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Noteworthy naturalist

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Richard Bull (1815-1906) Clergyman and Harwich Fossil Collector

Richard Bull was born on 3rd October 1815 at Foxearth, Essex. He died on 10th January 1906, aged 90, at 15 Mount Ephraim Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent and was buried in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery on 13th January 1906 (Grave B7/CON/26). Bull comes across as being rather pious, but a little pedantic, in his New Year address delivered to his parishioners at Harwich on 1st January 1866. After preaching on the need for Sunday observance and taking regular communion he took his flock to task on how they unnecessarily caused an “unpleasant and unseemly noise” by the clicking of the spring lock on the pew doors as they temporarily left their seats to knell at the communion rail. Richard Bull spent his life in south east England. He was born in Suffolk, educated in Cambridge, preached in Essex, later moved to Tottenham and finally retired to Kent.

He was the son of Samuel Neville Bull, Curate of Foxearth and later Vicar of Ramsey, Essex 1817-1852 and of Dovercourt with Harwich 1827-1852. His father, “the good and benevolent Vicar of Dovercourt”, died on 6th December 1855, aged 80 at Harwich. His mother was Frances Comber, who was born in Lewes, Sussex and died on 28th April 1859, aged 84, at Harwich. Both his parents are buried at Ramsey, Essex. Richard had four older siblings, two sisters Frances and Jane, and two brothers William and John. Richard aged about 40, married Maria Wilson, aged about 36, who was born in Clapham, at Islington in the autumn of 1856. Their union was blessed with a daughter, Frances Jane Bull who was baptised at Harwich on 17th January but sadly died in infancy on 27th January 1859 and was buried in the family vault at Ramsey on 1st February. Maria Bull died in 1917.

Bull was a clergyman. He was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge where he was admitted on 7th April 1835; graduating with a BA in 1839 and MA in 1842. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained a deacon on 20th December 1840 and became a priest on 19th December 1842. His priestly career started in 1840 when he became curate of Dovercourt with Harwich, where his father was Vicar. His elder brother William was Vicar of Ramsey, serving 657 souls, with a gross income of £310 and a house. Richard held this appointment until 1852. He then succeeded his father as Vicar of Harwich, serving 4,451 souls, from 1852-1871, living in Kings Quay Street. Richard’s stipend was £290. Simultaneously he was Master of the Corporation School from 1840-1871. Richard Bull took an interest in natural history and collected fossils. In 1851 he was thanked by W.H. Lindsey for the use of his sketch of Ramsey Church and “permission to inspect his valuable and rare specimens of fossils”. Richard also had access to the fossil collection housed in the spa at Dovercourt. In 1857 a subspherical London Clay cement stone nodule, about 1 foot in diameter, containing the entire skull and some limb bones of a primitive mammal – an ancestral horse, was discovered by workmen at the government cement works at Harwich. The cement stone nodule, which had probably been dredged from the seabed offshore from Harwich, was originally destined to be smashed up, heated until calcined and then ground into a fine powder before being put into a barrel and dispatched as Roman Cement. Luckily, it was realised that the nodule was of some especial interest and importance and accordingly taken to the Reverend Richard Bull, Vicar of Harwich, who had a general interest in natural history, particularly fossils. Realising the significance of this magnificent find Richard Bull arranged for his friend William Colchester (1813-1898) to take the specimen to Richard Owen (1804-1892) at the British Museum in London. Owen, who was the foremost vertebrate anatomist at the time, arranged to have the fox sized specimen partially chiselled out of the matrix by Mr. Dew. He also arranged to have part of the left jaw sawn off to better expose the teeth. Owen described the specimen as Pliolophus vulpiceps (Owen 1858). Shortly after he had resigned his Harwich living Richard Bull presented a cast of the complete cranium, before the upper and lower left jaws had been sawn off, together with the actual fragments which had been removed, to the Natural History Museum in 1872, (Lydekker 1886 page 11 specimen 44115). This specimen is still one of the most complete and best preserved early horses ever found. The rest of the butchered specimen was returned to Richard Bull. It resurfaced in about 1914 when his widow, Mrs. Maria Bull, wrote to the Natural History Museum from her home in Tunbridge Wells, stating that she still had some of her late husband’s fossils, which she would be glad to present to the nation. Among these were the missing skull and bones of the fossil horse still bearing Owen’s original labels. The specimen was gracefully accepted and the jaw pieces sawn off 57 years earlier were at last finally reunited with the rest of the skull. Mrs. Bull also presented to the Museum a large, well preserved skull of the sea turtle Lytoloma and three carapaces of the same genus, all from the London Clay of Harwich. Interestingly she also donated the finely preserved and almost complete shell of Chrysemys testudinformis which was subsequently displayed in the Museum. This spectacular specimen was far superior to the type specimen described by Owen in 1841. Evidently the Reverend Bull had purchased the specimen from a dealer and the exact provenance of the find was not known. However it probably came from the London Clay of the Isle of Sheppey. Mrs. Maria Bull died on 3rd February 1917, at Tunbridge Wells, where she and her husband had removed before 1891. In 1917 Tunbridge Wells Museum was presented with a large and valuable gift from the late Reverend Richard Bull, including “two cabinets of shells and fossils (the later from the neighbourhood of Harwich), as well as smaller cabinets and other larger specimens”. These specimens had earlier been declined by the Natural History Museum (Gill & Knell 1988 p.7). Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944) gave an illuminating Presidential Address to the Essex Field Club in 1925 on the subject of primitive mammals in the London Clay of Harwich. He spoke at length about John Brown’s spectacular Coryphodon jaw fragment and Richard Bull’s magnificent fossil horse. Woodward briefly considered the evolution of the horse and carefully put the Harwich specimen into context (Woodward 1925). In the early 1930s Dr. Lang, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, allowed Mr. L. E. Parsons to further develop the horse skull, which resulted in an almost perfect palate and lower jaw for C. Forster Cooper to examine (Cooper 1932). Simpson further described and figured the specimen in 1952 (Simpson 1952 pp.195-196). This fine Essex specimen of a fossil horse is still safely housed in the national collection at South Kensington.

