William Henry Fitton (1780-1861)

The Inspiring Story of William Henry Fitton

Richard Marston Crabbe, Toronto, Canada

William Henry Fitton was my great, great, grandfather. I knew nothing about him while growing up, but curiosity and interest in knowing more about my ancestors, led me to a lifetime pursuit of research into their lives, and particularly that of W. H. Fitton. I found him to be an extremely interesting person, and tried to reconstruct his life in detail. Fortunately, because of his many activities and well known scientific friends and acquaintances, I found that there was much recorded information available. It only required looking for it in a multitude of the right places and then digging it out!

W. H. Fitton’s family was originally from Gawsworth, Cheshire but had long been settled in and/or involved with, Ireland. W. H. Fitton was born in Dublin in January 1780, the son of Nicholas Fitton, a Dublin attorney, and Jane Greene. Nicholas’s father was William Fitton, a mathematical instrument maker, of Paul Street, Cork; Jane’s father was the Rev. Robert Greene of Rathmore, Co. Kildare.

W. H. Fitton entered Trinity College, Dublin as a pensioner on July 7,1794. In 1798, he was awarded the Senior Classical Scholarship and in 1799, he graduated with a B.A. From 1800 to 1803, he continued as a Senior Classical Scholar. While still living in Dublin, he became very interested in geology, collected rocks and fossils in the neighbourhood, made excursions to Wales and Cornwall to study their minerals and rocks, and determined the heights of the principal mountains of Ireland. On one occasion, while collecting fossils near Dublin, he was arrested on suspicion of being a rebel. He was carrying a geological hammer, which was considered by the authorities to be a dangerous weapon!

In 1808, W. H. Fitton entered Edinburgh University to study medicine, and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine on September 12, 1810. Whilst in Edinburgh, he also attended the lectures of Robert Jamieson, Professor of Natural History of that University, and ‘made the acquaintance of various young men, zealous in study, who afterwards attained to distinction in science and literature.’

In 1810-11, he lived in London with his mother Jane and three sisters (Susanna, Elizabeth and Sarah), who kept house for him. He continued to study medicine and chemistry and was admitted Licentiate at the Royal College of Physicians on September 30,1811. His serious scientific work also began this year, with his paper “Notice Respecting the Geological Structure of the Vicinity of Dublin,” which was presented to The Geological Society of London in 1810 and published in their 1811 “Transactions.”

In 1812, W. H. Fitton established himself in Northampton, assured of a good reception there as a physician by the introduction of Lord and Lady Spencer, and with the anticipation also of succeeding to the practice of Dr. Kerr, the father of Lady Davy. His mother Jane and three sisters moved from London with him and continued to keep house for him at Wood Hill, at St. Giles Square.

In a letter dated April 8,1814 to George John, Earl Spencer, W. H. Fitton complained that he wasn’t getting the professional experience he required since “Dr. Kerr may retain his practice at the infirmary for some years to come.” He requested his introduction as a second physician at the infirmary.

In the year 1815, W. H. Fitton was admitted Fellow Commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge on October 24; was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on November 11; became a Fellow of the Linnean, Astronomical, and Royal Geographical Societies; and was admitted a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians on December 22.

In the year 1816, W. H. Fitton wrote to the Earl Spencer on March 4, to request that the Earl be one of the patrons for the possible formation of a bank for savings in Northampton; in a further letter to the Earl of August 2, he refers to the Northamptonshire Provident institution “which is to open tomorrow.” He was admitted “ad eundem’ (by incorporation) M.D. of the University of Cambridge. He was admitted as a member of the Geological Society of London on November 1. He was proposed for membership by seven existing Members, including three of the original members who founded the Society in 1807. He was admitted Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians on December 23. He had the most significant role in the restoration works to St. Peter’s Church in Northampton, a Norman church built around 1130-40. Also in 1816,

W. H. Fitton’s mother Jane died, age 61, and was buried on June 24 at St. Giles Church, Northampton.

In the year 1817 (and continuing until 1841), W. H. Fitton contributed a series of articles upon contemporaneous geological topics to the Edinburgh Review, including lengthy reviews of writings by William Smith, William Buckland, Roderick Murchison, and Charles Lyell.

Also in 1817, W. H. Fitton’s sister Sarah (assisted by her sister Elizabeth) published a book on botany, which went through eight editions; she continued to write, and published at least six other books, including one on music. As was the practice in those days for women authors, none of her books showed attribution (apart from the library catalogues).

