William Smith, known as the ‘Father of English Geology’, created the first geological map of Britain. Although he came from quite humble origins, he was an able student and a keen observer of the natural world. He was born on 23 March 1769 in Churchill, Oxfordshire, the son of the village blacksmith, John Smith. After his father’s death, William, then only eight years old, was brought up by his uncle, also called William Smith.
Trained as a surveyor, William Smith spent much of his life studying the geology of the British Isles. In the 1790s, whilst working for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company, he was able to inspect a number of coal mines, where he first observed and recorded the layers (strata) of rock and coal exposed by the miners. These studies, combined with his observations of the strata exposed by canal excavations, formed the basis for his theories of stratigraphy (the study of layers of rock).
Smith realised that layers of rock were arranged in a predictable pattern and were always found in the same relative positions. Each stratum could be identified by the fossils it contained and Smith noted that the same sequence of fossil groups from older to younger rocks was found in many parts of England. This led to his theory of the Principle of Faunal Succession, and he began a search to work out whether there was a consistent pattern throughout the country. His habit of taking samples and mapping the locations and vertical extent of the various strata, and drawing cross-sections and tables of what he saw, earned him the nickname ‘Strata’ Smith.
In 1815, he published the first geological map of England and Wales, a copy of which can be seen on display in the Rotunda Museum. Although it is now known as ‘The Map that Changed the World’, it was only in later life that Smith’s achievements were recognised.
In one of his books, Strata Identified by Organized Fossils (published in London, 1816-1819), Smith showed how the strata contained distinct groups of fossils which could be used to match rocks of the same age from one region to another.
In 1829, the Scarborough Philosophical Society opened the Rotunda Museum, to a design proposed by Smith. Smith had moved to Yorkshire to work for Sir John Johnstone as land surveyor on the Hackness Estate, before retiring to Bar Street, Scarborough. Smith also offered advice on how the Society should display the geological and fossil specimens within their new museum.
In February 1831, the Geological Society of London awarded Smith the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievements. It was on this occasion that the President, Adam Sedgwick, referred to Smith as ‘Father of English Geology’.
Smith died in Northampton on 28 August 1839, whilst working as one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Palace of Westminster. The Rotunda was re-opened as ‘Rotunda: The William Smith Museum of Geology’, on 9 May 2008.
Find out more about ‘Strata’ Smith’s life and work from the interactive resource of William Smith’s maps, funded by a grant from the UK Onshore Geophysical Library (UKOGL). This project was launched in 2015 to celebrate the bicentenary of Smith’s 1815 geological map of England and Wales.