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!