Humberside Geologist No. 15

Humberside Geologist Online

"re-produced from the Naturalist with
the premission of the Editor"

The Amazing Mr Sheppard

(Lecture given to the Hull Geological Society at the University of Hull on 6 November 2008).

by M. R. D. Seaward

Thomas Sheppard was born on the southern shore of the Humber in South Ferriby (North Lincolnshire) on 2 October 1876. He was baptised [incorrectly given as Thomas Shepherd on the baptism form] on 29 October 1876. His father, Harvey (often cited as Harvy), was born in Wiltshire in 1848. He trained at St Marks College, Chelsea, and was appointed as master of the newly opened Fountain Road Elementary School in Hull in 1877; in 1886 he was appointed master of the newly opened Beverley Road Boys School (junior/elementary) and in 1893 as master of the newly opened Craven Street Higher Grade (Boys) School in Hull, where he remained until his death. Thomas Sheppard's mother, Myra, was born in South Ferriby in 1854 and was the daughter of George Havercroft [mistakenly given as Harcroft in the 1855 & 1876 Lincolnshire Directories ], a farmer, and Jane, a teacher [although given as housewife on Thomas Sheppard's baptism form], who died at Withernsea in 1938.

Thomas Sheppard was the eldest of a family of ten; of the six surviving males, George became State Geologist of Ecuador, Harry was Borough Treasurer of Beverley, Walter was Secretary of Reckitts Ltd. and Harvey was Superintendant Engineer in the Trawling Industry; of the four surviving females, Mary became Head of the Boulevard Secondary School, Hull.

Thomas was educated in Hull to elementary standard only; he was a paid pupil teacher for one year and thereafter was essentially self-educated. For 11 years he was employed first as a railway clerk and then in the Dock Offices, during which time he attended courses of instruction including practical lessons in microscopy and the preservation of natural history specimens. Some of the courses he attended were in London, from which he obtained South Kensington Science & Art Department Certificates in a wide range of natural history subjects and a First Class Advanced Stage Certificate for Geology (which qualified him to teach).

In January 1901 (aged 24) he was appointed as the first Curator of the Hull Municipal Museum established with the Subscription Library in the Royal Institution in Albion Street (sadly destroyed by enemy action on 24 June 1943 and demolished in 1947). The newly formed museum, based mainly on the Hull Literary & Philosophical Society collections, was re-opened on 2 June 1902 after 18 months of refurbishment under Thomas Sheppard's direction; he immediately abolished admission charges, so thereafter there were never less than 2000 visitors per week. Over the years he was responsible for establishing eight further museums:

1) -The Natural History Museum (former City Hall Galleries) was opened on 12 November 1910 but was destroyed by enemy action on 24 June 1943. Parts of the collection were rescued during the Phoenix excavation in 1989 and are now in storage in the Hull & East Riding Museum in Hull.

2) - The Museum of Fisheries & Shipping, Pickering Park was opened on 30 March 1912. The whaling and shipping collection is now housed in the Maritime Museum.

3) - The Museum of Commerce & Transport, in the old Corn Exchange, opened on 1 May 1925, was the first museum of its kind in Britain. The transport collection is now housed in Streetlife, part of the Hull & East Riding Museum.

4) - The Wilberforce House Museum, opened on 24 August 1906. It is still a museum and open to the public.

5) - Folk Museum at the Tithe Barn, Easington, opened on 4 October 1928 and was the first open air museum complex in Britain. It closed in 1941.

6) - The Mortimer Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities (of 66,000 artifacts and geological specimens), Victoria Galleries, City Hall, relocated from Beverley, was opened on 1 October 1929. The collection, excluding the geological component which was housed in the Municipal Museum (see above), is now housed in the Hull & East Riding Museum.

7)- The Railway Museum, Paragon Station was opened on 24 February 1933. It was destroyed by bombs in 1941.

8) - Hull's 'Old Time' Street Museum, in a warehouse behind the Wilberforce House was never officially opened to the public. Materials for this had been assembled by Sheppard since his appointment (pre-dating York Museum in concept). It was mostly destroyed by bombs in 1941, but some sections were salvaged.

