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In "Ashby de la Zouch Past and Present"

The Journal of Ashby de la Zouch Museum

Issue 19, June 2017

Rev. W. H. Coleman: botanist, geologist and schoolmaster


A few years ago I obtained from the estate of Bob King, a mineralogist from Leicester University, a copy of “The Geology of the Leicestershire Coalfield and the Country around Ashby de la Zouch” written by Edward Hull of the Geological Survey in 1860.  The first paragraph of the Preface says:

     “… it is with pleasure that I record the assistance received in carrying out the geological survey of the district of Ashby de la Zouch.  And first my thanks are due to Rev W.H.Coleman, who for several years had been an accurate observer, and had tabulated a large amount of statistical information concerning the geology of the neighbourhood.  Mr Coleman, in the handsomest manner, placed the whole at my disposal, and also rendered me much personal assistance; and it is but due to my friend to state that he had mastered the geological structure of the greater portion of the area included in the following remarks before the Government Surveyors commenced their labours.”


On the title page there is a hand written dedication: “Rev. W. H. Coleman with the author’s kind regards” and the front cover has been signed by Coleman in his own writing.  This signature has been lightly crossed out and replaced by the signature of W. S. Gresley of Overseal, who was a coal mining engineer.


William Higgins Coleman was born in North London in 1812 and was baptised on 16th September 1812 at St Luke’s Church Finsbury then in Middlesex.  Virtually nothing is recorded of his early life but he graduated with B.A. from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1836 and with an M.A. in 1838.  In 1840 he was ordained as a deacon and priest by the Bishop of Lincoln, an event that was recorded in the Cambridge Chronicle of 21st May 1840.  There is little evidence that he took up any parish appointment, because from 1840 to 1847 he became a school master at Christ’s Hospital School, Hertford.    In 1847 he moved from Hertford to Ashby de la Zouch where he became Assistant Master, at the Grammar School, serving to near when he died in 1863.


As so often happened, many ordained gentlemen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, devoted a great deal of time to observational and descriptive science.  Coleman was no exception to this and he developed wide interests in mathematics, botany, geology as well as biblical analysis.


In 1834, whilst still an undergraduate at St John’s College, he wrote a book called “Examples in Arithmetic and Algebra.” This was written in collaboration with John Colenso, who became second Wrangler (second highest mathematics mark for his year) and eventually became the Bishop of Natal.  This book may give an indication that Coleman was reading for the Mathematics Tripos at St John’s but there seems to be no record surviving of this.


Very soon after he had taken up his appointment at Christs Hospital School, in 1840, Coleman embarked on an ambitious project with a clerical colleague, the Rev. R.H. Webb M.A. Rector of Essendon, Hertfordshire.  Over seven years from 1840 to 1847 they undertook a detailed survey of the flora of Hertfordshire and the results were published as “Flora Hertfordiensis” in 1849By the time of publication Coleman had moved from Hertford to Ashby de la Zouch.  Besides his detailed botanical work, Coleman contributed a chapter called the “Physical Geography and Botanical Divisions of the County”.  This was an important piece of writing as it is possibly the first chapter in a county flora, anywhere, that describes how the local geology and the river basins influence the distribution of the flora.  In a short notice in the Introduction Webb acknowledges Coleman as a his “former co-adjudicator” and writes in a tone that suggests that he was a little upset about Coleman’s move to Ashby de la Zouch, which left him with the task of actual publication.  Coleman went on to extend and publish his chapter as an article in The Phytologist (vol.3 1858-9) called “On the Geographical distribution of British Plants”.


On taking up his post at Ashby de la Zouch Grammar School he did not diminish his output of botanical and geological observations.  In 1842 he published a paper on the Sedge Carex x boenninghausiana which was new to the British list.  At around that time he discovered a new species of bramble (Rubus).  The bramble are a very complex group of plants with dozens of species and sub species occurring in the British Isles.  What is particularly interesting about the new bramble was that he discovered it in a hedgerow near Packington.  This bramble species was named after him (Rubus colmannii) by Rev A Bloxham, Rector of Twycross who was an acknowledged expert on the Rubus group of plants.  In 1863 he contributed notes on mosses and flowering plants to Sir Oswald Moseley’s “The Natural History of Tutbury”.


Coleman’s interests ranged widely as was often the case in the mid nineteenth century.  Not only was he a considerable authority in botany and geology but he also had an interest in antiquarian matters.  This can be illustrated by a passage from The Proceedings of the Leicester Architectural and Archaeological Society” of 30th June 1856.  In a meeting report Rev. John Denton, who was Vicar of St Helens church, Ashby de la Zouch, and a noted antiquary, presented some of Coleman’s drawings.

