‘MEMOIRS OF WILLIAM SMITH Ll.D.’ by John Phillips FRS, FGS

7 June 2003
The Institution possesses one of the 500 original copies of this book, published in 1844. Because of its historic interest it was decided to produce a limited edition reprint, bound with an introductory essay by Professor Hugh Torrens commenting on Phillip’s Memoirs and William Smith’s work around Bath, and a copy of his Millennium Lecture on Smith’s life and work to the Geological Society of London. (1)

This book was launched on the 250th Anniversary of the establishment of the British Museum on the 7th of June, 1753, to associate it with that institution, which bought William Smith’s collection of fossils from him and to call attention to the BRLSI’s wonderful collections. (2)

The Chairman of Trustees of the Institution, Mrs. N. Catchpole, OBE, welcomed speakers and guests, noting that some guests, including one of the speakers, had been instrumental in the revival of the Institution ten years or more before and that others had rescued and preserved books from original collections, collectively enabling this event to be celebrated. The new edition was augmented by Professor Hugh Torrens, the leading expert on the work of William Smith, together with a reprint of his year 2000 lecture on Smith and an index, for which many thanks were expressed. Several others who were involved in the preparation and production of the revised edition and an accompanying exhibition elsewhere on the premises were also thanked.

 

Dr Cherry Lewis, of the University of Bristol, a Trustee introduced the first speaker. Dr Robert Anderson, after a long and distinguished career, was Director of the British Museum for ten years, a post from which he had recently retired. Dr Lewis noted that that Museum resulted from the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who died in January 1753, leaving many objects, a library and herbarium to the nation. This enabled the British Museum to be established on 7th June, 1753. Later, William Smith was forced to sell his collection of fossils to the Museum.

 

Dr Anderson spoke on ‘Collections, their uses and their cultural significance’.

Despite limited support by governments the British Museum continues to pursue the purposes for which it was set up in 1753, when encyclopaedias were being created and exploration was extending knowledge of peoples and practices around the world. Sir Hans Sloane was a true Enlightenment figure – an Ulsterman who had trained as a doctor, who then became an addicted collector and successor to Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society in 1727. Beginning with an interest in the flora and fauna of the West Indies, which arose from his post there in the 1680s, he devised a method of processing the cocoa bean, so that, with milk, it made a palatable drink. The resulting commercial success of ‘chocolate houses’ is said to have provided his fortune, which enabled him to collect widely. When he died in 1753, Sloane left around 50,000 books, 350 volumes of drawings (including many by Durer), 3,500 manuscripts, 32,000 coins, 6,000 shells, 2,275 minerals and over 2,000 miscellaneous objects (including archaeological materials, paintings and antiquities). Thus, his interests had embraced both sciences and arts.

When Sloane left his collection to the nation for a sum of £20,000, the King referred the payment to Parliament, which arranged a lottery that raised (despite some criminal depredation) around £95,000 – a significant sum then – which enabled the founding of the British Museum. The trustees bought Montague House (a mansion house designed by Robert Hooke of the Royal Society), sited near to the (then) villages of Highgate and Hampstead. In January 1759 the Museum opened as ‘the Universal Museum’, showing collections from all over the known world. Later the Museum spawned many offshoots of more specialised collections, such as the National Gallery in the 1820s. Fifty years later came the National Portrait Gallery and then in 1880 the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road. In 1973 the British Library was created.

The 1753 Act required the British Museum to provide services ‘for the general use and benefit of the public’ (as well as for the learned and curious), but its early history found it regarded as an enclave for the leisured and wealthy only, despite some records of visitations by some ‘mechanics and servants’. When a proposal to introduce charges was made in 1784, a commentator then remarked on that observed imbalance. In the Victorian age, when travel and literature became cheaper and more widespread, exhibitions and museums became more generally visited. The 1851 Great Exhibition attracted over 6,000,000 visitors in 5 months, representing one visit for every three members of the population at that time.

The speaker is currently studying the history of collections with special reference to the working classes. He suggests that 18th century itinerant speakers with a cart of objects about which they discoursed, and fairground demonstrators etc. should be seen as early forms of museum, as should the literary and scientific societies and ‘mechanics institutes’ of the 19th century (over 1,000 of which existed in 1848, catering for over 400,000 people). When the maintenance of collections became too costly, workers’ participation was reduced, but libraries and reading rooms often remained for their use. Evidence for such a wide range of activities over the centuries is now sparse, but sought by scholars. Another 1753 requirement that collections should be ‘preserved entire’ is also still followed, where possible, although many have been lost or dispersed. Dr Anderson concluded his talk by declaring that "if the 18th century was the age of curiosity and classification, the 19th century was the heroic age of museums" (which included artisan meetings in public houses as well as institutions and private collections). By the mid-19th century ‘lectures to working men’ had proliferated and were enthusiastically attended by them.

