The world’s first rock star

Sarah King, Curator of Natural Sciences at York Museum Trust, looking at the 200 year old-William Smith geological map of Britain
Sarah King, Curator of Natural Sciences at York Museum Trust, looking at the 200 year old-William Smith geological map of Britain
  • It was a map which changed the world and helped to pave the way for Britain’s industrial revolution. Sarah Freeman reports.
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You don’t get men like William Smith these days. Wind back to the latter years of the 18th century and Smith, the son of a blacksmith, was doing what he loved best – collecting fossils and studying the landscape, although to those who saw him scouring the fields and coast there was little to suggest that here was a man who would become known as the Father of English Geology.

Despite his relatively humble upbringing, Smith was doing pretty well for himself. He’d found work as a surveyor and with a keen eye for what lay beneath the rolling hills of England, he soon found himself in demand with the burgeoning canal companies desperate to carve out a network of waterways and return a tidy profit.

English geologist William Smith (1769-1839), portrait by French painter Hugues Fourau

English geologist William Smith (1769-1839), portrait by French painter Hugues Fourau

However, Smith, wasn’t a businessman – neither was he particularly interested in making his own fortune. Instead as he travelled around Britain he was much more interested in the fact that the fossil pattern of the rocks was repeated up and down the country.

“Smith was quite incredible,” says Sarah King, curator of natural sciences at York Museum Trust.

“He was just seven years old when his father died and as a result he went to live on his uncle’s farm and it was there that he first became fascinated with fossils.

“Like so many people of his background and upbringing, Smith had only been given an elementary education, but it turned out that he had a natural talent for geometry and he basically began to teach himself surveying.

Alison Pringle, Head of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, on the new pebble mozaic of Yorkshire  by artist Janette Ireland

Alison Pringle, Head of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, on the new pebble mozaic of Yorkshire by artist Janette Ireland

“By the time he was 18 he had managed to get a job with Cotswolds master surveyor and four years later he had set up his own business.”

While he could have earned a decent living as a surveyor, it wasn’t long before Smith embarked on a project which would be both his downfall and earn him a place in the history books. Setting out on foot, he decided that he was going to create the very first geological map of Britain.

“Smith was a little obsessive and I doubt that anyone could have dissuaded him from setting out to create this very complex map based on where the different fossil types were found,” says Sarah, who has been involved in marking the 200th anniversary of the world’s first geological map through a small exhibition and permanent mosaic in the grounds of Museum Gardens . “It was a huge undertaking, but Smith was a patient man and eventually he did see his dream realised.”

The map didn’t have the catchiest titles, but in 1815 the publication of Smith’s A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland rocked the world of geology.

The outline of the geography and the strata were printed from copper plate engravings, but the detail was finished off in delicate watercolours. It was in many ways or work of art, but the various academics and enthusiasts who made up the newly formed Geological Society of London were dismissive of his efforts.

Each was desperate to be first with any new discovery and Smith, who had committed to having his work printed on expensive metal plates, soon found his maps plagiarised by cheaper copies.

“Everything started to unravel. Smith was basically unable to meet the production costs and in order to repay some of the money he owed, he had to sell off his prized geological collection for £700, adds Sarah. “It was a sad end to what really was an incredible achievement. None of the technology we have today was available to Smith and yet he produced an incredibly accurate map of what lay beneath our feet.

“He also understood that this knowledge had the power to change our lives dramatically. He knew that it would help in the building of canals and roads and finding underground reservoirs. His work was truly ground-breaking and it underpinned many of the major changes which together became known as the Industrial Revolution.”

In the end only 400 of Smith’s maps were published and it is estimated that just 150 survive today. One was bought by the Yorkshire Museum in 1824 and it is that which forms the centrepiece of the anniversary display.

Recently conserved, the map, which measures almost 6ft by 8ft, shows the painstaking work which went into its creation and it is the only copy on public show in the North of England.

Hindsight did eventually recognise Smith’s achievements, but as the first of his maps were published he was unceremoniously pushed to the sidelines of British geology and having been declared bankrupt he ended up being sent to a debtors’ prison.

