CLARKE, William Branwhite (1798-1878)


CLARKE, William Branwhite (1798-1878)
geologist
was born at East Bergholt, Suffolk, on 2 June 1798. Educated at Dedham Grammar School he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, in October 1817, and in 1819 entered a poem for the Chancellor's gold medal. This was awarded to Macaulay, but Clarke's poem Pompeii, published in the same year, was placed second. He obtained the degree of B.A. in 1821, entered holy orders, and became a curate first at Ramsholt and then at East Bergholt. He was also master of the Free School of East Bergholt for about 18 months in 1830-1. He continued the geological and mineralogical studies he had begun under Professor Sedgwick at Cambridge, and enlarged his knowledge by taking trips to the continent. He had become an M.A. in 1824. In 1833 he was presented to a living in Dorset and became one of the chaplains of the bishop of Salisbury, but in 1839, partly for reasons of health, he decided to go to Australia. He had been commissioned by some of his English colleagues to ascertain the extent and character of the carboniferous formation in New South Wales (Clarke's letter to Sydney Morning Herald, 18 February 1852), but soon after his arrival in May 1839 he became headmaster of The King's School, Parramatta, until the end of 1840. He had charge of the parish of Castle Hill and Dural until his transfer to Campbelltown in 1844, but later in that year removed to the parish of Willoughby in North Sydney. He was to remain there for 26 years. Early in 1844 he showed Sir George Gipps (q.v.), then governor of New South Wales, some specimens of gold he had found. Sir George asked him where he had got it, and when Clarke told him said "Put it away or we shall have our throats cut". Clarke, in his evidence before the select committee on his claims, which sat in 1861, stated that he knew of the existence of the gold in 1841. He, however, agreed with Gipps that it might not be wise to announce the presence of gold in the colony. He continued his clerical duties, but was occasionally lent to the government to carry out geological investigations. In August 1849 he announced the discovery of tin in Australia, and towards the end of 1853 he was given a grant of £1000 by the New South Wales government for his services in connexion with the discovery of gold. A similar sum was voted by the Victorian parliament. In 1860 his Researches in the Southern Gold Fields of New South Wales, a volume of some three hundred pages, was published at Sydney, and went into a second edition in the same year. He continued his geological investigations all his life, and did particularly valuable work in connexion with the permo-carboniferous coalfields of New South Wales. He discovered secondary (Cretaceous) fossils in Queensland in 1860 and gave the first account of Silurian fossils in Australia. It was on his suggestion that search was made for gold in New Zealand. He resigned his clerical charge in 1870, in 1876 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and in 1877 he received the award of the Murchison medal of the Geological Society of London. He finished the preparation of the fourth edition of his Remarks on the Sedimentary Formations of New South Wales on his eightieth birthday, and died about a fortnight later on 16 June 1878. Clarke married and was survived by at least one son. He was for long a vice-president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and his portrait was painted for the society in 1876. In 1878 the society founded the Clarke memorial medal in his honour.
Clarke did a large amount of writing. He published two substantial volumes of poems, The River Derwent . . . and other Poems, 1822, and Lays [sic] of Leisure, 1829. He also published some sermons and was responsible for probably more than 200 scientific papers. He came to Australia with a fine equipment, having personally examined the most famous formations in Europe (see G. B. Barton's Literature in New South Wales, pp. 163-166). He was thoroughly conscientious, and somehow contrived to carry out his clerical duties in spite of the time devoted to science. That his profession meant something to him is shown by the fact that more than once he refused important scientific positions at a higher salary than he was receiving. He was the father of geology in Australia, and had a great influence on the work done in his time. After his death the New South Wales legislative assembly voted £7000 for the purchase of his invaluable collection of fossils and other objects and his scientific library.
John Smith, Anniversary Address, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1879; Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1878; Progress Report on the Claims of the Rev. W. B. Clarke, Legislative Assembly, N.S.W., May 1861; P. Serle, A Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse; The Claims of the Rev. W. B. Clarke, Sydney, 1860; E. W. Skeats, David Lecture, 1933, Some Founders of Australian Geology; G. B. Barton, Literature in New South Wales; W. B. Clarke, Researches in the Southern Gold Fields of New South Wales, pp. 290-4; S. M. Johnstone, The History of the King's School, Parramatta.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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