Dr Lewis then introduced Professor Torrens, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology at the University of Keele, author of over 200 books, papers and articles on many subjects, recent recipient of an award from the Geological Society of America for his outstanding contributions to the history of geology, and the recognised world authority on the life and work of William Smith.

Professor Torrens spoke on ‘Bath as a cradle of geology’.

He noted that Smith came to north Somerset in 1791 and stayed for 12 years, advancing stratigraphic geology. At that time visitors to Bath often stayed for a short time, for medical services and social intercourse, but an illustration of an advertisement of 1819 for ‘shells, fossils and minerals’, issued by a local bookbinder, indicates how other interests were satisfied. In 1827 Joseph Hunter, a Dissenter clergyman at Trim Street Chapel, named Bath ‘the cradle of English geology’. Recognition of the economic significance of strata, however, was neither initiated by William Smith nor was it ended with his death. John Strachey, a local landowner, had produced a diagram in 1719, which attempted a description of local stratification principles, to be followed by a book in 1727. Pictures of the cranes for excavations at Ralph Allen’s quarries of Bath stone, which may later have inspired Stothert & Pitt to begin manufacture of cranes, were shown and for his tram road. That local geological curiosity was evident was indicated by the inclusion in portraits and advertisements of ‘shells, fossils and curiosities’. In 1764 John Player, a Quaker Gloucestershire farmer, published a letter to the editor of a magazine forecasting that ‘tokens of coal on an estate’ would become of increasing importance, which (bearing in mind the advent of the Industrial Revolution) indicated also both an understanding of strata and how their order might be investigated. (By 1801 two of Smith’s friends knew of his manuscript account and one commented to Player that earlier publication might have encouraged others to pursue similar studies. His manuscript was received by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in 1860, but has since apparently disappeared.) In 1791 Erasmus Darwin published a ‘supposed section of the earth in regard to the disposition of the strata’, which Smith was later to order.

The first real book on Bath geology (currently on display at the Institution) is that of John Walcott, another Dissenter, published in 1779. This sold locally in the main, but it faithfully illustrated local fossil discoveries, even showing some of their internal structures. In the same year the first Bath Philosophical Society was formed when Thomas Curtis of south Gloucestershire suggested its formation to Edmund Rack, a Quaker who had previously founded the Bath and West Agricultural Society (which still flourishes). The ‘Rules’ of that Society were shown. After Curtis died in 1784 and then Rack in 1787 that Society ended. During its lifetime, however, Rack’s intention to publish a history of Somerset led to him actively gathering geological data. After his death John Collinson, clergyman, carried on Rack’s history project but he was less interested in geology. A member of the Society, Dr.Caleb Hillier Parry FRS, attempted a book on Gloucestershire fossils, but it was never published.

Smith’s great achievement was to unify geological order – a task of considerable difficulty, similar to that which is involved in indexing a book prior to the ordering of the alphabet. Born in 1769, he arrived in Bath in 1791 and was then employed in surveying estates and mines in Somerset. When surveying for a new canal, the Somerset Coal Canal, he was fortunate in that its two branches were nearly parallel, enabling comparisons to be made when both branches were under construction. By using identified fossils as aids in comparing strata, Smith was able by 1796 to determine the order of Bath strata, reflecting well on the work of some earlier writers such as Strachey and Walcott. Smith provided a coloured map and declared the order of strata as manuscript in 1799. Copies were then given to William James, the railway pioneer, and to the Quaker iron-master William Reynolds, among many others. Smith’s attempt to publish his ‘Accurate Delineations of the Natural Order of the Strata’ himself, through the publisher John Debrett, failed when Debrett suffered double bankruptcy. Smith might have profited if he had retained his knowledge but instead he freely provided his results to many people at agricultural meetings around the country, also enlightening his pupils. His discoveries in Bath (including those made when prospecting for the Batheaston mine, which failed) resulted in the ordering of fossils and strata, which in turn promoted the finding of useful minerals. Just as commercially important was the outcome that Smith was able authoritatively to advise others that attempts to find coal in certain places (e.g. at Bruton and near Oxford) could not succeed.

His map was published in 1815 and ‘Strata Identified’ in 1816/1819, but few copies were sold. Smith was then forced to sell his fine collection of fossils between 1815 and 1818 to the British Museum for only £600, whereas a mineral collection had just been bought from Charles Greville by the Museum for £10,000. Smith influenced many contemporaries in and around Bath, however. The Rev. Benjamin Richardson, who had so helped Smith, gave a collection to this Institution which is now apparently lost – although one stolen item has been retrieved from a Glasgow museum through the speaker. The Rev. Joseph Townsend, a dissenting Anglican minister, published a book, dedicated to Smith, in Bath in 1813. Richard Warner, vicar of St. James, who published a history of Bath in 1801, which contained a fossilogical map, and other books, owned fossils placed by Smith in stratigraphic order. Smith’s influence spread far and wide; Henry Steinhauer, a Bath-based Moravian missionary who moved to America in 1815, left his collection to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences Museum when he died in 1818. Etheldred Bennett, ‘the first lady geologist’, who lived in Warminster, also gave her collection to the Philadelphia Museum. Smith’s Bathonian and Callovian (Wiltshire) rocks can now themselves be related to rocks world-wide – areas of Iran and Greenland were mentioned.

In the concluding section of his talk, Professor Torrens commented on the relationships between its collections and the history of the Institution. Charles Hunnings Wilkinson, who founded the third Bath Philosophical Society, owned a hot bath, where he gave lectures and displayed his collection of ordered fossils to visitors. Then, in 1819 a fourth Bath Philosophical Society was planned – which eventually became the present Institution. In 1820 Hastings Elwin urged its creation to Bathonians (and to install the Casali paintings there, which now are shortly to be restored to the present site of the Institution). Donors at its opening in 1825 included Smith’s friend Benjamin Richardson and other friends, including William Lonsdale, the first curator, who subsequently became the first curator of the Geological Society of London. The establishment of the museum of the Institution was supported by two wealthy brothers, John and Philip Duncan, keepers of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Another supporter was Sir Roderick Murchison. Many collections with links to Bath still survive including that of Charles Moore of Ilminster, a bookseller, who moved to Bath and was an active collector from 1853. Some of his collection is now in Cardiff. In 1855 Albert Oppel from Stuttgart wrote of this collection of fossils with mention of his viewing of Bath sites with Charles Moore. In the late 19th century George Norman, a surgeon, was curator at the Institution and creator of the Duncan collection of local animals, while Henry Winwood, a clergyman, was the geology curator. Later there were various problems and a shift of site for the Institution, but the present reincarnation is now established.

Professor Torrens stressed that while few local universities are likely to require access to the Institution’s collection of fossils, since they do not teach such subjects, their existence was of world-wide significance because of Bath’s role as the ‘cradle’ of stratigraphy. Survival of even fragmentary collections of this nature is now very rare and their careful preservation and use are essential for scholars world-wide. He concluded "All museums all round the world are full of Smith’s achievement."

During the question period following the talks, members of the audience commented favourably upon the two pleas expressed by Professor Torrens – for pamphlets on key figures and for the development of a ‘trail’ round Bath sites associated with Smith and those involved in his work.

The Chairman of Trustees, in her remarks of appreciation for the contributions of the two eminent speakers, drew attention to the current exhibition at the Institution and promised that the proposals made by Professor Torrens would be explored.

Geoffrey Catchpole

(1) ‘TIMELESS ORDER: William Smith (1769 – 1839) and the search for raw materials’ read on 28 June 2000. First published in Lewis CLE & Knell SJ (eds.) The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to 2002 AD. Geological Society of London Special Publication 190, 61-83. (2001).

(2) Newspaper report 29 June 1929: Historic Bath Institution – "The Finest Geological Museum outside London"

Bibliography

In addition to the references in the Memoirs the following are of interest:

RJG Savage (ed.) 1977 Geological Excursions in the Bristol District Bristol Univ. (ISBN 0-901239-22-4) Chapter 13 pp 133-139 gives an itinerary of William Smith localities around Bath.

CJT Copp, MA Taylor & JC Thackray, 2000. Charles Moore (1814-1881) Somerset Geologist. Procs. of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, vol. 140, pp1-36.

HS Torrens, E, Benamy, EB Daeschler, ES Spamer & A Bogan 2000. Etheldred Benett of Wiltshire, England, the first lady geologist – her fossil collection in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the rediscovery of ‘lost’ specimens of Jurassic Triigoniidae (Mollusca: Bivalvia) with their soft anatomy preserved. Procs. of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, volume 150, pp 59-123 .