In a short but brilliant life, one Loftus man single-handedly altered the world.
Lewis Hunton died aged 24, but his genius would have a huge impact on the modern world.
No pictures of him exist, little is known of his life and death, and one of the few times he makes an appearance in history is a single note in the Whitby Gazette of November 1867.
“His idea changed the world, it’s as simple as that,” explained Robin Hood’s Bay geologist Mike Windle. “We live in the world we do because of his innovations.”
Hunton was born at Hummersea, near Loftus in 1814 and was the eldest of nine children.
The house where he was born overlooked Loftus Alum Works, where his grandfather and father had made their modest fortune.
Both men had managed the alum works on behalf of the owner, Lord Dundas, and as a first son, Lewis was groomed to take over the family business.
“He had a very practical upbringing and you get the impression he was an industrialist’s son. But he would have also had close connections to nature.”
Searching the rocks below Easington Heights, Hunton amassed a collection of thousands of fossils and began to develop a theory that would have massive implications for modern-day oil and gas industries.
“He has to have been a fairly exceptional person,” said Mike. “And we have every reason to believe both his father and grandfather were as well.”
Under their leadership the alum works prospered. It was consistently the most innovative works on the coast and was the first in the region to use steam engines. “It’s clear that these men were thinkers as well as doers,” said Mike.
Although guesses can be made about his education and upbringing, nothing is known about Hunton’s private life and no one even knows what he looked like.
Locally his name appears just once, when his brother Robert donated a large ichthyosaur fossil to Whitby Museum and the Gazette covered the story.
“This is why newspapers are so important. We wouldn’t even have the little bits we do, without the Whitby Gazette recording the gift,” said Mike.
Hunton died in the French city of Nimes from consumption and would have been forgotten, if not for a stroke of genius he had while studying the cliffs around Loftus.
In these early years of the Industrial Revolution, Britain led the way in geology, which was seen as a practical subject as much as an intellectual one.
“It had all the right kind of image,” Mike explained. “It’s intellectually stimulating, but it’s also masculine and you are out in the wilds using a hammer.”
Hunton only ever published two scholarly papers.
One focussed upon chemistry, while the other identified a new branch of geology known as biostratigraphy.
Read on May 25 1836 at the Geological Society in London, when he was aged just 21, Hunton’s essay refers to the coastline between Whitby and Redcar. Hunton would have been at home among these cliffs, and with a high point of 681 feet, they provide ample opportunity to study the range of rock strata.
Not only had Hunton described an entirely new branch of science, but unusually he had also laid down strict rules on how it must be practiced.
The theory also relied heavily upon one of the great Whitby icons, the ammonite.
Whitby has long had a close affiliation with ammonites, ever since St Hilda performed her miracle by transforming all the snakes in the area into rocks.
The town even has three ammonites on its crest, and Hunton realised the fossils would be priceless in his quest to progress the field of geology.
The English scientist William Smith and his French counterpart Alexandre Brongniart had reached the realisation that certain types of fossil could be associated with certain rock formations. Hunton took this a stage further and noted how many fossils are restricted to certain bands of rock, and never found elsewhere.
With this realisation, fossils were transformed from beautiful objects of curiosity into crucial tools of geological investigation.
While Hunton understood that it was useless to look at the overall fauna within a rock formation, geologists must concentrate on specific animals which evolved quickly and so were represented by different species throughout history.
In an instant, Hunton had removed the need for geologists to identify every fossil in a formation - individual species known as ‘zone fossils’ would suffice. In the Whitby area, this role was taken by the ammonite, but the theory could be applied all over the world.
“It’s like a road map, with all the roads taken out. You would have all the place maps, but how would you get there? Lewis’ idea pulls everything together.
“It means we can relate the history of geology in this country with that of the rest of the world and the implications of that are just tremendous.
“We wouldn’t have an oil and gas industry without Lewis.
“It’s not stretching a point to say we don’t have the modern world we do, without him.”
Geologists secure grant to look at life of Lewis
The NE Yorkshire Geology Trust is based at Robin Hood’s Bay and is this week celebrating after securing a £60,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and its partners.
The grant includes a £10,000 donation from York Potash and will explore the geological and industrial heritage of Loftus and the surrounding area, including the life of Lewis Hunton. Mike Windle said: “He’s a local lad that managed to do something fantastic in such a short life. He should be a local hero, and that’s what we intend to do.”