In 1819, W. H. Fitton’s father Nicholas died in Dublin; as executor, W. H. Fitton sold Nicholas’s house at 22 York St., Dublin.

In June 1820, W. H. Fitton married Maria James, an heiress, and, soon thereafter, moved from Northampton to London. At that time, he gave up the active practice of medicine and devoted himself entirely to scientific researches, mostly geological.

In October, 1820, W. H. Fitton wrote a letter to the Earl Spencer from Geneva stating that, since his marriage, he has “been engaged in seeing foreign countries for the first time in my life. It will not, I trust, be displeasing to your lordship to know that my present situation, as far as external sources of happiness are concerned, is far beyond my utmost expectation. I am married to a lady with whose excellence I have been well acquainted for several years; and our united fortunes produce an income much greater than I had ever ventured to anticipate. We have had, as far as we have come, a very delightful tour in having seen the low countries, the Rhine, some of the German States, and the most interesting part of Switzerland, and we hope that our residence in Italy, where we intend to pass the winter, will not be less gratifying — though our movements will be a good deal confined by the state of things in that country. We intend in a few days to leave this place for Milan, but shall probably pass on to Florence where I understand the greater number of the English have fixed themselves; and I have great hopes that we may see Rome with safety. But Naples, at least for Ladies, is too probably out of the question – which is to me a sad disappointment for I long to see Vesuvius and all its wonders. We shall probably find it advisable to return to England about the beginning of May. I beg to present my compliments to Lady Spencer and I have the honour to remain — with very high respect,

Your Lordship’s very obedient & humble servant,

Wm. H. Fitton

WH and Maria Fitton
WH and Maria Fitton

While in Rome, W. H. Fitton had the following portraits painted of he and his wife Maria:

From 1822 to 1824, W. H. Fitton served as Secretary of the Geological Society of London. In the summer of 1822, he and his wife spent some time in Hastings, Sussex. In October, their eldest son, William John, was born in London. From November 1922 to March 1823, they were in Paris, France, travelling back to Hastings in April, where their second son, my great grandfather, Henry Wollaston, was born, in May. In August 1824, W. H. Fitton took a cottage with his wife and children, at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight. In October, their third son, Edward Brown, was born in London. Between 1825 and 1834, W. H. Fitton and his wife Maria had two more sons (Charles and Frederick) and three daughters (Jane, Elizabeth, and Maria).

W. H. Fitton served as President of the Geological Society of London from 1827 to1829, and as Vice-President from 1831 to 1846. Sir Roderick Murchison remarked about W. H. Fitton, “No sooner did he attain the honour of our chair, than he established the publication of those Proceedings which are the true synopsis of our labours, and have been imitated by the Royal Society and most of the scientific societies of our Metropolis….He was also the first of our Presidents who adopted the practice of delivering an Anniversary Address, which under his management was a well-composed and accurate sketch of the progress we had made….He opened his house during his presidency to Fellows at evening soirees, when his cheerful and joyous countenance and kind manner encouraged many a beginner.”

In 1836, W. H. Fitton published “Observations on Some of the Strata Between the Chalk and the Oxford Oolite in the South-east of England.” Per John Challinor, in the “Annals of Science” this was “one of the most important monographs in British Geology.” Before this, geologists had only confused notions as to the order of the strata beneath the Chalk, as well as of the imbedded fossil remains of each stratum.

In June 1849, W. H. Fitton’s eldest son, William John (a medical doctor and a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge), together with his wife and daughter, drowned in a shipwreck of the “Richard Dart” in the Indian Ocean, on their way to New Zealand. The news of the shipwreck did not reach London until late in January 1850.

In February 1852 the Geological Society of London awarded W. H. Fitton the Wollaston Medal, the highest award of the Society founded by his dear friend Wollaston; his medal is now with other items of Fittoniana in the Geological Museum of Trinity College, Dublin.

In July, W. H. Fitton’s second son, Henry Wollaston, travelled to Sydney and

Melbourne, Australia. In August, W. H. Fitton’s wife Maria died.

In 1856, W. H. Fitton’s library of 667 books was sold by auction. The remnants of his fossil collections are preserved in the Geological Survey Museum.

In 1857, W. H. Fitton’s last paper (He published 21 altogether.) — “On the Structure of Northwest Australia” — was published in the Proceedings of the Geographical Society.

