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True confessions - William Smith

Geoscientist 17.5 May 2007

William Smith’s association with the Geological Society of London was fraught with difficulties. But when the Society awarded Smith the first ever Wollaston Medal in 1831, Smith was prepared to bury the hatchet. In a letter to his niece Anne Phillips, published here for the first time in full, Smith describes one of the most exciting days of his life. Nina Morgan* reports…

William Smith’s relationship with the newly founded Geological Society of London got off to a very bad start, for social, financial and scientific reasons. Class divisions were deep in the 19th Century and science was not the social leveller it is today. Smith belonged to a different social class from the 13 founders of the Geological Society. He probably could not have afforded either the 15s fee to attend the Society’s monthly dinner, nor the 10s 6d fee for non-attendance. Moreover, because he lived in London at that time, he was not eligible for honorary membership.

Although Smith seems to have accepted these facts of contemporary social life, he was disturbed that his practical work and geological insights were not taken seriously by some prominent members of the Geological Society, and continued to bear a grudge for many years. In 1816 he is reported to have complained that "the theory of geology was in the possession of one class of men, the practice in another".

His complaint had some justification. None of the three prominent authorities on practical or applied geology of the time, William Smith, John Farey and Robert Bakewell, was FGS. As Smith’s nephew, John Phillips records in his Memoirs of William Smith, LLD, (1884) Smith "was almost unnoticed [by the Geological Society], "except by visits from Mr Greenough, the president, Sir James Hall and a few other members, to examine his collections in Buckingham Street (March 1808)". They were, apparently, not impressed, and according to Smith expert Prof. Hugh Torrens, did not believe that Smith had discovered anything significant.

Nevertheless, 23 years later, the minutes of a special meeting of the Council of the Geological Society (11 January 1831) record that Council members present, including "Professor Sedgwick, President in the Chair; Mr Broderip, V.P. [Vice President], Mr Horner, VP., Dr Turner, Secy, Mr Murchison, Secy, Mr John Taylor, Treasr, Captn Vetch, Mr Whewell, Dr Roget, Mr De la Beche, Resolved unanimously that the first Wollaston Medal be given to Mr W. Smith, in consideration of his being a great original discoverer in English Geology, & especially for his having been the first /in this country to discover & to teach the identification of strata, & their succession, by means of their imbedded fossils."

Praise indeed

The Wollaston is the Geological Society’s highest award, presented to scientists whose outstanding work has had a significant influence. The Wollaston Medal and donation fund were established in 1828 by bequest of the mineralogist Dr William Hyde Wollaston, discoverer of palladium, in which metal it is now struck. In 1831 the award consisted of both a medal and a purse. The latter was presented to Smith during the afternoon session of the Society’s 1831 General Meeting, on Friday 18 February. Sedgwick presented a formal eulogy in praise of Smith - for which Smith himself provided much of the biographical background.

Afterwards, at the suggestion of William Henry Fitton, a great Smith supporter and the person Phillips believed was largely responsible for Smith's receiving the award in the first place, the eulogy was published in the Annual Report 1831. In his speech Sedgwick spoke of his personal debt to Smith and hailed him as ‘the Father of English Geology’. Smith was then presented with the purse of 20 guineas – or about £1400 today. He had to wait until 20 June 1832 to receive the Medal, as part of a ceremony in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, during the second annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

But Sedgwick’s ringing endorsement of William Smith almost certainly does not tell the whole story. Professor Gordon Herries Davies, the author of the Society's newly published Bicentenary history, Whatever is Under the Earth, suggests that the words ‘in this country’, inserted later, may be evidence that someone - most probably George Bellas Greenough - was attempting to minimise Smith’s achievement. Greenough, who is widely said to have "plagiarised" Smith’s 1815 map, was no Smith fan. But the insertion may have been added because of uncertainty about whether earlier work in Germany (by Abraham Gottlob Werner) pre-empted Smith’s discovery.

