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Darwin Correspondence Project

From S. B. J. Skertchly   27 February 1878

Brandon | Suffolk.

Feb. 27th. 1878.

My dear Sir,

I have taken the liberty to send you by this post a copy of my official Memoir on the Geology of the Fenland, as a slight token of the admiration I have for your scientific researches. The book left my hands two years ago, but has only just been issued by the Stationery Office.1 Hence some of the points connected with the post-tertiary beds have not received the benefit of my subsequent work. It is in this respect somewhat less advanced than the sketch I wrote for Dr. J. Geikie’s “Great Ice Age”, as that is also behind what will appear in my private work on “The Fenland”, now on the eve of publication.2 Nevertheless, as an earnest contribution to science, I beg your acceptance of it, and shall indeed feel honoured if you find anything in it worthy of your approbation.

For years I have desired to write and tell you how all-powerful has been your influence over me, but have not done so from the conviction that thousands of others felt the same, and may have added to your labours the task of correspondence. I am proud to say that by the time I was thirteen your “Origin of Species” was almost known by heart. That and your other works have been my models both for method, and for the true caution and boldness they evince. Hence I determined to write and express my indebtedness if ever any of my work seemed likely to be of interest to you.

Such I believe to be the case now, and I venture to put very briefly before you the results of my researches into the geological history of man. In January 1876 I was fortunate enough to discover flint implements beneath the Great Chalky Boulder Clay in this district, and announced the same in Nature. It called forth a host of adverse criticism, but feeling certain I was right I have worked steadily on accumulating fresh proofs daily, and am now writing for the Survey a Memoir on Palæolithic Man. Geikie and Ramsay have been over my district in detail and endorse my views.3

You may be aware that I am a stenuous advocate of Geikie’s interglacial views; indeed, if I may say so without arrogance, I hold a similar position towards him to that which Mr. Wallace does towards you.4

The Chalky Boulder Clay belongs to the earlier part of the Glacial Epoch, and I believe all the palæolithic beds are inter-glacial, being newer at any rate than the Hessle Boulder Clay. Indeed I feel sure that the larger extinct animals, such as the mammoth did not survive the last glaciation in England.

The result of my work may be thus stated. I have stratagraphical proof of three horizons of palæolithic beds as under:—

1. In valley deposits of modern rivers

2. " " " " ancient rivers, not now existing

3. In beds beneath the Chalky Boulder Clay.

You will see in The Memoir sent, that I have expressed a conviction that the gravels with extinct mammals are interglacial.5 This I have since proved by finding Hessle Boulder Clay lying thereon over considerable areas in Lincolnshire. I have also proved the ancient valley deposits to be older than the ordinary palæolithic beds, and this has been independently verified by two of my colleagues. The sub-boulder-clay deposits rest upon my sole authority.

The character of the implements points also to a gradual development of culture, and I shall try to show:—

1. That the late palæolithic folk were very skilful in working flint, sometimes approaching to the delicacy of neolithic art. To this period I refer the engraved bones of Périgord and Creswell Crags.6

2. That the intermediate palæolithic folk were less cultured, but more so than

3. The early palæolithic people.

I find that in almost every case, both in caves and surface beds, there is this evidence of breaks in the palæolithic period, and shall detail my reasons in my work.7

As you are well aware there are four well-marked boulder-clays in eastern England separated by inter-glacial beds, namely8

1. The Hessle Boulder Clay

2. " Purple " "

3. " Chalky " "

4. " Cromer Till.

Now I have proved that my early palæolithic man comes in between beds 3 and 4, that the late palæolithic lies below bed 1, and it appears to me that it is a just inference to group my divisions as under

Neolithic .... .... .... .... . . Post-glacial

Hessle Boulder Clay .... .... .... Late Glacial

Late Palæolithic .... .... .... . Inter-glacial

Purple Boulder Clay .... .... .... Glacial

Intermediate Palæolithic .... .... . Inter-glacial

Chalky Boulder Clay .... .... .... . Glacial (maximum cold)

Early Palæolithic .... .... .... . Inter-glacial

Cromer Till .... .... .... .... . Glacial

The intervention of the ice is the only assignable cause for these breaks.

