Electronic Supplement to
Tom LaTouche and the Great Assam Earthquake of 12 June 1897: Letters from the Epicenter

by Roger Bilham

Page 2 of 11

This page contains an index to the 11 pages of transcripts of LaTouche materials, a summary of his life and a bibliography. The transcripts are from the Papers of Thomas Henry Digges La Touche, 1856-1938, Geological Survey of India 1881-1910. British Library, India Office European Manuscripts Mss Eur C258/x per. Copyright to these materials rests with the British Library. The extracts are supplemented with photographs and additional materials whose sources are indicated.


Page 3, 1882-1890 - Sapphire mines and encounters Oldham returning from Ladakh, Shillong plateau hunting for coal and visited by Middlemiss, Manipur and the Lushai campaign. Meets Nancy in 1890 and proposes.

Page 4, 1891-1892 - Newly married he travels with Nancy through the Punjab to Sindh province to drill for oil with William King

Page 5, 1892-1895 - The director of the GSI, William King retired in this interval, and was replaced by Griesbach.

Page 6, 1896-1897 - Griesbach on leave, Oldham is appointed Acting Director. Tom is initially in Shropshire and Nancy in Ireland. Nancy accompanies Tom to Rajputana. Back in Calcutta Tom builds a grinding machine to make thin sections -the first geologist in India to do so.

Page 7, 1897 - Great Assam Earthquake Transcripts of LaTouche's letters 27 May -11 August (no photos in this transcript)

Page 1, 1897 - Great Assam Earthquake - Electronic supplement to account published in Seism Res. Lett, La Touche's complete set of letters, supplemented by those of others, plus 23 Photos including a clickable map of Shillong.

Page 8, 1899 - Office gossip. Griesbach is back from leave.

Page 9, 1900-1903 - Burma & Calcutta, with letters from Oldham in England, 1901 Burma, death of William King and speculations on the Directorship, his exasperation with Datta, Oldham and the secret Oman expedition, Insults and apologies from Griesbach, the Directorship resolved by Curzon.

Page 10, 1904-1911 - Meets Oldham in London. The international congress in Europe. Returns to Burma where he finds errors in Datta's mapping. 1905 Datta makes himself unpopular, meets Finlay of Burma oil, Kangra earthquake, meets Omori from Japan, Curzon resigns, more problems with Datta's mapping. 1906 Looking for gold in Burma (photos), Griesbach retires and ill. Meets Bruce the Everest climber 1907 Griesbach dead. Oldham in Shawford, Hampshire. September in Shropshire with Avice, his daughter. Meets Burrard, Director General of Survey of India 1908 Working on Rennel's diary. Describes belemnites used as bullets by Tibetans. Holland knighted. 1909 Appointed acting Director to replace Holland. Oldham in Burma. 1910 Acting director, Finishes Rennell memoir. Retirement. Hayden takes over. 1911 Unsuccessfully seeks an appointment in Cambridge.

Page 11, 1938 - La Touche dies - an annotated obituary

Summary: The life of Tom La Touche

La Touche (1855-1938) following schooling in Shrewsbury was awarded a degree in Geology in 1880 under Professor Hughes at St. Johns College Cambridge. He joined the Geological Survey of India in October 1881, two years after R. D. Oldham (1858-1936) and was, when he retired, one of the few geologists to complete 25 years in the Geological Survey of India. In late 1890 La Touche proposed marriage to Anna (Nancy) Handy, and they were married the following year. Although Nancy accompanied him on his early field work, the arrival of children and his appointment to remote field areas led to long separations, often exceeding 8 months, and on one occasion lasting 2 years. Each year field-work started in October and continued to March, and the findings of the work were written up in the recess during the hot summer months in headquarters in Calcutta. Throughout the time of these prolonged separations Tom and Nancy wrote to each other daily. Tom's letters to Nancy and the children, who lived initially in the hill stations of India, and eventually in Ireland, thus form a fairly continuous diary of important events and affairs in the office, and in the field. More importantly they provide an illuminating view of the life style and personal interactions of the dozen Geological Survey Officers who were based in Calcutta. The LaTouche's were not wealthy and a continuing theme was mention of finances, and speculation whether Tom would be appointed Director of the office which would both increase his income and his retirement pension. Events conspired to withhold this appointment from him, although LaTouche was appointed Acting Director when Sir Thomas Holland went on leave 2 Aug. 1909 until his retirement in 1910. He died in 1938 Cambridge aged 82 having just read the proofs of his final work, a massive compilation of geological locations in India with their geographical coordinates.

