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Smith's other debt

Cast of Smith’s features ‘taken years ago from the living subject’ by Joseph Baker of Scarborough. Smith died in 1839, before photographic portraiture was possible. Baker noted in 1873 that 'the original mould is destroyed.’

John Strachey, William Smith and the strata of England 1719-1801

Geoscientist 17.7 July 2007

William Smith (1769-1839) began acquiring his geological knowledge and experience while making a probate survey of an estate at Stowey, about eight miles south of Bristol. The estate had belonged to Mary Jones, last surviving niece of John Strachey FRS (1671-1743) of Sutton Court. The names of Smith, Jones and Strachey thus became entwined in a story of geological detection not found in history books. John Fuller investigates. 

William Smith’s first surveying in Somerset took place mainly in the parishes of Stowey and High Littleton, within the NE Somerset coalfield. The Stowey estate where Smith began work in 1791 adjoined lands belonging to the Strachey family of Sutton Court (in the adjoining parish of Chew Magna). Smith was then about 22 years old, and while working in the district he is known to have had in his possession an engraved geological cross-section made by John Strachey of Sutton Court, illustrating parts of the coalfield (Figure 1).

Figure 1: William Smith’s copy of John Strachey’s ‘Section of a Coal Country’ in the version published in 1721. Smith has annotated the plate to indicate the direction of dip, and the page number in the volume.
Strachey’s work set out notions of regularity among the strata, their angles of dip, faulting and angular discordance; and uniquely identified a particular coal-seam by its associated fossils. A copy of this section was found among Smith's papers after his death. It had been torn from an edition of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, and bore pencil annotations in Smith's handwriting. "There is evidence’ said L R Cox, his biographer in 1942, "that he was acquainted with Strachey’s papers by the end of 1796’.

Much of William Smith’s early geology so closely resembled John Strachey’s as to leave scant doubt that he found in Strachey’s work both text and template for his future geological insights. Further material evidence of historical links between John Strachey and William Smith arises from the marriage of Strachey’s only sister Elizabeth to William Jones of Stowey (Figure 2), whose daughter (Strachey’s niece) was the late owner of the estate where Smith began his probate work in 1791.

Stowey House, seat of William Jones of Stowey, brother-in-law of John Strachey. The house was afterwards the residence of Mary Jones (1705–1791) Strachey’s niece, and on her death it passed to her cousin Elizabeth Jones of Ramsbury.

This account might have been subtitled "The truth behind the story of William Smith’. It seeks to demonstrate how a modest study in biographical detection revealed the source of William Smith’s first ideas concerning the English strata. The evidence for Smith’s initial awareness of Earth’s strata, and his indebtedness to John Strachey will be expanded and discussed as part of a general theme that in 18th Century England geological knowledge of stratified rocks grew in a climate of agricultural and industrial expansion, and that its fundamental facts originated among industrial artisans and workmen, not among academic scholars. 

The story begins with the indenture of a lease drawn up in 1719, entitling William Jones of Stowey to dig for coal on land belonging to John Strachey of Sutton Court in the parish of Chew Magna, adjacent to Stowey. The two men, John Strachey and William Jones, were brothers-in-law, residing within half a mile of one another. Though Strachey died in 1743, and William Smith did not arrive at Stowey until 1791, Smith acquired his early geological understanding and experience on exactly the same stretch of ground as Strachey - and took his first inspiration directly from Strachey’s work. That ground, with its key sites and industrial remains are the subjects of a field excursion to the country between Bath and Mendip available on this site.

John Strachey, William Smith, and John Phillips

Sutton Court, residence of John Strachey, F.R.S., viewed from the south. Detail from Bonner’s engraving in Collinson’s Somerset, 1791. Photograph by courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
John Strachey (1671-1743) was a Somerset squire and antiquary of Sutton Court (Figure 3). In 1719 he made a pictorial cross-section of the geology under his estate, drawing profiles of underground strata seen in nearby coal works, and projecting them according to their measured thicknesses and attitudes into unknown areas between the coal workings. He thus constructed realistic and structurally plausible forecasts of local coal prospectivity. His purpose seems to have been to illustrate his grant of a coal-lease on parts of the Sutton estate, drawn up in that year. "To this day,’ said Sir Edward Bailey, Director and historian of the Geological Survey, "It conveys as clear a picture as could be desired of a semi-concealed coalfield’. Strachey’s stratigraphical cross-sections, of which he published several, are the earliest known in scientific literature. 

