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Bankruptcy, rivalry & brain-boggling detail: Meet William Smith, father of English geology

Posted on 28 Oct 2020

Thames & Hudson Associate Editor Phoebe Lindsley recently spoke to Professor Paul Smith, Director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History about William Smith, the pioneering geologist whose remarkable work is finally getting the spotlight it deserves. In this interview, Phoebe and Paul chat about the ‘brain-boggling’ detail in Smith’s maps, how this underdog helped spark the Industrial Revolution, and what geology has to do with black forest gateau.

Detail of ‘A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with Part of Scotland’, William Smith, 1815. William Smith’s seminal 1815 map, coloured to indicate Britain’s geological strata. This particular print of the map, from Oxford University Museum of Natural History, is one of the finest examples, and dates from 23 February 1816. © University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.

STRATA: William Smith’s Geological Maps was conceived during a time before COVID-19, when visiting museums and poking around in archives was still possible. Whilst visiting the William Smith archive at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in preparation for making the book, we were told that the story that William Smith – the ‘Father of English Geology’ and hero of our book – had been overlooked in life in favour of his well-born rivals and that his archive had been forgotten in death, only recently rediscovered and re-appraised as scholars came to learn the true value of his achievements.

Created in collaboration with Oxford University Museum of Natural History and showcasing the best of William Smith’s archive, STRATA traces the life of William Smith from apprentice surveyor to accepted member of the scientific elite, telling his story through the papers and maps that he left behind. His ambitious 1815 map of England, Wales and parts of Scotland was the first map to represent geological time and effectively founded the modern discipline of geology. To create the book, each individual sheet of the map – part of the museum collection and currently bound in a book – was digitally restored and painstakingly stitched together to showcase its vivid colours and precise details.

I spoke with Director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Professor Paul Smith, to get the inside story of the re-discovery of William Smith’s archive and the importance of his work in understanding the world beneath our feet.

‘A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with Part of Scotland’, William Smith, 1815. © University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Phoebe Lindsley: When I arrived at the Museum to explore the William Smith archive, I was told that the collection had been lost for a number of years and then rediscovered in an attic. So I suppose the first question I have is: to what extent is the story of the archive discovered in the attic true? How did the Smith archive end up within the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s collection?

Paul Smith: Sadly the attic story is probably an exaggeration, but I can give a summary. Smith was a self-trained geologist, his profession was originally a canal surveyor. He taught himself to make geological maps, which is what STRATA is about. In doing so he took on as an assistant his orphaned nephew, John Phillips, who ended up becoming a serial museum creator: he created the Yorkshire Museum in York; he was instrumental in setting up the Museum of Geology at Trinity College Dublin; he worked at the museum of practical geology, which was then part of the geological survey in London; and then he got the post to come to Oxford as Reader of Geology and to set up the new University Museum of natural history.

John’s uncle, our map-maker William Smith, had died in 1839. The history of Smith is that he created the 1815 map, he went bankrupt, he went to debtors’ prison, and then he and his family – including John Phillips – fled London after he had been released and eventually set themselves up in Yorkshire, in Scarborough. Phillips was therefore deeply involved in the later stage of Smith’s life. When Smith died, I presume that Phillips would have had Smith’s archive. We think he brought that with him to Oxford, so it would have entered the museum at the same time that Phillips did.

PL: So it has been part of the archive for the whole entirety of the museum’s existence?

PS: Exactly. Phillips came to Oxford in 1853 and the museum opened in 1860; he was the first keeper of the museum. So, the archive has always been in the museum. Philips died in 1874. In fact, he actually had a great Oxford academic’s death – he fell down the stairs of All Souls College after a feast, never recovered and died the following day. If any Oxford academic imagines a way to go, then that is probably it. After he died my hunch is that the archive probably ended up in a cupboard somewhere and, as Smith wasn’t such a big name, and his contribution was not lionised in the same way that it is now, I suspect that the collection was forgotten about. I always hesitate about the ‘found in an attic’ story as actually most of our store rooms are in the attic.

PL: So when was it rediscovered?

PS: I don’t know. I sort of doubt that it was ever really lost. I know there is a very extensive trope of things being found in dusty museums. But actually, it is one we try to avoid and rather we think of it as being looked after, waiting for somebody to get interested.

General map of strata in England and Wales, 1801. © University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.

PL: There are so many of these stories of new copies of William Smith’s 1815 map being discovered, hidden inside something else, or found rolled up in a tube, perhaps these stories have attached themselves to his archive as well?

PS: Well that is absolutely true, I did my first degree at Leicester and my tutor at Leicester had his own copy of the 1815 map. He had been asked to clean out somebody’s house after the owner – who had been an amateur geologist – had died and there sitting amongst his collection was an original Smith map!

PL: We have covered John Phillips’ connection to the museum, but where does William Smith fit into the history of the museum and how important are his discoveries to the history of science?

PS: Smith’s work is now recognised as being seminal. It is not just that he learnt how to make geological maps – he really put in place the underpinnings of modern geology.

People made geological maps before Smith, but they usually showed far less information than Smith’s maps. Say someone was mapping out the distribution of sandstone versus limestone, where they just mapped out the rock types. If there was sandstone of one age and a sandstone of another age, by and large they would just show a big section of the same rock type. What Smith realised was that by using fossils you can recognise unique units of rock that were time-limited, so you could map geological time in a way that no one else had been able to do. That was his real contribution.