The photos below (courtesy the Director General of the Geological Survey of India) were taken towards the start and end of his career in India.

LaTouche Portraits

La Touche's often amusing writings show Carl Griesbach (Director - who died in retirement in May 1907) to be a disorganized and disparaging leader who was responsible for many frustrations in the Calcutta office 1890-1901, and who had failed to optimize the potential of his staff. In contrast, R. D. Oldham's brief spell of leadership in 1896/7 demonstrates a real interest in optimising and encouraging the best qualities of his team of geologists.  Oldham in 1902 should under normal circumstances have become the next director following the retirement of Griesbach, as he was the senior man in the office, with merely one year less than Griesbach. But the energetic and pro-active Viceroy, Lord Curzon, with the bumbling Griesbach as an example of everything he disliked in the Civil Service,  sought to revitalize the search for minerals and energy resources in India. His choice by default would have been one of three Superintendents, each with two decades of service, who were next in line for the job: Oldham, La Touche and Middlemiss. He decided against all three. Instead he advertized in the UK for a new man, something he had done successfully in his choice for Director of the Archaeological Survey of India.  

It is likely that Griesbach himself was responsible for sowing doubts in Curzon's mind about the Directorship potential of his three most senior men. Griesbach disliked Oldham's fastidious attention to geological detail, which had slowed the mapping of the Rewah region of central India, and which had caused him to have to referee decisions to mitigate the instability of hillslopes near Government House, Naini Tal. Griesbach had also had a row with Oldham when he ordered him to accompany Curzon's secret armed mission to assess a coal field in Oman in October 1901. Oldham's report (which like his objections to the Oman mission, have yet to be found) apparently displeased Curzon. Oldham's destination, however, was recorded in a sequence of photographs in the Calcutta archive.   Griesbach's lack of appreciation for La Touche, who was second in line, was unfounded as is clear from LaTouche's innocent letters home.  In 1902 Griesbach considered La Touche's Burma mapping to be incompetent (he grudgingly owned the following year that it wasn't) and in the presence of colleagues rashly attributed his unsavory and unfounded opinion to the mouth of Curzon's Secretary, Holderness, prompting La Touche to defend his honor by obtaining a denial from Holderness, and a devious and incomplete apology from Griesbach. Griesbach, no doubt wishing not to lose face over this appalling deceit had the last word with the administration, and it was no doubt unfavorable to La Touche. The charming Middlemiss, third in line, who from his numerous written contributions and extended service (with the benefit of hindsight) was the most productive of the three Superintendents, may have been judged too quiet and insufficiently ambitious to be considered Directorship material.

After a long delay caused by a failed search, Curzon passed over all three men & chose instead Thomas Holland, a bright and ambitious geologist who was ten years younger than all three contenders, and who had joined only in 1890,  but who possessed enormous energy and talent,  echoing the intellect and industry of Curzon himself.  Tom La Touche's anguish is transparent, as he first encountered rumours of being passed over, and enventually watched his chance to become the Director of the Geological Survey evaporate, but he chose after much reflection not to complain. Holland the victor seemed as much puzzled as Oldham over the appointment, for the two are shown to be sharing a house in apparent harmony after the announcement. Oldham offers as explanation that Curzon's decision was made so that the Viceroy's office would not look foolish following the delay caused by his failed search.