Some years later, William Smith (1769-1839) working in the same part of this coalfield, also took an interest in the relationships among strata underground. He introduced a new form of map, tracing emergent edges of subterranean strata at the surface of the ground; and even more importantly, he established uniquely and for the first time that among broken or remote tracts of strata, identities among detached parts could be proved by identities among fossils contained within them. It is a historical fact that all present-day stratigraphic practice has an ancestry linked to these events in Somerset.

The brief study here presented sets out to explain the impulse and source of inspiration that caused William Smith to begin his investigations among the stratified rocks of Somerset near Stowey and High Littleton, a few miles south of Bath. The story leads from John Strachey’s first essay on coal-mines to the identification of named strata by means of their contained fossils, as applied by William Smith 80 years later. Both events took place on the same ground, on lands owned by two closely related families.

Literary and historical links between Smith and Strachey have grown much more obvious since suspicion began to grow that the biographical account of Smith compiled by John Phillips, his nephew, was historically inadequate. Indeed, one might infer that sometime during the period between Smith’s death in 1839 and the 1844 publication of Phillips’s Memoirs of William Smith, that a number of vital records had been laid aside or perhaps unconsciously discarded.

Such is the power, even today, of John Phillips’s account of William Smith’s geology, that serious investigation of Smith’s views on the nature and properties of strata, and the sources of his ideas can seem more like memorial bashing than genuine enquiry. Yet questions ought to be asked. For example, did Smith acquire his view of the Strata from his own observations? How did he discover John Strachey’s work? Did Phillips sift out "unsuitable" papers? He had both possible motive and certain opportunity, for Smith died at Northampton, miles from his home in Yorkshire, where he had lived alone. Phillips, as nephew, was next of kin.

Smith’s schooldays

Some notion of his childhood is essential to understanding Smith’s geology. He was born in March 1769, the son of a blacksmith in the Oxfordshire village of Churchill. His schooling, as reported long after by Phillips, was "very limited’. Among the rural poor of that time only a small proportion of school-aged children (c. 1 in 30) received any organised education. The luckiest event that could befall them was to be placed in the apprentice-house of an enlightened employer. At eight years old, an orphan in a small and unremarkable village, sent to work at an uncle's farm, and at risk of becoming yet one more helpless addition to the wretched underclass of child labourers, William Smith became one such lucky individual.

By singular good fortune Smith’s intelligence and industry were noticed by a sharp-eyed land surveyor, Edward Webb of Stow-on-the-Wold, not far from Churchill, who took him in as an assistant. Smith lived with the Webb family for nearly five years, training himself in the disciplines of surveying, measuring, casting numbers, making agricultural valuations, managing improvements to farmland drainage, and assisting with surveys of lands scheduled for enclosure.

It does no disservice to Smith’s achievements to say that he possessed particular qualities of persistence and stubbornness, and that he began his adult years equipped with hardly more than an ability to read, a serviceable longhand, and the bare elements of scripture. The story of Smith’s initial awareness of Earth’s strata, and his indebtedness to the work of John Strachey, illustrate the initial dependence of geological knowledge in 18th Century England on the observations of industrial artisans and workmen.

Chew Magna and Stowey 1719–1727

On 18April 1719, John Strachey granted a 21-year lease on several tracts of his Sutton estate to William Jones of Stowey, his brother-in-law and neighbour. The indenture allowed Jones "to Search for open dig or Sink any pitt or pitts for Coal’. Strachey had studied the coal workings at Bishop Sutton, about half a mile southwest of Sutton Court, and at Stanton Drew, about a mile to the north. He had learned from colliers that the same seams as at Sutton were being worked in pits toward Farrington Gurney, about four miles away to the southeast of Sutton Court. Strachey’s land at Sutton lay between these two known productive areas, and to demonstrate its potential value as a prospect he made a cross-sectional diagram showing his predicted subterranean arrangement of the coal seams, their individual thicknesses and depths. Whether William Jones ever sank a shaft on the Sutton lease is not known.