In 1926 (or 1927), Sheppard was made Director of Museums and Curator of City Hall Art Gallery, but he lost the latter title through reorganisation soon after. He reluctantly retired (at the age limit) in 1941. Prior to this, ill health caused him to relinquish many honorary positions, probably brought on by the separation from his wife and possibly as a result of heavy drinking. Sheppard had married Mary Isobel Osbourn (or Osbourne?), the eldest daughter of a Hull engineer in Leeds in 1901. They were separated 1930-31 and she died at Colwyn Bay in 1947. They had one son, Thomas Harvey. They lived at many addresses, at least 13 between 1882 and his death, three of which, between 1910 and 1919, being in Bridlington and the remainder in or around Hull. In his younger days Sheppard was a popular guide on geological excursions, a pleasant companion in the field, and always ready to encourage and assist the young enquirer. In later years he is described as a portly and jovial man, with a great love of cigars. Thomas Sheppard died on 18 February 1945 and was cremated three days later.

Sheppard held many offices during his career, for example:

Secretary and President of Geological Section, Honorary Secretary, Editor and President (1914) of the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union (1914)
Secretary and President of the Hull Scientific & Field Naturalists' Club
Local Secretary, Council Member, Vice-President and President of the Museums' Association (giving his presidential address at Hull in 1923)
President of the Yorkshire Museums Federation in 1932
Recorder, Excursion Secretary, President on two occasions (1907-1909 & 1936-1939) of the Hull Geological Society – for which a medal was struck in connection with Society's Jubilee
President of the Yorkshire Geological Society in 1930
Secretary of the Yorkshire Coast Erosion Committee
Advisory Curator to Scunthorpe Museum
Chairman, Vice-President and President of the Hull Shakespeare Society
Chairman and President of the Hull Repertory Theatre
Chairman of the Hull branch of the British Legion
Chairman of the River Hull Pollution Committee
Secretary and President of the Hull Luncheon Club
President of the Little Theatre
President of the Hull Literary Club
President of the Hull Playgoers' Society
President of the Hull Publicity Club
President of the Yorkshire Numismatic Society
Vice-President of the Hull Musical Union

…and a member of the following committees:

Beverley Library & Museum
British Association for the Advancement of Science
East Riding Antiquarian Society
East Riding Erratic Blocks Committee
East Riding Nature Study Association
Museum's Association
Yorkshire Boulder Committee
Yorkshire Geological Society
Yorkshire Roman Antiquities Committee

…and editor of:

The Naturalist (1903-1933)
Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society (1905-1941)
Transactions of the Hull Geological Society (1894-1936)
Transactions of the Hull Scientific and Field Naturalists' Club (ca 1902-1919)

Hull Museum Publications (1901-1941)

…and had the following honorary life memberships:

Doncaster Scientific Society
East Riding Antiquarian Society
French Association for the Advancement of Science
Hull Geological Society
Hull Literary Club
Hull Photographic Society
Leeds Naturalists' Club & Scientific Association
Museums' Association
Numismatics Society of South Australia
Selby Scientific Society
Spalding Gentlemen's Society (Sheppard officially opened, and gave the inaugural lecture at, the

SGS's new Museum and Library in 1911) Worthing Archaeological Society
Yorkshire Conchological Society
Yorkshire Geological Society
Yorkshire Naturalists' Union
Yorkshire Roman Antiquities Committee

Yorkshire Federation of Museums & Art Galleries

…and the following fellowships:

Fellow of the Geological Society (elected 1900, resigned 1939)
Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Fellow of the Royal Antiquarian Society of Scotland
Fellow of the Zoological Society of London

Associate Fellow of the Linnean Society

… and was a member of various other societies, including:

British Ornithologists' Union
Hull Geological Society
Lincolnshire Naturalists' Union

Thomas Sheppard had papers and articles published in at least 165 different journals, magazines and newspapers including:

Geological Magazine
Hull Literary Club Magazine
Lincolnshire Notes & Queries
Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society
Reports of the British Association
Revue de Geologie
Science Gossip
The Naturalist
Transactions of the British Association
Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society
Transactions of the Hull Geological Society
Transactions of the Hull Scientific and. Field Naturalists Club
Transactions of the Lincolnshire Naturalists Union
Yorkshire Archaeological Journal
Yorkshire Notes & Queries

…and was the author or editor of many books, including:

Illustrated Catalogue of the Mortimer Museum of Antiquities at Driffield (1900)
Geological Rambles in East Yorkshire (1903)

John Robert Mortimer's Forty Years' Researches in British and Saxon burial mounds of East Yorkshire ( 1905)
The Making of East Yorkshire (1906)
The Cliffs and Birds of Bempton (1907)
The Evolution of Kingston upon Hull, as shown by its plans (1911)
Bacon is Alive (1911)
Yorkshire Past and Present: historical, pictorial and descriptive guide (1912)

The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast, and other chapters bearing upon the geography of the district (1912)
Guide to the Public Museum at Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire (1912)
Bibliography of Yorkshire Geology (1914, with annual updates published subsequently)
Yorkshire's Contribution to Science, with a bibliography of natural history publications (1916)
William Smith: his maps and memoirs (1917)
Kingston-upon-Hull before, during and after the Great War (1919)
Handbook to Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire (1922)
Andrew Marvell tercentenary celebrations at Hull: a record (1922)
Handbook to Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire (1923)
[with J.F.Musham] Money, Scales and Weights (1923)
Evolution of the Drama in Hull and District (1927)
Wilberforce House: its history and collections (1927)

He also wrote and edited innumerable Hull Museum publications from 1901 onwards and the Hull Literary Club publications from 1922 onwards.

Thomas Sheppard also received many honours throughout his career, including an honorary degree of Master of Science from the University of Leeds in 1915 in recognition of his scientific work, more particularly in respect of his bibliographical work in geology. He also received the Lyell Award of the Geological Society of London, the first Silver Medal of the Yorkshire Numismatic Society, the King's Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, the Medal of the Museums Federations of England in 1938 and the Silver Medal of the French Association for the Advancement of Science.

Appraisal of Sheppard's work.

Although his early education provided no scientific background, Sheppard came into contact with two men who profoundly influenced his later career. His keen appreciation of the problems and methods of prehistoric archaeology developed from his association with John Robert Mortimer (the Driffield corn-merchant and archaeologist). Whilst his active pursuit of geology was due to the encouragement provided by Percy Fry Kendall, the first Professor of Geology at Leeds University, which no doubt explains why Sheppard's principal contributions dealt with glacial geology.

According to Henry Cherry Versey, Professor of Geology at Leeds University and a former pupil of Percy Kendall, it was essentially from the amateur's point of view that Sheppard approached geology, his published work being mainly descriptive. The appeal of the cliffs and wolds of East Yorkshire and the opportunities for geological study which that region offers led him to write Geological Rambles in East Yorkshire , a volume which must have excited the interest of many young geologists. Sheppard's The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast provides an invaluable record of local history in relation to geological changes taking place there.

Sheppard's wide knowledge of the natural history of his own district, his keenness as a collector and a flair for showmanship led to his appointment as the first Curator of the Hull Municipal Museum at the early age of 24. From then until his retirement he expanded the museum collections of the City until they occupied more than half a dozen buildings, and included, in addition to purely scientific exhibits, materials dealing specifically with the historical development and industries of Hull and its neighbourhood. In doing so, he had amassed the finest provincial collection in the whole of Europe. His reputation as a curator was worldwide, and his visit to the West Indies to advise on museum development there is an indication of the esteem in which he was held. The Museum of Hull was the obvious home of the local Naturalists' and Geological Societies which owed much to Sheppard's enthusiasm.

In his endeavour to 'learn something of everything', he realised the difficulties and the time involved in searching scientific literature. Thus there began the long series of bibliographies which appeared in The Naturalist for more than 20 years, the Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society , and Reports of the British Association . These lists have been an invaluable aid to scientific research in the county, and it may well be that future historians of Yorkshire natural history will regard them as Sheppard's most important contributions.

Sheppard was imbued by an intense, almost aggressive pride in his adopted city and lost no opportunity to bring its attraction to the notice of the world. He was especially insistent that no collection of scientific material, made locally, should be lost to the East Riding. Among the collections gathered by him into the Hull Museums none is more important than the famous Mortimer Collection illustrating the prehistoric archaeology of the Yorkshire Wolds, and it was due to Sheppard that the extensive researches of John Mortimer eventually found publication.

