William BUCKLAND (1784–1856)
Geologist, Dean of Westminster
The Old Rectory, The Walk, Islip
William Buckland was born at Axminster in Devon in 1784. He came up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduated in classics and theology in 1804 and became a fellow of the college. His interest in natural history grew and he began to amass a great collection of rocks and fossils. He became Reader in Mineralogy in 1813, then first Reader in Geology in 1818. His lectures were hugely popular and attracted many senior members of the university such as Arnold, Newman and Lyell, the mentor of Darwin.
His fame spread when he interpreted the remains in the prehistoric Hyaena Den at Kirkdale in Yorkshire as indigenous and ante-diluvian rather than having been swept there by the Deluge. For these discoveries he was awarded the Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society, in 1922. His examination of the ‘Great Lizard of Stonesfield’ (1824) provided the first scientific description of a dinosaur. After a visit to Switzerland in 1838 and a meeting with Agassiz, he revised his view of a great flood to that of a period of glaciation and realised that vast periods of geological time had elapsed before the arrival of man.
He was appointed Canon of Christ Church in 1825. In the same year he married Mary Morland who, herself a talented naturalist and illustrator, was a great helpmate. Their home in Christ Church was filled with geological specimens and exotic pets and guests were served with recherché fare such as toasted field mice and crocodile steaks. He believed that one could learn a lot from eating things and is famously said to have eaten the heart of a French king when shown it as a curiosity in a silver casket at Nuneham Courtenay.
In 1845 on the recommendation of Robert Peel he was appointed Dean of Westminster. This brought with it the living of Islip where he spent the summer months and later lived after retirement. During his time in Islip he contributed to the welfare of the villagers by improving local agriculture and educational opportunities and advising on sanitation and hygiene. He kept a menagerie at the Rectory, including the bear Tiglath Pileser which roamed around the village, visiting the local shop in search of sweets. In 1850 he suffered a mental breakdown, possibly resulting from a fall from a coach, and was committed to The Retreat, an asylum in Clapham, in 1856. He is buried in Islip churchyard.
- Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Neville Haile; Oxford University Museum of Natural History website
- Oxford Mail, 10 August 2008: ‘Plaque for heart-eating don’
The plaque was unveiled at the Old Rectory, The Walk, Islip on 10 August 2008 by George and Frankie Gordon, young descendants of Buckland, in the presence of a large gathering of other family members, geologists, clergy and local residents.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Dean of Westminster
Rector of Islip
Oxford University Museum of Natural History