As solid as a rock
William ‘Strata’ Smith is known as the father of English geology thanks to his early-19th-century map of the country’s rock formations. Jeremy Taylor explains why the Cotswold-born geologist’s work was ahead of his time
Forge, Churchill, in oxfordshire, and studied at the village school before working as assistant to a land surveyor in Stow-on-the-wold.
‘He later went to work for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company and it was during his numerous visits to mines that he noticed the exposed layers of coal and rock,’ continues Mr Sharpe. ‘It was that strata of different rock types that provided the basis of his map and earnt him the nickname “Strata Smith”.’
Smith began gathering geological information on rock formations for his project in 1801, recording geological features as he toured the country surveying canal projects. He someperhaps times travelled up to 10,000 miles a year on foot, horse and coach, meticulously transcribing his findings along the way, for 12 long years, before the map was ready in 1813.
‘It wasn’t just an academic exercise—it was aimed primarily at finding natural resources such as coal, which could make a landowner a fortune in the heat of the Industrial Revolution,’ notes Mr Sharpe.
Key to Smith’s vision was the use of colour to identify rock types. The sandstone of Worcestershire was painted red-brown, limestone a shade of blue-grey and the chalky South downs a pale green.
Smith had orders for more than 400 maps when printing commenced in august 1815. However, many subscribers withdrew when the country fell into recession later in the year, thought to have been caused by the Battle of Waterloo earlier in the summer. The map was initially unsuccessful and Smith spent 10 weeks in a debtors’ prison after failing to manage his private affairs.
In 2001, when author Simon Winchester wrote a book about Smith’s troubled life, The Map That Changed The World, it became an international bestseller. ‘The more research I did, the more interesting the story became,’ admits Mr Winchester. ‘apart from his personal troubles, which ultimately ended in triumph, he really was one of the great heroic figures of 19th-century Britain.’
Smith finally found favour with the newly formed Geological Society of London in the 1830s—he won the society’s first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his efforts and was also granted funding to continue his work.
Mr Sharpe believes that, even now, nearly 200 years since Smith’s death in 1839, his work remains as relevant as ever. ‘Nobody today would attempt what he did,’ he enthuses. ‘Smith was the pioneer, working entirely on his own. He created the principles by which all geologists are still trained to draw a map—even the colours we use for strata formations are from his design.’
above all, Smith’s map remains a thing of beauty. ‘When you study a well-preserved copy of the map close up, it’s absolutely beautiful,’ enthuses Mr Sharpe. There was certainly nothing else like it at the time and, if you compare his map with a modern geological survey, his findings were largely correct. Not bad for the son of a blacksmith.’
From 1801, William Smith (above) spent 12 years painstakingly hand-colouring his map (facing page and below) of England’s rock formations. In doing so, he created the principles geologists still swear by today