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November-December 2016

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In Memoriam: Robert “Bob” Frederick Symes OBE (1939–2016)

Robert Frederick Symes, known universally as Bob, has been a prominent figure in British mineralogy and geology for about fifty years. I first met Bob in 1982 when he came to stay at our home in Dudley as a guest speaker to the West Midlands Mineral and Gemstone Society, of which I was then secretary.

Bob was born on 10 February 1939 in Harrow, London, and grew up in Eastcote, Pinner. His father was a self-employed builder in Chelsea, and his parents were both born in Chelsea.

After finishing his school studies, Bob joined the staff of the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington on 1 October 1957, as assistant scientific officer. He attended evening classes and worked his way up, via part-time studies at Birkbeck College of the University of London, and gaining his BSc in geology. Bob completed his National Service in the Royal Airforce in 1959–1961, during which time a serendipitous posting to Weston Super Mare enabled him to explore the geology and minerals of the Mendip Hills, an area that became of intense interest to him.

One of his early career tasks, which no doubted sparked his detailed interest in Sir Arthur Russell, was to be dispatched to Swallowfield Park near Reading in 1964, with his colleague the late John Fuller, to pack up Sir Arthur's fine collection of minerals and bring it to the museum.

During his years at the Natural History Museum (NHM), Bob was an early adopter of new technology and was largely responsible for bringing the first electron microprobes to the museum. He was awarded a PhD in 1981 for his research on the orbicular rocks of the Channel Islands, supervised by Clive Bishop of the NHM under the auspices of Queen Mary College (Symes 1981). This program of work, and the seemingly endless analysis of two unknown phases (popularly known as “Red X” and “Yellow Y”) from Merehead quarry, took up much of his time. Eventually, with the assistance of collaborators, these phases were characterized as the new minerals parkinsonite and mereheadite (Symes and Embrey 1977).

Through the years, Bob developed a global network of contacts in the mineral world and became a popular and well-respected scientist and curator. His work in the Mendips, and at Merehead quarry in particular, was honored by the naming of a pink oxychloride from the Torr Works (formerly Merehead quarry) as symesite in 2000 (Welch et al. 2000).

In addition to his research and curatorial activities, Bob was instrumental in bringing a traveling display of minerals called the Rock Festival, arranged by Hubert Bari, to the NHM from July 1989 to January 1990, and he also guided through the new exhibitions in the Earth Galleries (formerly the Geological Museum). The NHM played host to the inaugural Mineralogy and Museums Conference, held at the NHM in July 1988, and Bob was at the forefront of organizing the event and chaperoning the many delegates from around the world. The event was a great success and continues to run every four years. He had a genuine love of minerals and would extol, at length, the virtues of “our wonderful calcites and fluorites” to anyone who would listen. He was Keeper of Mineralogy from 1995 until his retirement in 1996, having played a prestigious role in the museum world, and following in the footsteps of such famous names as Prior, Spencer, (Herbert) Smith, and Claringbull. It was announced in the New Year Honors list, on 30 December 1995, that Bob was to be awarded the OBE for services to the museum and the science of mineralogy. (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is the “order of chivalry of British constitutional monarchy” awarded for having a major local role in any activity, including people whose work has made them known nationally in their chosen area.)

Bob met his future wife, Carol, in 1961, and they were married in 1965. Some years ago he inherited an orchard at Broadclyst in Devon (it had been in the family since 1750). Bob hoped one day to retire there, and he and Carol moved to the pleasant seaside town of Sidmouth in Devon in 1999. Here, Bob found a new career at the Sidmouth Museum, serving as honorary curator from 2001 to 2015. In September 2016, a ceremony at the museum saw the former “Land and Man Room,” which contains geology and archaeology items, formally renamed “The Dr Bob Symes OBE Room” in recognition of Bob's tireless efforts to support and develop the museum during his tenure as curator.

Outside of his professional life Bob was an energetic and popular participant in the world of the amateur geologist and mineralogist. His passion for his subject was infectious, and he was in constant demand as a speaker at local clubs and societies. Three of his most popular talks—delivered many, many times, in slightly different formats to audiences across the nation—were on the minerals of the Mendips, Cornwall and Devon, and Sir Arthur Russell.

Perhaps closest to his heart was the Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society that he helped to establish in 1973. Bob had been an extramural lecturer for London University for about ten years and was asked to do two evening classes in Harrow and Uxbridge. Some of his students decided that it would be a good idea to form a society, and Bob had a major hand in bringing this about. It was originally called the Harrow and Ruislip Geological Society but later changed its name to Harrow and Hillingdon. The group celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2008 with a memorable field excursion to the Massif Central in France to explore meteor crash sites and the volcanic rocks of the region.

He served as president of the Russell Society (the leading British society for professional and amateur mineralogists/collectors) from 1989 to 1993 and was constantly encouraging and keen to drive up membership numbers, something that he did to dramatic effect during his presidency. He became firm friends with many members and also acted as auctioneer at the society's benefit auction at the annual general meeting. Bob was elected president of the Geologists' Association (1996–1998) and set about raising standards and succeeded in increasing membership numbers to approximately 2,400. His management style was gentle and persuasive, but gradually he initiated a complete overhaul of the society. In 2009 Bob was invited to join the committee of the History of Geology Group, and he became a vice chairman in 2012, serving until 2014 when he stood down due to poor health.

Bob was involved in numerous local organizations and also served as a member of the council of Exeter University for five years, as a trustee of Camborne School of Mines for many years, and as chairman, and subsequently president, of Sidmouth National Trust.

Bob was a prolific author. I suspect that the work of which he was most proud was Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, coauthored with Peter Embrey (Embrey and Symes 1987), which set the standard for an occasional series of topographical mineralogy works in the same style, progressively covering different regions of Great Britain.

A great family man, Bob was immensely proud of his two daughters, Catherine and Victoria; his devoted wife, Carol; grandchildren Maisie, Olivia, Martha, and Gabriel; and sons-in-law Stas and Matthew. Our condolences go to all of them.

A true gentleman and a great ambassador for mineralogy, Bob always had time for everyone and was interested to know all the latest news and finds. Bob passed away on 23 May, with Carol and his daughters at his side. He is sadly missed by all who knew him, but his memory lives on in the organizations he supported, his legacy of published work, and in the local museum he did so much to inspire and develop.


Embrey, P. G., and R. F. Symes. 1987. Minerals of Cornwall and Devon. London, England: British Museum (Natural History); Tucson, AZ: Mineralogical Record, Inc.

Symes, R. F. 1981. The central diorite of Alderney, Channel Islands, and the associated orbicular rocks. PhD thesis, Queen Mary College, University of London (unpublished).

Symes, R. F., and P. G. Embrey. 1977. Mendipite and other rare oxychloride minerals from the Mendip Hills, Somerset, England. Mineralogical Record 8:298–303.

Symes, R. F., and B. Young. 2008. Minerals of Northern England. Edinburgh, Scotland: National Museums; London, England: Natural History Museum.

Welch, M. D., M. A. Cooper, F. C. Hawthorne, and A. J. Criddle. 2000. Symesite, Pb10(SO4)O7Cl4·(H2O), a new PbO-related sheet mineral: Description and crystal structure. American Mineralogist 85:1526–33.

Roy Starkey is a keen British amateur mineralogist and collector specializing in the minerals of Scotland. He is the author of Crystal Mountains—Minerals of the Cairngorms, published in 2014, and was elected to the Micromounters' Hall of Fame in 2004.       

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