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James Reid-Moir, FLS, FRS. [1879-1944]

Kevin Lynch, who has undertaken research at Ipswich Record Office has this to say of James Reid-Moir, who lived in Ipswich for most of his life and is best remembered for his valuable early work on prehistory, particularly in relation to the geological deposits of East Anglia.

“I hope I am doing justice to Reid-Moir’s memory. I never miss an opportunity to sing his praises when he got things right and I am also ready to defend him where he got things wrong at a time when there were few reference books to work to. His discoveries in an entirely new science was led by pioneers like Moir, with only passion in the subject to drive them forward. He is yet to receive the proper recognition he deserves from modern pre-historians.”

Born in 1879, his father Lewis Moir, a Scot from a small area near Stonehaven, Kincardine, was from farming stock, but he decided early on that this was not the life for him. The story goes that he borrowed £20 from his mother and quite simply set off to seek his fortune. He first took work in the clothing business in London, later moving to Ipswich with his wife where he bought a gents outfitters shop in The Thoroughfare, Ipswich.

An advertisement from around 1920 for Moir’s shops in Ipswich (supplied by the author)

James joined the family firm in 1894 but in later years said “I never took to business. In my spare time I played golf and read books on travel. I became obsessed with reading all I could about Tibet for example.” At age 24 an incident took place which would change his life for ever. Whilst playing golf with a friend on Rushmere Heath, the friend picked up a barbed and tanged arrowhead that he had found in the sand of a bunker. They discussed the find and Moir decided that he must learn more of these fascinating objects, and purchased a copy of Sir John Evans The Ancient Stone Implements Weapons and Ornaments of Great Britain (The lithic collectors bible.) His searching for, and general interest in the subject became an obsession and he neglected his duties at the tailoring business.

In 1910, after spending several years searching the brick-pits and archaeological sites of the Ipswich area, Moir wrote his now famous letter to The Times, detailing his finds of humanly worked flints in the glacial deposits of Suffolk. He had previously been told that Man had not existed until after the glacial deposits had been laid down. This did not deter Moir and he attracted the attention of Benjamin Harrison, the grocer from Ightham, who had found similar artefacts in the Kent area.

It was also at this time that he engaged with several noted prehistorians such as Sir Alan Sturge, Lewis Abbott, Lt. Col. Underwood (who had moved to Ipswich), and Sir Arthur Keith. He wrote of Moir “about the time the Prehistoric Society was founded, I became interested in the study of ancient man and made the acquaintance of field geologists, among them that of Reid-Moir. Towards the end of 1911, I received a letter from him informing me that he had dispatched to the Royal College of Surgeons a solid block of sand and clay, in which the friable remains of a human skeleton were embedded. The block was dug from under the glacial boulder clay which is spread over the Ipswich plateau, but at the point where the skeleton lay was only a little over 4 feet in thickness. He called in expert geological witnesses who agreed with him that the skeleton lay under an unbroken extension of the Chalky Boulder Clay and therefore represented pre-glacial man. From the block there emerged, by skilful quarrying, the skeleton of a tall man, in a crouched posture and marked, save in a few details, with the characters of modern man. That so ancient a man should be so modern in type did not surprise either Moir or myself.
Our belief in the antiquity of modern man was founded on a discovery made at Galley Hill in 1888. There, in the 100-foot terrace of the Thames Valley, under 8 feet of apparently unbroken strata, a human skeleton was laid bare. It lay under a stratum containing palaeoliths of the ancient Chellean type and was accepted as a representative of the makers of these implements. The discovery of the modern type of man under the Chalky Boulder Clay seemed to us to be in harmony with the accepted order of things.”

There were further finds at Messrs. Bolton and Laughlin brick-pits (Dales and Broomhill areas of Ipswich) and it was at this time that his finds had come to the attention of Abbe Brueil (The Pope of Prehistory) and Marcellin Boule, the French prehistorian. Their rejection of his findings led Moir to address a letter to the Geological Museum Magazine, October 1915. He wrote “The current number of L’Anthropologie contains a paper by M. Boule entitled La Paelontologie Humaine En Angleterre, which is the most extraordinarily biased statement it has ever been my ill fortune to read.” It had come to Moir’s attention that they had expressed disbelief in the value of any of his discoveries.

Miles Burkitt came to the rescue. He had been a pupil of Abbe Brueil and invited him to view some of Moirs specimens at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge . The Abbe came, was convinced of the evidence laid before him, and announced his change of opinion at a meeting held in Liege the following year. After this, Abbe Brueil, when referring to Moir, spoke of him as “my good friend James Reid-Moir.”

In his father’s time the tailoring business had prospered but now with James neglecting it in favour of his prehistoric pursuits, it was in decline, so much so that in 1912, following a short illness, Lewis gave him notice to quit. James was distraught. How would his family survive without an income? It was here that his good friend Sir E Ray.Lankester came to his assistance. Lankester was at this time president of the Ipswich Museum and offered Moir work there, however, fate intervened and the old man died leaving the business to James.

In order to spend time away from tailoring, James re-structured the business by converting it to a limited company and to that end Alston and Moir Ltd was born. Moir now threw himself into his chosen occupation of Anthropology/Archaeology, writing several books and papers including The Antiquity of Man in East Anglia, The Great Flint Implements of Cromer, Norfolk, and Pre-Palaeolithic Man. However the business continued in decline and eventually ceased trading on 1st November 1931.

Reid-Moir shortly before his death

Moir died on 24th February 1944 from coronary thrombosis. He was in his sixty-fifth year.

During his lifetime he had written some 300 papers, letters, books etc, he had become a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Anthropological Society, President of Ipswich Museum, and President and co-founder of the Prehistoric Society of Great Britain.