Also in 1857, Henry Wollaston, W. H. Fitton’s second son (and my great grandfather), married Amelia Lovick in Norwich and, shortly thereafter, they emigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto, and later (1863) in Orillia, Ontario. Descendants:~Charles Edward Fitton-b.1858;~Gladys Mary Fitton-b.1892;~Richard Marston Crabbe-b.1930;~Catharine Fitton-b.1966;~Jack Henry Fitton-McCarthy-b.2004.

WH Fitton
WH Fitton

Picture of W. H. Fitton, age 80, from files of the Royal Society, taken in 1860 (also available on Wikisource).

On May 13,1861, W. H. Fitton died at his home at 4 Sussex Gardens, London.

On February 21,1862, at the Annual General Meeting of the Geological Society of London, the Chairman, Sir Roderick Murchison, delivered a long obituary that was published in the Quarterly Journal, Geol. Soc., vol. xviii, 1862. It is the most authoritative biography of W. H. Fitton, since it was written only nine months after his death, and the author, Sir Roderick Murchison, was one of the most prominent geologists of his time and had been a friend and colleague for 36 years (since about 1825). “A sketch of one of our most distinguished leaders… the late Dr. W. H. Fitton was truly one of the British worthies, who have raised modern geology to its present advanced position….In conclusion, it may well be said, that Dr. Fitton was so single-minded, guileless, and affectionate, that everyone who knew him loved him; and as his memory is cherished by all his contemporaries, so is this the fitting occasion to record, however imperfectly, the virtues and deeds of so good a man and so sound a geologist.”

W. H. Fitton had many close friends in the scientific community, including the following, all of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society: Charles Babbage (polymath, mathematician), Sir Joseph Banks (naturalist, botanist), Pres. of Royal Society for 41 years, William Conybeare* (geologist), Charles Darwin*(naturalist, geologist), Sir John Herschel (polymath, mathematician, astronomer, chemist), Sir Charles Lyell* (geologist), Gideon Mantell* (surgeon, geologist , paleontologist), Sir Roderick Murchison* (geologist), Peter Roget (lexicographer and author of Roget’s Thesaurus), and William Wollaston (chemist and physicist, after whom the Wollaston Medal was named). (*These men were awarded the Wollaston Medal.)

It was W. H. Fitton’s delight to instruct others in practical geology, and many travellers, including the arctic explorers Sir John Franklin, Sir George Back, and Sir John Richardson, received valuable assistance from him.

Following are a few anecdotes about W. H. Fitton gleaned from some surviving correspondence:

(1) Letter of June 22,1831 from Sir Charles Lyell to Gideon Mantell:

“You heard of Fitton’s accident? Changing his residence as usual; going from his country seat near Sevenoaks to a new place eleven miles north of town, taking a maid-servant to Harley Street in a gig, horse ran away in Regent’s Park, dashed against a gate. Fitton’s arm said to be broken high up, but Brodie can’t make out where.”

(2) Lyell’s Visit to Dr. Fitton:

“Mill Hill, Hendon: Sunday (1832). I came by coach to this place after breakfast, passing through Hampstead. Dr. Fitton is residing here, at Mr.Wilberforce’s house, a most delightful residence, eleven miles from London. Mrs. Fitton and children quite well; six children. Conybeare and Babbage the only visitors.”

“Fitton’s carriage brought us from Highwood House (the correct name of his place) to within a mile of Hampstead, and then Babbage and I got out and preferred walking.”

“Although most enjoyable, yet the staying up till half-past one with three such men, and the continual pelting of new ideas, was anything but a day of rest.”

(3) Charles Darwin’s letter of August 9,1838 to Charles Lyell:

“I am full of admiration at the Athenaeum; one meets so many people there, that one likes to see. The first time I dined there, (i.e., last week) I met Dr. Fitton at the door & he got together quite a party.”

(4) W. H. Fitton’s letter to Charles Darwin of June 13,1839:

“My dear Darwin,

I ought long since to have thanked you for your Book, which was indeed a most acceptable present. I congratulate you very sincerely, on the publication of a work which does you so much credit — in every sense of the word & trust that you will long enjoy all the good consequences of your success.

Ever yours
Very truly
Wm. H. Fitton

Mrs. Fitton has been accusing herself and me — of not having of late seen you or Mrs. Darwin — The gout is a bad excuse but it is the only one I have to offer.”

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