Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1769-1839)

SMITH, WILLIAM (1769–1839), geologist and civil engineer, was born on 23 March 1769 at Churchill, Oxfordshire. His father, John Smith, who had some local repute as a mechanician, was descended from a race of small farmers owning their land; his mother was Anne Smith of Longcompton, Gloucestershire. William was the eldest child, two other boys and a sister completing the family. In 1777 his father died; his mother married again and survived till 1807. William received his education at the village school. He was even then a collector of fossils, given to quiet solitary rambles, but of studious habits, and was occasionally helped in getting books by an uncle, also named William. With these he taught himself some geometry, and such elementary knowledge as was required for surveying. He was thus fitted to become assistant, at the age of eighteen, to Edward Webb of Stow-on-the-Wold, in whose house he lived. Webb was a surveyor in good business, self-taught, but ingenious as a mechanician and stimulating as a teacher. Under this master Smith in the course of his employment gained a good knowledge of the soils and underlying rocks in Oxfordshire and the adjoining counties, till in 1793 he was entrusted with the survey of a canal through the Somerset coal-field. There he produced so favourable an impression on his employers that in 1794 he accompanied two of them on a journey undertaken to inquire into the construction and working of canals. This gave him an invaluable opportunity, for he had already begun those investigations into stratigraphy which ultimately brought him fame and poverty. The party went as far north as Newcastle-on-Tyne, going and returning by different routes. Thus Smith not only extended his knowledge of the geology of England, but also was able to verify his ideas as to the succession of the strata. After his return he was continuously employed till 1799 on the works of the Somerset Coal Canal; but as early as 1796 he had sketched in outline a general work on the stratification of Britain. This, on the conclusion of his engagement, assumed a more definite form, so that he announced his intention of publishing, for he was convinced that he had found the key to stratigraphy—viz. the identification of strata by their fossil contents. He lived for a time at High Littleton, but in 1795 he removed to Bath, near to which in 1798 he bought a small property. His geological investigations were greatly encouraged by the Rev. Benjamin Richardson of Farleigh, near Bath, and the Rev. Joseph Townsend [q. v.] of Pewsey; and in 1799 the former, in the house of the latter, wrote at Smith's dictation a list of the strata in order of succession, from the chalk downwards to the coal measures. This document now belongs to the Geological Society of London, to whom it was presented in 1831.

Meanwhile Smith became more widely known as an engineer. His mastery of scientific principles, his success in dealing with difficulties in drainage and all other questions connected with water, led to his being summoned to distant localities, and enabled him to increase his scale of charges. But whatever might be earned was swallowed up by the expenses of the map of the strata in England and Wales, on which he was now definitely engaged. In 1801 he issued a prospectus of a work on the natural order of the various strata in England and Wales, but failed to carry out the project. He was consulted by Francis Russell, fifth duke of Bedford [q. v.], but was almost immediately deprived by premature death of one who would have been a most helpful patron. His name, however, was rapidly becoming known in scientific circles. The next duke was a friend; Arthur Young [q. v.], secretary to the board of agriculture, consulted him; William Crawshay [q. v.], ‘the iron king,’ and Sir Joseph Banks [q. v.] gave substantial help towards the publication of his map, but outward obstacles continued to impede the accomplishment of his design. Still, in 1806 he overcame his reluctance to authorship, and published ‘Observations on the Utility, Form, and Management of Water Meadows,’ Norwich, 8vo; and he received during the previous year a medal from the Society of Arts for his success in draining Prisley Bog. By this time he had almost a monopoly of work for drainage and irrigation, and was constantly engaged in travelling, sometimes covering ten thousand miles in a year, and this before the days of railways. Among other important engineering works, he was engaged in stopping irruptions of the sea into the marshland of East Norfolk, from Happisburg to Yarmouth, and in improving its drainage. This occupied him at intervals from 1800 to 1809. In 1810 his services were required in Bath, the prosperity of which was threatened by a failure of its hot springs. Their waters had found a new channel; this Smith detected and stopped, so that they flowed more copiously than before. At the same time he successfully checked an influx of water into a coal-pit at Batheaston, to which some persons had attributed the failure at the springs; and in 1811–12 he was employed in stopping some serious leakages in the Somerset Coal Canal.

Meanwhile he had removed his geological collections to London, placing them in a house in Buckingham Street, Strand, which he had rented from 1805, and was endeavouring to complete his geological map. Among other difficulties under which he laboured must be reckoned the want of a topographical map suitable for geological colouring. This was overcome by the enterprise of William Cary [q. v.], who in 1812 had undertaken to publish Smith's map, and had a new topographical one (81/2 feet high by 61/6 wide) engraved for the purpose. At last the work was completed, was submitted to the Society of Arts, received from them a premium of 50l., and was published on 1 Aug. 1815. ‘From that hour the fame of its author as a great original discoverer in English geology was secured’ (J. Phillips).

