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Distant Thunder

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Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers a Christmassy map app…

Geoscientist 21.11 December 2011/January 2012

These days any scrap of material, including letters, books, or even just a signature associated with William Smith (1769-1839), the Father of English Geology – let alone any original edition of one of his geological maps – is a highly prized collector’s item. As recently as April 2011, a badly damaged copy of Smith’s 1815 Map (A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland) thought to have been pulled out of skip, sold for more than £9000 at an auction in London. This makes the reason behind some deliberate damage suffered by a badly charred Smith map in the collections of the National Museum of Wales (NMW) Cardiff something of a mystery. In addition to the burn marks, a large section of the map covering parts of the north of England has been cut out.

This apparent vandalism is all the more surprising because the NMW holds one of the most important collections of geological maps in the world. Along with geological maps by Knipe, Walker, Cruchley, Geikie, Ramsay and many others, the NMW holds nine copies of Smith’s 1815 map, including four of the five issues, or variants, produced. Many of these maps came into the collections thanks to the diligence and foresight of Frederick John North (1889-1968). North joined the NMW as Assistant Keeper of Geology in 1914, and went on to serve as Keeper of Geology from 1915 to 1958, adding several thousand maps to the NMW collections.

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The mystery of the damaged map was recently solved, with the discovery of a handmade Christmas card addressed to James Frederick Jackson, one of the NMW collectors, in files left behind by North’s successor, Douglas Bassett (1927-2009, Keeper of Geology 1959-1977). Dated Christmas 1944 and with a message in North’s hand reading ‘With Christmas Greetings from FJ North’, the card includes a rectangular section covering the Lake District cut from Smith’s map. A typewritten text pasted inside the card notes that this is: “One of a few fragments of William Smith’s Geological Map (1815), recovered from the debris of a bonfire. The owner supposed that such an old map could not be of any use, but thought that F J N would like to have a new one that he had saved. It was a 1910 map from a railway time-table!”

Judging by the large area cut out of the map, this must be just one of a number of map-based Christmas cards North constructed. Unfortunately, North’s Christmas card list has not been found. So if you were one of the lucky ones who received a handmade Christmas card from F.J. North in 1944, Tom Sharpe in the Department of Geology at the NMW would like to hear from you. And he’d love to add you to HIS Christmas card list!

Season's Greetings to all!


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(Image - Dr Frederick J North)

The story of North’s handmade Christmas card formed part of a talk by Tom Sharpe, titled: North on the map: the geological map collection of the National Museum of Wales, given at the HOGG Conference on Geological Collectors and Collection, 4-5 April 2011. Sharpe, who discovered the card in Bassett’s files, also provided the additional information about the card’s description and origins included here, along with the illustrations used. Abstracts for all the talks given at the Conference are available for download as a pdf file from the HOGG website
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG)? For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit:, where the programme and abstracts from the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting are available as a pdf file free to download.