Smith did himself no favours by not publishing his own maps and sections promptly. There may have been practical reasons for the delay, but even Smith’s nephew, John Phillips, a great admirer and champion, admitted regretfully in his Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D., that Smith suffered from "...the habit of procrastination, which had resisted the ambition of scientific fame…".
The Smith Memorial at Churchill, Smith's Birthplace. Photo: Ted Nield

In his own words

Although you might expect the award of this important prize to their uncle to be a talking point in letters from Phillips to his sister Anne, it actually appears in none of the 274 letters preserved in the Hope Library of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUM). But another letter in those archives, written by Smith to Anne shortly after the award ceremony, shows clearly that for Smith himself, the occasion was one of unmitigated pride and joy. The entire letter, transcribed below for the first time in print, speaks for itself.

Churchill March 7 1831

My Dear Ann [sic]

I arrived at this place on Thursday evening and am just leaving it by the Coach to Sir John's [Johnstone] Estate in Herefordshire and hope to be in York on Friday next week to be at Hackness on Saturday. I stood my long journey from York to London well - Saw Professor Sedgwick in the Evening and as John's [John Phillips’s] Papers had not been forwarded to him from Cambridge he took down my relation of chronological particulars of my life and discoveries &c &c which enabled him most eloquently to set forth the merits of my discoveries before the Geological Society at their anniversary on the 18th. I prevailed upon Sir John Johnstone to attend – He will be come a member at this their morning meeting every countenance glowed with delight when the twenty Guinea Purse was delivered to me & while I was out of the room Dr Fitton moved that the President[']s address on the occasion be printed which was seconded by Mr Greenough. Sir John came again [the words: ‘to the’ crossed out] in the evening when 90 merry Philosophical faces glowed over a most sumptuous dinner at the Crown and Anchor.

[paragraph inserted] The new president Mr Murchison then took the Chair - on his right sat Mr Hershel, Sir John Johnstone, Professor Sedgwick, myself, Mr Blake, Dr Fitton &c &c on his left, [a blank line to indicate another person not named], Davies Gilbert the late president of the Royal Society, Mr Lambert, Mr Greenough &c &c. After drinking success to their fellow associates in Science such as the Royal, Astronomical, Horticultural, Geographical, and other modern Society's [sic] and some of the most distinguished members thereof my health, coupled with the "numerous Geological Societys [sic] which now spot the range of the Oolitic Series was given with three times three" which was truly drunk with enthusiazm [sic] - From the pleasant manner in which it was given from the chair I rose elated to thank them for their kind attention to me and others [illegible word crossed out] along the oolitic range which had also to boast of the birthplace of Newton and with a happy but unpremeditated allusion to the benefits which Geology might have conferred on the Country long before my time if Newton, even in his own fields, had but for once in his life looked upon the ground". It produced a general laugh which gave me an opportunity of soon hiding my highly honoured head amongst the seated.

This is but a bad copy of what some of them afterwards told me was the best thing said in the room that Evening. I never in my life heard anything so impressive as my good friend Sedgwick's speech in my behalf at the Table he said, "he considered that in thus endeavouring to serve me he had not only done an act of public justice but a virtuous act." Sir John said the next morning "he never in his life heard such an eloquent man." At nine o'clock they returned to Somerset house [sic] - and went through their annual report & other business in the same pleasant manner which with Tea Coffee & chatting finished at 12 o'clock the most pleasant & instructive public meeting I ever attended. I dined with the new president & a party at his house on Monday - with Sir John and the Ladies of the Archbishop's Family on the Queen's birthday and again with the Geological Society the day before I left London.

