William Smith (geologist) : biography
- The first geological map of Britain, much copied in his time, and the basis for all others.
- Geological Surveys around the world owe a debt to his work.
- His nephew John Phillips lived during his youth with William Smith and was his apprentice. John Phillips became a major figure in 19th century geology and paleontology—among other things he’s credited as first to specify most of the table of geologic eras that is used today (1841).
- A crater on Mars is named after him. (see List of craters on Mars: O-Z#S)
- The Geological Society of London presents an annual lecture in his honour.
- In 2005, a William Smith ‘facsimile’ was created at the Natural History Museum as a notable gallery character to patrol its displays, among other luminaries such as Carl Linnaeus, Mary Anning, and Dorothea Bate. of Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler at ucl.ac.uk (accessed 23 November 2007)
- His work was an important foundation for the work of Charles Darwin.
Smith was born in the village of Churchill, Oxfordshire, the son of blacksmith John Smith, himself scion of a respectable farming family. His father died when Smith was just eight years old, and he was then raised by his uncle. In 1787, he found work as an assistant for Edward Webb of Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, a surveyor. He was quick to learn, and soon became proficient at the trade. In 1791, he traveled to Somerset to make a valuation survey of the Sutton Court estate, and building on earlier work in the same area by John Strachey. He stayed in the area for the next eight years, working first for Webb and later for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company, living at Rugborne Farm in High Littleton.
Below is an extract from his writings in which he describes his experiences when living in High Littleton and Bath, Somerset.
I resided from 1791-1795 in a part of the large old manor house belonging to Lady JONES called Rugburn in High Littleton. It was then occupied by a farmer Cornelius HARRIS, who lodged and boarded me for half a guinea a week and kept my horse for half a crown a week. I have often said that in one respect my residence was the most singular, it being nearer to three cities than any other place in Britain: it is 10 miles from Bath, 10 from Bristol and 12 from Wells. What is called the lower road from Bath to Wells goes through High Littleton but Rugburn old house is a quarter of a mile east of the village and about half way between it and Mearns coal pit. It is a large quadrangular house, I believe with a double M roof; several of the windows used to be darkened filled up. There was a square walled court in front with entrance gates between brick pillars on top of a flight of stone steps and on each side of the gates facing the south was a niche in the wall, where I used to sit and study. On the one side of the court was a row of lime trees, which screened it from the farmyard and the east wind, and on the other side was a large walled garden, and over the road of approach there was an avenue of fine elms all across a large piece of pasture. This had been the coach road when the house was occupied, as I understand, by a Major Capt. John BRITTON, who, according to the account of the old farmer, was said to have ruined himself by working the coal upon his own estate BRITTON’s half brother, William JONES of Stowey, baled him out with a loan of £1,200, in return for which BRITTON left JONES his High Littleton estates and lordship of the manor on his death in 1742. I collected much information from the old colliers respecting the coal, ancient collieries, faults re which I must herein omit; but I must be rather particular in describing the house, through it’s relation to the now extensively known science of geology; for, as some of my pupils and friends have called the vicinity of Bath the cradle of geology. I now inform them that RUGBURN WAS IT’S BIRTHPLACE.
- John L Morton, Strata (New Edition, 2004), Horsham: Brocken Spectre Publishing. ISBN 0-9546829-1-2
- Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, (2001), New York: HarperCollins, ISBN 0-14-028039-1
- John Phillips, (1844, republished with additional material by Hugh Torrens, 2003 ISBN 0-9544941-0-5).
- Further article by Hugh Torrens
- William Smith’s Private Papers, Oxford University
- A.Taylor, "A History of the Taylor Family", (1986), Privately Published.
It was not until February 1831 that the Geological Society of London conferred on Smith the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievement. It was on this occasion that the President, Adam Sedgwick, referred to Smith as "the Father of English Geology". Smith travelled to Dublin with the British Association in 1835, and there totally unexpectedly received an honorary Doctorate of Laws (LL.D.) from Trinity College. In 1838 he was appointed as one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Palace of Westminster. He died in Northampton, and is buried a few feet from the west tower of St Peter’s Church, Marefair. The inscription on the grave is badly worn but the name "William Smith" can just be seen. The modern geological map of Britain is based on Smith’s original work, his map being displayed at the Geological Society in London, although now protected by a curtain.