Scrope, George Julius Poulett (DNB00)

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SCROPE, GEORGE JULIUS POULETT (1797–1876), geologist and political economist, was born on 10 March 1797, being the second son of John Poulett Thomson, head of the firm of Thomson, Bonar, & Co., Russia merchants, of Waverley Abbey, Surrey, and of Charlotte, daughter of Dr. Jacob of Salisbury. Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, lord Sydenham [q. v.], was his brother. George was educated at Harrow school, and after keeping one or two terms at Pembroke College, Oxford, migrated in 1816 to St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1821. But while still an undergraduate he had become a keen student of geology, influenced by Professor Edward Daniel Clarke [q. v.] and Professor Adam Sedgwick [q. v.], then at the outset of his career. With his parents he had spent the winter of 1817–18 at Naples, where Vesuvius—then active—on the one side and the Phlegræan fields on the other, naturally directed his thoughts to the phenomena of volcanoes. In 1819 he returned to Italy and extended his studies to the volcanic districts of the Campagna, visiting the following spring the Lipari Islands and Etna, besides making the tour of Sicily. In the spring of 1821 he married Emma Phipps Scrope, heiress of William Scrope (1772–1852) [q. v.] of Castle Combe, Wiltshire, and assumed her name. His geological work was in no way interrupted. In the same year, in June, he went to Auvergne, and spent six months in examining its extinct volcanos with those of the Velay and Vivarrais. This done, he again visited Italy, where he arrived just in time to witness the great eruption of Vesuvius in October 1822, when the upper part of the cone—about six hundred feet in height—was completely blown away. He also examined the Ponza islands and studied all the different volcanic districts of Italy from the Bay of Naples to the Euganean hills, returning to England in the autumn of 1823, by way of the districts of like nature in the Eifel, the vicinity of the Rhine and the north of Germany (Scrope, Considerations on Volcanos, p. vii; Geological Magazine, 1870, p. 96).

In 1824 he joined the Geological Society, and his reputation became so speedily established that in 1825 he was elected one of the secretaries, his colleague being Charles Lyell [q. v.] At that time Werner's notions—that basalts and suchlike rocks were chemical precipitates from water—had led astray the majority of geologists. The triumph of the ‘Neptunists,’ as the disciples of Werner were called, over the ‘Plutonists,’ whose leaders were James Hutton (1726–1797) [q. v.] and John Playfair [q. v.], seemed assured. But Scrope had put Werner's notions to the surest test—the evidence of nature—and found them to be ‘idols of the cave;’ so that in 1828 he published the results of his studies in a book entitled ‘Considerations on Volcanos.’ It is full of accurate observations, careful inductions, and suggestive inferences; it enunciates emphatically the doctrine afterwards developed by Lyell and called ‘Uniformitarian,’ but as it was necessarily controversial, was much in advance of its age, and had ventured into a cosmological speculation, it did not meet with a generally favourable reception. The book was rewritten, enlarged, and published under the title ‘Volcanos’ in 1862. But Scrope's ‘Geology and Extinct Volcanos of Central France,’ published in 1826, produced a stronger impression and established the author's reputation as an accurate observer and sound reasoner. A second and revised edition appeared in 1858, and this is still carefully read by every geologist who visits Auvergne. Lyell, who reviewed the first edition in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ xxxvi. 437, justly called it the most able work which had appeared since Playfair's ‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory.’ In the same year (1826) Scrope was elected F.R.S.

He was also much in advance of his contemporaries in recognising the action of rivers in the formation of valleys, and was the author (among other contributions to the subject) of an important paper on the Meuse, Moselle, and other rivers (Proc. Geol. Soc. i. 170). His views were practically identical with those of Lyell, whom at this time he might be said, as slightly the senior in geological work, to lead rather than to follow; and when Lyell's ‘Principles of Geology’ appeared in 1827, the book was reviewed by Scrope (Quart. Rev. xlii. 411, liii. 406). He expressed agreement with the author on almost all points, except that he thought Lyell was going rather too far in maintaining that geological change in all past time had been not only similar to, but also in all respects uniform with, what could now be witnessed, and he was more ready than his friend to admit the possibility of a progressive development of species. Some geologists would maintain that Scrope's divergences from the author of the ‘Principles’ indicated a yet clearer perception of the earth's history. In short, it may be said that if Scrope had continued to devote himself wholly to geology, he would have probably surpassed all competitors.

