[University home]

Rocks and Minerals

A mineral is a naturally occurring geological substance with a definite chemical composition and crystal structure. The tiny crystals and grains which make up rocks are minerals and so are the ores of the metals that we rely on to furnish everyday objects. Man made items, whatever their origin, are excluded from the definition and so are almost all naturally occurring liquids and gases. Organic matter also falls outside the definition, although there are mineral substances within bones and teeth. Minerals have been a source of fascination for centuries. They provided the metals that were forged into tools by early man and the gems he used as decoration. It is not surprising therefore that people began to amass mineral collections.

The Manchester Museum mineral collection was begun in the early part of the nineteenth century by the Manchester Natural History Society, and now comprises some 17,000 specimens. It contains a diverse assemblage of objects, which include meteorites, gemstones, ore samples and rare minerals. The specimens have been acquired by bequest, donation and field collection.

Connoisseurs of minerals commonly identify three mining districts within northern England for special praise: the iron mines of South and West Cumbria for calcite and barite which set the worldwide standard; Caldbeck Fells, the northernmost outpost of the Lake District, for beautifully coloured lead, copper and zinc; northern half of the North Pennine Orefield, including the mines of Alston Moor and Weardale, has produced fluorite of many colours and superb examples of barium minerals witherite, barytocalcite and alstonite.

The museum also has important collections from western Scotland; the Alderley Edge mines, Cheshire; the mines of Derbyshire; the Republic of Ireland; central Europe, and south America.

The only way keep a record of the mineralogical material that is mined or quarried around the world is to collect and preserve specimens. Documentation is critical if these are to be more than pretty objects to be admired. There are currently more mineral specimens being rescued from mines and quarries around the world than at any time in the past, so hopefully the mineral collection will continue to grow in years to come.

It is clear that the mineral collection was already considerable when the transfer of specimens from the Natural History Society to Owens College (later to become the University of Manchester) took place in 1867. Unfortunately it is not possible to positively identify this early material. It is known that the society collection included about 2000 mineral specimens purchased in 1822 from Joseph Strutt (1765 - 1844) of Derby. Caution must be exercised here as the word mineral was used as an inclusive term for minerals, rocks and fossils at the time. The early collections also included 200 rocks and minerals from Vesuvius obtained from Henry Barton in 1835, and about a hundred specimens from Elba donated by James Heywood in 1840.

The first catalogue dates from 1877 and lists 1128 specimens (few can now be identified with certainty). A mineral, rock and fossil collection belonging to David Forbes (1828 - 1876) was purchased in the same year. This was the most important 19thC addition to the collection.

David Forbes was educated at Edinburgh University, but spent most of his working life abroad as a mine superintendent, working in Norway and South America. He amassed significant collections from Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The mineral forbesite was named in his honour, but recent examination of the type specimen (which is in the Forbes collection) has shown it to be a variety of erythrite. The Forbes Collection includes the type specimen of the little known phosphate mineral evansite, which was described in 1864.

The current catalogue was begun on May 2nd, 1890. Numerous specimens among the first 400 catalogue entries were purchased from Francis Henry Butler (1849 - 1935). Butler was a medical doctor, poet, assistant editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a leading London mineral dealer. He opened for business in 1884, moving the stock of the famous Cornish mineral dealer Richard Talling, who had committed suicide the previous year, to Brompton Road. By the time he retired, 43 years later, most of the world's leading mineral collections had specimens with Butler labels.

The catalogue also records early purchases from the German dealership, Krantz of Bonn, and the enigmatic Cumbrian John Graves, who specialised in fine minerals from northern England.

A post of assistant keeper, which included responsibility for the rock and mineral collections, was initiated in 1965. It was held by Barbara Pyrah until 1968 and by Derek Rushton from 1968 to 1974. Rushton was particularly interested in the mineralogy of the Shetland Islands, from which he collected many mineral specimens now in the collection. He left to live on Yell in 1974. Rosemary Preece was appointed to the post of assistant keeper in the same year, and a considerable backlog of specimens was accessioned.

The post of assistant keeper lapsed in the 1980s but by this time the majority of the collection had been accessioned so that by 1989 it numbered some 11406 specimens. In the early 1990s a review of geology in British Universities was undertaken by the Universities Funding Council, and as a result a the post of Keeper of Mineralogy and Petrology was established. David Green was appointed to this position in late 1992. Since that time, mineral specimens have been added to the collection at a rate of ca. 500 per year, and the current total (end 2001) stands at 16680.

Boyd Dawkins Collection
William Boyd Dawkins (1837 - 1929 was born in Welshpool, educated at Oxford, and worked for the Geological Survey before moving in 1870 to Owens College as curator of the museum. He later became professor of geology, and was knighted in 1919.

He had a good eye for specimens, the Cumbrian calcite specimens in his collection are among the finest in the museum. He presented an excellent collection of apatite crystals from Buckingham, Ottowa, Canada.

The first Boyd-Dawkins specimen entered in the mineral catalogue dates from 1899. The manuscript catalogue of the minerals belonging to the Manchester Museum dated 1877, although unsigned, is in handwriting which is strikingly similar to Boyd-Dawkins and is presumably also his work.

