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Notable Local Geologists: William J. Arkell

William Joscelyn Arkell (1904–1958) 

The lead Jurassic specialist of the mid-20th Century

William Joscelyn Arkell was born at Highworth, Wiltshire on 9 June 1904, the seventh and youngest child of James Arkell, a partner in the local brewery, and his wife Laura.  “A deeply rooted love for the English countryside influenced Arkell from an early age.  Alone or with a brother he explored every land, spinney, hedge and ditch around Highworth, collecting insects, snails, plants and fossils … The family summer holidays, always spent at Swanage, afforded opportunities for the Dorset coast and interior to be explored with equal thoroughness, on foot or by bicycle”. [1]



After a boarding-school education, Arkell entered New College, Oxford, in 1922.  By this time he had decided to make geology his career and to relegate entomology, his other great passion, to second place among his interests.  This decision was reinforced by the inspiration and encouragement of W.J. Sollas, a versatile, enthusiastic man who was then Professor of Geology.  In 1925 he gained the only first-class honours in geology in his year, and a year later he was awarded the Burdett-Coutts Scholarship for work on the Corallian rocks of the Oxford district.  Very soon he was writing his first papers, and by 1927 he was ready to take his D.Phil., a degree then only recently introduced. 


William Joscelyn Arkell (1904-1958)

  W.J. Arkell  

"Before the era of machine-made bricks and tiles and universal Welsh slate, nothing gave such richness, individuality and charm to the English scene as the local building materials."

W. J. Arkell (1946)

Oxford Stone

University appointments soon followed, with a Lecturership at New College in 1929, and a Senior Research Fellowship in 1933.  These posts carried no salary and were only really an option for Arkell because the family business ensured him independent means.  He was based in the Department of Geology, which at the time still occupied quarters in the University Museum.  As J.A. Douglas recalled, “The Department of Geology was hardly worth the name, for it consisted of a long, narrow brick building, two-tiered and an attic, stuck onto the back of the University Museum.  The lower room was the lab … while the upper was divided by thin wooden partitions into a series of four or five cubicles for research students and staff … The Professor had a small room, very difficult to find, leading off a winding staircase from the main court of the Museum”. [2]


With teaching duties that were never more than nominal, Arkell was able to devote almost all his time to research, and his first monograph, The Jurassic System in Great Britain, was published in 1933.  An imposing volume of 681 pages with copious illustrations, it presented a coherent, critical, and up-to-date survey of the subject, bringing together information scattered in hundreds of memoirs and papers, many in relatively inaccessible publications of provincial societies.  It was an impressive achievement for a man still in his twenties, and immediately gained for Arkell an international reputation as a foremost authority on Jurassic stratigraphy and palaeontology.



Arkell’s expertise rested on his continual exploration, on foot, by bicycle or in an open tourer, of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties.  There were still, at this time, many small quarries in the Corallian beds around Oxford, notably at Headington, Cothill, Marcham and Kingston Bagpuize, and Arkell visited them all, measuring sections and collecting fossils, which he deposited in the University Museum.  Equally interesting to him was the brick-pit at Woodham (Bucks), which yielded beautiful ammonites from the Oxford Clay.  Holidays on the Dorset coast enabled him to examine other Upper Jurassic rocks, while field study and museum visits in France and Germany extended his knowledge to other regions. 


Arkell was an indefatigable worker, and the quantity and quality of his research made him one of the leading lights in Oxford geology throughout the 1930s.  Sadly, this was no thanks to the Department in which he worked - indeed, some of his colleagues seem to have been downright obstructive, denying him access to old collections stored in the Department basement and in the Museum itself. [3]  New blood was needed and when, in 1937, Sollas died and the Professorship became vacant Arkell saw his opportunity.  He applied but was unsuccessful, the post going instead to Douglas, who was already acting as Deputy.  In no time the Department was looking much more vigorous and purposeful, but this was not to last, for in 1939 came the outbreak of war.



In 1941 Arkell left Oxford to take up an appointment at the Ministry of Shipping (later Ministry of Transport).  His health had never been particularly robust and the strain of exacting work in wartime London led to a serious chest complaint.  The illness, probably tubercular, became life-threatening, requiring an emergency operation and lengthy hospitalisation.  Forced to give up his war work, he returned to his research in Oxford.  Correspondence around this time includes many solicitous enquiries from friends and, on his part, references to recurrent and protracted bouts of infection.  Indeed, it was not until 1945 or 1946 that he was able to resume even gentle geological field work.



Though much restricted in his working hours, Arkell maintained a remarkable continuity of work and publication.  Immediately after the war he applied for several academic posts outside Oxford, but medical advice was against it.  Instead, in 1947 he accepted a Senior Research Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, with a study made available for him at the Sedgwick Museum.  Shortly before his departure he published two further books, The Geology of Oxford and Oxford Stone.  The latter, an informed and well-illustrated account of the use of various stones in Oxford buildings, particularly demonstrates his breadth of interest and deep scholarship.


Jurassic System in Great Britain
Jurassic System in Great Britain
The Geology of the country around Weymouth, Swanage, Corfe & Lulworth

In Cambridge Arkell seems to have found a new lease of life, which he attributed to his escape from the stultifying atmosphere in Oxford [4].  With his improved health he was once more able to travel abroad, visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 1952, and Algeria and Tunisia in 1953.  In 1956 he published his Jurassic Geology of the World, designed as a guide to the Jurassic of particular areas and to each individual stage over the whole world.  A year later he contributed the section on Jurassic Ammonoidea to the Treatise on Invertebrate Palaeontology.  The two works are in many ways complementary to one another, dealing as they do with correlation and the ammonite fauna on which it is based, and both remain invaluable reference works forty years on.



In August 1956, Arkell suffered a severe stroke that left him paralysed down his left side. He bore this affliction with the greatest courage and by sheer willpower contrived after a time to resume some of his work and correspondence.  On 18 April 1958, however, he suffered a second stroke.  He never regained consciousness, and died a few hours later.  His geological library was bequeathed to the University of Oxford, along with the fossils already in the Department of Geology and the collection of ammonites from Woodham which he had taken with him to Cambridge.  With them at the Museum are what remain of his notebooks, manuscripts and correspondence, offering a rare glimpse into the mind of this shy but generous man.

by Eliza  Howlett



  1. COX, L.R. 1958. William Joscelyn, 1904-1958. Biographical memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 4, 1-14.

  2. VINCENT, E.A. 1994. Geology and Mineralogy at Oxford, 1860-1986: history and reminiscence. Published by the author, Oxford, vii + 245 pp., 19 pls.   

  3. CALLOMON, J.H. 2001. Letter to W.J. Kennedy in Arkell archive.

  4. CALLOMON, J.H. 2001. Letter to W.J. Kennedy in Arkell archive.



Further reading


  • ALTON, J. 2002. Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of William Joscelyn Arkell FRS (1904-1958). NCUACS catalogue no. 102/1/02. National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, Bath, 156 pp.


  • COX, L.R. 1958. William Joscelyn, 1904-1958. Biographical memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 4, 1-14.


  • COX, L.R. 1959. In  memoriam: William Joscelyn Arkell, 1904-1958. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 80, 10-11.


  • EDMONDS, J.M. 1970. Arkell, William Joscelyn. pp. 284-286. In GILLESPIE, C.C. (ed.). Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, xii + 624 pp.

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