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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XVI. Charles W. Peach, A.L.S.


While Robert Dick was searching for organic remains among the rocks at Thurso during his leisure hours, another scientific labourer was occupied in the same manner at the opposite end of the island, among the rocks of Cornwall. Robert Dick had discovered numerous remains of fossil fishes in Caithness, where distinguished geologists had stated that no fossil fishes were to be found ; and Charles William Peach had discovered fossil fishes in Cornwall, though it had also been stated that the rocks there were non-fossiliferous. While the one was disturbing the echoes of Pudding-gyoe, the other was hammering in Ready-Money Cove. The two were working simultaneously amongst rocks of the same epoch, and the results of their labours were in a remarkable degree alike.

The Cornish worker in science was- then but a private in the mounted coastguard service. Like Dick, in his hours of leisure he found time to add materially to the facts upon which geology is based. Thus, at the same time, Hugh Miller, originally a stonemason,—Robert Dick, a working baker,—and Charles William Peach, a private in the coastguard service,—were all engaged in like pursuits. “It is one of tlie circumstances of peculiar interest,” said Hugh Miller, “with which geology in its present state is invested, that there is no man of energy and observation, who may not rationally indulge in the hope of extending its limits, by adding to its facts.”

While engaged in their respective pursuits, Dick and Peach were quite unknown to each other. They worked on quietly and unostentatiously, without any thought of fame. It might be said that theirs was “the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties.” But this is a mistake. The pursuit of knowledge is always accompanied with pleasure, and the pleasure is only enhanced by the difficulties with which it is surmounted.

But circumstances shortly occurred which led to Mr. Peach’s promotion in the service, and to his removal to the north—first to Peterhead and afterwards to Wick. Then it was that Dick and Peach became the most intimate of friends. For this reason it is perhaps appropriate to couple the portrait of the one friend with that of the other,—not only because their pursuits during their leisure moments were in a great measure the same ; but because it serves as an introduction to the correspondence which follows.

Mr. Peach has told us the story of his life. We think it full of interest. It shows what a man in even the humblest ranks of life may do, to accumulate knowledge and to advance science for the benefit of his fellow-creatures.

Mr. Peach was born in September 1800, at the village of Wansford in Northamptonshire. At the time of his birth, his father was a saddler and harness-maker, but he afterwards gave up the business and took a small inn in the village, and also farmed about eighty acres of land. The time came when young Peach had to be sent to school. He first went to a dame’s school, where he speedily learned the ABC. After that he was sent to the village school, the master of which had been an old sawyer. The man could no longer saw, but it was thought he might teach. In those days any worn-out brokenlegged man was thought good enough to be a schoolmaster. The old sawyer knew very little about spelling. There was not a grammar-book about the school.

But as old Mr. Peach was anxious to make his son a scholar, Charles was taken from the old sawyer’s school at twelve years old, and sent to a school at Folkingham, in Lincolnshire. There he made better progress. He learnt to read and write well; and lie laid the foundations of the ordinary branches of education. He remained at this place for three years, and at the age of fifteen he left school altogether.

He returned to his father’s house to help in the work of the inn, and to assist in the labours of the farm. It was not a very good training for a lad. Peach was brought into contact with the people who frequented his father’s inn. Wansford was then a very drunken village. Peach was often invited to drink, but always refused,—a proof of moral courage at an early age. He was consequently called “the milksop” of the house. Perhaps from what he daily saw before him, he deter? mined to abstain from drink. In this way the Spartans taught their children. At all events, though reared in an inn, Peach abstained from liquor for the rest of his life.

Hot liking his position at home, Charles applied for the position of riding officer in the Revenue Coastguard. He was appointed in January 1824, and directed to proceed to Southrepps, in the county of Norfolk, and report himself to the commanding officer there. After approval, he was directed to take up his station at.Weybourn, in the port of Cley, Norfolk.