When he was eventually released and returned home to find a bailiff at his door and his property seized, it should have been the end of Smith, or at least the end of any fanciful ideas he had that he could continuing indulging his love of the natural world.

However, having never been a man who cared much for material possessions, he decided that he would continue doing what he loved best and set off once again on foot with his nephew John Phillips the hope of finding work as an itinerant surveyor.

His travels eventually brought him to Yorkshire and to Scarborough where he was responsible for the building of the Rotunda, a geological museum, which in 2008 was reopened as the Rotunda – The William Smith Museum of Geology.

On the 200th anniversary of the publication of his map, there is now also another permanent reminder of his legacy, with a mosaic inspired by his original map recently been installed in the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum. Commissioned by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, of which Smith was an early member, the artwork has been created by Janette Ireland.

“As a pebble mosaic artist and designer, the opportunity to work on a project illustrating a geological map is just perfect,” says Ireland, whose piece is almost as detailed as Smith’s original. “Add to that the setting in the grounds of the ruined St Mary’s Abby is a special place. It feels like placing history on top of history and it is a fitting for a commemoration to the very beginnings.”

It’s a sentiment with which head gardener Alison Pringle agrees. She watched the artwork take shape and it now sits pride of place in what was once an overlooked corner of the gardens.

“I absolutely love it and every time I look at it I see something new,” she says pointing out the coal seams of South Yorkshire and patchwork of the Wolds. “Not so long ago there was nothing to bring visitors to this part of the gardens, you would see them walk through the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and then come to a dead end and turnaround.

“The reopening of the new York Art Galley has created a link between the Abbey and I hope that as they walk between the two, that people will stop for a while and look at the map which is a tribute not just to an incredible man, but also to an incredible county. Of course, it’s not as detailed as Smith’s original map, but it shows just how diverse the landscape of Yorkshire is and it really tells a story of how this county was formed from the outlying coastal areas to the Dales and onwards towards the edge of the Peak District.

“It might look at first like just a lot of pretty patterns, but by reading the key around the edge of the mosaic it unlocks a whole world of stories.”

Inside the museum, the map is on display in the reading room and next to it is an exhibition which tells what is known of Smith’s life story. It may not be the biggest exhibition in the world, but it does tell an important chapter in the development of British geology and gives the man who did so much to advance its cause more than just a footnote in history.

“While Smith’s early years were plagued with disappointment, things did turn out much better in the end for both him and his nephew,” says Sarah. “He continued to do what he loved best and finally he was embraced by the geological community.”

By the end of his career, it is estimated the Smith had covered more than 10,000 miles on foot, horse and carriage, cataloguing the locations and the formations which make up the geology of the three home nations. In total he spent the better part of 15 years collecting the information needed to complete his ground-breaking map.

“Final recognition eventually came for Smith in 1831 when the Geological Society of London, which had been so dismissive of his work, relented,” say Sarah. “In that year, he was awarded the inaugural Wollaston Medal and it really was the beginning of him taking his rightful place in history.”

The following year, King William IV awarded him a pension of £100 a year in recognition of all the work he had done – a sizable sum in those days, but it would have taken more than a decent bank account to persuade Smith to give up work.

“With his peers giving him the seal of approval, Smith did go onto win a number of prestigious commissions, including being part of the team to select stone for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament,” says Sarah. “In 1835 he also travelled with the British Association to Dublin, where he was awarded a totally unexpected honorary doctorate.”

Smith had gone from the breadline to being the toast of his generation.

“To some he was known as William ‘Strata’ Smith, but to most he became known as the Father of English Geology,” says Sarah. “It was a title which had been hard earned, but one which he richly deserved. There are not many people who would have continued doing what he did in light of all the various obstacles which were put in his way. We do have a lot to be thankful for, because the work that he did laid the foundations for modern geological study and without it, who knows how long it would have taken us to discover what our world was really made of.”

Smith remained active until the age of 70, when he caught a sudden chill. He died a few days later on August 28, 1839 leaving behind an unrivalled geological legacy. It had been quite a life.

• The Map Which Changed the World is on display at the Yorkshire Museum until November 30. 01904 687687, www.yorkshire