John Ruthven (1793-1868)

John Ruthven

Written by Angus Winchester

Occupation: Geologist

Early Life

John Ruthven was born around 1793, probably at Kirkby Stephen.  He was the son of James Ruthven (1766-1847), a Scot who had moved to Kirkby Stephen by 1785, and Frances (née Dobson).  James was a shoemaker by trade and moved to Kirkland, Kendal, by 1829; in 1841 he was living in the Ring o’ Bells Yard, Kirkland.  Little is known of John Ruthven’s youth.  The family had probably moved to Kendal by the time John, still a minor, married Agnes Birkett (b. c.1788; d. 19 September 1861) at Kendal on 8 November 1813.  It is usually said that John was a cobbler who became an expert field geologist. 

Certainly, his occupation was given as ‘shoemaker’ in 1841, when he was living at High Beast Banks, Kendal, but he seems to have had other employment – assuming that he is to be identified with the John Ruthven who was ‘acting as foreman of the harden manufactory’ at Kendal workhouse in 1839, when it was proposed to raise his salary from £20 to £30 (Westmorland Gazette, 26 Jan. 1839). 

Work as a Geologist

By the 1840s he was becoming well-known as a geologist.  Hudson’s Guide to the Lakes (1843) recommended those interested in fossils to purchase them from collectors in Kendal, noting that ‘the collection of Mr John Ruthven, an excellent practical geologist, who resides on the Beast Banks, is especially deserving of remark’.  By then much of his income seems to have come from a combination of commissioned fieldwork and selling minerals and fossils from a shop in Jenning’s Yard, Highgate.  He became active in the Kendal Natural History & Scientific Society from 1843, of which he was elected an honorary member in 1849.  He famously worked with Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873, ODNB) of Cambridge University, one of the leading geologists of the day, accompanying him on fieldwork from 1845, with visits to North Wales in 1846 and 1851 and to Ayrshire in 1848 and 1849, accompanied by John’s inseparable companion, a dog named ‘Charlie’.  Sedgwick reported on their first, month-long excursion in 1845 thus: ‘For my companion I had a famous fossil collector named John Ruthven.  There is an old Latin proverb which in plain English tells us “not to trust a cobbler beyond his last”.  But all rules must have their exceptions, and Ruthven, though once a cobbler, is now a geologist whose fame will last longer than the stoutest shoe that ever came off his last.’  A letter of 1854 confirms Sedgwick’s high opinion of John Ruthven: ‘My old heart-of-oak friend John Ruthven lives in Kendal ... He has all Westmorland at his finger’s ends and will tell you of all the fossil localities between the Coniston Limestone and the Old Red and Mountain Limestone of Kirkby Lonsdale’.  Many years later, he was greatly saddened on learning that ‘my old companion in many a hard-working journey over the hills (good old honest John Ruthven)’ had died. 

His Geological Cartography

John Ruthven’s expertise in the geology of the Lake District was shown in his ‘Map of the English Lakes and adjoining country, geologically coloured’ (published in 1855), which was printed in Harriet Martineau’s The English Lakes (1858).  A portrait of John was given to the Kendal Natural History & Scientific Society in September 1862 (the watercolour is now in Kendal Borough Museum).  One of the puzzles is where he obtained the standard of education demonstrated in his correspondence.  Cornelius Nicholson (1861, 279-80) commented how John Ruthven’s geological work ‘proves how a man may overcome the want of education and render important services to science by the bent of natural genius’.  Yet John’s letters to Sedgwick suggest otherwise: several survive in Cambridge University Library, written in a strong, competent hand and educated in tone, showing that he knew the Latin names of fossils as well as geological terms.

Later Prosperity

Geology seems to have made him a good living.  By 1851 he and Agnes were living at Castle Park Terrace, one of the new middle-class areas of housing on the eastern side of Kendal, where, by the time of his death, he owned ‘four spacious modern dwelling houses’ (Kendal Mercury, 18 Sept 1869).  After Agnes died in 1861, John moved to London to live with his son George at 6 Sophia Place, St Mary’s Road, Peckham.  He died in Peckham on 6 November 1868 and was buried in Nunhead Cemetery, Camberwell.

John and Agnes had seven children of whom five lived to adulthood: James (1814-), who emigrated to Chicago; George (1816-1871), a railway clerk who had moved to London by 1855 (his eldest daughter, Ada, married James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary); John (1819-1869), railway secretary, who lived at Haslingden, Lancs.; Jane 1821-1862), who married, successively, James and John Dennison in London; and Richard (1824-1877), a carpet designer in Kendal.


  • Clark, J. W., and Hughes, T. M., The Life of Adam Sedgwick, 2 vols, 1890
  • Hudson, J., Complete Guide to the Lakes, 2nd edition, 1843.
  • Nicholson, C., Annals of Kendal, 2nd edition, 1861.
  • Price, J. H., ‘Our Practical Men: a study of aspects of the early development of English Lakeland geology and palaeontology’, Diploma in Local History dissertation, Lancaster University, 1995
  • Smith, A. (ed.), The Rock Men: Pioneers of Lakeland Geology (Cumberland Geological Society, 2001), pp. 24-8.
  • Portrait: watercolour by his son George Ruthven, in Kendal Borough Museum.