At that time Peach knew nothing of Natural Hist ory. He had never seen the sea. What a sight, and how full of wonders, it was to him ! He was struck with everything connected with it. He wandered along the shore, and found brilliant seaweeds and zoophytes innumerable, the names of which he did not yet know. He was particularly impressed by a splendid specimen, which was placed on the parlour chimney-piece of the little inn where he stayed at.1 The appearance of the zoophyte strongly excited his curiosity. He determined to know what it was, and where he could find a specimen for himself. This little object had the effect of turning his attention to the study of Nature.

He began to make a collection. He had no book on the subject. He collected, more for the beauty of the forms and the colours of the agates. He would know more by and by. Men in the Coastguard service were in those days turned rapidly about from place to place, for no particular reason, but generally at considerable expense to themselves. After being at Weybourn for a year, Peach was removed to Sherringham, also in Norfolk.

It was while at this station that he met the Rev. J. Layton, then living at Catfield. The reverend gentleman, finding that Peach was an enthusiastic collector of zoophytes, asked him if he should not like to know the names of the objects he collected. “Certainly,” was the reply. The clergyman then invited him to his house, and showed him a book containing the history of British zoophytes. He was delighted with the book ; but, as it was expensive, and he could not purchase it, he went boldly to work, and copied out the greater part of the letterpress. Although he had never had a lesson in drawing, he also endeavoured, to the best of his power, to copy out all the engravings. By this and other means, he laid the foundations of a great deal of knowledge of the lower forms of marine life, while carrying on his humble office of mounted guard in the Bevenue service along the northern coast of Norfolk.

His business was to look after smugglers, and prevent them landing their illicit goods at any part of the coast. His work was done partly at night and partly by day. He must be constantly on the alert. The mounted guard were not allowed to remain long in one place. After remaining at Sherringham for about two years, Peach was removed to Hasboro. After a year’s service there, he was sent to Cromer; then from Cromer back to Cley, where he remained for two years. Here he married, and entered upon a new career, that of bringing up a family on small wages. But he met every difficulty cheerfully. He was fond of home life, and his wife helped to make his home happy.

At Cley he was placed in charge of the station. He superintended the look-out after smugglers, and he did his duty carefully. Notwithstanding this, he was once charged with having neglected it. A jack-in-office, an Irish naval captain in command of the coast service there, assembled the Coastguard before him, and charged them all with being bribed by the smugglers. Peach was justly indignant. He protested for himself and on the part of his men that they were loyal and honest servants of her Majesty, and he challenged the captain to prove his words. The captain could not; and accordingly, after a little hard swearing, he drew in his horns, and said no more on the subject.

It may here be mentioned that Mr. Peach was a handy man at everything. He learnt to draw with correctness. He cultivated mechanics. When he went into the Coastguard, he spent part of his spare time in making a turning-lathe. With this he turned jet earrings, jet boxes, and other things. He afterwards made a compound slide-rest, and turned things in iron and brass.

After two years’ service at Cley, Peach was sent to Lyme Regis in Dorset, at the south-western part of the island. He then lived at Charmouth, hut he remained there only four or five months, when he was removed to Beer, at the mouth of the Axe, in Devonshire. He remained there for about two years, always working in his leisure hours at zoology and natural history.

He was then removed to Paignton in Tor Bay, farther down the coast. He was not allowed to rest there, but was shortly after removed to Gorranhaven, near Mevagissey, in Cornwall. It was here that he indefati-gably pursued his studies in zoology. He collected some of the most delicate specimens of marine fauna. Many of these he sent to Dr. Johnston when preparing his history of the British Zoophytes. Others were sent to the most distinguished writers on zoology, and several of them were called after his name.

It was while living at Gorranhaven that Peach applied himself to a new subject,—the geological formation of the coast. It had been stated by well-known geologists that no relics of ancient life existed in the Cornish rocks. “We have no exuviae,” said Pryce, “of land or sea animals buried in our strata.” "The rocks of Cornwall and of Scotland are non-fossiliferous,” said Dean Conybeare. The same statement was repeated by many writers, and amongst others by Sir Roderick Murchison, who took the statement on trust. In fact, geology was then in its infancy. During the last fifty years, nearly everything has been changed.

