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An aye for the ladies

Sir Jethro Justinian Harris Teall

A letter has come to light revealing what went on at an SGM in 1889, writes Ted Nield

Geoscientist 18.3 March 2008

Debate over whether to admit women to the Society was – if not exactly raging – at least being held among Fellows as early as the 1880s. Gordon Herries-Davies, in his Bicentenary history of the Society, records how one Fellow, Thomas Vincent Holmes of Greenwich, proposed (during an 1889 revision of the Bye-laws) that Fellowship be opened to both sexes. However, the proposal was narrowly defeated at a Special General Meeting on March 15.

Little of detail about what went on that day has survived in the historical record. However, thanks to work on a new archive room, a colourful account has turned up in the University of Birmingham's Lapworth Museum. The account comes in the form of a letter from Jethro Justinian Harris Teall (1849-1924), to Charles Lapworth (1842-1920). Both men were in their forties at the time and had long and distinguished careers. Teall became President at the turn of the century and succeeded Sir Archibald Geikie (see below) as Director General of the Geological Survey. Lapworth, who founded the Ordovician System, was the first professor of geology at Birmingham.

The following transcript of the letter has been provided for us by Prof. Paul Smith, Head of School in the successor to Lapworth's department – the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

The newly discovered letter, courtesy, University of Birmingham

28 Jermyn St
March 15th 1889

My dear Lapworth

Go in for the London Examinership by all means. You ought to get it. I shall not go in in any case.

We had some fun yesterday but were beaten on all points. Ladies excluded by only three or four votes.

The anti-lady party had no arguments. Evans thought that the admission of young ladies might take off the interest of some fellows – lower the tone of the Society etc. In reply to this Hinde made the greatest point of the evening – he should object as much as Evans to anything tending to convert the G.S. into a Flirtation Society – but there was no danger –
“we are not attractive enough”.

A Gorilla-faced person got up and in the most solemn tones implored the fellows to pause before taking such an important step.

“Why” said he “the proposal is absolutely revolutionary”. This was too much for us and we absolutely roared. The person’s face was a sight to see.

I said I had been to the Chemical Society once only and a lady was present on that occasion. The President said that there was no reason why lady visitors should not attend any meetings if the men, being present, did not object. This was a great point gained and I propose to take my wife to the next meeting and see if they turn her out.

Yours faithfully
J.J.H. Teall

Sir Charles Lapworth Women were admitted to meetings from 9 March 1904. Women were not admitted into Fellowship until 26 March 1919, a year before Lapworth's death, and five before Teall's. Ted Nield

Further reading

  • Herries-Davies, G, 2007. Whatever is under the Earth: the Geological Society of London 1807-2007. The Geological Society. Esp. p159
  • Woodward, Horace B, 1907. The History of the Geological Society of London., The Geological Society. Ch. 16.