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A bicentenary reenactment

30 May 2024
The History of Geology Group reenacts one of the most important meetings of the early Geological Society

The History of Geology Group reenacts one of the most important meetings of the early Geological Society, which took place in February 1824. From left, Henry Warburton (Vice-President), Rev. William Buckland (President), and Rev. William Daniel Conybeare

Between 1816 and 1828, the Geological Society occupied premises at 20 Bedford Street, Covent Garden. One of the most famous of the meetings held there took place on Friday 20 February 1824 when two ground-breaking papers on fossil reptiles were read to a packed house.

The Rev. William Buckland, Reader in Mineralogy and Geology at Oxford University, and the Geological Society’s new President (it was his first meeting in that role), gave an account of some remarkably large fossil bones, including a spectacular lower jawbone, all of which had been found at Stonesfield near Oxford. Buckland named the beast to which these relics belonged Megalosaurus, or great fossil lizard. It was the first scientific description of a dinosaur – although that particular term was not coined until 1842 by Richard Owen.

The Rev. William Daniel Conybeare gave a detailed anatomical description, and conjectured the mode of life, of the first complete Plesiosaurus – often referred to as a ‘sea monster’ – that had been discovered in Dorset two months earlier by Lyme Regis fossilist Mary Anning.

Conybeare read his paper first. Buckland had arranged to “borrow” the actual fossil specimen before it was delivered to its new owner, the Duke of Buckingham. However, when the 10ft 6in long Plesiosaurus skeleton finally arrived from Lyme Regis, after ten days on a ship stuck on a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, it proved so large that they could not get it up the narrow stairs. So, whilst Buckland gave his paper in the upstairs meeting room, Conybeare had to speak to the assembled in the hallway!

On 20 February 2024, the History of Geology Group descended upon 20 Bedford Street (now home to the Club for Acts and Actors) to stage a reenactment of that momentous meeting on the very spot where it had taken place 200 years earlier. Once again it was a packed house that included the current President of the Geological Society, who saw and heard “appearances” from Henry Warburton (a Vice-President), William Buckland and William Daniel Conybeare. They were only upstaged by the magnificent 10ft 6in Plesiosaurus fossil, on which Conybeare proceeded to lecture, and by the menacing dentition of the Megalosaurus jaw, which Buckland waved around with his characteristic enthusiasm.

In 1824, meetings of the Geological Society remained closed to women (they were not admitted until 1904), but towards the end of the reenactment Mary Anning turned up at the door, hoping to look at her specimen and congratulate the Rev. Conybeare on his fine scientific account of the “sea monster”. Fortunately, in these more tolerant times, no one objected to her presence!

Professor Hugh Torrens has suggested that this was a very important meeting, and arguably of foremost importance amongst the meetings of the early Geological Society. The History of Geology Group is very grateful to the Club for Acts and Actors for accommodating the reenactment. To do so 200 years to the day on the very premises where the original meeting took place made for a truly momentous, entertaining, and geo-historical event.

Duncan Hawley

Chair, History of Geology Group

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