Alumnii Cantabrigiensis (J A Venn) Part II Vol 1(1940) p. 439

Anon. 1915. An Ancestor of the Horse; Fossil Turtles. Museums Journal Vol. 14 pp. 179-180.

Benton, M.J., Cook, E & Hooker, J.J. 2005. Mesozoic and Tertiary Fossil Mammals and Birds of Great Britain, Geological Conservation Review Series, No. 32. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, 215 pp. ISBN 1 86107 4808.

Cooper, C Forster. 1932. The Genus Hyracotherium. A Revision and Description of new specimens found in England. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Vol. 221. pp. 431-448.

Crockford’s Clerical Directory 1905 p. 196

Dale, S. 1730. The History and Antiquities of Harwich and Dovercourt, Essex.

George, W.H. 1991. Copperas and Copperas Tokens of Essex & Kent. 22 pages.

Gill, M.A.V. & Knell, S.J. 1988. Tunbridge Wells Museum: Geology and George Abbott (1844-1925). Geological Curator Vol. 5(1) pp. 3-16.

Lindsey, W.H. 1851. A Season at Harwich. 380 pages.

Lydekker, R. 1886. Catalogue of the Fossil Mammalia in the British Museum (Natural History) Part 3. 196 pages.

Owen, R. 1858. Description of a small Lophiodont Mammal (Pliolophus vulpiceps, Owen), from the London Clay, near Harwich. Proceedings of the Geological Society pp. 54-71 & plates 2-4.

Simpson, G.G. 1952. Notes on British Hyracotheres. Journal of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology. Vol. 42 (284) pp. 195-206.

Woodward, A.S. 1925. Primitive Mammals from the London Clay of Harwich. Essex Naturalist Vol. 21 (3) pp. 97-103 + plate.

Wealth at Death: Richard Bull £1884 (1906), Maria Bull £4700 (1917)

Account provided by Mr William George
page last edited on Tue Jan 5th 2010 by site user 68