Finally I may add another curious discovery. That the Brandon flint-knapping is a relic of neolithic times. The people mine and work up the flint as of yore, and their tools are only metal copies of the neolithic stone and bone ones. This is fully described in my memoir on Gun-flints now in the press.9

Thinking these results might interest you I have penned this letter. If you are in the least indisposed please do not trouble to reply. But if you esteem it worthy I court above all scientific treasures a copy of any one of your works with your autograph. Trusting you will not consider this too much for a young man to suggest.

I am, My dear Sir, | Yours ever faithfully | Sydney B. J. Skertchly


Skertchly’s Geology of the fenland (Skertchly 1877), part of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, was published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Skertchly’s notes appeared in James Geikie’s The great ice age and its relation to the antiquity of man 2d ed. (Geikie 1877, pp. 536–46). Skertchly updated his work on the post-tertiary beds in The fenland, past and present (S. H. Miller and Skertchly 1878, pp. 492–588).
Skertchly had reported his discovery of Palaeolithic implements near Brandon, Suffolk, in strata he described as middle glacial or earlier in his letter to Nature, 21 September 1876, pp. 448–9. James Geikie, after visiting the site, confirmed Skertchly’s discovery; see Correspondence vol. 24, letter from James Geikie, 20 November 1876. Geikie and Skertchly defended the discovery in their letters to Nature, 21 June 1877, pp. 141–2. Both letters mentioned Andrew Crombie Ramsay as a supporter of their views. Further correspondence about the matter appeared in Nature, 28 June 1877, pp. 162–3, and 5 July 1877, p. 182; for more on the dispute, see O’Connor 2007, pp. 63–5. Skertchly’s memoir on Palaeolithic humans was published in 1879 (Skertchly 1879).
Geikie had argued that Palaeolithic deposits were pre- or interglacial (see Geikie 1877, p. 565); CD regarded Alfred Russel Wallace as co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection (see C. Darwin and Wallace 1858).
See Skertchly 1877, p. 220.
Périgord is a former province of south-east France; Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. On the engraved bones found at Périgord and Creswell, see Lartet and Christy 1875 and Dawkins 1877; for the controversy surrounding the Creswell finds, see M. J. White 2017.
See Skertchly 1879, pp. 65–9.
For more on Skertchly’s use of the boulder clays and for Geikie and Skertchly’s glacial chronology in a wider context, see O’Connor 2007, pp. 68–71.
Brandon is a small town in Suffolk; see On the manufacture of gun-flints (Skertchly 1879), pp. 69–78.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Dawkins, William Boyd. 1877. On the mammal-fauna of the caves of Creswell Crags. [Read 11 April 1877.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 33: 589–612.

Geikie, James. 1877. The great ice age and its relation to the antiquity of man. 2d edition. London: Daldy, Isbister & Co.

O’Connor, Anne. 2007. Finding time for the Old Stone Age: a history of Palaeolithic archaeology and Quaternary geology in Britain, 1860–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skertchly, Sydney Barber Josiah. 1877. Memoirs of the geological survey. England and Wales; the geology of the Fenland. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Skertchly, Sydney Barber Josiah. 1879. On the manufacture of gun-flints, the methods of excavating for flint, the age of palæolithic man, and the connexion between Neolithic art and the gun-flint trade. London: H. M. Stationery office.

White, Mark John. 2017. William Boyd Dawkins and the Victorian science of cave hunting: three men in a cavern. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books.


Sends CD a copy of his memoir on the fenland [Geology of the fenland (1877)].

Outlines the results of his recent researches into the geological history of man, the development of Palaeolithic culture, the occurrence of Palaeolithic remains in the boulder-clays of eastern England, and their relation to glacial and inter-glacial periods.

Letter details

Letter no.
Sydney Barber Josiah Skertchly
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 176
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11379,” accessed on 20 October 2021,