Sopwith, Thomas (DNB00)

SOPWITH, THOMAS (1803–1879), mining engineer, son of Jacob Sopwith (1770–1829), by his wife Isabella, daughter of Matthew Lowes, was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 3 Jan. 1803. His family had dwelt in Tyneside for three hundred years, and his father was a builder and cabinet-maker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Early accustomed to work involving drawing and measurement, Thomas took up both land-surveying and engineering. In 1826 he published ‘A Historical and Descriptive Account of All Saints' Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’ (Newcastle, 8vo), and soon became partner to Mr. Dickinson, a surveyor at Alston. His best-known book is his ‘Treatise on Isometrical Drawing,’ published in 1834 (Newcastle, 8vo), of which there were several editions. Meanwhile mining work, with occasional railway surveys, occupied much of his attention. His association in a Northumbrian survey with William Smith (1769–1839) [q. v.], the founder of stratigraphical geology, widened his interests; and he was instrumental, after the meeting of the British Association in 1838, in inducing the government to found the Mining Record office (Brit. Assoc. 8th Rep. p. xxiii). In the same year he made a mining survey in co. Clare, and in 1843 was employed on the development of railways in Belgium. He called attention to the scientific importance of recording the geological features exposed in the cuttings of railways; and the British Association, at his initiative, made a grant in 1840 for the purpose. In June 1845 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and accepted a month later the chief agency for Mr. Wentworth B. Beaumont's lead-mines in Northumberland and Durham. He thus became especially a mining engineer, and went to live at Allenheads; but his work on the estate included the erection and superintendence of workmen's dwellings and schools, the foundation of libraries and benefit societies, and even the organisation of a system of local education. Sopwith's width of mind and open-heartedness were admirably suited to these complex duties; his views on public affairs were similarly unprejudiced, as may be seen from passages in his diaries, relating to his tour in Ireland (Life, pp. 157–61), to primary education (ib. pp. 314–16), and to the election of labour members to parliament (ib. p. 352). As his work developed he made many scientific friends—among them Dean Buckland, Robert Stephenson, Faraday, and Warington W. Smyth. In 1857 he was created an honorary M.A. of Durham University, and, while resigning his post at Allenheads, accepted the London agency for the same mines. He retired in March 1871, and died in his house, 103 Victoria Street, Westminster, on 16 Jan. 1879, being buried in Norwood cemetery.

Sopwith married thrice: first, Mary Dickenson in 1828, who died in 1829; secondly, Jane Scott in 1831, who died in 1855; and thirdly, Anne Potter in 1858. His daughter Ursula married, on 11 June 1878, David Chadwick, M.P. A good photographic portrait of Sopwith in later years is given in Sir B. W. Richardson's ‘Life.’

To students Sopwith will always be known by the beautiful series of wooden models of geological structures, illustrating the stratification of the Newcastle coalfield, which earned him the Telford medal of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1842 (‘On Geological Models in connexion with Civil Engineering,’ Proc. Inst. Civil Eng. 1841, p. 163; also Proc. Geol. Soc. Lond. iii. 351; and Trans. Geol. Soc. 2nd ser. vi. 568). These were issued by James Tennant to colleges and museums in three sizes, accompanied by a descriptive memoir (‘Description of a Series of Geological Models …,’ Newcastle, 1841, 12mo; 2nd edit. Lond. 1875, 12mo), and are of permanent educational value, as well as a witness to Sopwith's accuracy of method. In 1840 he constructed a model, capable of dissection, of the principal Forest of Dean coalfield, which is now, with others of his works, in the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London. His last scientific memoir was ‘On the Lead-mines of England’ (Proc. Geol. Assoc. i. 1859–63, p. 312). His scientific papers number six in all (Royal Society's Cat. of Scientific Papers, 1800–63, p. 752).

Besides the works mentioned above, Sopwith published: 1. ‘Eight Views of Fountains Abbey … with Description,’ Newcastle, 1832, fol. 2. ‘An Account of the Mining Districts of Alston Moor, Weardale, and Teesdale,’ Alnwick, 1833, 12mo. 3. ‘Description of Monocleid Writing Cabinets,’ Newcastle, 1841?, 8vo. 4. ‘An Account of the Museum of Economic Geology,’ London, 1843, 8vo. 5. ‘The National Importance of preserving Mining Records,’ Newcastle, 1844, 8vo. 6. ‘Education: its Present State and Future Advancement,’ Newcastle, 1853, 8vo. 7. ‘Notes of a Visit to Egypt,’ London, 1857, 8vo. 8. ‘Notes of a Visit to France and Spain,’ Hexham, 1865, 8vo. 9. ‘Education in Village Schools,’ London, 1868, 8vo. 10. ‘Three Weeks in Central Europe,’ London, 1869, 12mo.

[(Sir) B. W. Richardson's Thomas Sopwith, 1891 (containing excerpts from his Diaries, and referred to as Life above); Memoirs in Proc. Inst. Civil Eng. lviii. 345, and Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. Lond. vol. xxxv. Proc. p. 53; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. i. 323. Sopwith's detailed Diaries are now in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. David Chadwick.]

G. A. J. C.