A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland by William Smith

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

William Smith: A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, 1815

In 1815 William Smith published the first detailed geological map of an entire country. Its scope was ambitious, as his long, practical-poetic title suggests: A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland; exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names. The map is an object of great beauty, its array of thirty-four tints identifying different types of rock, clay, and sand: vivid green for the chalk downs, tawny red for the clay of Fuller’s Earth, purple for slate—colors that are still used today on maps for the British Geological Survey. Deeper tones show the “dip” where one stratum—a particular layer of rock—overlays another, giving an almost three-dimensional effect, so that the colors roll like waves across the land. At the same time, Smith worked out a table of succession for the sedimentary rocks, listing the series of strata laid down, in chronological order, from the oldest, “Granite, Sienite and Gneiss,” to the most recent, “London clay.” There had been geological maps before, based on rocks found at the surface, but Smith’s breakthrough came with his use of fossils, found in different layers and at different depths, to identify the strata and suggest their distribution below the ground. While others had toyed with this method, he was the first to apply it on such a large scale.

The 1815 map was not only innovative and beautiful but also huge, made up of fifteen large sheets and measuring eight and a half by six feet. Subscribers could buy the sheets unbound for five guineas, or in more costly formats: the grandest, at £12, displayed the entire map on canvas, varnished, on spring rollers. One might think it impossible to represent all this in a book without diminishing its crazy grandeur, yet somehow Strata succeeds. It feels as massive as the books of Smith’s day (it is an Imperial quarto format, 10 1/2 by 14 3/8 inches, and 1.1 inches thick). Reading it, I longed for one of the cushions that archivists rest precious books on, with a string of beads to hold down the page.

Yet “reading it” isn’t quite the right phrase. The experience is more like going to an exhibition, stopping to pore over a map, skipping over a diagram, going back to check labels, taking a breath before entering another room. Strata is far more than a coffee-table tome (why don’t we have an English term for these large-format books, to match the French beaux livres?). While it nods to Smith’s Regency period, the design is spacious, airy, and modern. Full-page and double-page spreads of the 1815 map blaze with particularly vibrant color, due to a lucky stroke of history; the copy reproduced in Strata was bound in sections as a book and has lain ever since in the library of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, never exposed to the sun. Other treasures too emerge into the light: Smith’s county maps of 1819–1824, his elegant cross-sections of specific areas, his diagrams of coal seams and canals and drainage systems. Interspersed with these are stunning photographs of the fossils that he found in each stratum, often placed opposite James Sowerby’s superb engravings of the originals.

Strata works through this kind of imaginative layering, historical and modern, textual and visual. Smith’s maps and diagrams are often set, for example, alongside drawings and watercolors by contemporary artists that depict farms, factories, estates, quarries, and canals. This feels absolutely right, since for him geology was not an academic pursuit but his working life, on the ground, in muddy fields and bogs and mines. In this he embodies a distinctive type of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century achievement: the skilled, imaginative artisan-professional who becomes a pioneering expert, revolutionizing ideas in his field.

Some such men, like James Watt, backed by a close group of equally pioneering friends, soared to international recognition. Others, like Smith, who worked alone, were condescended to and disregarded because of their class even when their work was acclaimed. Yet Smith’s life, like Watt’s, though full of struggle, also shows a constant pattern of overlap and exchange. Scholars and educated amateurs provide information and taxonomic or theoretical frameworks that help the practical observer to interpret discoveries, and in turn these discoveries prompt new ideas, forcing adjustments and sometimes even overturning long-held theories and paradigms. It is a constant dance of knowledge.

A blacksmith’s son from the Oxfordshire village of Churchill, Smith was brought up by his uncle, a farmer, after his father died when he was eight. (Simon Winchester gives a lively account of his life in The Map That Changed the World, 2001.) At eighteen he became an assistant to a local land surveyor, Edward Webb, from Stow-on-the-Wold, who sent him in 1792 to survey the Somerset estate of High Littleton, owned by Lady Elizabeth Jones. As Douglas Palmer notes in his introduction to Strata, Smith had the luck to be in the right place at the right time: almost a century before, a house on the estate had belonged to John Strachey, “an Oxford-educated country squire and landowner who developed an interest in geology and its use in the search for coal.” Strachey’s 1719 drawing of a section through the Somerset coalfield provided Smith’s first revelation of the layers of sedimentary rocks and their fossils. After Smith finished his survey of the small Mearns coalfield owned by Lady Jones (and learning a great deal about different rocks and their fossils from the miners themselves), the engineer John Rennie employed him to survey the routes for a planned double-branched canal from the coalfield to the Kennet and Avon canal. In late January 1794, his map of the area was engraved by John Cary, whose New and Correct English Atlas of 1787 was a standard reference work, and who would later engrave all Smith’s geological maps. It was a promising start.