But he also felt a keen interest in politics, in which his brother, afterwards Lord Sydenham, was taking an active part, and his energies were gradually diverted into another channel. Having settled down at Castle Combe, the family seat of the Scropes in Wiltshire, he had been impressed, especially from his experience as a magistrate, with the hardships of the agricultural labourer's life, and he threw himself heartily into the political struggle which was then in progress. In 1833, after the passing of the first reform bill, he was returned to parliament as member for Stroud (having unsuccessfully contested the seat in 1832) and represented the borough till 1868. Here he was an energetic advocate of free trade and various social reforms, especially that of the poor law. But these reforms were urged by his pen, for he was a silent member. His pamphlets, both before and after his entry into parliament, were very numerous. Seventeen stand under his name in the British Museum catalogue, but it is believed that seventy would be nearer the truth, for Scrope's fertility in this respect got him, in the House of Commons, the sobriquet of ‘Pamphlet Scrope.’ In 1833 he published a small volume on ‘The Principles of Political Economy’ (2nd edit. 1874) and another (in 1872) on ‘Friendly Societies.’ He also wrote a life of his brother, Lord Sydenham (1843).

Still geology was not deserted, for in 1856 and again in 1859 the ‘elevation theory’ of craters advocated by Humboldt, Von Buch, and other continental geologists brought Scrope back into the field. This theory, though mortally wounded by himself and Lyell, showed signs of life until his two papers (Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. xii. 326, xv. 505) extinguished it. Auvergne was again studied by him in 1857, while preparing the revised and enlarged edition of his work on Central France, which appeared in 1858. Nor must a very important and suggestive paper be forgotten, which attributed the foliation of crystalline rocks to differential movements of the materials while the mass was still in an imperfectly solid condition (Geologist, 1858, p. 361).

In 1867 Scrope received the Wollaston medal from the Geological Society, and on his retirement from parliament in the following year geology again obtained a larger share of attention. He lived in retirement during the later years of his life, but his interest in the science was unabated; and when he could no longer travel, he aided younger men less wealthy than himself to continue the study of volcanic districts. Though for some time he suffered from failure of sight, like his friend Lyell, and from some of the usual infirmities of age, he could still wield the pen, and the short notes and controversial letters which appeared during the last few months of his life showed no symptom of mental decline. He died at Fairlawn, near Cobham, Surrey, 19 Jan. 1876, and was buried at Stoke d'Abernon. He had sold Castle Combe after the death of his wife, who for many years had been an invalid in consequence of an accident when riding, not long after her marriage. Late in life he married again, and his second wife survived him. There was no issue by either marriage.

Scrope, according to the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ was the author of thirty-six regular papers, the majority on volcanic geology and petrology, but in addition to this department of science and to political studies, he took great interest in archæology, contributing papers on this subject to the ‘Wiltshire Magazine,’ and publishing in 1852 (for private circulation) an illustrated quarto entitled ‘History of the Manor and Ancient Barony of Castle Combe, Wilts.’ His position as a geologist may be best described in words used by himself in his earliest publication, written at a period when the Huttonian theory was generally discredited, viz. that the science ‘has for its business a knowledge of the processes which are in continual or occasional operation within the limits of our planet, and the application of these laws to explain the appearances discovered by our geognostical researches, so as from these materials to deduce conclusions as to the past history of the globe’ (Considerations on Volcanos, Pref. p. iv). It is, perhaps, not too much to say that though two or three of his contemporaries, by a more complete devotion to geology, attained a higher eminence in the science, not one of them ever surpassed him in closeness and accuracy as an observer or in soundness of induction, and firm grasp of principles as a reasoner.

[Obituary notices, Nature, xiii. 291 (A. G[eikie]), Academy, ix. 102 (J. W. Judd), Athenæum, 29 Jan. 1876; Geol. Mag. 1876, p. 96, also memoir with portrait, 1870, p. 193; Quart. Jour. Geol. Soc. xxxii. Proc. p. 69; Proc. Roy. Soc. xxv. 1, mentioned in Lyell's Life and Letters and in Life of Murchison by A. Geikie (portrait, ii. 108); also information from Prof. J. W. Judd and R. F. Scott, esq., bursar of St. John's College, Cambridge.]

T. G. B.