For geologists in general, and palaeontologists and mineralogists in particular, the ‘Crown jewels’ of Dorking Museum and Heritage Centre is the Cubitt Collection of fossils and minerals. The collection is so large that only a small part is on public view, and understandably none of the minerals are displayed as they are not local. The origin of the collection is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
A starting point may be found in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London for 1860 which records ‘Note on some Remains of Polyptychodon from Dorking’ by Sir Richard Owen, the famous first Director of the Natural History Museum. The article states that ‘The fossils were exhibited by Mr G Cubitt’. George Cubitt (1828-1917) was the son of Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) the builder who bought Denbies estate and built Denbies House (Demolished in 1953). George was ennobled as First Lord Ashcombe in 1892. The fossil came from one of the Cubitt’s chalk quarries in Dorking. The Geological Society has a custom that rocks or fossils were exhibited and briefly pontificated about before the reading of one or sometimes two papers, rather like an overture before the main event(s). Though specimens may be exhibited by a non-Fellow, as in this instance, the published account must be written by a Fellow (Bizarre but true. I gave an exhibition to the Society in 1962 but as I was only a Junior Associate the account was published under the name of my research supervisor). It would appear therefore that George Cubitt, clearly owned the fossil, and no doubt enjoyed the glory of exhibiting the specimen to the illustrious society, but he was not sufficiently learned to have been elected a Fellow. George’s main interests were more ecclesiastical. He wanted to enter the church, but his father forbade it.
George’s uncle William Cubitt (1791-1863) however was elected FGS in 1836 three years after the exhibition of Polyptchodon. This suggests that William was keenly interested in geology. Perhaps he was in the audience at Burlington House watching his nephew describing the trophy. William Cubitt, sometime Mayor of London, had a town house (20 Abchurch St. EC2) and a country residence, Penton Lodge, Andover. One may speculate that William was George’s geo-godparent, who inspired his fascination in fossils, and stimulated him to start the collection.
William is the only Cubitt recorded to have been elected FGS, apart from one modern Cubitt unrelated to the Denbies branch.
It was commonplace for Victorian gentlemen to possess a cabinet of curiosities to display their education and learning. This would have been the driver for the foundation of the collection. The Cubitt Collection consists of an eclectic range of minerals and fossils. A large part of the collection is made up of fossils, many of them found in the Cubitt’s chalk quarries in the North Downs. It is probable that George Cubitt rewarded his employees for delivering fossils to him and shared the discoveries with experts. The collection has particular strength in Cretaceous Chalk crustaceans, reptiles and fish. But the Cubitt’s also had quarries in Pleistocene terrace gravels of the River Mole. These pits have yielded teeth and bones of mammoths, woolly rhinoceri and other fossils from the Ice Age. There are also fossils from the Weald Clay, notably an Iguanodon tail. Other fossils may have come from local Weald and Gault Clay brick pits. At some point in its history the fossils have been identified, labelled and arranged in cabinets; the drawers labelled phylum by phylum.
In addition to the fossils the collection also contains, completely out of context, a display of world class mineral specimens. Most of these are from northern England, principally Derbyshire, with particularly fine specimens of fluorspar and barytes. There are some mineral specimens are from overseas.
The cabinet of minerals is mentioned in the autobiography of Sir Stephen Tallents (B. 21 October 1884) one of Thomas Cubitt’s great grandsons. He saw them in Denbies when he was a boy, so c.1894. Quote ‘glass-fronted cases in which were displayed dazzling or strangely-shaped mineral specimens’. Tallents also described the discovery of the Iguanodon tail during the excavation of a well in the grounds of the Sussex house given to ‘Uncle Willie and Auntie Trissie’ by George Cubitt.
Roland Cubitt (1899-1962), Third Lord Ashcombe donated the Cubitt Collection to the founding committee of the Dorking Museum in 1948 shortly before the demolition of Denbies House in 1953. The collection was reinterred in the basement of Pippbrook House before being moved to Dorking Museum in 1974.
I wrote to Henry Cubitt (1924-2013), 4th Lord Ashcombe some years ago to ask if he could throw some light on the origin of the collection. He remembered the collection in its fine display cases in Denbies when he was a boy, obviously pre-1948, but could provide no further information on its genesis. Similarly Sir Hugh Cubitt could not provide me with any information on the genesis of the collection, though he too remembers as a boy seeing the mineral display in Denbies House.
Cole, M. 1997 Notes on Dorking & District Museum. Unpublished ms date 8th June 1997
Owen, Sir R (1860) Note on some remains of Polyptychodon from Dorking. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 16: 262–263
Tallents, Sir S. 1948. Man and Boy. Faber & Faber. London. 431pp.
Professor Richard Selley FGS