The private in the mounted Coastguard service did a great deal to alter the then state of geology. He was not satisfied with the statements of others. He examined for himself. He had the quick eye and the keen judgment. He possessed the gift of careful observation. Nor was he ever daunted by difficulties. In fair weather and in foul, he worked among the Cornish rocks, and found fossils where no fossils were said to have been— fossils innumerable!

Mr. Peach was not the man to let his light lie hid under a bushel. A meeting of the British Association was about to be held at Plymouth. Plymouth was not far from the place where he lived, and he determined to put his facts together, and read them before the association. He never wrote a paper before, nor had he ever read one. He had only heard one scientific lecture. But with his ready mother wit he prepared his paper, and it proved to be a thoroughly original one. He read if himself at the Plymouth meeting in 1841. It was entitled, On the Organic Fossils of Comical?.

“It is impossible,” he writes in 1847, “to describe the feelings under which I then rose. That is over long since. The only beating of my heart now about the British Association is, that of gratitude towards its members, and of affection for their great kindness. I feel my love of scientific pursuits strengthen every day. I have taken hold of that which every day affords f a feast of reason and a flow of soul/”

In the following year (1842) he attended the meeting of the British Association at Manchester, where he read a paper before the Zoological section on his discoveries and observations of the marine fauna on the Cornish coast. In 1843 he attended the meeting at Cork, and in 1844 he was at York. He never went without a paper. Sometimes he read several. Men of distinction began to notice this remarkable coastguardsman. He was acknowledged to be one of the most original discoverers in geology and zoology. Such men as Murchison, De la Beche, Buckland, Forbes, Daubeny, and Agassiz, took him by the hand and greeted him as a fellow labourer in the work of human improvement and scientific development.

Dr. Robert Chambers was present at the York meeting. He wrote a very interesting article on the subject, which appeared in Chambers's Journal of November 23, 1844. Here is his description of Mr. Peach:— “But who is that little intelligent-looking man in a faded naval uniform, who is so invariably seen in a particular central seat in this section? That is perhaps one of the most interesting men who attend the association. He is only a private in the mounted guard (preventive service) at an obscure part of the Cornish coast, with four shillings a day, and a wife and seven children, most of whose education he has himself to conduct. He never tastes the luxuries which are so common in the middle ranks of life, and even amongst a large portion of the working classes. He has to mend with his own hands every sort of thing that can wear or break in his house. Yet Charles Peach is a votary of natural history—not a student of the science in hooks, for he cannot afford hooks; hut he is a diligent investigator by sea and shore, a collector of zoophytes and echinodermata—strange creatures, many of which are as yet hardly known to man. These he collects, preserves, and describes; and every year he comes up to the British Association with a few novelties of this kind, accompanied by illustrative papers and drawings thus, under circumstances the very opposite of such men as Lord Enniskillen, adding, in like manner, to the general stock of knowledge.

“On the present occasion he is unusually elated, for he has made the discovery of a holothuria with twenty tentacula, a species of the echinodermata, which Edward Forbes, in his hook on Starfishes, had said was never yet observed in the British seas. It may be of small moment to you, who perhaps know nothing of holo-thurias, hut it is a considerable thing to the fauna of Britain3 and a vast matter to a poor private of the

Cornwall Mounted Guard. And accordingly lie will go home in a few days, full of the glory of his exhibition, and strung anew by the kind notice taken of him by the masters of science, to proceed in similar inquiries, difficult as it may be to prosecute them under such a complication of duties, professional and domestic.

“But he has still another subject of congratulation; for Dr. Carpenter has kindly given him a microscope4 -wherewith to observe the structure of his favourite animals,—an instrument for which he has sighed for many years in vain. Honest Peach! humble as is thy name and simple thy learning, thou art an honour even to this assemblage of nobles and doctors; nay more, when I consider everything, thou art an honour to human nature itself; for where is the heroism like that of virtuous, intelligent, independent poverty ? and such heroism is thine!”