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Smith was already putting his own views forward, noting the incline of the strata, as his nephew John Phillips said, like “superimposed slices of bread and butter.” He was also pondering the fossils he had collected in the fields of his boyhood in Somerset and on a brief tour in 1794, when he inspected canals and coal mines around the country. In the local pub, the Swan Inn at Dunkerton, he jotted down a note:

Fossils have long been studied as great curiossities [sic] collected with great pains treasured with great Care and at a great Expense and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a Child’s rattle or his Hobbyhorse is shown and admired by himself and his playfellows—because it is pretty And this has been done by Thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order & regularity with which Nature has disposed these singular productions and assigned to each Class its peculiar Stratum.

Smith’s career as a canal surveyor came to an abrupt end in 1799, when he lost his job after the failure of trials of the innovative “caisson” lock system (carrying the boat and water in an enclosed lift to avoid building a series of locks). Reduced to being a journeyman again, he worked on problems of drainage and landslides around Bath. While doing so, he formulated his own general law: strata were always in the same order above one another, from the oldest rocks on the bottom to the youngest on top, and each stratum contained the same peculiar fossils. This theory was roundly challenged by two friends, the clergymen fossil collectors Benjamin Richardson and Joseph Townsend, but when their own investigations proved Smith correct, they encouraged him to write his first table of strata, with notes on the relevant fossils.

By then Smith was also exploring the idea, gleaned from Strachey and deepened by his findings on his canal tour of 1794, that the strata he had identified around Bath stretched northward all the way to Yorkshire and, furthermore, that the southeasterly tilt he had noticed was consistent across the country. In June 1801 he published a four-page Prospectus for an ambitious, detailed work on the subject. This project was doomed when his publisher, John Debrett, went bankrupt, but from then on he explored rock outcrops, quarries, and cliffs wherever he went, earning the name “Strata Smith” and traveling thousands of miles across the country, both mapping strata above the surface and, using the fossil record, deducing the layers below ground.

A cross section of the strata in Surrey and Sussex; illustration by William Smith and John Cary

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

A cross section of the strata in Surrey and Sussex; illustration by William Smith and John Cary, 1819

In 1804 he rented a property in London, near the mapmakers of the Strand, where he could arrange his fossils on sloping shelves to mirror the strata in which they were found, hoping to show them in a private museum. But the need to make a living was more pressing. Since 1799 his main work had been as a consulting engineer on drainage and irrigation. The improvement of agricultural land was a vital issue during the food shortages of the Napoleonic Wars, and Smith’s expertise was valued. Through this work, he met the renowned “improver” and agricultural reformer Thomas Coke of Holkham Hall in Norfolk and Francis Russell, Fifth Duke of Bedford; both employed him in several ventures and came to know him well. He believed firmly that the order of strata affected the nature of the soil, and that his geological work could thus help farmers. In 1806 he wrote his first book, on the management of water meadows and peat bogs, including the draining of the Duke of Bedford’s “Prisley Bog.”

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On Bedford’s Woburn estate, Smith became friendly with the duke’s agent, the mineral surveyor John Farey, who became his stout supporter in his work as a “well-sinker,” which John Mather describes in an intriguing essay, one of seven in Strata on different aspects of Smith’s career. In the hunt for deep groundwater wells, Smith’s predictions of water-bearing strata were invariably correct. Publicizing his approach in The Monthly Magazine in 1807, Farey noted, for example, that deep wells in London received their water from saturated sand below the clay, which contained water flowing down from rain that had fallen on an outcrop of this sand about fifteen miles to the north. Smith’s practical skill was undoubted, and altogether he was involved in fifty projects of various kinds across the country, advising on everything from water to coal and mineral prospecting.

The network of landowners he worked for also served his geological interests, since he could investigate different estates and regions, while also taking draft maps to the annual sheep shearings (the forerunners of today’s county fairs) to attract potential subscribers and patrons. One patron was Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. In his essay on Smith as a cartographer, Tom Sharpe suggests that Banks may have helped the spread of Smith’s ideas about fossils as stratigraphic signifiers abroad as well as at home. During the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Charles Étienne Coquebert le Montbret, father-in-law of the mineralogist Alexandre Brongniart, dined with Banks a number of times. A year or so later, using fossils as Smith suggested, Brongniart and Georges Cuvier, one of Europe’s preeminent experts on fossils, began mapping the geology of the Paris basin, publishing their map in 1811.

Smith had to wait much longer. It was not until 1812 that John Cary agreed to publish his geological map, using his own maps as the base, on the scale of five miles to the inch. Meanwhile, as Cary began to engrave the great copper plates, Smith’s finances were suffering, plagued by his purchase of a Somerset quarry years before, a venture that turned out to be disastrous. In 1814 he was arrested twice for debt. When the geological map was published in August the following year, beautifully colored by Cary’s artists and dedicated to Banks, Smith received an award for fifty guineas promised for a “mineralogical map” from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, but this hardly made a dent in his debts.

Between November 1815 and February 1816 Smith signed 244 copies of the map to send to subscribers (he refused to sign any he deemed imperfect). Then came his ravishing Geological Section from London to Snowdon (1817), demonstrating the easterly tilt of strata across the country. Over the next eighteen months he published three parts of a planned seven-part Strata Identified by Organized Fossils, with Sowerby’s superb plates, as well as the first part of a fossil catalog, the Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils. The pressure of work led him to turn down well-paid posts in both America and Russia, yet neither Strata Identified nor the Stratigraphical System sold well, and both remained unfinished. That was also the fate of his county maps for a proposed “New Geological Atlas of England and Wales.” Between 1819 and 1824 Cary engraved twenty-one maps—all reproduced in Strata, plus three almost completed ones—but, once again, the series was left unfinished.