John Strachey wrote a letter explaining the geology of the local coal industry and the nature of the overlying strata to his friend Robert Welsted MD, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Welsted communicated Strachey’s letter to the Society at its meeting on 7 May 1719, and arrangements were made for the letter to be published together with the cross-section. Strachey was then 48 years old. Later, at the November 5 meeting of the Society he was elected a Fellow. Variants of Strachey’s 1719 diagram were reproduced in 1721, 1725, and 1734, the last two lengthening his original four-mile section to more than 20 miles, crossing a tract from the Chalk hills of Wiltshire to the high ground above Wrington, near Bristol. He also made "strike" sections at right-angles. 

In his second paper for the Royal Society (1725), and in a booklet independently published two years later, Strachey emphasised his conception of the strata as a body or group of layered earths and minerals extending across England north-eastward from the coast of Wessex to Yorkshire and the farther coast of Northumberland. The Strata as he then understood them were potentially of global extent:

John Strachey’s interior section of the terraqueous globe representing 12 strata arranged in a duplicated sequence, each commencing with Iron and ending with Tinn (in the Cornish southwest). At the surface all strata dip SE, a point not lost on Smi"All these different Strata, as found in any of those Places I have observed myself, or met with from others, I have at one View represented in a globular Projection of the terraqueous Globe."

The Strata, thus defined, consisted of several discrete entities, as follows: at the top Chalk (Upper Cretaceous), followed downward by Freestone (Upper & Middle Jurassic), Lias and Marl (Lower Jurassic), Red Earth (Triassic), Clives and Coal (Upper Carboniferous), and Limestone with Lead (Lower Carboniferous). This sequence was expanded to 12 units or component parts by the addition of other earths, ochres, and metals, so that the Strata became a duodecimally-layered fabric covering the whole globe. Strachey visualised the rotating Earth as consisting of 24 individual layers, 12 of which were exposed to the passing day, at the rate of one per hour, and a further 12 duplicating exactly the same sequence at night (Figure 4).

Was this imaginative fancy? Well, yes it was, for Strachey was pushing his ideas into a wider area of understanding. An audience at the Royal Society in 1725, or the public at large reading his 1727 pamphlet, would have appreciated this conception of the English strata. It was a manifest testimony of design in Creation; it was an "argument from design’, and therefore it could be understood as further proof of natural order in the terraqueous globe. 

Easterly Dip and Creation's Fourth Day

Why did John Strachey, who was known to be a careful scholar, augment his straightforward account of coal-mining in Somerset with an abstract fancy visualising a universal and globally distributed sequence of rock-units, duodecimally-arranged, which by rotation of the Earth passed an observer at a rate of one per hour by day, repeating identically at night? And why did the apparent prevalence of easterly dip among stratified rocks, particularly of coal-measures, become so prominent in both John Strachey’s and William Smith’s geology?

A single answer to these questions resides in something learned in the past by every reluctant schoolboy in England, and remembered also by every comprehending adult; namely that Earth’s lands and seas had been separated from one another on the Third Day of the Creator’s work, and that on the Fourth Day the newly formed terraqueous globe was set into its rotational motion, turning from west to east, making one full revolution in 24 hours. This was an everyday lesson taught in the most rudimentary of schooling.

Inertial forces at the commencement of Earth’s rotation caused the unconsolidated and still waterlogged strata to bend away from verticality, overwarping to the west so that their exposed basset edges came to face westward, while the main stratified masses concomitantly acquired easterly dips. As John Strachey explained:

"The different Strata ... whilst in a soft and fluid State, tending towards the Center ... by the continual Revolution of the crude Mass from West to East, like the winding up of a Jack, or rolling up the Leaves of a Paper-Book, that every one of these Strata, tho’ they each reach the Center, must, in some Place or other, appear to the Day."