[paragraph inserted] Amidst the bustle of good dinners and congratulations, some business for Sir John, & much moving about in this wonderful place of new London, I found time to have my portrait taken by Jackson which on a review he thinks "one of the best he ever did in his life" - It is now in the hands of the Engraver to be finished with all possible expedition under his kind inspection - The plate will cost about five Guineas - on the subject of remuneration for his trouble (four sittings) Jackson said "he was happy in having the opportunity of doing it for me". He, Chantrey, Brooks the anatomist, Brown the botanist, Clift, & other scientific & most eminent men request the favour of Your Brother’s acquaintance as soon as he comes to London - Sedgwick said on Wednesday last "we must now try to get you some remuneration." That I may be in the recollection of the great ones who used to know me I called upon some of them and obtained an audience with the Dukes of Manchester & Somerset[,] the latter I am told is one of the Counsel [sic] in the London University - Many rejoiced to hear that Your Brother [illegible word crossed out] is coming to Lecture there - Mr Brooks says he will study Geology for the sake of the new lights it has thrown on his own Science & will come to Scarboro' in the summer for that purpose - Phillips must not forget to call on Thos Alderson and a Ward of his (a clever young Man) who has a fine collection of British Minerals - James Sowerby is about to dispose of a part of his collection & desired me to say he will let your Brother have any thing therefrom for his Lectures - he is proceeding with the plates for the 5th No. of Strata identified and John Cary has thrown a new light on Geology by presenting me with a new pair of silver mounted spectacles

[a large section of the letter has been cut out and is missing]

My Brother John came to Churchill on Sunday so that the three Brothers who had not been alltogether [sic] for more than 30 years past had the grace of presenting their bald heads in one Pew of that elegant new Church, in supplications to their maker - I found your uncle Daniel much better than I expected & busy in improving the back part of his House & Garden - His wife & Mr & Mrs Brooks grumble and go on[;] they all desired their kind remembrance but particularly the latter who kindly came with me to Chipping Norton & was much affected on parting - Hopefully this Letter will make amends for some of my former negligence in writing. I am Dear Ann [sic] your affectionate Uncle,

