David Horsley gave a most interesting talk to the Society on
21 October on Joseph Prestwich, who lived at Darenth Hulme from
1869 to 1896. Prestwich was an amateur geologist who became Professor
of Geology at Oxford, and whose researches and discoveries were
hugely significant and influential in the controversial debate
about the Antiquity of Man.
Prestwich's working life was spent in the wine business, but
he devoted one hour before breakfast and two after work every
day to his real passion, scientific research. He developed an
interest in tertiary rocks, the main rock strata of south-eastern
England, and his researches into geological succession convinced
him that the earth was many thousands, even millions, of years
older than currently believed, and that man had lived on the earth
for aeons of time. The controversy surrounding his paper of 1859
on the Antiquity of Man, however, was trumped by that caused by
Darwin's The Origin of the Species, published a few years later
stating that Man was not descended from God but from an apelike
Prestwich first came to Shoreham in 1853 when he bought 'a bare
piece of chalk down with a topknot of wood' where he built Darenth
Hulme, named after Hulme Hall, his ancestral seat near Manchester.
In 1870 he married Grace, 20 years his junior, who became his
amanuensis and willing slave, the role previously taken by his
sister Civil. He retired from his City job at 60 with relief,
and two years later was surprised to be appointed Professor of
Geology at Oxford, a post he held for 13 years. He was greatly
influenced by a new friend, Benjamin Harrison of Ightham, an amateur
palaeontologist who had amassed a huge collection of fossils.
Benjamin convinced Joseph that many of these were eoliths, manmade
shaped tools of great age, and Joseph published Harrison's theories,
which eventually were accepted by the scientific establishment.
Although these theories have been largely superseded by more
recent geological research, David Horsley felt that the part Joseph
Prestwich played in the growth of scientific knowledge should
not be underestimated, both in his singlehanded discovery of the
tertiary succession of rocks, and in his contribution to the public
perception of deep time, the many millions of years during which
the earth and man evolved.