William Buckland, geologist and Dean of Westminster, was born on 12 March 1784 at Axminster, Devon, the eldest son of the Revd. Charles Buckland (1750-1829) and his first wife Elizabeth (Oke). He attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford and was appointed reader in geology. He excavated many caverns, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire, and discovered fossils of exotic animals which once roamed Britain (the portrait, from the Deanery, shows him holding a hyena skull). In 1825 he married Mary Morland but only five of their nine children reached maturity. Their son Frank (1826-80) became a noted naturalist.
William was made a canon of Christ Church Oxford and became Dean of Westminster in 1845. He instituted reforms at Westminster School and took a great interest in the restoration of the decaying Abbey stonework and the improvement of sanitation in the precincts. A Fellow of the Royal Society and twice president of the Geological Society he was also a noted eccentric. He kept a menagerie of animals (snakes, eagles and monkeys) at the Deanery. While dining out one evening at Lord Harcourt's residence at Nuneham in 1848 he was shown a silver locket containing an object resembling pumice stone. He popped the object in his mouth, perhaps to try and find out what mineral it was, and swallowed it. It was in fact part of the mummified heart of Louis XIV of France which had been taken from the royal tomb by a member of the Harcourt family. In 1856 he died at Islip in Oxfordshire and is buried in the church there.
A memorial bust, by sculptor Henry Weekes, was erected in the nave of the Abbey. The inscription reads:
"In memory of the Very Rev. William Buckland, D.D.,F.R.S. Dean of Westminster, and of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Formerly Canon of Christ Church Oxford, Trustee of the British Museum, first Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in the University of Oxford, founder of the museum of geology which he bequeathed to that university. Endued with superior intellect, he applied the powers of his mind to the honour and glory of God, the advancement of science and the welfare of mankind. Born March 12 1784, died August 14 1856, aged 72. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. Proverbs II, v.6. Erected by his children".
A photograph of the portrait and the bust can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
"The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland" by his daughter Mrs Gordon (1894).
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004 for William, Mary and Frank.
For some of his papers see National Register of Archives