Book Review: ‘William Boyd Dawkins and the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern’

23. DSCF7784 (3)

Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  William Boyd Dawkins and the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern

Author: Mark J. White

Total Number of Pages: 302

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7


Within the scientific world, Palaeontology (Defined as ‘The study of fossils as a way of getting information about the history of life on earth and the structure of rocks’) is now a legitimate field of research. Such was not always the case and the origins and emergence of this branch of science is the subject of this volume. It is also the biography of one of the chief protagonists within it; one William Boyd Dawkins.

The author describes William Boyd Dawkins as being ‘…One of the first … to work within a scientific framework that recognised a deep antiquity and long evolutionary context for humans and other animals’’ and this biographical volume is predicated on that statement. It describes Dawkins’ development from childhood to his pre-eminence in ‘…A field that he would practically make his own’, that of Palaeontology (although Palaeolithic archaeology was a close second). While so doing it portrays an individual who would not suffer fools gladly and was completely and utterly sure of his own infallibility. Such an attitude inevitably creates situations of controversy and Dawkins was no exception. He became embroiled in several such events (largely, it should be noted, as a result of his own actions), and these are detailed at length within this book. Although at times the author will express a personal opinion, the controversies are invariably presented objectively. Where necessary, additional information is provided to show if the line of thinking of both Dawkins and his contemporaries was subsequently proven to be correct. The famous ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax is also referred-to, although only in the context of Dawkins’ later years.

The volume consists of 10 Chapters. Within these, subject and event-specific subsections  elaborate on the over-all narrative.  An Acknowledgements section at the front of the work thanks those who gave assistance in its creation. A Preface follows, and explains how the book came to be written.  Endnotes are used to provide additional information, their citations appearing within a designated Notes section placed after the last chapter of the volume. This is followed by a Bibliography, while an Index forms the book’s final section. Photographs (termed Plates within the text); some maps and several plans appear within a 24-page section in the centre of the book, while numerous diagrams, illustrations and other relevant images appear as Figures throughout the work. A ‘Map of England and Wales showing some of the key sites and places mentioned in the text’ is included in this group. No mention of either photographs or figures appears on the Contents page.

This volume is well written and illustrated, but for this reviewer it is badly let down by both the Index and the photographic section. The former is largely Anglo-centric in its focus, and despite their appearance within the text, carries no references to those countries such as Belgium, France or Germany, in which work similar to Dawkins’ was being undertaken. Localities visited by Dawkins during his 1875 World Tour are also not mentioned. By omitting such basic information, the authority of the Index is inevitably compromised. One has to ask, what else might be missing? There is no way to know. The photographic section is equally problematical. Although the contents of that section are presented as un-numbered captioned images, within the text of the book, reference is made to Plates (Plate 11 on p.164 for example), with the strong implication that both the captioned images and Plates are one and the same.  The reader is therefore required to search through the un-numbered images within the ‘Photographic’ section until they find the caption that seems to coincide with the Plate Number given in the text. In the instance referred-to, this ‘could’ be Image No. 15 and not the Plate No.11 of the text. There is no definite way to be certain.  To further complicate matters, due to the presence of maps and drawings (which, as they are in the same section, could also be Plates), the possible Plate No. 11 (now, apparently Image No.15), could equally be Image No.19. To this reviewer, this is totally unacceptable and a situation which he did not expect to encounter in a work such as this.

Although this book is a biography, the in-depth nature of its subject and the author’s academic writing style makes it likely to be more suited to university Palaeontology / Archaeology Departments or Libraries rather than the ordinary ‘Man in the street’. That detail notwithstanding, ‘Generalist’ historians with an interest in ‘Early Britain’ or ‘Cavemen’ could find it a useful addition to their shelves, while Public Libraries could include it in their ‘Prehistory’ section. Hobbyists interested in ‘British Pre-history’, Palaeontology or Pre-historic Archaeology may also find it of use as a reference.

In respect of the history it imparts, this volume is excellent. However, the previously-outlined difficulties with both the Index and photographic sections, together-with the absence of any reference to photographs, figures or maps on the Contents page, markedly reduces both its authority and its value. Despite this, on a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 7.  It should have been much higher.


nzcrownmines is available for book reviewing. Contact:

Book Review: ‘William Boyd Dawkins and the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern’