William Smith

William Smith (1769–1839)

The Father of English Geology and Local Hero

Our modern digital geological map of Britain looks quite similar to the first nationwide geological map created by William Smith in 1815. Smith is sometimes known as William ‘Strata’ Smith because he recognised in the course of his mapping that geological strata occurred in a predictable pattern, in the same relative position. He also observed that individual strata could be recognised by the fossil assemblage which they contained and that the same succession of fossil groups could be found in many parts of Britain. Smith is famous for having introduced the ’Principle of Faunal Succession’, that fossils succeed each other in a specific order, which allows the relative age of strata to be determined.


Smith was born in the village of Churchill, Oxfordshire, the son of a blacksmith. In 1787 he found work with Edward Webb as a surveyor’s assistant. In 1791 he travelled to Somerset to make a valuation survey of the Sutton Court estate, building on earlier work by former owner-geologist John Strachey (1671–1743).  Strachey had introduced the concept of the ‘stratum’, based on a pictorial cross-section of the geology under his estate and of coal seams in the nearby Somerset Coalfield. Like a modern geologist, Strachey projected the coal seams according to their measured thickness and attitude into areas between the existing coal workings in order to increase the value of the leases on his estate.


"Organised Fossils are to the naturalist as coins to the antiquary; they are the antiquities of the earth; and very distinctly show its gradual regular formation, with the various changes inhabitants in the watery element."

William Smith (1817)

Smith stayed in the area for the next eight years, working for Webb and later for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company. He made the observations leading to his theory of stratification by observing the dips in the geological strata through which the canal was cut. Smith also worked at one of the Littleton Estate's coal mines, the Mearns Pit. Here, he realised that the various strata could always be found in the same relative positions and could be identified by the fossils they contained.


Smith’s map of the area around Bath, made in 1799, is considered to be the oldest in the world. Previously, Smith knew how to draw the vertical extent of rocks, but not how to display them horizontally. However, in the Somerset County Agricultural Society, he found a map showing the types of soils and vegetation around Bath and their geographical extent, each shaded in a different colour. Smith estimated the boundaries of the various outcrops he had observed and, using the same technique, sketched in the outlines and shaded them to make a rough geological map.


Smith lost his job in 1799 and travelled around the country, mapping and drawing cross-sections and also amassing a large collection of fossils. In 1801 he drew a rough sketch of what would become the first geological map of Britain. Published in 1815, it covered the whole of England and Wales and parts of Scotland, making it the first geological map to cover such a large area. Conventional symbols were used to mark canals, roads, collieries and mines. The various rock types were indicated by different colours.


In 1815 Smith also published his ‘Delineation of the Strata of England’. Then, in ‘Strata Identified by Organized Fossils’ (1816–1819), he stated his theory that strata contained distinct fossil assemblages which could be correlated regionally.

"The principles of Geology like those of geometry must begin at a point, through two or more of which the Geometrician draws a line and by thus proceeding from point to point, and from line to line, he constructs a map, and so proceeding from local to gen maps, and finally to a map of the world. Geometricians founded the science of Geography, on which is based that of Geology." 

William Smith (1801)

Around this time George Bellas Greenough (1778–1855) was also working on a geological map of Britain. A first draft was presented to the Geological Society in London in 1812 but the quality of the topographical map was considered unsatisfactory, resulting in the base map not being ready until 1814. When Greenough finally published his map in 1820 it was clear he was indebted to Smith's work in delineating strata. Smith had relied on the predictable order of strata, identifiable by characteristic fossils, in order to extrapolate from his observations and to map out the distribution of strata across the country. Greenough, however, considered that fossils were very overrated in their usefulness, since fossil species were different from modern species, and that they could not be used to deduce the relative age of rocks. He was suspicious of the concepts of 'stratum’ and ‘formation’ and sought to dissociate himself and his map from Smith, only acknowledging his debt in 1865.


When Smith’s map was published he was overlooked by the scientific community and spent time in a debtors’ prison. Between 1824 and 1826 he lived in Scarborough, Yorkshire and was responsible for the building of the Rotunda, a geological museum devoted to the Yorkshire coast. It was not until February 1831 that the Geological Society of London conferred on Smith the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievements. The President of the Society, Adam Sedgwick, referred to Smith as ‘the Father of English Geology’.  


Since 1891, there has been a memorial to William Smith in the Oxfordshire village of Churchill.  The monument is built from blocks of Chipping Norton limestone found in the nearby Sarsden Wood and was erected by the 3rd Earl of Ducie.