Cole, William Willoughby (1807–86), 3rd earl of Enniskillen and amateur geologist, was born 25 January 1807 at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, the country seat of the earls of Enniskillen. Cole was the eldest of three sons of the 2nd earl and his wife Charlotte, daughter of Henry Paget, 1st earl of Uxbridge. He was educated at Harrow School and Christ Church, Oxford, which he entered in 1826 at the age of 19. Here he enrolled in the classes of William Buckland, first professor of geology at the university. Buckland, an eccentric but talented teacher, inspired Cole with an enduring passion for the study of fossils. At college Cole met another young aristocrat and fellow student, Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton, and the two became lifelong friends and later collaborators in collecting fossil fish, for which both became famous.
Cole and Egerton made their first foreign journey in the summer of 1830, when they travelled through Europe on a geological grand tour. Thus they met, in a Munich museum, the naturalist Louis Agassiz, who was to influence profoundly the future course of their geological researches. Agassiz was attempting to make a classification of the fishes and suggested that they could help by collecting fossil fish. The pair, realising that this was a new field of research, henceforth made this their main scientific pursuit. They journeyed further, into northern Italy, collecting from the famous fossil-fish localities of the region, and began the practice of sharing between them the halves of fossil fish obtained when splitting a specimen down the middle. They returned home later that year, laden with some of the finest fossil fish that could be found in Europe.
Viscount Cole was a convivial man who enjoyed good company. In 1828, at the age of 21, he had joined the Geological Society of London, where he met the leading geologists of his day, playing host to them at his London rooms. They learned of his ambition to form a comprehensive collection of fossil fish and frequently helped to obtain for him rare or newly discovered examples. For his part, Cole never let slip any opportunity to secure a new specimen, and he used all his charm and persistence to obtain what he wanted by purchase, exchange, or unashamed begging from friends. By the late 1830s he had many hundreds of fossil fish arranged in his private museum at Florence Court – in a pavilion in one of the flanking wings to the main house. He inserted a window in the roof for illumination and lined the walls with cases to display his treasures. Leading geologists, including Agassiz, journeyed to Florence Court to study them. The collection, which eventually numbered nearly 10,000 individual specimens, remains one of the largest and scientifically most important collections of fossil fish ever assembled.
Cole was MP for Co. Fermanagh 1831–40, sitting in the house of lords after becoming 3rd earl of Enniskillen in 1840 on the death of his father. He was an FRS and MRIA, and received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Dublin, and Durham. He supported the protestant cause and was an enthusiastic Orangeman. For many years he was the grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and was the first imperial grand master of the order worldwide (1866). His Orange connections brought him controversy and danger. In 1854 he suffered a broken leg when Ribbonmen (members of a Roman Catholic agrarian organisation) derailed the train in which he was leading an Orange excursion.
In his last years, Lord Enniskillen became blind and he lived quietly at Florence Court. In 1883 he sold his fossil fish collection for £3,500 to the British Museum in London, where it was arranged in the newly opened Natural History building in South Kensington. Here it was arranged alongside the collection of his old friend Sir Philip Egerton, who had died a few years earlier. Lord Enniskillen himself died shortly after at the age of 79, on 12 November 1886, and was buried in the family vault in St Macartan's cathedral, Enniskillen. At the age of 37 he married (1844) Jane Casamaijor (1815–55), who had been born in India to a family with European aristocratic connections. He married secondly (1865) Mary Emma Brodrick, daughter of the 6th Viscount Midleton. There were seven children of the first marriage.
Apart from a catalogue of his museum, Lord Enniskillen published nothing on his scientific work. His contribution to science was his collection and his generosity in allowing others to use it. At Florence Court, later a National Trust property, there is a bust and several small portraits of the earl, but his scientific library has been sold and dispersed and there is nothing left to remind visitors of the 3rd earl of Enniskillen's remarkable contribution to palaeontology.