George Bax Holmes (1803 – 1887) was a wealthy Quaker and fossil collector in Victorian Horsham. Having started life pursuing a medical career he was able to devote more time to his fossil hunting from 1834. It was in that year that his father died and left him considerable property interests. As early as 1836 he contributed to Howard Dudley’s history of Horsham with a paragraph on his work entitled ‘Saurian Remains’.
Bax Holmes the Quaker
Bax Holmes was born in Horsham on the 3rd of May, 1803 , the first son of Joseph Holmes, an active Quaker. He married was on the 19th of October 1826 to his third cousin Mary Burns of Chichester at which time his occupation was recorded as ‘chemist and druggist of Horsham’.
As a Quaker in these times Bax Holmes was still regarded as a ‘Dissenter’ from the mainstream Church of England, even though the religious Act of Toleration had been passed in 1689. In 1834 for refusing to pay the church rates of 4s 10 1/2d [2007: £19.49] he had two arm chairs valued at £3 9s 0d [2007: £275.83] removed.
Bax Holmes the fossil collector
Bax Holmes is perhaps best known for his discovery of the Great Horsham Iguanodon, a plant eating dinosaur, in the building works on the site of Royal & Sun Alliance (now RSA). In 1840 a stone was uncovered whilst building the Chapel of Ease, later to become St Marks Church. Only the spire remains of the church when RSA expanded in the town. Bax Holmes identified them as fossilised iguanodon bones; the largest found since the name was coined by Dr Gideon Mantell of Lewes some 15 years earlier. The bones were used by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854 when creating the dinosaur models for Sydenham Park.
A record of Bax Holmes’ work is preserved in the form of 34 letters to Richard Owen, another fossil expert, within whom Bax Holmes was in correspondence throughout his life. These letters are held in the Owen Correspondence collection at the Natural History Museum, see below for Owen’s biography.
George Bax Holmes died on the 31st March 1887 and is buried at the Friends Meeting House in Worthing Road. Today his gravestone is in use as a paving slab and can be seen at the start of the path to the left of the central entrance. His death is noted in the Quaker’s Annual Monitor and the Horsham Advertiser, dated 2ndApril 1887, published an obituary.
After Bax Holmes died his daughter sold his collection of 767 (some say 764) fossils to the Corporation of Brighton for £55 and they later went on display at the Booth Museum of Natural History. Until recently they lay in store there until being returned to Horsham Museum for a long term display. It is believed that Bax Holmes lived in the Causeway next door to the current museum and so the bones have almost come home.
A biography of George Bax Holmes entitled Horsham’s Dinosaur Hunter has been written by John Cooper, geologist and Keeper of the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. It is available from Horsham Museum for £4.50.
Richard Owen (1804 – 1892) is noted coining the phrase dinosaur (great lizard) and for campaigning for the foundation of the Natural History Museum. Owen started life studying anatomy with a view to becoming a surgeon but by his mid twenties had become involved with the study of fossilised dinosaur remains. By 1830 he had catalogued 13,000 specimens, then stored in the British Museum.
In 1856 was appointed the first Superintendent of the British Museum’s natural history department and began his campaign for natural history to have its own museum. In 1881 the Natural History Museum opened in South Kensington, where it remains today.
At the time of compiling this post in January 2009 the Horsham Photographer also created the wikipedia page sharing much of the same content.