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The mysterious Mrs Smith

Woman trouble clearly took its toll on Mr Smith

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* reports on a first-hand account of the woman who married the Father of English Geology.

Geoscientist 19.11 November 2009

Apart from the facts that her name was Mary Ann(e), that she died aged 52 in 1844 in the York Lunatic Asylum and was buried at St Olave's York, not much is known about Mrs Smith, the woman William Smith – Father of English Geology – is thought to have married in 1809, when he was 40. Candid eyewitness descriptions of Smith himself are few and far between. Descriptions of his elusive wife, Mary Ann, are even rarer. But William Crawford Williamson (1816-1895), son of the first curator of the Scarborough Museum and a scientific polymath remembered (among his many achievements) for an important monograph on living Foraminifera published in 1858 and a recipient of a Royal Society royal medal in 1874 for his work on fossil plants, had ample time to get to know her.

In 1826, Smith, accompanied by his 'eccentric wife', arrived at the Williamson's family home at 2 Huntriss Row, Scarborough. They stayed for the next two years. Although, Williamson was just 10 when the Smiths arrived, the visit remained fresh in his mind for the rest of his life. In a short article that appeared in 1877 in the magazine Good Words, Williamson provides a vivid impression of what Mrs Smith was like, as well as the state of the Smith marriage.

She was, he writes, a "small and somewhat stunted figure, oddly attired, with her cheeks rouged up to the highest point of which they were capable, with short, dark-coloured girlish curls gathered closely round her brow." Although she was subject to occasional "violent outbursts of temper, which, for a time disturbed the even tenor of her husband's way" Williamson observes that Smith apparently didn't regret his choice of life partner. "... notwithstanding these occasional outbursts, and their intellectual un-congeneality[sic]," he notes, "their domestic life was, on the whole, a happy one." No accounting for taste!


The description of Mrs Smith is taken from Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist, published in 1877 in Good Words vol 18, pp 62-66 and quoted in An Introduction to the Life and Times of William Smith (1769-1839) by Hugh Torrens, which is included in the reprint of the Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D by John Phillips, first published in 1844. A shorter version of this story appears in Williamson's autobiography, also called Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist, edited by his wife and published posthumously in 1896. Biographical information is derived from an article about William Crawford Williamson by John Pickstone in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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