Some of the gentlemen who attended the meeting at York, and especially Dr. Buckland, in their admiration for the character of Mr. Teach, proposed to do something for his promotion in her Majesty’s service. Dr. Buckland wrote to Sir Eobert Peel on the subject. The reply was, that there were no openings at the time, but that the application of Dr. Buckland on behalf of Mr. Peach should be kept in mind. At length the promotion came. A position of Landing Waiter was vacant at London, and another at Fowey. Mr. Peach prelerred the latter, though the salary was £50 less. He desired to remain in his quarters by the sea-coast, to carry on his investigations among the zoophytes, and to further examine the rocks of Cornwall at his leisure. His salary was now £100 a year; and the advance of pay greatly helped him and hiğ lamily. He removed to a pretty house overlooking the river Fowey and the English Channel, and at this house Mr. Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, was a frequent visitor.

While residing at Fowey, Mr. Peach became an honorary member of all the scientific societies in Cornwall. But he was far more than an honorary member. He greatly enriched their collections. He added many organic remains of the Devonian Bocks to the admirable collection of the Boyal Geological Society of Cornwall. Indeed, the collection seems to have remained as Mr. Peach left it, some thirty years ago. The President of the Society, at the meeting in 1877, thus referred to the museum at Penzance:—“Our collection contains Devonian forms from the lower, middle, and upper series, in most of those areas in the counties of Cornwall and Devon, where the rocks are exposed. It must be allowed that it is essential to the credit and future history of the Society that this, of all groups of rocks and associated fossils, should be well, if not perfectly, represented in the museum. The collection, as it now stands, is in the main due to the energy and industry of Mr. Charles Peach, A.L.S., one of our oldest living naturalists, who for many years resided on the south coast of Cornwall, there making a special study of the coast sections, and who extensively collected from them, especially at East and West Looe, Polperro, Polruan, and Fowey. This truly great collection is now displayed in the cases of our Society, and has been but little added to since,—a circumstance especially to he regretted, when we take into consideration the great amount of work and research that has been done and carried on in foreign countries.”

As constant movement from place to place seems tc be the rule of the Ee venue Service, Mr. Peach left Fowey in 1849; and this time he was sent to a far-distant place—to Peterhead, in the north-east of Scotland. The removal cost him a great deal of money. His own expenses were paid, but he had to remove his wife and family at his own expense. Yet it was a promotion in the service. He was now Comptroller of Customs. The dignity of the appellation was much greater than the advance of salary, which was only £20 a year. Still it was a promotion, and it might lead to better fortune.

At Peterhead, as in Norfolk, Devonshire, and Cornwall, Mr. Peach went on with his study of zoology and geology. He added to the list of British fishes, Yarrell’s Blenny, Pay’s Bream, and the Anchovy,— which had not before been known to inhabit the seas which wash the north-eastern coast of Scotland. He also devoted much attention to the nest-building habits of certain sea shells and fishes. “At Peterhead,” says Professor Geikie, “he made himself intimately acquainted with the family arrangements of that rather fierce-looking little fish, the fifteen-spined stickle-back (Gaster-osteus spinachia). In a rocky pool he discovered a colony of them, and learnt how they built their nests and deposited their ova. He watched the hatching and growth of the young until the whole colony, young and old, took to the sea. As he used to visit them five or six times a day, the parents grew so familiar that they would swim round and touch his hand, though on the appearance of a stranger they would angrily dash at any stick or incautious finger that was brought near them. The same habit of close and cultivated observation was shown by his study of the maternal instincts of the female lobster in its native haunts.”

