Mineral Collecting in Wales
Mineralogy, in the context of collecting minerals for their own sake, is an activity with a relatively short history in Wales. This is in stark contrast to the many centuries during which minerals were sought after as metal ores. It fell to the gentleman naturalists who flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to begin assembling together the jigsaw that, although still incomplete, constitutes the Mineralogy of Wales. This is incomplete, because almost every year, records of species new to Wales are made and published.
Reproduction of the water colour plate of sulphate of zinc (goslarite) found at Holywell in Flintshire included within Sowerbys British Mineralogy (1811).Occasional notes on individual mineral occurrences in Wales can be found in the early literature (e.g. Lhuyd, 1684 – as noted in Greenly (1919); Sowerby, 1811). However in in 1858, Robert Philips Greg and William Garrow Lettsom, following on from Sowerby’s British Mineralogy (1804-1817) published their famous Manual of the Mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland.. This book represented the first attempt to list comprehensively and describe all of the minerals known to occur in the British Isles. A total of 241 mineral species was listed, of which 47 were noted from Welsh localities. Most of the species mentioned from Wales were, perhaps not surprisingly, minerals encountered during mining and quarrying - hence the common ores and alteration products of copper, lead and zinc feature in the list, as does gold. Their work was not exhaustive. For example, a description of analcime from Anglesey, published by J.S. Henslow (incidentally Charles Darwin’s tutor) in 1822, was omitted.
In contrast to other mining districts, such as those of Devon and Cornwall, the orefields of Wales were not greatly frequented by mineral dealers and specimen hunters. However, there were some exceptions including the noted eighteenth century naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1792) who was particularly active in his local area (the Halkyn district of north-east Wales). The famous mineral collection of his Cornish contemporary, Philip Rashleigh, contains specimens from this area: interestingly a Mr Pennant was one of Rashleigh’s specimen suppliers.
A fine specimen of pectolite from Hendre Quarry, near Glyn Ceiriog, Clwyd, coated with cubic apophyllite crystals. This specimen forms part of the G.J. Williams Collection, acquired by Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales in 1927.
Welsh mineralogy had a useful boost in the early twentieth century when much important material was collected by the then Chief Inspector of Mines for North Wales, G.J. Williams. His was a job of which many modern mineral enthusiasts would dream. During his tours of duty around the then working mines throughout North Wales, the opportunities to obtain fine contemporary specimens would have been legion. In 1927, the National Museum of Wales obtained Williams’ material.
Despite the gradual decline in the Welsh mining industry, interest in Wales’ minerals grew steadily throughout the twentieth century, with the 1960s onwards seeing a massive expansion in the numbers of active amateur collectors. Access to microscopes has enabled the study of microcrystalline (but often stunningly beautiful under magnification) minerals resulting in the discovery of many rare mineral species in Wales by the dedication of several amateur mineralogists.
This was reflected by the fact that, when the first edition of A Mineralogy of Wales was published in 1994, a total of 340 mineral species were included. Thus, in the 136 years since Greg and Lettsom’s work, the number of species known to occur in Wales had increased more than sevenfold. But, perhaps the most dramatic statistic of all is that 161 (i.e. almost half) of the 340 mineral species listed in the first edition were discovered in the period 1960-1994, through the work of academics and amateurs alike.
Bevins, R.E., 1994. A Mineralogy of Wales. National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Geological Series No. 16.
Greenly, E., 1919. The Geology of Anglesey. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, 980pp (2 volumes).
Greg, R.P. & Lettsom, W.G., 1858. Manual of the Mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland. John van Voorst, London, 483pp.
Sowerby, J., 1804. British Mineralogy. Volume I, Richard Taylor, London.
Sowerby, J., 1806. British Mineralogy. Volume II, Richard Taylor, London.
Sowerby, J., 1809. British Mineralogy. Volume III, Richard Taylor, London.
Sowerby, J., 1811. British Mineralogy. Volume IV, Richard Taylor, London.
Sowerby, J., 1817. British Mineralogy. Volume V, Richard Taylor, London.