In 1975, the museum received a bequest of minerals from Henry Francis Harwood (1886 - 1975), including important suites of minerals from Northern England, the USA and Central Europe.

Harwood had studied chemistry in Manchester and Heidelberg, and was appointed as a Demonstrator in Chemistry at Imperial College, London. He eventually became Assistant Professor and reader in Analytical Chemistry. He retired in 1940 and moved to Deganwy, North Wales, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Of an estimated 11,000 specimens in the Harwood collection, almost half were split between the University Geology Department and the Manchester Museum.

Other Major Collectors
The first donation from Caroline Birley (1851 - 1907) is recorded in 1894 and comprised eight specimens of zeolite group minerals from the Faroe islands and Iceland. Birley spent a large part of her life collecting geological specimens, which she labelled with great care. They were stored in an iron 'museum' building in the garden of her house in Manchester, and later in London. The British Museum was offered first choice from the collection when Caroline died in 1907. The remainder came to Manchester and it provides a foundation for the diverse collection of zeolite group minerals held by the Museum.

More than a hundred specimens were purchased from George Wild (1827 - 1903) in 1897. Wild was descended from an old and respected family of colliery managers, his father having been the manager of the Glodwick Collieries in Oldham for many years. He became a member of the Manchester Geological Society in 1867 and contributed many papers on colliery management and geology. His most important collections were of Coal Measures fossils and these are also held by the Museum.

About 100 specimens including most of the best Cornish specimens in the collection were added in 1902 in an exchange with Mr C.P. Richards of St Austell. Mark Stirrup (1831 - 1907), a close friend of William Boyd-Dawkins bequeathed a collection of neatly trimmed minerals in 1907. The Imperial Institute donated more than 300 ore specimens from mines in Australia in 1914.

Sir Henry Meirs (1858 - 1942), vice chancellor of Manchester University, and a highly respected mineralogist, donated specimens including a superb apatite from Auburn, Maine in 1919, and an unusually large and well formed crystal of the rare platinum arsenide mineral sperrylite in 1927. Other than this, the inter-war years were quiet, and only a dozen entries were made in the register.

The first specimens registered in the distinctive handwriting of Dr R. M. C. Eager date from September 1945. Eager was appointed Assistant Keeper of Geology in that year and his title changed to Keeper of Geology in 1957. A palaeontologist by inclination, he amassed a large and important collection of non-marine bivalves which is described in the palaeontology section of the museum website. Eager did not neglect the mineral collection, however, and there were considerable additions in the 43 years he worked in the Museum.

The first donation from Dr. Richard S. W. Braithwaite dates from 1960. Braithwaite, was a lecturer in the chemistry department at UMIST, with a considerable knowledge of mineralogy.

There were a number of exchanges in the 1960s with Terry Seward, then a PhD student in the University Geology department. Seward went on to become a distinguished geochemist.

Exchanges were also made with the Italian mineral deal G. Carlo Fioravanti and latterly with the well known west-of-England dealer Richard W. Barstow.

In 1968, the museum received a cabinet of minerals originally given to the University Chemistry Department in 1888 by Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833 - 1915). Roscoe worked in the Chemistry Department between 1857 and 1886. He isolated the element vanadium and named the copper lead vanadate mineral mottramite. By the time the museum acquired the collection it had been used for teaching for many years and was very jumbled. Roscoe's personal collection survives in a much more orderly state at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Additions n the 1980s include Irish and Scottish minerals from Dr Stephen Moreton; Irish zeolites from Harry Foy; Australian minerals from Bernie Day; New Zealand minerals from Trevor Hoskings and Jocelyn Thornton; minerals from Fall Hill Quarry, Derbyshire from Jean Spence; Scottish and north of England minerals from Brian Young; rare British minerals from Neil Hubbard; and north of England minerals from Dr Mike Rothwell.

A substantial number of specimens have been added through fieldwork and these include alstonite specimens from the type locality at Brownley Hill Mine in the Pennines; a number of zeolite and related species from basalts the Isle of Skye; mottramite from the Mottram Mine, Cheshire; alpine type vein minerals from Snowdonia, North Wales; and a large number of rare minerals from Dolyhir Quarry, Powys.

Part of the meteorite collection of Dr Howard Axon was presented in 1993. A considerable number of Cornish specimens from the collection of Maurice Grigg were purchased in 1997. Specimens were purchased from the estate of Ken Savage, a well known Russell Society member in 1999. Part of the collection of Mike Wood, mostly Yorkshire minerals, was purchased in 2001.

The end of the 1990s saw major acquisitions for the new displays. Many fine worldwide specimens were obtained at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The display collection from the British Isles was considerably improved as a result of purchases from Lindsay Greenbank, John and Robert Lawson, Dr Stephen Moreton, David Hacker, Peter Briscoe, Nick Carruth and Neil Hubbard. These acquisitions were made possible by a grant from the PRISM Fund.

Rocks and Minerals

A close up view of a crystalline orange structure.
Unusual orange hexagonal mimetite crystals up to 4 mm long collected by Manchester resident Jim Knight in the 1970s at Dry Gill Mine in Cumbria.