S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Stow, Mr George William (geology)

Born: 2 February 1822, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England.
Died: 17 March 1882, Makouvlei, Free State, South Africa.
Mr George William Stow

George W. Stow (sometimes spelled Stowe), geologist and ethnologist, was apprenticed to a London physician and attended medical lectures at King's College, London. However, when he reached the age of 21 in 1843 he abandoned medicine and emigrated to South Africa. Arriving in the Eastern Cape in December 1843 he worked as a teacher for the Colonial Church and School Society at Cuylerville. On 23 July 1844 he married Caroline E. Skinner and later married for a second and third time. He was interested in the culture and customs of the indigenous population, as well as in geology, and during the Eighth Frontier War (1850-1853) collected fossil reptiles and plants while acting as secretary for a group of frontier farmers. A small labrynthodont amphibian, Micropholis stowii was later named in his honour by T.H. Huxley*.

In 1853 he moved to Port Elizabeth and, while working as a bookkeeper, attended lectures by W.G. Atherstone* and R.N. Rubidge*. The latter was instrumental in gaining publication in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London of Stow's first paper "On some fossils from South Africa" (1859). He followed this up with "Note on the geology of the Sunday's River, South Africa" (The Geologist, 1861) and other papers, resulting in his election to Fellowship of the Geological Society of London in 1872.

In 1864 Stow moved to Queenstown as manager of a wholesale general produce business. In spite of disasters in his family life and business failures the ensuing decade saw him beginning his studies of Bushman art and anthropology, making many copies of rock art in the Transkei. He also extended his study of the stratigraphy of the neighbourhood of Queenstown and his fossil collecting. In a major paper, "On some points in South African geology", read on his behalf before the Geological Society of London and published in its Journal (1870), he described his earlier work on the Cretaceous deposits near Port Elizabeth, the stratigraphy and coal deposits of the Karoo, and the palaeoclimatology of these strata. In an appendix he put forward the theory, based on palaeontological evidence, that South Africa, India and Australia once formed part of a single landmass. This idea was later taken up and popularised by Eduard Suess and Alfred Wegener and the former landmass came to be known as Gondwanaland. After visiting the diamond fields of Griqualand West he wrote "On the diamond gravels of the Vaal River, South Africa" (Journal of the Geological Socciety of London, 1871).

$ Early in 1872 Stow carried out a brief geological reconnaissance of Griqualand West, partly in the company of the surveyor Francis H.S. Orpen*. A copy of his report to the Governor was published in the Cape Monthly Magazine (1872, Vol. 5, pp. 65-78), while the results were also reported in "Geological notes upon Griqualand West", in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (1874). In the latter paper he first described the amygdaloidal lavas near Pniel, on the Vaal River, which are now included in the Ventersdorp Supergroup, and introduced several stratigraphic names. Stow tried to persuade the various South African states to commission him to carry out geological surveys to determine their mineral potential, but only the Orange Free State and Griqualand West were interested. In the Cape Parliament J.X. Merriman expressed the general opinion that 'poor Colonies could not afford geological surveys, rich mineral regions did without them'. However he did authorize Stow in June 1874 to undertake a geological survey of the region between the Vaal and Modder Rivers. Stow's comprehensive and well-illustrated report, for which he was not paid, was completed towards the end of 1876, but was never published. In it he established the glacial origin of the Dwyka conglomerate, proof of an ice age in South Africa during Palaeozoic times. In 1878, when geologically surveying the northern part of the Orange Free State for President J.H. Brand, he discovered valuable coal deposits at Makouw's Vlei (now Makouvlei), probably his most important economic discovery. His Report on the geological lsurvey of the Orange Free State, from the 18th April to the 17th December 1878 (55p) was published in Bloemfontein in 1879. That same year he published Coal and iron in South Africa (London, 1879).

During the next few years, residing in Bloemfontein, Stow wrote down his ethnographic research. The work was later edited by G.M. Theal and published posthumously in 1905 as The native races of South Africa: a history of the intrusion of the Hottentots and Bantu into the hunting ground of the Bushman, the aborigines of the country. He considered that the Bushmen had originated in the north and migrated south well before the Bantu.

In 1880 Stow was appointed manager of mining operations at the Leeukuil (now Vereenigingf) coal field by Samuel Marks, who established the Zuid-Afrikaansche en Oranje-Vrijstaatsche Kolen en Mineralen Mijn Vereeniging to supply Kimberley with coal. Sadly Stow died suddenly of a heart attack two years later and was buried at Makouvlei in an unmarked grave.

His major achievements in geology were his discovery of useful iron ore and coal deposits in the Orange Free State, and his recognition of the importance of climate change in the geology of South Africa. In ethnology he was the first to record and study seriously the Bushman rock art of South Africa. His copies of rock art were eventually published in Rock paintings in South Arfrica, from parts of the Eastern Province and Orange Free State, copied by G.W.Stow, with an introduction and descriptive notes by Dorothea Bleek (1930), and Cave artists of South Africa (1953) by E. Rosenthal and A.J.H. Goodwin. An unpublished manuscript by him was edited by J. Walton and published as "Early Ghoya settlement in the Orange Free State" in Researches of the National Museum (Bloemfontein, 1965). During the eighteen-sixties Stow also published several poems.

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List of sources:
Cape Monthly Magazine, 1872, Vol. 5, article by Stow.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Hall, A.L. A bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

Hulke, J.W. Address on Anniversary meeting of the Geological Society of London. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, 16 Feb 1883.

Letters and papers in the archives of the Geological Society of London LDGSL-47, and paintings by Stow LDGSL-20.

Rogers, A.W. The pioneers in South African geology and their work. Transactions of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1937, annexure to Vol. 39.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Committee for Stratigraphy (SACS). Stratigraphy of South Africa. Part 1: Lithostratigraphy... (pp. 121, 211). Pretoria: Geological Survey, Handbook 8, 1980.

Young, R.B. The life and work of George William Stow, 1908.


Compiled by: Alan Cohen


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