William Branwhite Clarke ( 1798 - 1878)

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878) Clarke was a geologist and Anglican clergyman.

He became a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1826 and by 1832 had made several excursions to the Continent. His papers on meteoric phenomena and geology and notes on zoology in the Magazine of Natural History in the 1830s attest the scope of his work and he contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the Geological Society. He cultivated the leaders of geological science and began the correspondence with Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison that later stimulated and encouraged his lonely researches in New South Wales.

Without ecclesiastical or aristocratic connexions to aid him, Clarke’s chances of church preferment were small, and in December 1838, near penury and suffering from rheumatic fever, he accepted the nomination of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to a chaplaincy in New South Wales. He arrived at Sydney with his family in May 1839 and was assigned to St Peter’s, Campbelltown. But within a week Bishop Broughton changed his appointment to the headmastership of The King’s School, Parramatta, with charge of the near-by parishes of Castle Hill and Dural. In December 1840 he resigned as headmaster because of his health, but continued to minister at Dural and Castle Hill until November 1844.

Clarke left his mark in New South Wales as a geologist rather than as a churchman. In his spare time he moved out from Sydney and Parramatta in a widening arc and collected rocks and fossils, sending many to Sedgwick and publishing his observations in British scientific journals and the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science. Clarke early predicted the colony’s mineral wealth. In 1841, chipping the quartziferous slates near Hartley in the Blue Mountains, he discovered particles of gold and later added evidence from Bathurst to the Liverpool Range that the country would be found ‘abundantly rich in gold’. In April 1844 he told Governor Sir George Gipps of his finds and later claimed that the governor directed him to ‘Put it away, Mr. Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut’. He pressed for an official survey of New South Wales and in 1847 became active in drawing public attention to the geological phenomenon of gold.

When Edward Hargraves discovered a goldfield at Ophir in 1851 Clarke acted as the government’s scientific adviser and served as a geological surveyor from September 1851 to July 1853, carrying church ministrations to the diggings and to other outlying parts. Travelling on foot and horseback with two servants, he made a reconnaissance from Marulan southwards across the Alps to Omeo; east to Twofold Bay and north from the Hunter River to Brisbane and the Darling Downs. In his twenty-eight reports he outlined the physical and stratigraphical structure of the country he had seen and its metalliferous resources.

Scientific recognition followed Clarke’s work on gold. In 1856 at the Tasmanian government’s invitation he reported on the Fingal goldfield and on the auriferous character of the basin at South Esk, but in 1858 he refused appointment as geological surveyor of Tasmania. Clarke claimed to be the scientific discoverer of Australian gold, a title contested by John Lhotsky, Strzelecki, Hargraves and by Sir Roderick Murchison who published in 1844 a comparison between the Australian ‘Cordillera’ and the goldbearing Ural chain. In 1861, however, the government of New South Wales honoured Clarke’s claim and awarded him a grant of £3000. His part in the discovery and investigation of Australia’s gold resources was also recognized by the Royal Society of London who elected him a fellow in June 1876.

Clarke’s most important contribution to Australian geology was his work on the age of the coal deposits of New South Wales


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