A highlight of La Touche's letters is his important contribution to the study of the 1897 great Assam earthquake.  Two weeks prior to the June earthquake Oldham, who was Acting Director during Griesbach's furlough in England, asked La Touche to supervise the Calcutta office while Oldham visited Naini Tal. In this remote hill station Oldham had hardly felt the earthquake and didn't realize the magnitude of its effects until several days later.  On learning of the huge region of destruction Oldham dashed back to headquarters where "like a bombshell" he dispersed his Survey officers throughout the epicentral region.  Until Oldham's arrival his colleagues had focused their efforts on documenting damage only within Calcutta.  La Touche was dispatched to ground zero in Shillong, an area that he had mapped in detail more than a decade earlier.  His observations, photos and drawings form a substantial portion of the 1899 Memoir, which was about to establish Oldham's reputation as a seismologist. Missing from Oldham's memoir are the seismograms that La Touche obtained from a seismoscope he constructed in the field from bits of tin, a suspended boulder and a glass photographic plate. Apparently LaTouche's seismoscope continued to operate in Shillong because he mentions it in the days after the 1905 Kangra earthquake when he was asked by Holland to send a similar instrument to Simla.

La Touche also sheds new light on the perceived inadequacies of Parvati Nath Datta whose appointment in 1888 Henry Medlicott had vigorously opposed, and whose skills Oldham had criticized in the first year of William King's directorship, but who Griesbach was slow to suspect of error.  It is clear that even after a decade in the Survey, Datta's geological work was inferior to those expected by the GSI, missing important details through careless mapping, and occasionally identifying minerals and rocks incorrectly.  Datta appears as a tragic figure in Burma, and it is easy to feel sorry for him as he tramped, or was carried, through the villages and hills, irritating local people and aledgedly fudging his maps, which required subsequent correction largely by LaTouche. Datta's incompetence led to him being denied appontment to the Superintendent level, although with tactful diplomacy he was permitted to share the position of Acting Superintendent in 1908 during LaTouche's tenure as Acting Director in Holland's absence.

Throughout the quarter century of his letters La Touche gives us insights into the mechanics of survey work, the cost of living and the entertainments and illnesses of officers in colonial India.  He tells us little of the native population, and although several individuals feature in the pages of his diary, they are mentioned only fleetingly in his letters to his wife.

A word is needed about the methods and motivation of the geologists of India.  It must remembered that the primary mission of the Geological Survey was to find coal, and subsequently oil, to fuel the trains and ships that powered the administration.  Of secondary interest, though of no less pressing importance, was the search for ore deposits. Pure science, then as now, was greeted by the government with a disinterested yawn. Even the broad-minded Curzon saw science as merely a tool to political and economic strength. Science was tolerated because Oldham's father, Thomas Oldham, who had established the Geological Survey, had persuaded the government that it was not possible to find coal rationally until the structure and stratigraphy of India had been mapped.  Hence there was a need for scientific study of the ages of all the rock units and the production of detailed maps showing their relationships.  The awkward mix of economic motivation and scientific discovery sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of the Director who had to satisfy both.  The absence of radioactive dating methods meant that the only way to work out the arrangement of rocks, was to find index fossils, whose evolution and uniqueness provided a natural clock to reconstruct the chronology of India's geological past.  The search for these key fossils was to take up much of a geologist's time.  Where there were no fossils (igneous and metamorphic rocks) the only recourse was to find the interface between one rock unit and another, in the hope that it furnished the clue about which came first. Most of the Indian continent had been mapped by the time that La Touche arrived, and Survey Officers in the late 19th century were deployed mostly mapping the deformed sedimentary structures surrounding the Indian craton, in Baluchistan, the Himalaya, and Burma.

