Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche

1796 - 1855


Eminent English geologist, son of Thomas de la Beche (will proved 1806), from whom he inherited estates in Jamaica. Owner of Halse Hall and Hanbury Pen in Clarendon, the compensation for both of which was paid to the Hibbert family firm as mortgagees. Given as 'Henry delaBiche' in many of the Slave Registers. Instrumental in the founding of the Geological Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum) and the Royal School of Mines (now part of Imperial College London) - see Cultural legacies. Note that Henry De la Beche's cultural legacies extend far beyond his founding of institutions or surveys, encompassing the influence of his artistic and scientific approaches to his work. The Historical legacies section gives only a small selection of the most important of his publications.

  1. Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche has an entry in the ODNB as 'geologist' which details his career. As far as de la Beche's connections with slavery are concerned, the entry says that 'In 1800 the family travelled to Jamaica having inherited a slave plantation': Thomas de la Beche the father died in Jamaica the following year and the family returned to England. 'After coming of age De la Beche began to receive the income from the Jamaican estate'. De la Beche 'concerned by declining revenue from his inheritance and growing instability in Jamaica', himself went back to Jamaica to spend a year on his estate in 1823-1824. 'He supported paternalistic reforms of slavery, but opposed abolition. His pamphlet, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes (1825), idealized the situation and stressed his own good practice, attempting to view the issue simply as one of ‘facts’. Privately, however, he recognized that he was likely to lose his property.' 'In the early 1830s the income from Jamaica failed entirely.'

  2. De la Beche was a keen observer, an accurate draftsman, imaginative illustrator and witty caricaturist. His drawings contributed to the science of geology by accurate representations of rock and fossil specimens, maps and geological sections, before the days of photography. An example is his drawing of the head of an ichthyosaur found in Lyme Regis by Mary Anning and included in his joint publication with William Coneybeare (1821). His drawings could bring to life ancient scenes, especially his Duria Antiquior (Ancient Dorset); this was an early 'Jurassic Park' type illustration of the flora and fauna of that period, eating each other and defecating. This was used by William Buckland at Oxford to enliven his lectures. A prominent theme in this drawings was of the 'light of science' dispelling the darkness of ignorance; one representation was of a bonneted woman shining a lamp on to a globe shrouded in clouds. Thus his artwork contributed in many ways to the advancement of the science of geology.

  3. De la Beche was not a theoretician. He believed in collecting detailed facts before rushing to devise theories. Nevertheless, his observations, maps and drawings contributed to the development of geological theories by his close association with academics, notably Buckland and Coneybeare of Oxford University, and also with those of continental universities, who utilised his findings in their theoretical debates. His work therefore contributed to the revolution, in the first half of the nineteenth century, of our ideas of the history of the world and of mankind's place in it, moving from a literal Biblical concept to a one more akin to our modern view of a much older earth with a slowly evolving landscape, flora and fauna.

  4. Will of Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche late of Lyme Regis but currently residing at Swansea proved 04/06/1855. The will begins with a recital that his father Thomas de la Beche in his will made in 1800 left to Henry Thomas de la Beche as tenant-for-life 'certain estates in the Island of Jamaica' 'therein specifically mentioned the Negro and other slaves thereon' subject to a mortgage of £30,000, which had clearly been raised for the benefit of the family in England rather than to finance the estate: as the principal of the mortgage was repaid from the produce of the estate, the funds were released, including £6000 as part of Henry Thomas de la Beche's marriage settlement.

  5. Henry Thomas de la Beche's will makes his daughter Elizabeth his primary legatee but also provided for £3750 in trust a daughter called Rosalie Torre, whom he describes as born near Taunton in 1834, and £1250 in trust for 'my trusty servant' Elizabeth Kendall. According to his entry in the ODNB, De la Beche and his wife had separated in 1826, when he gained custody of 'his two daughters.' In 1851, Elizabeth Kendall aged 34 born Cornwall, living with Henry Thomas de la Beche and Rosalie de la Beche at 3 Blandford Place London, was described as 'companion' and de la Beche as widower and 'Inspector-General of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom' 'K.C.B.' Henry Thomas de la Beche's daughter Elizabeth married Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn, grandson of the 18th century anti-slavery campaigner William Dillwyn: Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn himself, an 'advanced radical', is in the ODNB as 'industrialist and politician' The entry identifies Elizabeth Dillwyn as Henry Thomas de la Beche's only legitimate daughter, and pays tribute to her influence in the design of the Etruscan ware produced by Dillwyn's family firm.


  1. J. A. Secord, ‘Beche, Sir Henry Thomas De la (1796–1855)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 22 Jan 2015].

  2. Text from Gillian Allen, email 14/06/2019 sourced to: L. J. Chubb, 'Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche' in Stephen K. Donovan (ed.), Jamaican Rock Stars, 1823-1971: The Geologists who Explored Jamaica (2008) pp. 9-13; P. McCartney, Henry de la Beche: Observations on an Observer (1977); N. A. Rupke, The Great Chain of History: William Buckland and the English School of Geology 1814 - 1849 (1983); T. Sharpe and P. McCartney, 'The papers of Henry de la Beche in the National Museum of Wales. National Museum of Wales', Geological Series no.17, Cardiff (1998).

  3. Text and sources as for 2., above.

  4. PROB 11/2213/235.

  5., 1851 England census; David Painting, ‘Dillwyn, Lewis Llewelyn (1814–1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 22 Jan 2015].

We are very grateful to Gillian Allen for her assistance with compiling this entry.

Further Information

Letitia Whyte
Elizabeth, Rosalie

Associated Estates (2)

The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:

  • SD - Association Start Date
  • SY - Association Start Year
  • EA - Earliest Known Association
  • ED - Association End Date
  • EY - Association End Year
  • LA - Latest Known Association
01/06/1801 [SD] - → Trust beneficiary
1817 [EA] - 1834 [LA] → Owner

Legacies Summary

Cultural (3)

Geological Museum...... 
notes →
P. McCartney, Henry de la Beche: Observations on an observer (1977). We are grateful to Gillian Allen for compiling this...
Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1839...... 
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This began with Henry De la Beche's 1832 survey of Devon. In 1835 his survey was integrated with the new Ordnance Survey one inch to the mile maps and gradually extended to cover the whole of the...
Royal School of Mines (now Departments of Earth Science and Engineering and Materials at Imperial College)...... 
notes →
P. McCartney, Henry de la Beche: Observations on an observer (1977). We are grateful to Gillian Allen for compiling this...

Historical (6)

Notes on the present conditions of the negroes in... 1825 
notes →
De la Beche contributed to the heated contemporary debate on slavery by attempting to describe objectively the conditions of enslaved people on his Halse Hall estate and compare them with those on...
Remarks on the Geology of... 1827 
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The first geological description and map of Jamaica, and in fact of any part of the New...
A Geological... 1831 
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This brought together his own life's work up to this point and co-ordinated it with that of European geologists. It was a great success, translated into several languages and used as a...
How to Observe in... 1835 
Report on the geology of Cornwall, Devon and west... 1839 
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Careful, detailed descriptions and maps of this local area, which would be extended to the whole country in the Geological...
The Geological... 1851 
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An update of his 1835 publication How to Observe in...

Physical (1)

Public building
Geological Museum [Built] 
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The building was financed by the Commissioners of Works, 'largely through the influence of Sir Henry De la Beche', to house the Museum of Practical Geology, the Mining Records Office and the...

Relationships (2)

Grandson → Grandfather
Son → Father