Wm Smith

Monday Evening

Dramatis personae

  • Thomas Alderson: A fellow of the Geological Society resident at Blenheim St, Oxford St in London in 1837
  • William Blake, FRS Member of the Council of the Geological Society 1813-19, and also served as a Vice President and from 1815-1816 was the third president of the Geological Society. He also became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1807. Although he was not an active geological worker, he was a patron and influential cultivator of science.
  • Joshua Brookes, a British anatomist and naturalist who studied under John Hunter in London. He became a teacher of anatomy in London, and the founder of the Brookesian Museum of Comparative Anatomy. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1819, and is famous for developing a means of injecting specimens with nitre in order to improve their preservation in hot weather.
  • Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, and the discoverer of Brownian motion
  • John Cary, a cartographer. His atlas The New and Correct English Atlas published in 1787 became a standard reference work in England. Among his other major works were Cary's New Itinerary (1798) which was commissioned by the General Post Office as a map of all major roads in England and Wales. In later life he collaborated with William Smith.
  • Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey RA became a member of the Geological Society in 1814. In 1825 he presented the Seal on the incorporation of the Society, and he also sculpted the head of Wollaston for the obverse of the Wollaston Medal. He was a member of the Council of the Geological Society, 1830-31; 1833-34;1841-42
  • William Clift, curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. An osteologist, he was interested in fossil as well as recent bones. He was a member of the Council of the Geological society from 1824-26; 1831-33; 1836-38.
  • William Henry Fitton trained as a medical doctor and married in June 1820. His wife’s wealth made it possible for him retire from medicine, move to London and devote himself to geology. He was a member of the Council of the Geological Society 1822-30; 1831-46; and also served as a Vice President and served as the Society’s President from 1827-1829. He was also a great champion of Smith.
  • Davies Gilbert, engineer, author, and political figure. He was President of the Royal Society from 1827 to 1830, a Member of Parliament, and a member of the Council of the Geological Society from 1827-35, where he also served as a Vice President.
  • George Bellas Greenough, politician, geologist, geographer. He was the President of the Geological Society from 1807-1813, and also served two further terms as president, from 1818-1820 and 1833-35. He is often said to have plagiarised William Smith’s work because the geological map of England he compiled, and which was published in 1820, was largely based on Smith’s work, including Smith’s geological map of England which was published in 1815.
  • Sir John Frederick William Herschel, an English mathematician and astronomer, and son of the astronomer William Herschel. John Herschel originated the use of the Julian day system in astronomy and made several important contributions to the improvement of photographic processes. He also coined the terms "photography", "negative", and "positive", and discovered sodium thiosulfate as a fixer of silver halides. He also informed Daguerre of his own discovery that hyposulfite of soda (hypo) would fix his camera pictures and make them permanent.
  • John Jackson, a portrait painter and copyist portrait artist. He was elected as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1815, and became a Royal Academician in 1818.
  • Sir John/ Sir John Johnstone, President of the Scarborough Philosophical Society, and a patron and support of William Smith. He appointed Smith as land steward on his Hackness estates, owner of the Harwood-dale estate.
  • James Sowerby, a naturalist and artist with a strong interest in science. He proposed the classification of minerals according to their chemical composition. His family was involved in publishing and he described many of the fossils illustrated in the Mineral Conchology (1812-1846). He also described and illustrated material for geologists such as The Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Impey Murchison, The Reverend William Buckland and William Henry Fitton.
  • Roderick Impey Murchison, after serving in the army he became an enthusiastic geologist. He founded the Silurian, Devonian, and Permian systems, and served as director of the Geological Survey from 1855-71.
  • Isaac Newton: needs no introduction! The reference to Newton in Smith’s letter is explained in a manuscript dated May 20, 1839, written by Smith and reproduced as follows in John Phillips’s Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D., first published in 1844. “Sir Isaac Newton was a promoter of geological investigation; but he, like others of the day, looked to things at a distance rather than at home. It was not an object for a telescope. Newton’s own fields, or at least those he must have often walked over, are literally strewed with fossils in a manner which I never saw in any other soil, lying thereon like new-sown seeds of oats, and so numerous are they (where I observed them, that in the most state of that tenacious soil the great philosopher may have scraped them (unobserved) from his shoes by hundreds. It was this which, on my receiving the Wollaston prize, induced me to say that ‘had Newton condescended to look on the ground he must have been a geologist”.
  • Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology at Cambridge from 1818-73. He founded the Cambrian System and jointly founded the Devonian with Murchison. He served as President of the Geological Society 1829-31, Member of Council, 1824-25; 1827-44; 1845-48; and also Vice President.
  • The Crown and Anchor Tavern: In 1831 the Geological Society meetings were held at Somerset House in The Strand, and the Crown and Anchor Tavern Smith refers to is presumably The Crown and Anchor tavern on The Strand at the corner of Arundel Street and Milford Lane, where the Geological Society Dinners were held. For much of the 18th century, the ballroom at the Crown and Anchor was home to one of the largest public rooms of its kind in London. For example, Handel’s oratorio, Esther, was first performed there on 23 February, 1732; and the tune of the American national anthem, Star Spangled Banner, is said to have been composed there in 1790. Luminaries such as Samuel Johnson [1709-84], James Boswell [1740-95] and Sir Joshua Reynolds [1723-92] were customers. The Crown and Anchor closed its doors as a pub in 1847, and was destroyed by fire in 1854.
  • The new church at Churchill: This refers to All Saints Church in Churchill, Oxfordshire. It was consecrated in 1827, and built at the sole expense of James Houghton Langston (1796 - 1863) - a man Pevsner describes as ‘The most outstanding patron of architecture amongst 19th century Oxfordshire landowners,’ - to replace an older medieval church of the same name. Incidently, Langston’s wife was related to the Earl of Ducie, who erected a monument to the memory of William Smith in Churchill in 1891.


I thank Stella Brecknell and Philip Powell for drawing the collection of letters to my attention, the Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for allowing me access to the museum archives and permission to quote from and reproduce the William Smith letter and the drawing of Smith; Wendy Cawthorne, assistant librarian at the Geological Society for introducing me to Gordon Herries Davies and providing transcripts of the Society’s minutes; All Saints Churchill PCC for providing information about the ‘new church at Churchill’ and permission to use photographs; Mike Tomlinson for help with the illustrations; Gordon Herries Davies for useful discussions, sharing unpublished research, reviewing an earlier draft of the text and for his help in identifying the people mentioned in Smith’s letter; Hugh Torrens for sharing his extensive knowledge about William Smith, help in identifying the people mentioned in Smith’s letter, and reviewing an earlier draft of the text. Apologies in advance for any inadvertent omissions from this list of acknowledgments. Any errors that remain in this article are my own.

* Nina Morgan is a freelance science writer based near Oxford.