A television series exploring the geology and canals of Southern England with William Smith 1769-1839 "The Father of English Geology"  



Simon Winchester



A multiple part series exploring the original expeditions of William Smith as he mapped the geology of the English countryside from Wales to the Norfolk Broads and up to Scotland.

Using computer graphics, historical photographs and stock footage, our host and guests will be subjected to traversing ancient canal beds, working coalmines, depleted gold and silver deposits, clay and gravel pits; all sources of ancient artefacts including ammonites, human and animal remains from the excavations, diggings and long burrows of pre-history England.

William Smith's groundbreaking activities opened the way to the global development of the awareness of geology in the mining of gold and silver, the retrieval of diamonds and other precious stones, minerals and metals.

A series devoted to the countryside and the continuance of understanding between the protection and development of the land and the entrepreneur intent on progress and financial return.

Our cast of characters from pre-history and modern day will range from labourers to the landed gentry, politicians to miners, rock stars to mineralogists, landowners to inhabitants of the lunatic asylums and the prisons of the day.

Smith suffered at the hands of fools and rivals, his work was plagiarised and his reputation besmirched, his recognition came late in life but without financial benefit.

Our host and guests will revisit the ancient broken terrain, the fallow fields above the Herculean efforts of miners, geologists, engineers, builders, surveyors, cartographer, and previous long lost inhabitants of this fair and mellow land of ours.

William Smith 1769 -1839 "The Father of English Geology" With the recent publication of Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World, a new audience of readers were awakened to the relatively unsung achievements of an 18th century Englishman.

William Smith's unique map, depicting the geology of England, Wales, and part of Scotland helped to shape the economic and scientific development of Britain, just as the country was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and shaping international events on the world stage.

These pages provide a brief biography of William Smith, describing the man, his ambitions, and his unique achievement. William Smith, LL.D., author of the Map of the Strata of England and Wales. He had strong connections with the Bath district, and was a truly original thinker in his day, but who only received proper recognition late in his life.

The book outlines Smith's working life, firstly in the Bath area, and afterwards throughout the UK. He worked as a civil and water engineer, geologist, land and mineral surveyor, and cartographer. In the early years of his career, from 1793, he was asked to survey routes for the Somerset Coal Canal, soon being appointed its surveyor, or sub-engineer and, because this had two separate "arms" in valleys a few miles apart, he was able to observe and compare the strata between them.

He also noted that fossils, which otherwise looked similar, enabled him to separate and identify the strata, and translated this information onto original coloured stratigraphic maps. His life is an extraordinary story that evolved through many phases.

Dismissed by the Canal Company in 1799, he now travelled all round Britain on commission, and gathered data towards his pioneering geological map of Britain, published in 1815.

However, his dedication to geology had forced him into Bath-based debt, which culminated in the ignominy of a debtor's prison in 1819. After this, he retired to Yorkshire, where he died in 1839. Here he saw the final vindication of his skills and ideas, ending in acclaim and endorsement, as "Father of English Geology".

A brief survey of his work in the Bath, Somerset, (UK) District. William Smith was born in the village of Churchill in Oxfordshire, on 23rd March 1769, and was the eldest son of a blacksmith, who died when William was quite young.

Smith attended the village school, where he obtained only a rudimentary education, but he had an enquiring mind and took note of everything he observed in the countryside in which he lived, especially the geology.

In 1787, at the age of eighteen years, Smith was taken into the family of Edward Webb, a surveyor of Stow-on-the-Wold, and became assistant to him. Webb was impressed by his young assistant and gave him a great deal of encouragement.

Whilst employed by Webb, Smith travelled around the countryside and was constantly adding to his knowledge of geology. Four years later, in 1791, Webb transferred to Smith the survey of an estate at Stowey in Somersetshire, and thus, eventually, he came to live and work in the Bath area.

It was at this period of time that projects for new canals were in progress and soon William Smith was to be involved in the construction of a canal near Bath, of which, today, few traces can be seen. This canal was the Somerset Coal Canal and it was to join up with the Somerset and Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke, near Bath, from the various collieries south-west of the city.

In 1793 Smith was engaged by Rennie (who had already constructed many canals and was also engineer for the Kennet and Avon Canal) to execute surveys and a complete system of levelling for the proposed canal. Whilst engaged in carrying out this work between High Littleton (where he lived from 1792 to 1795) and Bath, Smith noted the regular succession of the rock strata.