Tom La Touche's letters to his family prior to marriage are irregular and few have survived compared to the daily letters that started in 1891. They are written in a steady stream during his months of separation from his family in the next 20 years.  His letters contain sketches for Nancy and the children, and occasional pressed flowers. Most of the photos he mentions in his letters are missing from the files, but a few geological ones can be found in the archives of the GSI in Calcutta. Nancy's replies to Tom are full of information about the children, less legible and contain fewer insights about the Survey. With few exceptions they are not transcribed here.

LaTouche retired in 1910 seeking some kind of academic appointment in Cambridge. Nothing forthcoming he decided to follow his interests in the history of geology in India, something that he hinted at many times in his letters to Nancy. In 1915 his son Dennis was killed at the age of 20 in WW1. The details of his life with Nancy living in Hills Road, Cambridge are in the next 20 years are obscure. He maintained contact with Oldham, who in the early part of this time acted as the President of the Geological Society of London and with Oldham's support compiled a List of the Geological Literature added to the Society's Library during the years 1915-19. His tour-de-force however, during his later years was to compile four massive volumes listing all the known articles and books on the geology of India, a work that was to be published in four volumes over 21 years with a total page count exceeding 1300. The first of the volumes was a bibliography of published articles, which superceded Oldham's 1883 bibliography but far exceeded it in length. The last was a geographic index of places, coordinates and what was to be found there geologically, mineralogically or palaentologically.

Tom LaTouche died 31 March 1938 aged 82 in Cambridge, two years after Oldham, and his obituary in Q. J. Geol Soc. was written by Charles Middlemiss, who himself died in 1945.


The list is incomplete - e.g. he contemplated an article for the Asiatic Soc. Bengal on the diaries of the geologist, D. H. Williams, and he pubished an article on Indian engineering in1897.

LaTouche T. H. D., ( 1882). The Daranggiri Coal-field, Garo Hills, Assam. Rec. Geol. Surv. India,., 15, 175-178.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1883). Note on the Cretaceous coal-measures at Borsora in the Khasia Hills, near Laour in Sylhet. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 16, 164.-166.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1883). Notes on a Traverse through the Eastern Khasia, Jaintia, and North Cachar Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 16, 198-203 (Abst., Journ. I. S. Inst., XXII, 848).

LaTouche T. H. D., (1884). Report on the Langrin coal Field, SW Khasia Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 17, 143-146.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1885) Note on the coal and limestone in the Doingung River, near Gologhat, Assam. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 18, 31-32.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1885). Notes on the Geology of the Aka Hills, Assam, Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 18, 121-124.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1886). Geology of the Upper Dehing basin in the Singpho Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 19, 111-115

LaTouche T. H. D., (1887) Notes on the Geology of the Garo Hills, Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 20, 40-3.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1888). Report on the Sangar Marg and Mehowgala Coal­fields, Kashmir. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 21, 62-70

LaTouche T. H. D., (1888). Re-discovery of Nummulites in Zanskar. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 21, 160-162.

LaTouche T. H. D., (1889), On the Barisal Guns Proc. Asiatic Soc. Bengal, 111-112.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1889). Report on the Cherra-Poonjee Coal Field, in the Khasia Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 22, 167-171.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1890). Report on the Lakadong Coalfield, Jaintia Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 23, 14-17.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1890). The sapphire mines of Kashmir, Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 23, 59-69.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1890). Report on the Coal-fields of Lainmgao, Maosandram, and Mao-be-lar-kar, in the Khasi Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. , 23, 120-124

LaTouche T. H. D. (1890), On the Sounds known as the 'Barisal Guns' occuring in the Gangetic Delta. Rep. Brit. Assoc., 40, 800 (Abstract).