This notion was not new. It had been put forward previously by William Stukeley, whom Strachey acknowledged, and also by John Ray (1627-1705) in his Three Physico-Theological Discourses:

"For tho’ it be observed by Colliers, that the Beds of Coals lie one way, and do always dip towards the East, let them go never so deep; were it not for the Water, they say, they might pursue the Bed of Coals to the very Center of the Earth."

To understand the geological language used by Strachey and Smith concerning Earth’s structure and historical development, it is crucially important to appreciate that both of them turned to the highest authority offered by their schooling, namely Biblical narratives, from which they were able to deduce that the Strata had been formed en masse, not singly; that the order in which they had been formed was the natural order of Creation (certainly not an order of procession); and that this had been put into effect before Earth’s rotation had commenced. This is another way of saying that neither Strachey, nor Smith until the 1820s, felt any need to question his data-source in Scripture. After all, no time-scale was necessary to represent the shape of a stratum, whether it was profiled in section or coloured on a map.

It all seemed so obvious to Strachey that it scarcely bore any further discussion, but William Smith made an explanatory note for future use in a book that he was planning. The note was headed as follows: "Possition of the Strata in general", and was dated 2 December 1796, at the Swan Inn, Dunkerton.

"And when such regular and orderly disposition of the Strata is found the same on one side of a river deep valley or Channel as on the other over an extent of many Miles when proper allowances are made for its inclination and for the variation of the Surface, Is it not reasonable to suppose that the same Strata may be found as regular on one side of the Sea or Ocean as on opposite sides of a deep valley upon Land if so and the continuation of the Strata is general what is its general direction or drift is it in straight Lines from Pole to Pole or in curved Lines surrounding the Globe regularly inclined to the East–– That the Strata at its first formation was in a Soft state or of a pulpy consistince there can be no doubt and that the motion of the Earth from W. to E. –– which commenced before the Strata was perfectly Solid would naturally place it in an inclined curvilineal possition And the same centrifugal force which upon Newtons principles produced the Spheroidical form of the Earth must also distend the Strata near the Line much more than at the Poles"

Reading Smith’s early notes, and the incomplete Preface of 1801 to his intended book, one feels that Strachey’s model of the Strata was never far away from his thinking. One could cite, for example, the emphasis placed by both Strachey and Smith on southeasterly dip; their exposition of "regularity’ among the strata; their belief in hemispherical west-facing bassets, their visions of strata extending from pole to pole; and their wonderfully inspired notion that all the strata ultimately spiralled down to the Earth’s centre "like the rolled up leaves of a book.’ This last idea certainly appealed to Smith, for in 1798 he wrote a memorandum describing Strachey’s conception of the twenty-four rotating strata as "our theory".

"To make this more inteligable we will suppose a Spectator (divested of attraction & stationed at rest to observe the Strata of the Circumference as they pass by him while the earth turns round) to begin at one of the most remarkable of those Beds that when he comes to the same point again he may know that he has noted them all and completed an imaginary Survey which may do well to illustrate our Theory."

Silence at Stowey, 1727–1791

John Strachey continued his geological interests after publishing the 1727 booklet, adding many more handwritten pages to it. He also compiled a description of the geology of England based on his own observations, noting the distribution of strata from the Channel coast to Northumberland. But he found himself trapped in financial and family difficulties, and the later work never reached publication. His heir, Hodges Strachey, ("an extravagant fellow’) had the management of the Sutton estate. The ever-patient Elizabeth Strachey died at Edinburgh in 1722, while her husband was occupied with work in Scotland. He himself lived until 1743, dying at Greenwich.

Rugbourne House, Mary Jones’s property at High Littleton. After her death in 1791, William Smith lodged here while conducting a probate survey of the farm lands and coal workings on the estate.With John Strachey’s passing, scientific and geological interests at Sutton Court and Stowey seem to have lapsed, at least until 1783, when a group of eight local property owners, including Strachey’s niece, Mary Jones, opened a coal working on her land at High Littleton. This colliery was called Mearns. Eight years later, Mary Jones died, and the estate, including the colliery interest and the old manor house called Rugbourne (Figure 5) went to a cousin, though not before probate of Mary Jones’s will, for which a survey and valuation were needed. During the year, a young man from Gloucestershire, William Smith, arrived to make the survey.