He went on a tour of England with two members of the Canal Company, Richard Perkins and Sambourne Palmer, to investigate work already being done on other canals, etc., and this enabled him to extend the observations he had made whilst surveying the lines of the Somerset Coal Canal.

The subsequent excavation and levelling of this canal revealed the dip of the strata and yielded fossils with which he learned to identify the regular succession of the strata.

In 1795 Smith moved from High Littleton to Cottage Crescent near the top of Bloomfield Road, Bath, in order to direct operations on the canal and, in 1798, he was living at Tucking Mill, Midford, near Bath, although he also spent some time at the Swan Inn, Dunkerton, in 1798.

Smith ceased to be employed by the Canal Company in 1799. He had spent almost six years in setting out and superintending the work on the Somerset Coal Canal. It was in 1799, whilst William Smith was living at Midford, that he coloured the geological features on a map of five miles around Bath that he no doubt obtained from "The New and Improved Bath Guide".

This map can be said to be the oldest geological map in existence. Also at Midford, in 1801, he coloured in the geological features on a small map of England. This was the first sketch of William Smith`s great geological map that came out in 1815.

In the same year (1801), a prospectus was issued by Smith dated "Midford, near Bath, 1st June 1801". But it was in 1799 that the observations Smith had made regarding the rock strata, and its associated fossils, while working on the coal canal resulted in the writing of the document known as the "table of the Strata near Bath."and it was for this that William Smith became known as one of the principal founders of the Science of Geology.

It was in this year that Smith made known his views on the order of the strata to the Reverend Benjamin Richardson (who was rector of Farleigh Hungerford), whom he had met at a meeting of the Bath Agricultural Society.

Richardson told Smith`s views to the Reverend Joseph Townsend and they checked the truth of the statements made by Smith by a visit to Dundry (both Townsend and Richardson were keen geologists) and on 11th December l799 , after the three of them had dined at the home of the Reverend Townsend at 29 Great Pulteney Street, Bath, it was proposed that a table of the main features expounded by Smith and verified by Richardson and Townsend should be drawn up in writing.

Thus Richardson wrote down from Smith`s dictation the different strata according to their succession in descending order commencing with the Chalk and numbered in continuous series down to the Coal, below which, at that time, the strata were not sufficiently known.

This document, together with the map of the country five miles around Bath and the first draft of his "General map of Strata found in England and Wales, by William Smith, surveyor, 1801", was presented to the Geological Society by William Smith when he was awarded the first Woolaston Medal in 1831.

In 1802 Smith rented a house in Trim Street, Bath, for the reception of his fossil collection and in June 1805 his collections were transferred to London. Due to Smith`s low financial circumstances, he eventually offered them to sale to the British Museum and over a period of time he finally received £700 from the Treasury for the display.

In 1810 the Hot Springs in Bath failed and Smith was sent for to restore the water to the Baths and Pump Room. Against opposition, he was allowed to open up the Hot Bath Spring to the bottom, where he found that the spring had not failed but had flowed into a new channel. (During this operation the tallow candles used by the workmen melted in the great heat!) Smith restored the water to its original course and the Baths filled in less time than formerly.

The failure of the Hot Springs was attributed by many people to the sinking of a pit at Batheaston which at this time was in progress. This pit was sunk as a trial for coal and a company was formed and shares sold but, after a great deal of money had been expended, the scheme was abandoned.

It so happened that, at the same time as Smith was required by Bath Corporation to restore their springs, he was also consulted by the projectors of the Batheaston Colliery as to the best means of overcoming a great influx of water into the pit.

It was said that the water which entered the pit was of an elevated temperature, therefore the conviction that the Batheaston pit had robbed the Hot Springs at Bath was loudly expressed and it was said that the pit should be filled up. Smith found a way of plugging the borehole at the bottom of the pit, through ninety yards of water, and drained it.

In 1811-1812 he was also at work on some serious leaks which affected the coal canal and was successful in stopping them. Smith attained a reputation as a successful surveyor, land drainer, civil engineer and mineralogist, and he found employment in many parts of the country.

W.Stephen Mitchell, in an article in the Geological Magazine, 1869, entitled "Centenary of William Smith`s Birth", states that "Bath can claim that the first collection of fossils stratigraphically arranged was made by Smith whilst at Cottage Crescent."

