Pengelly, William (DNB00)

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PENGELLY, WILLIAM (1812–1894), geologist, was born at East Looe in Cornwall, on 12 Jan. 1812, his father, Richard Pengelly, being the captain of a coasting vessel; his mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Prout, was a relative of Samuel Prout [q. v.], the artist. The boy remained at the village school till the age of twelve, when for a time he joined his father's vessel; but an ever-increasing thirst for knowledge determined him to educate himself and to earn his bread by teaching. About 1836 he removed to Torquay, where he opened a school on the system of Pestalozzi, and soon became active in every effort to improve the general state of education in that part of England; as, for instance, in the foundation of the Mechanics' Institute (1837), of the Torquay Natural History Society (1844), and of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art (1862). Of the first he was ever a willing helper; of the second, honorary secretary from 1851 to 1890; of the third, president in 1867–8.

After giving up his school he continued to work for education as a private tutor in mathematics and geology at Torquay, and as a public lecturer in various parts of the kingdom. One of his pupils, afterwards his constant friend and frequent helper, was Miss (after Baroness) Burdett-Coutts, and among them he reckoned an unusual number of persons of high rank, including members of more than one royal house. Pengelly was twice married first, about 1837, to Mary Ann Mudge, by whom he had three children; secondly, in 1853, to Lydia Spriggs, who, with two daughters, survived him.

The geology of Devonshire was Pengelly's principal study, and his fine collection of fossils was presented by Miss Burdett-Coutts to the museum of the university of Oxford; but in process of time he paid especial attention to the question of man's early history, and the antiquity of the race. He wrote many papers on scientific subjects, of which lists are given in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis’ and the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ the latter enumerating 112. The more important of them appeared in the publications of the Royal Society, the Geological Society of London, and the British Association. But Pengelly's reputation rests especially on three arduous tasks of scientific exploration undertaken in Devonshire: the examination of the plant-bearing deposit at Bovey Tracey, that of the Brixham Cave, and that of Kent's Hole at Torquay. By the first, undertaken in part of 1860 and the following year at the expense of Miss Burdett-Coutts, large collections of fossil plants were secured; these were afterwards examined by Professor Heer who referred them to the earlier part of the miocene period, but at the present time they are more generally assigned to the middle eocene. The exploration of the Brixham Cave was begun in 1858, under the auspices of the Royal and the Geological Societies of London. This proved man to be contemporary with several large extinct animals, and the work in Kent's Hole at Torquay furnished additional evidence, with many new and important particulars. The latter place had been partially investigated by the Rev. J. MacEnery, the results of whose work had been received with general incredulity, and by Pengelly himself, with some local assistance, in 1846; but at the meeting of the British Association at Bath in 1864 a committee was appointed to aid him in a systematic exploration. The work was begun on 28 March 1865, and continued till 19 June 1880, under Pengelly's close personal superintendence. The various deposits covering the floor of the cavern were systematically excavated, an immense number of bones of animals was obtained, including those of the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave-bear, cave-lion, and (most interesting of all) the extinct ‘sabre-toothed tiger’ (Machærodus latidens). With these were found instruments of bone and stone (palæolithic) and other proofs of the antiquity of the human race. Owing to Pengelly's singular industry and unwearied devotion the work was executed in the most exact and thorough manner, so as to place the results beyond the possibility of suspicion.

Pengelly became F.G.S. in 1850, and received the Lyell medal of the Geological Society in 1886; in 1863 he was elected F.R.S.; and he was president of the geological section at the British Association meeting in 1877, and of the anthropological department in 1883. Among other tokens of good-will he was presented with a testimonial of about six hundred pounds in 1874, and with his portrait in oils by A. S. Cope in 1882 as an acknowledgment of his services as secretary of the Torquay Natural History Society. The portrait is now in the society's museum. A smaller portrait by the same artist, together with a bust in plaster, is in the possession of Pengelly's family. After some months of declining health, he died at his residence, Lamorna, Torquay, on 16 March 1894, and was buried in the cemetery of that town. As a memorial, a hall, built by subscription, was added to the museum of the natural history society.

Pengelly was a man of good presence, with a fine forehead and a benevolent expression of face. He was a remarkably lucid and attractive lecturer and speaker, while his fund of anecdote, sense of humour, and ready wit made him one of the most genial companions.

[Obituary notices in the Geological Magazine and in Natural Science (both May 1894), the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, May 1895, and private information.]

T. G. B.