Smith’s Arrival at Stowey, 1791

The only account of Smith’s arrival at Stowey in 1791 is to be found in Phillips’s Memoirs of William Smith (1844). Sparse narrative and inflationary adjectives persuade the reader to imagine a larger scene than the material actually supports. Below, for example, Phillips quotes his uncle, and then adds his own comments:

"Coal was worked at High Littleton beneath the "red earth,’ and I was desired to investigate the collieries and state the particulars to my employer. My subterraneous survey of these coal veins, with sections which I drew of the strata sunk through in the pits, confirmed my notions of some regularity in their formation.” The minute survey which Mr. Smith made of the High Littleton Collieries was continued at intervals through the years 1792 and 1793, and among the papers remaining, which demonstrate a perfect acquaintance with the effect of the faults, on the outcrops and depths of the coal, are an “Original Sketch and Observations of my first Subterranean Survey of Mearn’s Colliery in the parish of High Littleton."

Smith surveyed Mearns in 1792, and his Original Sketch and Observations of my first Subterranean Survey, mentioned above, is one of two undated, though closely related papers in the Oxford archive. A new transcription of this Original Sketch has been published, together with its accompanying plan of the colliery. A second paper has the title Small Sketch & Section & acct of Mearns Coalwork. This is a pen-and-ink drawing of the mine in profile, with its subterranean inclines, which at some time after it had been made was clumsily and entirely brushed over with an obliterating coat of black ink or pigment, patently failing to render the written matter illegible. Yet, on the other hand, one could argue that the black colouration was simply a botched experiment to show the drawing in the same colour as the coalpit. Smith was known to favour this style of self-coloured representation of strata on maps and sections. The line-drawing itself under the wash of black pigment, reveals Smith's first known attempt to illustrate a colliery section or elevation. On it, stations within the mine are numbered 1 to 12, exactly as they appear on the plan accompanying his Original Sketch and Observations.

No geological matter appears in either of these papers, a fact hidden from the reader by Phillips’s careful management of words. For example, the "minute survey’ quoted above, was an estate survey for probate of Mary Jones’s will, not a geological exercise; and the papers do not, as Phillips seems to claim, "demonstrate a perfect acquaintance with the effects of the faults, on the outcrops and depths of the coal’. On the contrary, those geological features are to be found on Strachey’s cross-sections, one of which came to light in 1938 from Phillips’s packing case at Oxford. It was marked with words and numbers in Smith’s own handwriting, noting the subsurface faulting in coal-seams (Figure 1). Of course, one should not be surprised by this, for Smith would gladly have studied anything that could help his understanding of the mine. Of greater significance is a general bareness of the Oxford archive in relation to other works by Strachey. For example, on the detached 1721 cross-section (Figure 1) Smith had also noted the exact page-number from the abridged version of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions where he could find the text that explained the section.

Hybrid Growth of Stratigraphy 1791–1801

Through the first decade of the new geology, 1791 - 1801, its seedling shoot became a tree - tandem fit circulus arbor - growing with hybrid vigour from the works of John Strachey and William Smith’s preface to his proposed book Natural Order of Strata, together with an assortment of Smith’s hand-written notes. Examples in Smith’s early writings revealing phrases and observations also found in John Strachey’s papers are well known. The main argument that Smith’s early geology evolved from Strachey’s work was, and still is, that Smith had evidently absorbed Strachey’s published ideas, whether by way of Benjamin Richardson of Farleigh, or through the late Mary Jones’s estate. Commonalities between the writings of Strachey and Smith are too numerous for apologetic coincidence.