The first marked public tribute to Smith's services to science was in 1818 from Dr. William Henry Fitton [q. v.], in an article on the progress of English geology (Edinb. Rev. xxix. p. 310). Meanwhile he was busily engaged in Suffolk and Norfolk on drainage operations, in Yorkshire planning canals, and in the Forest of Dean as a surveyor of the coal-field. But in 1816 he began to issue a work entitled ‘Strata identified by Organised Fossils,’ which, however, stopped at the fourth number; and next year he published ‘A Stratigraphical System of Organised Fossils,’ compiled from his own collection, which had been purchased for the British Museum early in the previous year. A geological map on a reduced scale was published in 1819, and the issue of a ‘New Geological Atlas of England and Wales,’ &c., was begun the same year (six parts appeared, the last in 1824).

But while his fame was spreading and his professional prospects were still good, ill-fortune was near at hand. He had sacrificed all his earnings, even his little patrimony, in the preparation of his map, and had involved himself in an unsuccessful speculation connected with his small estate near Bath. Pecuniary difficulties at last became so pressing that in the autumn of 1819 he was obliged to give up his house in London, to sell his books and everything he possessed; even his papers, drawings, and maps would have gone had they not been secured by the kindness of a friend. At the time he was engaged in Yorkshire; but the blow, though endured with apparent fortitude, was a sore one, and after that he came but seldom to London. To add to his anxieties, his wife's health failed, and in the next year her mind became deranged.

For some years after this Smith had no regular home, but moved about as his professional engagements or his geological investigations dictated, chiefly in the north of England, having for a time as companion his nephew, John Phillips (1800–1874) [q. v.] He lingered long at Kirkby Lonsdale. Henceforth geology, notwithstanding straitened circumstances, evidently more and more engrossed his thoughts. In 1824 he made, at York, his first attempt as a lecturer, and was encouraged by the results to appear in the like capacity in Hull, Sheffield, and Scarborough. After this he fixed his residence at Scarborough, where he designed the museum, improved the water supply, and worked at geology. But over-exertion in examining a fault displayed on the north side of the Castle Hill brought on muscular paralysis in his legs. This confined him to his bed during the early part of 1825, but it gradually passed away in the course of the year.

At last, in 1828 he settled down at Hackness as land steward to Sir John V. B. Johnstone. The latter used every friendly endeavour to stimulate Smith to publish more of his vast stores of geological information; but, though so ready to impart knowledge to friends by word of mouth, he had an aversion to proof-sheets. ‘Mr. Smith meditated and wrote, but did not arrange his papers; and, excepting a beautiful geological map of the Hackness estate, executed in great detail and with extreme exactitude, nothing of importance came from his hands to the public’ (J. Phillips, Memoirs, p. 113).

But Smith's position as the ‘father of British geology’ was now acknowledged. In February 1831 the council of the Geological Society voted him the Wollaston medal, and Professor Adam Sedgwick [q. v.], the president, took the opportunity of this, the first award, to expatiate upon Smith's services to the science. The medal itself had not then been made, so it was actually presented to him at Oxford during the second meeting of the British Association, when he also received the welcome news that the government, at the instance of the representatives of British science, had granted him a pension of 100l. a year. When the association visited Dublin in 1835 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Trinity College.

He resigned his post with Sir J. V. B. Johnstone in 1834, but continued to act as his scientific adviser, and in 1838 was employed by the government as one of a small commission to select the stone for the new houses of parliament. When the report was signed he had nearly completed his seventieth year, but an increasing deafness was almost the only indication of old age. In August 1839 he was specially invited to attend the meeting of the British Association at Birmingham. On his way thither he stayed with some friends at Northampton. A cold of which he had made light assumed a serious form; he sank rapidly, and died on the 28th of the month. His grave is at the west end of St. Peter's Church, on the walls of which a memorial tablet and bust have been placed.

A strongly made man of good stature, Smith enjoyed on the whole good health, though in mid life he suffered from ague, contracted during his work in the marshlands, and from about his fiftieth to his sixtieth year was troubled with gravel; this, however, was cured ‘by temperance and camomile tea.’ His equanimity, patience, industry, and memory were alike remarkable; so also was his ingenuity in all mechanical devices for overcoming professional difficulties. His geological knowledge was freely imparted, so that, notwithstanding his reluctance to publish, his labours bore fruit in the hands of other workers, and his position as the real founder of stratigraphical geology has never been questioned.

According to his own statement (Memoirs, p. 125), three portraits of Smith were painted; the best, completed at a single sitting, by M. Fourau, was presented by his grand-nephew, W. Smith of Cheltenham, to the Geological Society, which also possesses a cast of the bust in St. Peter's Church, Northampton. Other portraits are by Solomon Williams and John Jackson (1778–1831) [q. v.]

[Geikie's Life of R. I. Murchison; Life and Letters of Sedgwick (Clark and Hughes); Obituary Notice, Proc. Geol. Soc. iii. 248; Trans. Geol. Soc. i. 325; Geolog. Mag. new ser. 1892, pp. 94–6; Edinb. Rev. xxix. 71–2, 310, lii. 45, lxiii. 4; Quarterly Rev. xlvii, 104–5; Phil. Mag. xxxv. 114, xlii. 249, liii. 112–19; Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D., by John Phillips, F.R.S., 1844.]

T. G. B.