Ernest Westlake was born in Hampshire, England in 1855 to evangelical Quaker parents, Thomas Westlake (1826-1892) and Hannah Neave (died 1857). While remaining a faithful, if unorthodox Christian, Westlake eschewed much of his upbringing to become a scientist who believed in spiritualism and psychical phenomena and who was dedicated to the Darwinian-inspired theories of evolution. These beliefs also informed his later interests in educational reform.
Westlake studied at University College London from 1873-1875 where he was awarded certificates in geology and mathematics. While he never joined the academy and published relatively little of his work, Westlake was a skilled geologist who carried out meticulous and professional work. He was a member of the Geologists’ Association (1877), an elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (1879), a founding member of the Hampshire Field Naturalists Club (1885) and Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society (1910).
From the late 1870s Westlake studied the geological strata of Hampshire and beyond, visiting newly-made rail and road-cuttings, wells and quarries, and the cliffs of southern England, Ireland and parts of France resulting in a significant collection of fossils (many echinoids) that are held in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Some of Westlake's chalk fossils are also held in the Salisbury Museum where he was an Honorary Curator of Geology. Westlake also collected many thousands of palaeoliths and eoliths mostly in the Hampshire region, including Woodgreen and Breamore, and further afield, which are also held in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Ernest Westlake's English geological work advanced, or was referenced, by geologists including Clement Reid, William Whitaker, H. Osborne White and Jukes Browne.
Westlake’s scientific interests extended beyond geology. A founding member of the London-based Society for Psychical Research, Westlake researched phenomena of dream premonitions, haunted houses and also a history of water divining.
By the late 1880s Westlake had embraced an alternative lifestyle, travelling by a traditional horse-drawn ‘Gipsy’ caravan when collecting artefacts, becoming a keen cyclist and camper and advocating the benefits of exercise, fresh air, freer clothing and a meat-free diet. Westlake married Lucy Rutter in 1891. They had Aubrey in 1893 and Margaret in 1896. Following a slow deterioration in her health, however, Lucy died in 1901.
Four years later Westlake took cycling holiday in France with his daughter Margaret. In Aurillac, in the Cantal region, Westlake discovered a substantial deposit of eoliths: stone implements he thought were made by humans, or human ancestors, from the Miocene epoch, two million years ago. The idea of an ‘Eolithic’ epoch had first been proposed following finds of early Quaternary and Tertiary stone implements in France in the 1860s. For such scholars ‘eoliths’ revealed an important evolutionary stage in tool-making; for others they were merely broken rocks. Westlake returned to England in 1906 after unearthing about 100,000 artefacts, although French customs, concerned that he was removing the soil of their country, allowed him, as several biographers have noted, to take home about 4000 (although, according to list of his collections formed in 1923 for insurance purposes, Westlake had brought back 7000 eoliths from France. [For more information see: WEST00356 'Correspondence: French Collection 1923-1993 part 2' and WEST000040 'Notes regarding French 'eoliths' and geology' in Rebe Taylor, with Michael Jones and Gavan McCarthy, Stories in Stone: an annotated history and guide to the collections and papers of Ernest Westlake (1855-1922), The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research Centre, 2012.]
In 1908 Westlake saw a display of Tasmanian Aboriginal stone artefacts in the British Museum and was struck immediately by their similarity to his French eoliths. He was convinced that the modern (if by then widely considered ‘extinct’) Tasmanians were representative of an Eolithic stage of culture. While divided by millions of years and thousands of miles from Miocene Aurillac, Westlake believed a collection of Tasmanian artefacts would authenticate his French eoliths. Westlake was not the first or only eolithologist to see comparative similarities between European eoliths and Tasmanian stone implements, but he was the first to go to Tasmania to form his own collection, which remains the largest single collection of Tasmanian stone artefacts; a total of 13,033 (This number mostly includes the stone implements Westlake collected between 1908-1910, but it also includes the collection of J. V. Cook of Hobart, formed before Westlake went to Tasmania and as well as stone implements collected by Joseph Paxton Moir on Westlake's behalf, all of which were and sent by Paxton Moir to Westlake after his return to England [See: WEST00038, 'Correspondence from Joseph Paxton Moir to Ernest Westlake' and WEST00039, 'Correspondence concerning shipping stone tools 1912-1916 (letters from Joseph Paxton Moir included)', Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers.]
Westlake never published his Tasmanian or French findings. Deeply affected by the outbreak of War in 1914, he successfully established, with the assistance of his son, Aubrey Westlake, and the influence of Ernest Thompson Seton, an alternative and pacifist scouts' movement for girls and boys called the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry in 1916. The Order promoted an educational model that remembered the major cultural evolutionary stages of human development. It is still in existence today, and it is in fact for this achievement that Westlake is best remembered.
Westlake’s plans to return to his geological work following the Order’s establishment were abruptly ended when he died in the side car of his son’s motorcycle in Holborn, London in 1922. For details of what happened posthumously to Westlake’s French and Tasmanian collections, see the chronologies of his Tasmanian, French and Engish collections.