Of all the original observations made by Smith, the one most celebrated and most deeply impressed in geological literature was his observation of a diagnostic relationship among particular strata and their contained fossils. This principle appears in many forms, usually associated with words like "identity’ and "identification’. Most expressively, it appears in Smith’s own words from a much-quoted manuscript fragment dated 5 January 1796:

"D. Swan 1796 – Jany 5th (Page 2) Fossils have been long studdied as great Curiosities collected with great pains treasured up with great Care and at a great Expence and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a Childs rattle or his Hobby horse is shown and admired by himself and his playfellows - because it is pretty. And this has been done by Thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order & regularity with which Nature has disposed of these singular productions and assigned to each Class its peculiar Stratum"

A second manuscript fragment, undated, records substantially the same sentiment, though it substitutes "Creator’ in place of "Nature.’ This note is headed Fossils:

"Many men to gratify mere Curiosity & to no other end have been at infinite pains to collect choice Specimens from the numerous Fossil Tribe without so much as dreaming of that Systematic arrangement to which they are the best of all Indieces – or paying the least attention to that regularity with which the Creator has disposed of these singular productions & assigned to each Class its peculiar Stratum"

Detail from WS's copy of Strachey’s 1721 cross-section illustrating coal-seams mined near Bishop Sutton and Farrington Gurney. Strachey observed that the fossils in the shale over the Peacock Veyn are The point of presenting both quotations is that they are mutually supportive, indicating that Smith did mean as he said, and that the Stratum really did define the fossils. This principle so stated was exactly the reverse of what he, and others after him, actually put into practice. The point is not trivial–– perhaps Smith did mean exactly what he wrote, and that he was being guided, as elsewhere, by something he found in Strachey’s papers. For example, on the copy of Strachey’s 1721 cross-section which Smith possessed, the lettering above the bed of coal named Peacock or Peaw Veyn reads–– "Cockle shells and Fern branches" (Figure 6). The text (p.260–63), also known to Smith, reveals that for Strachey and colliers alike the fossils and the coal-seam accompanied and identified one another:

"The Cliff [shale] also over this Vein is variegated with Cockle-shells and Fern-Branches, and this is always an Indication of this Vein."

The shells and ferns were indeed assigned to their peculiar stratum, as Smith rightly observed. Other geological notes, mainly from 1796 and 1798, reveal contemplative explanations that seem to depend upon Scriptural realism, yet they also question it. Two examples – Fossil Shells and Effects of the Deluge – offer strong evidence that by 1800 Smith’s geological concepts were beginning to move away from literal exegesis:

"These [shells] were not depossited there at the time of the Deluge for it is not at all consistant with the Wisdom and dignity of the Deity to pull the whole Earth to pieces for the purpose of destroying Man ..."

"I surely believe that these waters did not penetrate to such a depth or disturb the strata so much as has been imagined, yet the effects of a Deluge are very visible upon the surface of the Earth & to a great depth beneath especially in low lands or by the sides of large Rivers where great quantities of Gravil Sand & mud are generally collected in which the remains of Trees & Animals are frequently found preserved intire and these are the things which may be reckoned among the most perfect proofs of a Deluge but at the same time they must not be mistaken for or confounded with Fossils."

"Wether they were depossited in those Beds by the deluge or at the Creation are enquiries which will be better made when their properties and positions are better understood."

Passages like these, glowing vividly among his preliminary notes, reveal Smith’s brilliant mind struggling to overcome its want of early instruction. Edward Webb had spotted rare potential when he took Smith into a land-surveying apprenticeship; and John Phillips’s hindsight, while making a generous estimate of Smith’s education, could say nothing of any scholarly experience before Smith’s arrival at Stowey. What can be seen now more clearly is the huge effect on Smith of his aquaintance with Strachey’s work, and the friendship of clerics such as Benjamin Richardson of Farleigh Hungerford, and Joseph Townsend of Pewsey, at whose residence in Bath Smith’s famous Table of Strata was drawn up. Many years passed before Smith felt able to say publicly that in their beginning the strata were not created in a single mass, all together, as his prime authority stated.

