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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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