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Christmas Cheer - or, the gourmet geologist

William Smith - hearty eater

Science writer Nina Morgan savours a few crumbs from William Smith's yuletide spread

Geoscientist 18.12 December 2008

In 1828 William Smith settled in Hackness, near Scarborough to take up the position of land steward for Sir John Johnstone. While Johnstone, a patron and supporter of Smith, was keen to apply Smith's geological insights to bring about improvements in agriculture on his Hackness estate, the job seems to have inspired Smith to dabble in food production on his own account.

Smith often mentions his agricultural exploits in a series of letters written between 1830 and 1839 to his niece Anne Phillips (sister of the geologist John Phillips) which are preserved in the Hope Library in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. For example, in November 1830 Smith writes to tell Anne how "The little Pigs are become bonny big ones the big pig killed on Monday last remarkably fat weighed 18 stone only one month feeding on Potatoes & 2 Buckets of Barley meal it has quite astonished the natives." Meanwhile, on the vegetable front he records similar successes: "Carrots from the Dutch Garden a great crop and remarkably fine – wonderful Swedish Turnips and thousands of Ragged Jacks Tares &c for the Spring, but poor Brussels sprouts make poor accts."

Smith's home-produced delicacies were apparently very welcome gifts. When in a letter to Anne written at the end of November 1832, Smith breaks the news that for various reasons "I must decline the honour of Your pressing invitation to York at Xmas" he offers her a tasty consolation. "Although I cannot come at Xmas, You may accept as my proxy – a Goose."

Merry Christmas all!


Letters quoted are part of a series of 33 letters from William Smith to Anne Phillips preserved in the archives of the Hope Library at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) ( I am grateful to the Director of the OUMNH for permission to quote from these letters, and to the librarian Stella Brecknell for all her help with this project. Other sources of information for this vignette include the William Smith entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Hugh Torrens.

If the past is the key to your present interests, visit the History of Geology Group (HOGG) website.

*Nina Morgan is a freelance science writer based near Oxford, UK