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Written in History appeal

Letterbook header

The Written in History appeal is now closed after successfully reaching its target.

In the autumn of 2022 the Library launched Written in History, a campaign to fund the conservation of 12 volumes of letters sent in to Assistant Secretary’s office of the Geological Society between 1834 and 1880. Despite being one of the primary records of the Society’s history, they had to be closed off due to their poor condition.

The good news is that thanks to the generosity of numerous donors Written in History has now reached its target which has allowed us to conserve all of the volumes. For the first time we can now read letters which have not been looked at since they were originally bound into the volumes around 150 years ago.

About the Assistant Secretary's Letter Books

Letterbook sample
The typical quarter leather binding of the Letter Books
Historically, the Assistant Secretary was generally the first point of contact with the Society. As the post holder also acted as journal editor and frequently as Librarian & Museum Curator, the majority of the Society’s day-to-day business and administration came through his office.

The letters are therefore one of the primary records of the activities of the Society as a central repository of geological knowledge in the 19th century. Topics covered include:

• Fellows’ interaction with the Society, from their initial introduction, election, changes of circumstances, to finally resignation or notices of decease
• Submission and the editorial process of papers
• Circulation of the Society’s publications and maps
• Donations of material such as museum specimens, books and maps
• Recruitment of and recommendations for geologists for exploration surveys
• Notices and descriptions of new geological finds and other discoveries
• Award nominations and letters from awardees
• Contacts with international geological organisations and foreign geologists

Click on the below to see examples of the letters found in these volumes:

Brunel thumb
Darwin thumb
Georama thumb
Abolition thumb
Election of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1844  Charles Darwin complains about his Library book, [1844]
‘GEORAMA or the World at one view’, 1846
Campaign to abolish slavery in the French colonies, 1847

What was the problem?

There are around 8,000 letters split across 19 volumes. Volumes 1-7 were conserved in the 1980s, but the remaining 12 letter volumes were still in their original format of cheap, guard-book bindings. Guard-books were a very common and economical way of collating loose papers, which would be pasted onto the page stumps inside.

The poor quality leather spines had degraded and split, leading to the collapse of the binding. Two centuries' worth of soot and London pollution had coated the letters inside, which had formed a fine dust that was moved and transferred when the volumes were handled. The dirt caused extensive acidic deterioration and discolouration which made the paper hard and brittle.  This was particularly noticeable along the edges, which curled and flaked, with corners breaking off.     

Letter book d
Letterbook damage
Top left: Various sizes of letters pasted onto guards. 

Top right:
The poor-quality leather dries out, developing red rot. It also becomes brittle and splits, with the front and back boards detaching.

Bottom: The open nature of the binding allows soot and dirt from two centuries' worth of coal fires and London pollution to cover and stain the letters. The exposed edges become brittle and curl.


The condition of the volumes meant that cataloguing the collection was difficult without causing further damage. An incomplete and very rudimentary listing of some of the volumes was undertaken by work experience volunteers in the 1980s. Five volumes (nos.14-18) dating from 1853-1871 are not listed at all.

What if nothing was done?

In spite of these poor listings, the letter books were frequently requested by researchers but had to be closed off due to their condition. This caused a significant gap in the history at a time of great change in science. It is a period where geology becomes more recognisably modern – for example coinciding with the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and the proofs of the Antiquity of Man (1859). 

Letterbook 14
The binding on this volume had collapsed, pushing the block of letters outside of the boards. As a result the letters were being damaged on all sides.

How have you helped?

Your donations have enabled us to have the letters conserved in such a manner that they can finally be catalogued properly and opened to researchers.

If you would like further information about the letter-books please contact the Library on

Sponsors of complete volumes will have a dedication of their choice recorded on a special bookplate bound within. Sponsors of 10 letters and above will have their name on a roll of honour bound with a conserved volume.

Volume 8 (1843-1844)
Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 9 (1844-1846)
  Sponsored in memory of Pieter Michiel Maurenbrecher, FGS (1945-2021)
Volume 10 (1847-1848)
  Sponsored by Graham Goffey
Volume 11 (1848-1851)   Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 12 (1851-1853)   Sponsored in memory of Elspeth Urquhart, PhD, FGS (1949-2019)
Volume 13 (1853-1856)
  Sponsored by Richard Stabbins
Volume 14 (1856-1859)
  Sponsored in memory of Anthony Stephen Batchelor, PhD, FREng (1948-2022)
Volume 15 (1859-1863)
  Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 16 (1863-1864)   Multiple sponsors
Volume 17 (1863, 1865-1866)   Sponsored by The de Laszlo Foundation
Volume 18 (1867-1871)   Sponsored by The Dolan Charitable Trust
Volume 19 (1872-1880)   Multiple sponsors

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