LaTouche T. H. D. (1891), Note on the Geology of the Lushai Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India.24, 98-99

LaTouche T. H. D. (1891),  Boring Exploration in the Daltonganj coalfield, Palamow, Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 24, 141-153

LaTouche T. H. D. (1892), Report on the Oil Springs at Moghal Kot in the Shirani Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 2, 171-175

LaTouche T. H. D. (1893). Geology of the Shirani Hills. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 26, 77-96

LaTouche T. H. D. (1893). The erosion of Rock Basins, Nature, 69, 39-41.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1894). Report on the Bhaganwala Coal Field, Salt Range, Punjab. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 27, 16-33.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1894). Report on the Experimental Boring for Petroleum at Sukkur, from October 1893 to March 1895. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 28, 55-58.

LaTouche T. H. D. (1897).  Report on the occurrence of Coal at Palana Village in Bikanir State. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 30, 122-125.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1897), The Calcutta earthquake, Nature, 56, 273-274.

LaTouche, Rev. J. D., (1897), letter from T.H.D. LaTouche: The late Earthquake in India, Nature, 56, 444-5.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1900), Preliminary Report on the Geology of the Northern Shan States. Gen. Rep. Geol. Surv. India., 1899-1900, 74-95.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1901), The growth of Calcareous Tufa in the Rivers of the Shan States, Upper Burma. Proc. Asiatic Soc. Bengal, 60-61.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1902) Geology of Rajputana. Mem. Geol. Surv. India, 35, 1-116.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1906), On Recent Changes in the Course of the Namtu River, Northern Shan States. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 33, 46-48.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1906), Note on the Natural Bridge in the Gokteik Gorge. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 33, 49-54.

LaTouche, T. H. D., & Simpson, R. R. (1906). The Lasmo Coal-field, Northern Shan States. Rec. Geol. Surv. India 32, 117-124.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1907), The mineral production of India during 1905, Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 35, 45-78.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1907),  Note on the Brine-Well at Bawgyo, Northern Shan tates. Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 35, 97-101.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1907), Report on the Gold-bearing Deposits of Loi Twang, Shan State, Burma. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 35, 102-113.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1907), On a Volcanic outburst of late Tertiary Age in south Hsenwi, Northern Shan States. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 36, 40-44.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1909),Gypsum Deposit in the Hamirpur District United Provinces. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 37, 281-285.

LaTouche, T. H. D., & Brown, J. Coggin (1909). The Silver-lead mines of Bawdwin, Northern Shan states. Rec. Geol. Surv. India 37, 235-263

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), The Journals of Major James Rennell, First Surveyor­General of India. Mem. Asiatic Soc Bengal. 3. 95-248.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), Lakes of the Salt Range in the Punjab. Rec. Geol. Surv. India, 40, 36-51.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), The mineral production of India during 1909, Rec. Geol. Surv. India. 40, 123-184.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), The history of the Geological Museum, Calcutta. Trans. Min. Geol. Inst. Ind., 5, 31-37.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), A brief account of Lonar Lake, J. Asiatic Soc Bengal. 6, Proc. cxxxvi.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910), Relics of the Great Ice age in the plains of Northern India. Geol. Mag., 7, 193-201.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1910). Mining in India, Past and Future, Rep. Ind. Indust Conf., 5, 77-85.

LaTouche, T. H. D., & Christie, W. A. K. (1912). The Geology of the Lonar Lake. With a Note on the Lonar Soda Deposit by W. A. K. Christie, Rec. Geol. Surv. India 36, 235-263.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1913). Geology of the Northern Shan States, Mem. Geol. Surv. India., 39(2), 1-379.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1917) A Bibliography of Indian Geology and Physical Geography, Geological Survey of India, Calcutta. Pt 1. pp 569.

..........Pt 2 Minerals of Economic Value pp. 348.

..........Pt.3. Palaeontological Index. pp. 414.

LaTouche, T. H. D., (1938). Geographical Index to the Memoirs volumes I-LIV, Records, I-LXV, of the Geological Survey of India and General Reports of the Director for the years 1897 to 1903., Calcutta. pp 576

LaTouche Papers, 1880-1913. The British Library India Office European Manuscripts, Mss Eur C258.

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