Smith had to contend with other obstacles. In 1808 members of the Geological Society, founded the previous year, visited his house to see his fossil arrangement. Unimpressed by Smith’s ideas, the society decided to publish its own geological map. When this appeared in 1820 (rousing loud accusations of plagiarism from John Farey), it undercut sales of Smith’s map, reducing his already precarious income. By then he had been forced to sell his fossil collection, a story expertly told in Strata by Jill Darrell and Diana Clements. Grudgingly, in three batches, the British Museum bought his 2,657 specimens, but they were never unpacked or displayed during his lifetime. They are now housed, in Smith’s stratigraphical order, in the Natural History Museum in London.

The museum’s total payment of £700 was not enough to save Smith, who spent ten weeks in the King’s Bench debtor’s prison in 1819. The following year he moved to Yorkshire as a consultant and lecturer, eventually settling in Hackness, near Scarborough, where he mapped the local rocks and was consulted on the design of the Rotunda Museum for the Scarborough Philosophical Society. Finally, recognition came: in 1831 a new generation at the Geological Society awarded Smith the society’s first Wollaston Medal. In his speech the president of the society, Adam Sedgwick—long an admirer—called Smith the “Father of English Geology.” In one of his last projects he served on the commission touring England and Scotland to find freestone suitable for the new Houses of Parliament. Smith lived in Scarborough until 1839, when he died after catching a chill on his way to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham.

In his later years, his greatest support was his nephew John Phillips. When Smith’s sister died in 1808, he had taken charge of her children, including John, who became his assistant, a distinguished geologist himself, and eventually a fellow of the Royal Society, Chair of Geology at Oxford, and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, to which he bequeathed all Smith’s papers. But Smith’s life also included a shadowy figure. Around the time that he assumed the care of John and his siblings, the forty-year-old Smith married a young woman about whom little is known, Mary Ann, then seventeen. Writing to Sedgwick in 1831, Phillips noted that his uncle’s achievements had been made

despite long and heavy afflictions. Poverty, disappointment and neglect forced seclusion from the world of science—these have been heightened by a still more severe and invincible torment: a mad, bad wife.

Life with an obsessive, often absent, geologist must have been hard. In one recollection Mary Ann is described as “an eccentric little round-faced woman,” oddly dressed, with rouged cheeks and black curls, often seen walking a few paces behind Smith, “who plodded steadily on his way, apparently too much immersed in his geological meditations to give a thought to her who followed behind.” Occasionally she had tantrums. Smith never argued but walked quietly out of the room, locking the door behind him. More than once she was known—and who could blame her—“to dash some object through the window of her temporary prison as he passed outside of it.” In February 1842 she was sent to York Lunatic Asylum, where she died two years later. Hers is a story that asks to be written.

Beyond his personal circle, Smith drew on the work of predecessors and contemporaries. Inevitably there were tensions, experienced by many “experimental philosophers,” between his revolutionary findings and conservative views on faith, the biblical account of the creation, and the different theories of the underlying forces that had formed the world. He held all his life, for example, to Strachey’s conviction (also held by other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholars like John Ray and William Stukeley) that on the fourth day of the biblical creation, the planet began to rotate, making the newly deposited strata flex and dip eastward. He also adhered to the idea that shells and living creatures had been flung far and wide by Noah’s Flood, and supported Abraham Gottlob Werner’s “Neptunist” theory that the layers of the earth’s crust had been formed by chemical precipitation from some vast primeval ocean, in opposition to the “Vulcanists,” who argued for the creative force of the earth’s internal heat and for the cyclical formation and destruction of rock over a far longer timescale. Smith’s pioneering work—the birth of modern geology—straddled great shifts in thinking, and it is fascinating to see in this book how his observations were so often right, when the theories underpinning them were so wrong.

No editor’s name appears on the title page of Strata. This is a publisher’s book, the brainchild of Tristan de Lancey of Thames and Hudson (the book’s British publisher), working with his London team and the designer Daniel Streat, in collaboration with Paul Smith, director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Peter Wigley, editor of the William Smith’s Maps interactive website (strata-smith.com). Warmly acknowledging the collective effort, De Lancey calls Strata his “in defiance” pandemic project; and it is indeed defiant, like an exuberant fireworks display in dark times.

In his foreword, Robert Macfarlane, whose Underland (2019) also delves below the surface, reminds us that when we look up into a clear night sky, through “troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and into outer space,” we can see planets and galaxies at a seemingly infinite distance. But if we look down, we see no further than the tips of our toes: “Earth’s skin stops sight short.” William Smith’s maps helped to give us that sight. As Strata peels back layers of history and ideas as well as rock, many readers will stand, as Smith did, in awe at the worlds below, the body of Earth itself.