Historic discovery that revolutionised geology

The bust of William 'Strata' Smith, known a the 'father of English geology' on display inside Scarborough's Rotunda Museum.
The bust of William 'Strata' Smith, known a the 'father of English geology' on display inside Scarborough's Rotunda Museum.

This year marks the bi-centenary of William Smith’s ‘map that changed the world’ – and here’s the man himself, pictured inside the Rotunda Museum, the building which he helped to design in Scarborough, his adopted home in his later years until his death in 1839.

William ‘Strata’ Smith, known as the ‘father of English geology’ was born in 1769, and grew up to be not a geologist – the science was very much in its infancy back then – but a surveyor.

In the 1790s, he was working for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company, and made an observation that was to change not only his own life, but the whole fledgling science.

Descending into a mine, he noticed that the rock layers, or strata, were arranged in predictable patterns, and could always be found in the same relative positions. He also realised that each stratum contained its own characteristic fossils, suggesting that the layers had been laid down at different times.

His discovery led to a lifelong obsession – he began collecting fossils and documenting the strata he came across in his work.

In 1815, he published his masterwork – now generally known as ‘the map that changed the world’ after Simon Winchester’s excellent book of the same name.

A magnificent chart of the strata of England and Wales, it revolutionised geology and its practical application in predicting the location of useful minerals and other deposits, and is remarkably similar to modern geological maps in content, if not appearance.

Despite this groundbreaking achievement, Smith ended up seriously in debt, partly due to the plagiarisation of his work by the Geological Society of London, who sold their maps at prices far lower than Smith could.

He went into a debtors’ prison – the notorious King’s Bench in London – in 1819, but was released the same year after selling his precious fossil collection to pay off his debts.

In 1820, he visited Scarborough in the hopes that the sea air would help alleviate his wife’s failing mental health. The couple ended up settling there.

At the time, the town had an active and vibrant Philosophical Society, and Smith soon became a keen member. When the Society decided to build a purpose-built museum of geology, it was natural for them to turn to him for advice and guidance, and he ended up acting as clerk of works on the build.

His nephew John Phillips, to whom Smith had been a surrogate father following the early death of his parents, and himself destined to become a highly regarded geologist, painted the superb diorama around the inside of the central dome. Depicting a geological cross-section of the rocks of the Yorkshire coast around Scarborough, it remains a focal point of the museum to this day.

In February 1831, that same Geological Society of London which had earlier contributed to his downfall gave Smith the first-ever Wollaston Medal – its highest award, given to ‘geologists who have had a significant influence by means of a substantial body of excellent research’. It was on this occasion that the President, Adam Sedgwick, coined the phrase ‘the father of English geology’.

Scarborough Museums Trust, which today runs both the Rotunda and Scarborough Art Gallery, is holding a series of events to mark the bi-centenary of the map, a copy of which can be seen in the Rotunda.

There’ll be a newly-commissioned animated short film, a display about William Smith’s time in Scarborough, Smith-related activities from Animated Objects theatre company (July 23 and 30; August 6 and 13) and, on June 26, an evening of readings at the Rotunda from MAP, an anthology of poems inspired by Smith’s creation, presented by the book’s editor, poet Michael McKimm. Please visit the Museums Trust’s website for further information: http://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com, or call the Rotunda on 01723 353665.