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Oxford Geology Group

William Smith: a timeline

Born in Churchill, Oxfordshire on March 23, 1769.  Died at Northampton on August 28, 1839.  A beginning and an end - but what happened in between?  Here is our timeline of William Smith's life (based on the work of our friend Hugh Torrens).


William Smith was born on March 23rd in Churchill, Oxfordshire.  His father was a blacksmith, his ancestors were small farmers in the district.  His House was a freehold house bought by his widowed grandmother in 1741, which remained in the family until 1833, but has since been demolished.

His father died, and two years later his mother married again, to Robert Gardner, tailor and landlord of the Chequers Inn, Churchill.

The Chequers Inn, Churchill, Oxfordshire.

"Before the age of eight my father died; but his wish and hope to make me a clever man never died."

Draft of William Smith's autobiography

The Chquers Inn, Churchill, Oxfordshire.




A survey and valuation of Churchill was begun by Edward Webb, of Stow on the Wold, and William Smith, now eighteen was engaged as his assistant.  He lived with the Webb family in Stow for nearly five years, learning and carrying out all the duties of a surveyor.


In October 1791, Smith was sent by Webb to Somerset to make a survey and valuation of an estate not far from Bath.



Smith lodged at Rugbourne Farm, near the village of High Littleton, seven miles south-west of Bath for over three years, and this farmhouse was later called 'the birth place of English geology', for it was here that he began to think about the succession of the strata.  The estate he was surveying included coal properties, and by descending coal mines he saw something of the subterranean geology.

Rugbourne Farm, High Littleton.

Rugbourne Farm, High Littleton, near Bristol.









A proposal for a canal to link Bath on the River Avon with Newbury on the River Kennet (a tributary of the River Thames) led some of the owners of the north Somerset coal mines to consider making a local branch cut to join it.  This would carry their coal and greatly reduce their overheads.  William Smith was engaged to make a survey and take levels along two converging valleys which ran north-eastward to the Avon.  This provided him with an opportunity to confirm his ideas about the regular south-easterly dip of the strata.

William Smith visited London with members of the Somerset Coal Canal Committee to give evidence before Parliament.  The Somersetshire Coal Canal Bill was passed and later in the year Smith accompanied two members of the Committee on a tour of canals and mines in the north of England.  Smith saw that familiar strata continued from the south-west in a north-easterly direction to Yorkshire, characteristically dipping south-east.

Construction of the Somersetshire Coal Canal began in the summer of 1795.  Two phases of excavation commenced simultaneously.  The first phase was cut through unfossiliferous Triassic marls.  The second phase, in the northern part of the valley, involved digging through beds of the Lias Group and then, near Dunkerton, through the Inferior Oolite.

William Smith made notes at the Swan Inn, Dunkerton which show that he was already convinced that specific fossils were characteristic of particular strata.

William Smith's earliest preserved writings on the stratigraphical use of fossils

"Fossils have long been studied as great curiosities collected with great pains treasured up with great care at a great expence and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a child's rattle or his Hobby horse is shown and admired by himself and his play fellows - because it is pretty and this has been done by thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and regularity with which Nature has disposed of these singular productions and assigned to each Class its peculiar Stratum."

Part of William Smith's earliest preserved writings on the stratigraphic use of fossils.

Smith made notes on the strata from the Chalk to the Carboniferous Limestone under the Coal Measures.  Fossils are not mentioned in this document, held by the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

William Smith purchased Tucking Mill House, in the hamlet of Tucking Mill in the Parish of Monkton Combe.  It remained in his possession until 1819.

Tucking Mill House

Tucking Mill House, now thought to be the home of William Smith, not the nearby Tucking Mill Cottage that carries the GSL & BRLSI plaque.

His employment to a surveyor to the Coal Canal Company was terminated in June 1799.


William Smith dictated his famous strata and their respective fossil assemblages to Joseph Townsend and Benjamin Richardson at Townsend's town house at 29, Great Pulteney Street in Bath.


Smith drew a 'geologically coloured' map of the area around Bath in 1799.  Now owned by the Geological Society of London.


29 Great Pulteney Street, Bath.
Plaque, 29 Great Pulteney Street, Bath.

29 Great Pulteney Street, Bath, Somerset, England,  bearing the commemorative plaque (above).








William Smith began to set out his ideas in writing.  In June 1801 he issued a prospectus of a proposed work on strata.  The two 'geologically coloured' maps of England and Wales, produced at this time, still exist, one in Oxford and the second in London.



Members of the Geological Society visited Smith's home in Buckingham Street, London to see his collection of fossils, arranged on sloping shelves that corresponded with the strata.

John Cary of London undertook to publish Smith's 1 inch to 5 mile geological map of England & Wales.  

Joseph Townsend published his apologist treatise "The Character of Moses" in which he incorporated Smith's stratum.  Townsend however, rejected Hutton's uniformitarian geology.


Townsend's opus included 21 plates of mainly Jurassic fossils. 




Smith's map, "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland" was exhibited in London.  It won 50 guineas prize money for a 'Mineralogical Map' awarded by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.  The map depicted 21 strata in 21 different colours.  Smith used a deeper shade at the base of each stratum.  The map was accompanied by a memoir.  By January 1816, 200 copies had been produced for subscribers. 


A deep well, bored by the Berkshire & Wiltshire Canal Company, in the vale between Swindon and Royal Wooton Bassett, enabled Smith to get a clearer idea of the succession in the Upper Jurassic where Clunch Clay (Oxford Clay) evidently gave way to Coral Rag (Corallian), in turn overlain by Oaktree Clay (Kimmeridge). On subsequent editions of his map the Coral Rag was added in a shade of orange. 


After extensive negotiations with the Treasury, Smith's collection of fossils, arranged stratigraphically, was purchased for the British Museum.  The collection was transferred to the Museum in June.


During the summer and early autumn, he published  the first two parts of "Strata Identified by Organized Fossils, Containing Prints on Coloured Paper of the Most Characteristic Specimens in Each Stratum."  The first part included assemblages from the London Clay, Crag and Upper Chalk.  The second part looked at the assemblages of the Lower Chalk, Green Sand, Brick Earth (Gault Clay) and Portland Stone.



A page from Strata Identified by Organised Fossils

A page (left) and plate (below) from  the first part of Strata Identified by Organized Fossils by William Smith.

"Crag is a local term for shells mixed with sand, overlaying the Chalk."

Why not view Smith's "Strata Identified by Organized Fossils" yourself?  View Online Book.

Plate from Strata Identified by Organised Fossils



The third part of "Strata Identified by Organized Fossils" was published in June.  It  included plates from the Oaktree Clay (Kimmeridge), Coral Rag & Pisolite (Corallian), Clunch Clay (Oxford Clay), and Kellaways (sic) Clay.


In July & August Smith published his gfamous "Geological Section from London to Scotland" and "Geological Table of British Organized Fossils".  The latter indentified 34 different stata.


Part One of a "Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils" was published.  Part Two was never released. Part One & Two were designed to accompany his fossil collections held at the British Museum.


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