Binney, Edward William (DNB00)

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BINNEY, EDWARD WILLIAM (1812–1881), geologist, was born at Morton in Nottinghamshire in 1812. Little is known of his early education; he appears, however, to have acquired strong scientific tastes, which continually betrayed themselves during his apprenticeship to a solicitor. He became a resident in Manchester in 1836; his legal knowledge and strong common sense soon gained for him many clients, and his practice as a lawyer was favourably established in that city. The interesting coal-field of Lancashire soon claimed his attention, and he directed most of his leisure to the study of the geological phenomena of the district around Manchester, Similar tastes soon drew together a circle of students, many of whom had been trained in experimental science by John Dalton, and others in mechanical and physical research by William Fairbairn. Out of these, principally by Binney's influence, a small select band was formed, and in October 1838 they founded the Manchester Geological Society, Lord Francis Egerton being the first president, and J. F. Bateman and Binney the first honorary secretaries.

The second article in the 'Transactions' of this society, after the president's address, was a 'Sketch of the Geology of Manchester and its Vicinity,' illustrated by coloured sections, contributed by Binney. The first volume of the 'Transactions' affords evidence of his industry, four papers connected with the geology of the Lancashire and Cheshire coal-field having been contributed by him. Binney was president of the Manchester Geological Society in 1857–9, and again in 1865–7. In 1853 he was elected a member of the Geological Society of London, and in 1856 a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1858 Binney communicated to the local geological society a paper 'On Sigillaria and its Roots,' which was his first contribution towards the solution of a problem of considerable interest, connected with the formation of our coal-beds. It had already been noticed by Sir William Logan that every seam of coal rests on a bed of rock usually known as 'seat-stone' and 'underclay;' that this was devoid of stratification, and frequently full of filaments, running in all directions, having a root-like appearance. These vegetable fibres were called 'stigmaria.' Binney discovered, in a railway cutting near St. Helen's in Lancashire, a number of trunks of trees standing erect as they grew, with the roots still attached to them, these being the so-called 'stigmaria.' M. Ad. Brongniart was disposed to regard these plants as gigantic tree ferns, but Dr. (now Sir J. D.) Hooker believed that those Sigillaria, as they were named, were cryptogamous, though more highly developed than any flowering plants now living. In May 1861 another paper bearing the above title was communicated by the author to the Manchester Geological Society, and we find in the sixth volume of the 'Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London' a memoir by him entitled 'Remarks on Sigillaria and some Spores found imbedded in the inside of its roots.' Thus Binney completed the proof that all coal of the seams' rest on old soils which are constituted entirely of vegetable matter; this was the seat-stone of a seam of coal. The roots (Stigmaria) show that those soils supported a luxuriant vegetation (Sigillaria), which, growing rapidly in vast swamps, under a moist atmosphere of high temperature, formed by decomposition the fossil fuel, to which we owe the extent of our manufacturing industries.

At this time Binney was actively engaged in investigating the fossil shells of the lower coal measures. In April 1800 he read a paper on the results of his inquiry, asserting that two groups of the mollusca were occasionally found together in the same coal-bed but some geologists venture to differ from one whom they call 'a keen-eyed observer, expressing their belief that the specimens, thought to be obtained from the same bed, were derived from two closely adjoining layers.

Binney studied with much diligence the coal measure, Calamites, which he was led to consider as divisible into two perfectly distinct but outwardly similar types; one of these, Calamodendron, being a gymnospermous exogen, allied to our fir trees, while the true calamite is regarded as equisetaceous. In 1866 he read a paper 'On the Upper Coal Measures of England and Scotland,' and in 1871 one, being a 'Description and Specimens of Bituminous Shale from New South Wales.' These are immediately due to his connection with Mr. James Young, whose name is associated with the paraffin industry of Scotland. Binney's geological experience helped Mr. Young to the discovery of the Torbane Hill mineral, or Boghead cannel, a bituminous shale from which have resulted the enormous paraffin works at Bathgate. Between the years 1839 and 1872, Binney contributed thirty-three papers to the Manchester Geological Society, and some others to the Geological Society of London. He was also a zealous supporter of the Philosophical Society of Manchester, and rendered important aid to the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom, by furnishing the surveyors with the results of his long experience over the coal-fields of Lancashire and Cheshire.

On 25 October 1881 Binney presided at the council meeting of the Manchester Geological Society for the last time. He died in Manchester on 19 Dec. in the same year, especially regretted by his associates, who found that in him they had lost the man who possessed the most exact knowledge of the coal-fields of Lancashire and Cheshire, and of the geology whole district.

[Transactions of the Geological Society of Manchester; Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London; Ormerod's Classified Index of Transactions, &c.; Coal, its History and Use, edited by Professor Thorpe; Lyell's Principles of Geology; personal knowledge.]

R. H-t.