Mitchell continues…"The first table of the strata was dictated by Smith at Pulteney Street. The first geological map was coloured by him whilst living near Bath. The first announcement of the publication of a geological map was his prospectus, dated from Midford. The first introduction of his discovery to the public was through the friends he made in Bath."

In July 1928, at a ceremony attended by many eminent geologists and officials of Bath Corporation, a memorial tablet was unveiled on the house in Pulteney Street where Smith dictated "The Order of Strata".

At Tucking Mill, Midford, another memorial tablet to William Smith can be seen. It was erected in the first instance in 1888, on the wall of the mill but when, in 1927, the mill was pulled down, this tablet was mislaid. After its rediscovery, it was re-erected on the wall of the dwelling-house, in 1932, by the Geological Society of London and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

However it has since been proved that the tablet was erected on the wrong house and that the nearby property known as Tucking Mill is the house which William Smith purchased in 1798. ["William Smith`s Home Near Bath: the Real Tucking Mill": Joan. M. Eyles, J.Soc. Biblphy Nat. Hist.(1974) ? (1) 20-34]

William Smith died on 28th August 1839 in Northampton, whilst on his way to attend a meeting of the British Association in Birmingham, and he is buried in St. Peter`s Church in Northampton.


Simon Winchester, the established author of the superb bestselling The Surgeon of Crowthorne, brings us another extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man. The Map that Changed the World, now out in paperback, tells the story of William Smith and the birth of the science of modern geology.

Eventually emerging triumphant from a troubled life involving poverty, homelessness and an insane wife, 'Strata' Smith was to become the toast of scientific London in the early 1800s.

Here, Simon Winchester talks exclusively to penguin.co.uk about this fascinating tale of rocks, ruin and redemption.

Simon. What first drew you to William Smith's remarkable story?

For some curious reason I had long remembered my tutor at Oxford, Harold Reading, telling me about William Smith. He seemed so quiet and unassuming and working-class a figure that he was likely to be condemned to absolute obscurity. I thought he deserved to be written about and his heroic achievements noted and proclaimed.

I had never written any kind of biographical account until I tackled the story that went on to become The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Until then I believed I would always be writing about travel. But the Surgeon, which proved a totally unexpected bestseller worldwide, awoke in me what must have been a long-dormant interest in writing about people and time, rather than about places and journeys.

I cast about for another subject who came from the same period, and who seemed to have a similarly engaging life story and then, in a sudden flash of realisation, remembered my tutor and his admonition that one day William Smith deserved to have a book written about him. I looked Smith up in the Dictionary of National Biography and found to my delight that he, like the surgeon, had gone to prison, so I immediately began the research.

Why was William Smith's discovery so valuable and why was he previously unrecognised?

Geology, it seems almost redundant to say, underlies and underpins everything; the site of every city, every goldmine, every field, every island is determined purely by geology. Humanity's condition is more directly influenced by geology than by any other aspect of the natural world.

But until William Smith, we could only surmise what that geology was, and what it would and could be elsewhere - we had no map. No-one had ever been clever enough to draw the invisible underside of our world and tell us exactly what it was that was underpinning our entire existence.

And then William Smith - despite being cheated, discriminated against, ruined and shunned for no better reason than that he was humbly born - made a map for us. Suddenly, after that epiphany of 1815, the nature of the world became fully clear and now, whenever we drill for oil, or build a dam, or create a new city, or look for a place to site our atomic waste or our most valuable records, we go to the geological maps that are drawn on precisely the same basis as devised two centuries ago.

Where was the oddest place you found yourself conducting research?

Poring over the records of Mr Smith in Oxford, under the unflinching gaze of the very last dodo ever known to exist on the planet. Stereo-typically, geologists are boring men with beards who talk about rocks, but you've made geology seem very accessible and completely fascinating.

Was this one of your aims when writing the book?

I feel passionately that geology is the most romantic of sciences, as well as being of the most profound importance. The field trips I went on in the Scottish Hebrides, and later in East Africa and the Americas, were times of absolute wonder and great happiness.

The opportunity to visit some of the loneliest and most ruggedly beautiful places on earth, with scientists who had the uncanny gift of knowing just why these rugged and beautiful places were exactly as they were, remains a great privilege.

If I can communicate, through the story of William Smith, any hint of the great romance of this small and exclusive company of the world's earth-watchers, then I will have succeeded.











0208 940 4507

077866 42171