Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Topley, William
TOPLEY, WILLIAM (1841–1894), geologist, the son of William Topley of Woolwich by his wife Carolina Georgina Jeans, was born at Greenwich on 13 March 1841. After receiving an education at private schools the son became a student at the royal school of mines from 1858 to 1862, and in the following year was appointed an assistant geologist on the geological survey. He began his work in the field under the direction of Dr. Le Neve Foster, with whom and other helpers he was for some time engaged on the survey of the Weald. When this interesting but difficult task was completed, Topley was entrusted with the preparation of the memoir in which their labours were embodied. The book was published in 1875, and its value as a work of reference was at once recognised. But prior to this, in 1865, he and Foster had published in the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society’ (xxi. 443) a paper on the ‘Valley of the Medway and the Denudation of the Weald.’ Its clear statement of facts and lucid reasoning closed a long controversy, and proved the physical structure of the Weald to be the result of subaërial denudation—in other words, due to the action of rain and rivers.
On the conclusion of his field work in the south, Topley, who in 1868 was promoted to the rank of geologist, was sent to the north of England, and employed in surveying the carboniferous rocks and the glacial drifts around Alnwick and Morpeth. While thus engaged he studied, in conjunction with Professor Lebour, the great sheet of intrusive basalt called the Whin Sill, the result being another important communication to the Geological Society (Quarterly Journal, xxxiii. 406). From time to time Topley revisited the scene of his former labours in the south of England. He was consulted about 1872 on the project of boring in search of the palæozoic rocks at Battle in Sussex, and occasionally visited the locality to report progress. In 1880 he was recalled from Northumberland to the survey office in London to superintend the publication of maps and memoirs, and in 1893 was placed in full charge of that office. Besides this he was secretary from 1872 to 1888 of the geological section at the meetings of the British Association, and in 1888 of the international geological congress on occasion of its meeting in London. From 1887 to 1889 he was editor of the ‘Geological Record,’ and from 1885 to 1887 was president of the Geologists' Association, besides serving on the councils and committees of many societies. He also took the chief part in preparing the British section for the geological map of Europe, now being published as a result of the international congress, and aided in making the small map of that continent which appeared in the ‘Geology’ written by Sir Joseph Prestwich.
Topley had always paid attention to the practical as well as to the scientific aspect of geology, so that his advice was often sought in questions of water supply, the search for coal or petroleum, hygiene, the erosion of coasts, geological topography, and the agricultural value of soils—questions on which he wrote from time to time. But he was not only a geologist, for he was also much interested in botany, and had a good knowledge of English literature. Besides being a member of various foreign societies, he was elected in 1862 a fellow of the Geological Society, in 1874 an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888. He was also an examiner in geology at the Newcastle college of science and for the science and art department.
In the early autumn of 1894 he attended the meeting of the international geological congress at Zurich, from which he went on to Algiers. He died at his residence at Croydon on 30 Sept. 1894. In 1867 he married Ruth Whiteman, who, with one son, survived him.
[Obituary notice (with portrait) by H. B. Woodward in Geological Mag. 1894, p. 570 (privately reprinted in enlarged form); also (by Professor A. H. Green); Proc. Royal Soc. LIX. p. lxix, and (by W. Whitaker) Proc. Inst. Civil Eng. cxix. pt. i.; information from Mrs. Topley and personal knowledge.]