Mr. Peach’s next removal was to Wick,—the greatest fishing town in the North. Though an ardent lover of nature, he never neglected his duty. He was as accurate and quick-sighted in business as in science. He was alike shrewd, wise, and observant in both. He was the model of a Comptroller of Customs, as he was of a true collector and naturalist. His removal to Wick was a promotion. His salary was advanced to £150 a year, though his duties were to a certain extent enlarged. Part of his work consisted in travelling round the coast of Caithness in search of wrecks, and reporting them to the Board of Trade. This led him to travel to the rocky points of the coast, where the wrecks principally occurred; and he made good use of his spare time by hammering the rocks in search of fossils, and more particularly the fossil plants with which the dark flagstones of the district abounded.

His removal to Wick occurred in 1853. One of the first things that he did was to travel across the county to pay a visit to Eobert Dick at Thurso. While he resided in Cornwall, the name of Eobert Dick had been a household word with him. He knew what he had done from Hugh Miller’s writings, and he had no doubt that he would find Dick to be a man after his own heart. for was he disappointed. When he first called at Dick’s shop in Wilson’s Lane, on the 19th October 1853, he found that the “maister,” as his servant called him, was in the bakehouse. The caller sent in his name, and the baker speedily appeared in the front shop, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his arms covered with flour.

“I’m Charles Peach of Eeady Money Cove in Cornwall ; and you are Eobert Dick of Pudding Goe.” That was Mr. Peach’s first introduction. “How are ye?” answered Eobert Dick, with a firm grasp of the hand; “come into the bakehouse!” That was an honour accorded to few, but in the case of a renowned geologist it was readily granted. Dick went on with his work at the oven mouth, or at the side of the dough, while the two talked together. It was an interesting conversation, which Mr. Peach long remembered. The latter observed on the wall of the bakehouse a full-sized sketch of the Greek boy taking the thorn from his foot, with an Egyptian god on each side,—all accurately done in pencil or charcoal by the Thurso baker.

Mr. Peach called again in the evening, and again t’ound Dick at the oven in the bakehouse. After he had done his evening’s work, lie had a fire lighted in his parlour, and took his new friend upstairs to see his collection. Mr. Peach was first attracted by the fine busts of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, and a large plaster figure of the Yenus of Milo, which the apartment contained. Dick then showed his collection of fossils, plants, ferns, and entomological specimens. Mr. Peach, in an entry in his diary, written the same evening, says—“ He is a very diffident man, but an enthusiast in natural history pursuits. He is unmarried, and lives most retired. In fact, he is very little known in Thurso. He has a nice collection of Caithness ferns, beetles, and insects. He is deeply interested in botany. His researches in geology have been great, especially in the Old Bed Sandstone; and some of his specimens have added new links to the history of these ancient rocks.”

Mr. Peach soon repeated his visit. He called again at the beginning of the following May, and again found Dick very busy in his bakehouse. The fire was not again lighted in the parlour. Peach was now regarded as a friend. All the subsequent interviews between the two occurred at the mouth of the oven, or in the kitchen, or in the fields, or among the rocks. All ceremony and formality were laid aside; and although they had many differences of opinion and stout debates, these were, like lovers’ quarrels, soon made up.

Mr. Peach entered the following passage in his diary, descriptive of his second visit to Dick :—“2d May 1854. Bose early; called upon Mr. Dick; found him at his oven, and very busy; had a nice chat with him. ... In the evening I saw him in his bedroom. What an industrious man he is. He is through nineteen volumes of plants, and hopes soon to finish his herbarium. He has heaps upon heaps of specimens, and appears to thoroughly understand Ills subject. After two hours’ chat I left him to go to his bed, to which, if possible, he retires at 9 p.m., to rise again between 3 and 4 a.m. I have often been up and with him at that time, not willing to lose time when I had an opportunity of enjoying his society. His conversation was too precious to lose.” During the ensuing summer, when the grasses and plants were in bloom, the two took a long walk up the Thurso river. Dick pointed out to his friend the habitat of the Holy Grass (Hierochloe borealis), which he had long known; and also what was then called Drummond’s Horsetail (Kquisetumpratense). Dick also pointed out the Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), which Mr. Peach had never before seen. Mr. Peach says of this walk, that “Dick’s cheerful manner, his sparkling wit, and frolicsome playfulness, added to the other beauties of the excursion, made it a treat indeed.”