“The Rev J Denton exhibited a sheet of drawings by the Rev. W.H.Coleman of third [sic]brass Roman coins of the Emperor Gallienus Victorinus, Tetricus and Claudius, in the third century.  They were discovered in 1818, about a mile northeast of Ashby de la Zouch, upon a high point in the Lawn Hills by some labourers who were ploughing.  The plough hit the brass rim of the two urns which were filled with them.  The field is now called Money Hill.”


Alongside his botanical interests, Coleman was developing a considerable reputation in the field of geology.  At this time geology was a relatively new science that relied on local observational expertise to gather new information.  Coleman found himself in the middle of an important coalfield and close to the ancient rocks of Charnwood Forest.  He must have made many trips out to the area around Ashby de la Zouch and with his eye for detail made many observations and drawn many conclusions.

Coleman seems to have made only one geological publication.  He contributed the chapter on geology in Whites Directory of Leicestershire.  This was published, subsequently, as a separate book by William White of Sheffield in 1862 under the title of “The Outlines of the Geology of Leicestershire”.  However, he seems to have been generous in sharing his observations and there are several publications that acknowledge his contributions.


As has been pointed out his observations of the geology of the Leicestershire Coalfield were very important to Edward Hull as he prepared his memoir for the Geological Survey in 1860.  But as has been indicated Coleman’s geological interests ranged beyond the boundaries of the coalfield and his reputation must have been quite considerable.  In 1877 The Geological Society of London in its Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (QJGS) published an article entitled “The Pre-Carboniferous Rocks of Charnwood Forest.” by E. Hill and T.G. Bonney, both distinguished academic geologists from Cambridge University.  In their acknowledgements they say

“The district has been investigated by Professor Sedgewick, Professor J. Beete Jukes, Professor Anstead, Rev W.H.Coleman and several others.”

This article was published 14 years after Coleman’s death suggesting that his observations and records were widely known.


In April and May 1858 The Ashby de la Zouch Literary and Scientific Society invited Coleman to give two public lectures about “The Geology of the Ashby Coalfield”.  These were held in the Town Hall and were delivered to a very large audience of townsfolk and others from the surrounding neighbourhoods.  Also in attendance were the vast majority of the local Coal Masters.  The walls of the Town hall were covered in maps and diagrams that were regularly referred to during the talks.


However, it would seem that these talks were rather a marathon.  The first talk on the 23 April started at 7.30 in the evening and concluded “well after” 10.00 as was reported in the Leicester Journal.  The second talk on the 7 May 1858 was attended by “an influential and respectable audience, partly drawn together by the particular local interest attaching to the subject and, more particularly, perhaps, by the gratification that they received on the last occasion.”  However the reporter from The Leicester Journal carries on his report with his own personal analysis of the lectures:

“It is possible, certainly, to have too much of a good thing, and we must be excused for saying that in this instance our attention was too largely tasked.  Much as we are interested in the subject, we found a sense of weariness come over us after listening to the lecturer for upwards of three hours, and we hope that when Mr Coleman again favours us, as we earnestly hope he will with anther lecture, he will take this hint in good nature and make two out of one.”

This report from the Leicester Journal gives an indication of the man’s personality.  He was obviously deeply interested in his subject but probably not a good communicator.

Although most of Coleman’s surviving works are of a botanical and geological nature he published a theological work a few months before his death.  In the “Journal for Biblical Literature” for July 1863 he published a paper entitled “The Eighteenth Chapter of Isaiah”.  In it he described his methods in the following way: “…having long engaged in minute and extensive researches… for the purpose of illustrating the more striking and difficult of the poetical passages of the Old Testament.”

This paper was reprinted with others of his work under the title “Biblical Papers; being the Remains of the Rev W.H.Coleman” (London 1864).


Coleman died in Burton on Trent on 12 September 1863.  It is possible that by then he had left his post at Ashby de la Zouch Grammar School but there is no definitive indication of this as he signs his article on “The Eighteenth Chapter of Isaiah” with his name and Burton on Trent.  When he died, probate shows that he left a modest estate of less than £800, which was all left to his surviving sister, Constantia.

Coleman was a well-connected, well educated, clergyman who made several major contributions to local knowledge.  However, over time he seems to have been largely forgotten.  He was one of a large generation of clergy from around that period who had the time, education and inclination to become minor experts in the natural history of their local areas.


P. K. Monk


Cromarty, 1st January 2017


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