More than two centuries have gone by since Smith set out to map the strata of England. Leading figures among scientists at that time belittled him, though his observations were self-evidently correct. Decisive and eloquent support from William Fitton and Adam Sedgwick silenced contemporary scoffers, Sedgwick pressing beyond any ordinary praise and launching Smith into the role of patriarch by publicly declaring him in 1831 "Father of English Geology". Thereafter, the practical usefulness of Smith’s ideas in science, agriculture, and engineering came to be widely admitted; and by mid-century a general belief in the utility of science, such as Smith’s work exemplified, was being celebrated in two huge industrial exhibitions mounted in 1851 and 1862.

In this new mid-century environment of utilitarian virtue and practical science Smith could be presented as a man distinguished in British scientific endeavour, and was suitably shown in a group portrait at the Royal Institution, standing between Sir Joseph Banks and Henry Cavendish. Other admirers, particularly geologists, began to envelop Smith in a transfiguring cloud of scholarly reverence, giving him central place in a very British story that told of a young orphan-boy from nowhere, who defeated adversity through self-help, who succeeded magnificently, unaided and alone in a huge personal enterprise, who confounded his critics, and was proved during his lifetime to have made a great scientific discovery Yet in the end was openly cheated by a parcel of scheming gentry.

That story is celebrated among geologists everywhere, surviving even the discovery at Oxford in 1938 of a packing-case filled with Smith’s writings, left apparently by his nephew, John Phillips. Until that day in 1938, the Memoirs that John Phillips had written after his uncle’s death, had been the only biographical source readily available. For nearly a hundred years most things said about Smith and his early geological achievements had relied more or less obviously on what his nephew had written.

Given the class-structure of educated society in 1844 when the Memoirs was published, and the proprieties then observed for biographical writing, one may ask whether Phillips would have considered writing anything that seemed to diminish his own or his uncle’s scientific respectability. In the expanding flux of English society during the 1840s, social standing and respectability meant everything to the new professionals, particularly to Phillips, who was then enjoying the academic privileges of Oxford.


I thank the Curators of the William Smith archive at the University Museum, Oxford for access and permission to reproduce William Smith's copy of John Strachey’s cross-section. I thank also the Somersetshire County Archivist, Taunton, for access to the Strachey archive. Further thanks for help and advice must go to Wendy Cawthorne, Desmond Donovan, Hugh Torrens, and the late John Thackray.


Notes on Strachey Family Connexions with Jones of Stowey and Jones of Ramsbury

(1) John Strachey (1671-1743), topographer and antiquarian of Sutton Court in the parish of Chew Magna, Somerset. Inherited estates from his father at three years of age. Matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford. Admitted at Middle Temple, London, 1688. Fellow of the Royal Society, 1719.

(2) Elizabeth Strachey (1674-1743), only sister of John Strachey, FRS. Married William Jones of Stowey juxta Chew Magna, 1702. Four children, of whom the second daughter, Mary (1705-1791) outlived the others and died unmarried at Stowey.

(3) William Jones of Stowey juxta Chew Magna (1680-1748/9) landowner. Second son of Samuel Jones of Ramsbury, Wiltshire, and grandson of Richard Jones of Stowey (1605-1692). Married Elizabeth Strachey, 1702. Four children, 2 sons, 2 daughters.

(4) Mary Jones of Stowey (1705-1791). Second and longest surviving child of Elizabeth Jones nee Strachey. Known in later life as "Madame Jones.’ Inherited the Jones family estate at Stowey. Owned Rugbourne and coal property at High Littleton. Bequeathed estate to Elizabeth Jones of Ramsbury.

(5) Elizabeth Jones of Ramsbury, first daughter and coheir of William Jones of Ramsbury (d.1753); and great granddaughter of Sir William Jones (1630-1682) Attorney General. Married William Langham 1767, later entitled Lady Elizabeth Langham Jones; d. without issue, 1800. Inherited Ramsbury estate on death of her husband, May, 1791. Also inherited Stowey estate in 1791 on death of her cousin (second cousin once removed) Mary Jones of Stowey. Commissioned Edward Webb of Stow-on-the-Wold to make probate survey of Mary Jones’s estate. Task was given to William Smith.

© J.G.C.M. Fuller, 2006.