William Buckland

William Buckland, geologist and Dean of Westminster has a memorial bust in the nave of Westminster Abbey but is buried with his wife in the churchyard at Islip in Oxfordshire, where he died.

He was born on 12th March 1784 at Axminster, Devon, the eldest son of the Reverend Charles Buckland (1750-1829) and his first wife Elizabeth (Oke) and grandson of the Reverend William Buckland (1713-1760). His brothers were Reverend John (who married Frances Arnold), Charles, Henry, Walter and Reverend Samuel Buckland. He attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford and was appointed reader in geology. He excavated many caverns, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire, and discovered fossils of exotic animals which once roamed Britain (a portrait of him in the Deanery by Thomas Phillipps shows him holding a hyena skull. This was given by his grandson H. Buckland Bompas in 1949).

In 1825 he married Mary Morland (1797-1857) but only five of their nine children reached maturity. Their son Frank (Francis) (1826-1880) became a noted naturalist and was instrumental in having the remains of the famous surgeon Dr John Hunter removed to Westminster Abbey. He married Hannah Papps. The other children were Elizabeth who married Mr E. Gordon, Edward (d.1873), Mary Ann who married George Bompas and Caroline.

William was made a canon of Christ Church Oxford and became Dean of Westminster in 1845. He instituted reforms at Westminster School and took a great interest in the restoration of the decaying Abbey stonework and the improvement of sanitation in the precincts. A Fellow of the Royal Society and twice president of the Geological Society he was also a noted eccentric. He kept a menagerie of animals (snakes, eagles and monkeys) at the Deanery. While dining out one evening at Lord Harcourt's residence at Nuneham in 1848 he was shown a silver locket containing an object resembling pumice stone. He popped the object in his mouth, perhaps to try and find out what mineral it was, and swallowed it. It was in fact part of the mummified heart of Louis XIV of France which had been taken from the royal tomb by a member of the Harcourt family. 

The memorial bust, by sculptor Henry Weekes, in the nave has an inscription written by the Sub-Dean, Lord John Thynne:

In memory of the Very Rev. William Buckland, D.D., F.R.S. Dean of Westminster, and of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Formerly Canon of Christ Church Oxford, Trustee of the British Museum, first Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in the University of Oxford, founder of the museum of geology which he bequeathed to that university. Endued with superior intellect, he applied the powers of his mind to the honour and glory of God, the advancement of science and the welfare of mankind. Born March 12 1784, died August 14 1856, aged 72. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. Proverbs II, v.6. Erected by his children.

Further Reading

"The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland" by his daughter Mrs Gordon (1894), Book reprinted 2017

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004 for William, Mary and Frank

For some of his papers see the National Register of Archives

"The curious world of Frank Buckland" by G.H.O. Burgess, 1967

Mary Morland's fossils sketchbook is in the Devon Archives and Local Studies


12th March 1784


14th August 1856


Scientist; dean; priest/minister



Memorial Type


William Buckland
Dean of Westminster, William Buckland portrait

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

William Buckland
William Buckland memorial

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster