William Smith: Father of English Geology

William Smith (1769-1839) was born in the village of Churchill in Oxfordshire, on 23rd March 1769, and was the eldest son of a blacksmith, who died when William was quite young. Smith attended the village school, where he obtained only a rudimentary education, but he had an enquiring mind and took note of everything he observed in the countryside in which he lived, especially the geology.

William Smith (picture: Wikipedia)

In 1787, at the age of eighteen, Smith was taken into the family of Edward Webb, a surveyor of Stow-on-the-Wold, and became assistant to him. Webb was impressed by his young assistant and gave him a great deal of encouragement. Whilst employed by Webb, Smith travelled around the countryside and was constantly adding to his knowledge of geology. Four years later, in 1791, Webb transferred to Smith the survey of an estate at Stowey in Somersetshire, and thus, eventually, he came to live and work in the Bath area.

It was at this period of time that projects for new canals were in progress and soon William Smith was to be involved in the construction of a canal near Bath, of which, today, few traces can be seen. This was the Somerset Coal Canal and it was to join up with the Kennet and Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke near Bath, and served the various collieries south-west of the city.

In 1793 Smith was engaged by John Rennie (who had already constructed many canals and was engineer for the Kennet and Avon Canal) to execute surveys and a complete system of levelling for the proposed canal. Whilst engaged in carrying out this work between High Littleton (where he lived from 1792 to 1795) and Bath, Smith noted the regular succession of the rock strata.

He went on a tour of England with two members of the Canal Company, Richard Perkins and Sambourne Palmer, to investigate work already being done on other canals, etc., and this enabled him to extend the observations he had made whilst surveying the lines of the Somerset Coal Canal. The subsequent excavation and levelling of this canal revealed the dip of the strata and yielded fossils with which he learned to identify the regular succession of the strata.

In 1795 Smith moved from High Littleton to Cottage Crescent near the top of Bloomfield Road, Bath, in order to direct operations on the canal and, in 1798, he was living at Tucking Mill, Midford, near Bath, although he also spent some time at the Swan Inn, Dunkerton, in 1798. Smith ceased to be employed by the Canal Company in 1799. He had spent almost six years in setting out and superintending work on the canal.

BRLSI has in its collections, the Somerset Coal Canal Company's map of their canal system, originally hung on the wall of their head office above the Kennet and Avon Canal near Sydney Gardens.

Geological map

It was in 1799, whilst William Smith was living at Midford, that he coloured the geological features on a map of five miles around Bath that he no doubt obtained from "The New and Improved Bath Guide". This map can be said to be the oldest geological map in existence. Also at Midford, in 1801, he coloured in the geological features on a small map of England. This was the first sketch of William Smith`s great geological map, published in 1815. A prospectus for the latter was issued by Smith dated "Midford, near Bath, 1st June 1801".

But it was in 1799 that the observations Smith had made regarding the rock strata, and its associated fossils, while working on the coal canal resulted in the writing of the document known as the "table of the Strata near Bath."and it was for this that William Smith became known as one of the principal founders of the Science of Geology.

It was in this year that Smith made known his views on the order of the strata to the Reverend Benjamin Richardson (rector of Farleigh Hungerford), whom he had met at a meeting of the Bath Agricultural Society. Richardson told Smith`s views to the Reverend Joseph Townsend and they checked the truth of the statements made by Smith by a visit to Dundry (both Townsend and Richardson were keen geologists) and on 11th December l799 , after the three of them had dined at the home of the Reverend Townsend at 29 Great Pulteney Street, Bath, it was proposed that a table of the main features expounded by Smith and verified by Richardson and Townsend should be drawn up in writing.

Thus Richardson wrote down from Smith`s dictation the different strata according to their succession in descending order commencing with the Chalk and numbered in continuous series down to the Coal, below which, at that time, the strata were not sufficiently known. This document, together with the map of the country five miles around Bath and the first draft of his "General map of Strata found in England and Wales, by William Smith, surveyor, 1801", was presented to the Geological Society by William Smith when he was awarded the first Woolaston Medal in 1831.

In 1825 Lieut.-Col. Houlton presented BRLSI with a copy of Smith's geological map. Houlton lived at Farleigh Hungerford, where Richardson was rector, and supported Smith in his attempts to have his map published.

In 1802 Smith rented a house in Trim Street, Bath, for the reception of his fossil collection and in June 1805 his collections were transferred to London. Due to Smith`s low financial circumstances, he eventually offered them to sale to the British Museum and over a period of time he finally received £700 from the Treasury for them.

BRLSI has in its collections a series of fossils presented by Mrs. Jelly in 1860. Some were collected by Benjamin Richardson, and they were stated to have been originally arranged by William Smith.


Hot springs

In 1810 the Hot Springs in Bath failed and Smith was sent for to restore the water to the Baths and Pump Room. Against opposition, he was allowed to open up the Hot Bath Spring to the bottom, where he found that the spring had not failed but had flowed into a new channel. (During this operation the tallow candles used by the workmen melted in the great heat!) Smith restored the water to its original course and the Baths filled in less time than formerly.

The failure of the Hot Springs was attributed by many people to the sinking of a pit at Batheaston which at this time was in progress. This pit was sunk as a trial for coal and a company was formed and shares sold but, after a great deal of money had been expended, the scheme was abandoned.

It so happened that, at the same time as Smith was required by Bath Corporation to restore their springs, he was also consulted by the projectors of the Batheaston Colliery as to the best means of overcoming a great influx of water into the pit. It was said that the water which entered the pit was of an elevated temperature, therefore the conviction that the Batheaston pit had robbed the Hot Springs at Bath was loudly expressed and it was said that the pit should be filled up. Smith found a way of plugging the borehole at the bottom of the pit , through ninety yards of water, and drained it.

In 1811-1812 he was also at work on some serious leaks which affected the coal canal and was successful in stopping them. Smith attained a reputation as a successful surveyor, land drainer, civil engineer and mineralogist, and he found employment in many parts of the country.

W.Stephen Mitchell, in an article in the Geological Magazine, 1869, entitled "Centenary of William Smith`s Birth", states that "Bath can claim that the first collection of fossils stratigraphically arranged was made by Smith whilst at Cottage Crescent. The first table of the strata was dictated by Smith at Pulteney Street. The first geological map was coloured by him whilst living near Bath. The first announcement of the publication of a geological map was his prospectus, dated from Midford. The first introduction of his discovery to the public was through the friends he made in Bath."

In July 1928, at a ceremony attended by many eminent geologists and officials of Bath Corporation, a memorial tablet was unveiled on the house in Pulteney Street where Smith dictated "The Order of Strata". At Tucking Mill, Midford, another memorial tablet to William Smith can be seen. It was erected in the first instance in 1888, on the wall of the mill but when, in 1927, the mill was pulled down, this tablet was mislaid. After its rediscovery, it was re-erected on the wall of the dwelling-house, in 1932, by the Geological Society of London and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

However it has since been proved that the tablet was erected on the wrong house and that the nearby property known as Tucking Mill is the house which William Smith purchased in 1798. ["William Smith`s Home Near Bath: the Real Tucking Mill": Joan. M. Eyles, J.Soc. Biblphy Nat. Hist.(1974) ? (1) 20-34] William Smith died on 28th August 1839 in Northampton, whilst on his way to attend a meeting of the British Association in Birmingham, and he is buried in St. Peter`s Church in Northampton.

Ron Pickford F.G.S. March 1969
Revised ed. 1977, information on BRLSI holdings, Rob Randall, February