However, Sheppard did not conform to the usual museum curator image, and he was not averse to cutting through red tape to obtain many of his priceless treasures. In doing so, he brought to light more finds than any other curator. His acquisitiveness was a byword, much of it of course put down to his boundless energy and imagination. The Brigg boat incident exemplifies this. In April 1886, the largest log boat ever found in Britain (and probably Europe at that time), measuring more than 48 feet in length and 4-5 feet in width, and constructed from a single oak, was discovered at Brigg, North Lincolnshire. It was unearthed by workmen constructing a gasometer near the River Ancholme. Ownership of the boat became the subject of an expensive lawsuit, which decided in favour of the land owner, Mr Cary-Elwes rather than Brigg Gasworks. For more than 20 years the boat was housed at considerable cost in a specially constructed brick building 60 feet long near Brigg railway station, where it was exhibited as ‘prehistoric boat, admission 6d'. In April 1909, Sheppard wrote to the owner suggesting that this important find should be moved to Hull Museum. Immediately after the owner agreed to this, Sheppard organized, through the City Engineer, a breakdown gang who shipped it across the Humber. The next day the owner had second thoughts, saying that the boat should not be moved, to which Sheppard replied, almost truthfully, that it was already in Hull. For more than 30 years it remained suspended from the ceiling of the Municipal Museum, but sadly, for all parties, it was destroyed by enemy action in June 1943.

Such was Sheppard's reputation that at the Annual Dinner of the Chief Officials of the Hull Corporation in the Royal Station Hotel in December 1932, the following carol was delivered:

I Antiquus [that is Sheppard] have goodly store
Of ancient goods acquired
By methods dark and devious
But all the same admired,

and a journalist in the Hull Daily Mail during the Second World War even compared Sheppard jokingly with Dr Goebbels! Of course it would be wrong to read too much into such remarks, most of which Sheppard personally encouraged as part of his policy of publicizing and promoting both himself and the Hull museums. Clearly he had an obvious flair for publicity – and indeed, according to one commentator, he made "publicity an art".

His output as a writer was legendary as we have seen. Time only permits me to single out one aspect of this. According to the famous plant ecologist, William Harold Pearsall (who took over from Sheppard as the editor of The Naturalist ), not only was Sheppard responsible for bringing The Naturalist to a high level of efficiency in the pre-war years, but he also successfully laboured to maintain its quality and style during the difficult 1914-18 war and post-war periods. He succeeded in imparting to the journal something of his own vitality, and, still more, the impress of his own personality.

Obituaries are to be found in:

Hull Times , 24.2.1945, p.3
North-Western Naturalist 1945, p.75 & p.313
The Museums Journal 45, 11-12 (1945)
The Naturalist 1945: 74-75
Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society 29, 67-69 (1949)

For other biographical material see:

Anon. 1905. Pen Portraits, no.15. Mr.Thomas Sheppard, F.G.S. Yorkshire Notes & Queries 2 (3): 65-66.
Berry, A. 1986. The Hull Geological Society Medal 1938. Humberside Geologist 5, 7-11.
Thomas Sheppard &c. Humberside Geologist 5, 5-6.
Schadla-Hall, T. 1989. Tom Sheppard, Hull's Great Collector . Highgate Publications , Beverley.
Seaward, M.R.D. 2004. Thomas Sheppard, in: Dictionary of National Biography 50, 269-270, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Sitch, B.J. 1992. A critical assessment of Thomas Sheppard...&c. MA thesis, University of Leicester.

…as well as: The Naturalist 1923: 301-305, 1933: 1 & 1942: 78; Who Was Who , 1941-50, pp.1049-1050; Who's Who in Science , (1913), ref. to fiche 993, frame 414 of British Biographical Index; and the Local Studies Department of the Hull Central Library which houses pamphlets, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia (to 1935) relating to Thomas Sheppard bound into 37 volumes, and unbound material up to 1942.

Acknowledgements -

The author is most grateful to Mike Horne, Patrick Boylan and Paula Gentil for their help regarding details of the various museums and Sheppard's memberships.

Contact details -

Department of Archaeological, Geographical & Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP. e-mail:


(c) Reproduced from The Naturalist 135: 45-50 
(2010) with permission of the Editor