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Bob Burton 1923 - 2014

Essex amateur geologist and lapidary. (Collection)

Bob Burton of Stanway, near Colchester, also known as Basil, sadly died on 7th November 2014.  His passion for collecting from his local gravel pits and for cutting and polishing the stones that he found has given us a unique insight into an aspect of Essex geology that had previously received little attention. 

Bob and his wife Kitty were great friends with so many people connected with the world of geology, not only in Essex but throughout the country and beyond.  The living room in their home in Stanway was packed with crystals and fossils from all over the world, most of them obtained on foreign holidays or as gifts from visitors who enjoyed their kind hospitality.  But it was especially his specimens from Essex that were scientifically important, even though they were not all as colourful as the foreign pieces on the other shelves.  Bob was a member of the Essex Rock and Mineral Society, though not the Essex Field Club, and members of both clubs were privileged to visit his collection numerous times over many years, and tuck into the huge spread of food that Kitty would provide.

Bob retired early at the age of 60 and built a lapidary workshop in his garden, equipped with all manner of cutting and polishing machines, most of them made by Bob.  Tours of the workshop were another highlight of the visits, where we could see Bob at work.  Until retirement, Bob worked as an engineer for Paxman & Sons, the large engineering firm in Colchester, and the skills he acquired there and elsewhere were extremely useful in his chosen hobby; he had a great talent for making and repairing things.  Bob was also a skilled craftsman, creating beautiful and unique items from natural stone, from lidded boxes to vases, bowls and jewellery, many from local Essex stones, including Hertfordshire puddingstone.  He had a great amount of patience and if an item he was working on broke due to an unseen fault in the stone, he simply started again.  One item I particularly remember was a polished bowl made from an Essex septarian nodule, created on an enormous lathe in a shed at the end of his garden.  It is a unique and wonderful object, designed to show the typical septarian fissures lined with yellow calcite crystals.

A white flint with a milky chalcedony centre containing a cavity lined with medium-sized translucent sparkling quartz crystals.  A very attractive 'geode'. From Church Lane Gravel Pit, Stanway, Essex.  Bob Burton Collection. Photograph: Gerald Lucy
Bob collected most of his remarkable collection of Essex minerals and fossils from the gravel pit over the road from his house.  Bob’s regular visits over several decades to this pit, then known as Church Lane Gravel Pit, produced an astonishing variety of stone types.  The pit worked the Kesgrave Sands and Gravels which were laid down by an ancestor of the River Thames over 500,000 years ago, before the invasion of Essex by the Anglian Ice Sheet.  These gravels contain ‘exotic’ cobbles and boulders carried to Essex by the Thames from upstream in the river’s catchment, and some from as far as North Wales.  However, these exotics are not common in the gravels and so it was only by Bob’s regular visits over the decades of the working life of the pit that he obtained his unique collection. 

Bob Burton in his garden with a giant sarsen stone as an outdoor table. Photograph: Graham Ward
Bob did not just confine himself to collecting stones he could carry home, he sometimes persuaded the quarry company to delivery enormous boulders for display in his garden, including a giant sarsen stone which Bob propped up on stone legs to use as an outdoor table!  He also collected several boulders of Hertfordshire puddingstone which now stand proudly outside the Essex Field Club’s centre.  As well as Church lane Pit, Bob collected extensively from gravel pits at Bradwell, near Braintree, and Birch, south of Colchester.  He also led numerous field trips to these quarries which were usually joint visits with the ERMS and the EFC.  These pits yielded a similar suite of exotic stones. Some of Bob’s Essex collection has been donated to the Essex Field Club’s centre at Pitsea, by kind permission of Bob’s son-in-law, Stephen Goody.  All the donated pieces have been photographed and can be seen on the club’s website.

Hertfordshire puddingstone from Stanway. Large cobble of Hertfordshire puddingstone with one side cut and polished. This example is spectacular with yellow pebbles with red cores. The matrix is also red consisting of 'shards' of flint. From Church Lane Gravel Pit, Stanway, Essex.  Bob Burton Collection. Photograph: Gerald Lucy
Bob’s Essex collection consisted of rocks, minerals and fossils.  The most attractive rock was Hertfordshire puddingstone, all of the pieces cut and polished by Bob and some displaying remarkable colours.  The crystals of different minerals he collected, in the gravels and the overlying boulder clay, are of great interest because Essex is a county almost devoid of mineral specimens.  It was Bob’s collection of Essex minerals that was the basis for much of the paper on the minerals of Essex that was published in the Essex Naturalist in 2012 (Lucy 2012) which contains descriptions and photographs of many of his specimens.  Essex fossils were also well represented in his collection, notably the remarkable and unexplained silicified fossil wood which has never been properly studied.  It is hoped that with the aid of Bob’s specimens a paper will one day be published on this subject.  One particular notable specimen could turn out to be the key to explaining the origin and age of this fossil wood.  Other fossils in the collection include beautifully preserved Chalk-derived fossils in flint.

In 2012 Bob displayed the best of his Essex specimens at the Festival of Geology in London, the Essex Field Club’s Exhibition and Social, and the following February at the Essex Gem and Mineral Show. Photographs of specimens found by Bob appeared on the cover of the Essex Naturalist twice, in 2003 and 2012.

When his wife Kitty sadly died, after over 60 years of marriage, it was a long time before Bob could return to his workshop, but with the persuasion of family and friends he finally did.  He continued to entertain friends and fellow collectors and create items in his workshop until the year he died, one of his last items being a box, with lid, made from local Hertfordshire puddingstone.

Bob was a generous, kind and gentle man and he is sorely missed by his family and his wide circle of friends.  He lived all his life in Stanway, and is buried in St Albright’s churchyard, the same churchyard where fellow Essex geologist and collector John Brown (1780-1859) is buried and whose gravestone can still be seen today. Bob was proud that Brown, perhaps our greatest Essex geologist (Wire 1890), was a fellow Stanway resident.

References LUCY, G. 2012. The minerals of Essex. Essex Naturalist (New Series) 29: 113-128. WIRE, A.P. 1890. Memoir of the Late John Brown, F.G.S. of Stanway. Essex Naturalist. Vol. 4. Pages 158-168.