secretary to the Admiralty, to suggest that the bones should be donated for the benefit of science. Barrow passed on the news to William Buckland [1784 – 1856], Reader in Geology at the University of Oxford. Buckland hurried to Plymouth, and escorted by Whidbey, went to see the bones for himself.

The two must have become friends because in 1826 Whidbey presented Buckland with a handsome model of the Plymouth Breakwater made of a grey Devon Marble. Buckland is known to have shown the model to his friends, so presumably valued and appreciated the gift. But, perhaps not enough to spell the donor’s name correctly. The model, now in the collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and mounted on a black limestone base, includes a plaque that reads, Presented by J. Whitby [sic] Esq. to Dr Buckland.

Various misspellings of Whidbey’s name occurred during the 19th century – including in an edition of Buckland’s book, Reliquiae Diluvianae. When another limestone model of the Plymouth Breakwater was displayed in the Great Exhibition in 1851, 18 years after Whidbey’s death, he was referred to as Joseph Whiaby. And in a modern website describing the Plymouth Breakwater he is referred to as Joseph Whidbay. Although his achievements were many, the misspelling of his name means that Whidbey probably never received the credit he deserved.

That being said, in his Royal Society papers and (fortunately!) in his Royal Society obituary, Whidbey’s name IS spelled correctly. And his name does live on in some parts of the world. Whidbey Island in Puget Sound north of Seattle, Washington, USA, is named after him – and there his name is always spelled correctly!

I thank Philip Powell, Honorary Associate at the Oxford University of Natural History, for drawing my attention to the model and Margaret Green’s research.

• Green, M. (1996) William Buckland’s model of Plymouth Breakwater: some geological and scientific connexions. Archives of Natural History, 23(2), 219-244.
• Obituary of Joseph Whidbey published in Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. 1833-1837, 3, 229 – 230.
• Whidbey, J. & Clift, W. (1823) On some fossil bones discovered in caverns in the limestone quarries of Oreston. Phil Trans Roy Soc, 113, 78 – 90; doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1823.0011
• Submerged: The Plymouth Breakwater; submerged.co.uk/plymouthbreakwater-building/

Nina Morgan
Nina is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford. gravestonegeology.uk

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