Smith had collected fossils in the Cotswolds extensively as a child and he recognised those same fossils when he began surveying the canals, from the Somerset coal fields on towards the Kennet and Avon canal. He was able to recognise individual strata, individual time units of rock – we call them formations – by two things: the lithology, or rock type, and its fossil content, which gave the age. The finished map shows that he realised that he could map these things out spatially. The interest for him as a canal surveyor was that it was a more efficient and economical way of laying a canal because he could follow a natural horizontal terrace in the landscape that was created by the geology. If they could plan a canal in a horizontal, clay-rich horizon they wouldn’t have to puddle or waterproof the canal, there would be fewer locks needed to construct it, and so they could save lots of money.

The 1815 map was a real scientific advance that had very significant practical applications and so in a time when we used to assume that the UK was paramount in the world he was called the ‘Father of Geology’, then he was known as the ‘Father of British Geology’ or as the ‘Father of English Geology’. Actually, it is an international contribution that he made. So, having his archive – the principal archive – in Oxford is a really significant resource and there is always someone researching some different aspect of it.

Fossils found in oak tree clay. Strata identified by organised fossils: containing prints on coloured paper of the most characteristic specimens each stratum, William Smith Printed by W. Arding, London 1816.

PL: I remember when we were first putting the book together and we were trying to think of the ways to show the amount of different strata in each geographical area, I realised that the map is effectively a 3D map, showing not just the type of rock there, but also, through the coloured shading, the depth and the age of that rock simultaneously. Your brain boggles at how they managed to achieve that level of complexity in 1815.

PS: Yes, and that was all Smith’s invention. One of the ways he depicted the three- dimensionality of the strata in his maps was partly through the graphical techniques that he employed of making the colour of the strata darker at the base of the geological unit. He also took an old mining technique of creating what we call vertical sections, which are like a knife slicing through a cake, but instead of slicing through your black forest gateau you are slicing through the earth’s crust to see the layers of rock underneath the surface.

Another of Smith’s seminal contributions was a horizontal cross section across the country from Snowdon to London, which goes through Oxford, originally published in 1817. This cross section is reproduced beautifully in the book. One of his other contributions that is often overlooked is the tabulation of the strata of Britain, formally called his Geological Table of British Organised Fossils. That is where he summarises how you can combine the rock type and the fossils to create what he formally called a ‘chrono-stratigraphic unit’, that is, a unit of geological time.

Rock strata displayed in geological section from London to Snowdon. © University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.

PL: Does the archive give an insight into how the 1815 map was made? You have hinted that it does with the various horizontal and vertical sections.

PS: It really does. My hunch is that Smith was a bit of an obsessive. We have his diaries, and everything is in them. He was recording how far he was walking, how far he was travelling on horseback, how far he was travelling by carriage, where he was staying and what his laundry list was – they are really complete diaries. There is not much personal detail, but lots of factual detail. It has not really been studied in depth; it would actually be a really interesting PhD. One could construct from these diaries his day-to-day activity, showing him moving around the country. Within the archive there is a huge amount of detail, which is quite unusual for that period. It’s not just about his conclusions, but how he worked and how he came to those conclusions.

PL: I suppose one of the biggest differences between Smith and his rival map-maker George Bellas Greenough is that Smith actually travelled around the UK; he didn’t send other people out to complete surveys for him.

PS: Yes, he did a lot of the surveying for the map on foot. Smith and Phillips tramped the country and Greenough really did it by synthesis and some would say plagiarism.

PL: One of the conclusions of STRATA is that Smith’s work is incredibly important in capturing the moment at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He marks all the mines, canals and early railways on the maps, and it is this kind of knowledge of the ground beneath us and the minerals contained within it that helped Britain kickstart the Industrial Revolution. However, Smith is not very well known to the general public today. Do you think that Smith has been forgotten? Do you think that there has been a scholarly re-appraisal of Smith and do you think he should be taught in schools today?

PS: Well I think geology should be taught more in schools today! I think there are probably two answers to that question. One is that geology is a slightly overlooked science in a UK context. Of all the people working at that time, we know the work of Victorian physicists and Victorian chemists but not Victorian geologists.

PL: That is true, you learn about Faraday, you learn about Darwin, but you don’t learn about geologists’ contribution to understanding the world around us.

PS: Yes exactly. I think that the other factor is that science was a very upper middle-class pursuit. And Smith was definitely not of the upper middle classes. He had a very humble background; he was the son of a blacksmith and there is evidence that he was not accepted as a member of the Establishment. And the Establishment writes the history books.

PL: I think one of the most moving parts of book is John Phillips’ dedication of his book to William Smith, which is printed in the conclusion of STRATA. It is so moving because I feel that Phillips managed to achieve the things that Smith could never have done because of his class and background.

PS: I was going to say exactly that. It is that second generation thing, that John Phillips becomes the member of the Establishment that Smith was not able to be. Everything about Phillips ­–  not perhaps his origins but everything after that – marks him as part of the Establishment. By the end of his career he is a member of the Royal Society, he has had a professorship in London, he has had a professorship in Dublin and he has one in Oxford. He has founded museums all over the place, he founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he was President of the Geological Society. Phillips had Establishment stamped on his forehead, but that was never open to Smith, even though he paved the way for Phillips to get there. I think that partly explains why William Smith has been overlooked for so long ­ – at least until this book! The book is absolutely beautiful. We have been meaning to create the definitive work on Smith for so long, and this really does the man justice.

PL: So, to my last question: what is your favourite item in the Smith archive? I know it contains William Smith’s poetry, his sketches, even his caricatures! Do you have a favourite?

PS: It has to be that moment of creation in the circular map of the district around Bath (1799). That is the moment when time-based geological maps come into existence, and we have been doing that ever since. I have done that in my own work down the coasts of Greenland. That is the geological equivalent of an apple falling from the tree onto Smith’s head!

William Smith’s early manuscript map of Bath district from around 1800 shows the outline of the Oolitic Limestone with the colour yellow. © University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.

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William Smith’s Geological Maps Robert Macfarlane