Joseph Dawson Mineral Collection

Vistors to Cliffe Castle often comment on the collection of Minerals that are on display there.  Dr Gerard McGowan, our Natural Sciences Curator has written this blog to give a little more context:

A very important historical geology collection, the Joseph Dawson Mineral Collection (see Figs. 1 & 2), dating from the late 18th century, was donated to Bradford Museums in 1904 by the Bradford Philosophical Society (BPS). Dawson was a founding member of the BPS back in 1808.

 drawer of Joseph Dawson’s mineral collection, on display at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley.
Drawer of Joseph Dawson’s mineral collection, on display at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley.

Joseph Dawson (1740-1813), was from a poor family, however, through good fortune he was helped by a gentleman to attend school at the Daventry Academy (a Dissenter supported school) and then studied at the University of Glasgow. As a young man, Dawson was tutored by the noted chemist Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1803), another Yorkshireman and nonconformist minister, who had also attended Daventry Academy.

Dawson also became a minister, at Idle in West Yorkshire, but this was a poorly paid position. To supplement his meagre salary he also worked as a farmer, teacher, doctor and coal-master. After saving some money he was able to invest in the Low Moor Ironworks in 1788 along with John Hardy a local solicitor and Richard Hird a country gentleman landowner. With the success of the Ironworks he left the ministry and later became a wealthy man.

Joseph Dawson had wide interests in science especially in chemistry and mineralogy. His mineral collection is particularly important because it is accompanied by a rare early catalogue in Dawson’s own hand. This shows how he arranged his 2206 mineral specimens according to Thomas Thomson’s essentially Wernerian classification of 1808. Dawson commented on the composition and names of minerals on the left-hand pages of his catalogue. These comments about minerals in addition to those he made about iron furnaces demonstrate a view of science in which chemistry was fundamental. Moreover, his contacts with other iron-masters and leading industrialists, as well as with mineralogists and nonconformist ministers, show him active within several networks through which scientific ideas, attitudes and practices were disseminated. Samuel Hailstone, a local solicitor, cofounder of Low Moor Ironworks, and botanist (whose plant and fossil collections are now at York Museums) and whose brother was Professor of Geology at Cambridge may have helped spark Dawson’s interest in geology.

Research by A. J. Pacey, published in 2003, suggested the importance of this collection to the history of science from a time when neptunist and plutonic theories of Earth dominated.

Fig. 3. Joseph Dawson’s handwritten catalogue
Fig. 3. Joseph Dawson’s handwritten catalogue

His collection, with its remarkable handwritten catalogue dated 1810 (see Fig. 3), is a rare survivor from this important early period of English geology. The collection contains mineral specimens from all over the world, and also locally, that are classified after the Wernerian method that reflected the knowledge of mineralogy and history of science at the time.


Pacey, A.J. 2003. Emerging from the Museum: Joseph Dawson, Mineralogist, 1740-1813. The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 455-469

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