“My next visit to Thurso,” says Mr. Peach, “occurred in connection with a wreck, happily unattended with loss of life. On this occasion, our first difference broke out. The Old Bed Sandstone period was said to be one of seaweeds and cartilaginous fish. That I felt to be unstable, from specimens which I had picked up in my spare minutes snatched from duty. We both defended our views. He was strenuous in his defence of Hugh Miller’s and his own opinions, and although I felt a sad heretic, I warmly, but I hope modestly, suggested that I might be right. Time has since proved that I was so, and dear Dick set to working out the problem for himself as usual, and at last lie came to the same conclusion that 1 had done. I have just found a note in reply to one of mine. After saying that he is ready to be my pupil in seaweeds, zoophytes, and in every other department of natural history, he adds, and ‘even in fossil wood’—a jocular allusion to our discussion on this point.”

Mr. Peach, in a recent letter, referring to the many happy hours and tough battles fought in Dick’s bakehouse, says that old Annie, the housekeeper, would sometimes interfere, and say, “ Eh, maister, ye’re awfu’ hard wi’ Mr. Peach; he’ll never come back again after sic rough usage.” But Peach came back as before. The lovers’ quarrels soon healed, and they were more affectionate than ever. “ I had the advantage,” says Mr. Peach, “ in having read all that Hugh Miller had done, and also many of Dick’s letters on the same subject. Besides, I had had lots of experience in Devonian and Old Bed rocks in more places than Scotland. I had also a mode of my own for collecting. I got all the weathered and detached portions of fishes and plants, studied them, and fitted them into more perfect specimens. But Dick did much good service. He was fortunately in time to reap the harvest. I only got his gleanings. But I found for myself new fields of unworked rocks in Suther-landshire, and got new fishes there, and also new ones in the old fields that Dick had so long been working in.

I was very fortunate. My duties led me so far about, and gave me many opportunities that I should not otherwise have had ; whereas Dick was confined to the neighbourhood of his bakehouse in Thurso. All this I took advantage of, after duty had been done. By rising early in the morning and working until late at night; by often giving up my meal times, and satisfying myself with a crust of bread and butter, and at night with a Highland tea and something to eat, I fortunately contrived to fill up my leisure hours with a good deal of useful work.” The principal new field to which Mr. Peach refers, was the limestone of Durness in Sutherland. The spot was too far from Caithness to enable Dick to investigate it. But it was in the Comptroller’s way. He went to Durness to visit a wrecked ship, and he did not neglect liis opportunity. He was the first to find fossils in the limestones of Durness. Obscure organic remains had before been detected by Macculloch in the quartz rocks of Sutherland; but they had gradually passed out of mind, and their organic nature was stoutly denied even by such geologists as Sedgwick and Murchison. Mr. Peach, however, brought to light, in 1854, a good series of shells and corals, which demonstrated the limestones containing them to lie on the same geological horizon as some part of the great Lower Silurian formations of other regions.

The discovery remained without solution for some years, the principal geologists still doubting its reality. But about five years after, Sir Roderick Murchison again visited the spot, and the discovery was confirmed. Professor Judd, of the Royal School of Mines, Jermyn Street, London, said in the Geological Society's Quarterly Journal that “Charles Peach’s discovery in 1854 of Silurian fossils at Durness, Sutherland, has already borne the most important fruit; and, in the hands of Murchison, Ramsay, Geikie, Harkness, and Jamieson, has afforded the necessary clue for determining the age of the great primary masses of the Highlands of Scotland.”

We have thus described the origin of the friendship between Charles Peach and Robert Dick. It strengthened as it grew. Charles Peach shared all Dick’s enthusiasm, and bore a warm and constant friendship for the solitary student. They communicated to each other, as all true labourers in science do, the results of their respective discoveries. They kept up a regular correspondence, and many of their communications with each other will be found referred to in the following pages.


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