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William Smith and his geological advances as expressed through his work in Yorkshire

14 February 2015
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Event type:
Lecture, Social event
Organised by:
William Smith Bicentenary, East Midlands Geological Society
Lecture Theatre B3, The Biology Building, University of Nottingham
Event status:

Time: 6pm (Followed by the Society's Annual Dinner)
Speaker: Dr Hugh Torrens

This lecture will first deal with Smith's early years, with reference to his several visits to Yorkshire, and the reasons behind them, before 1815, when his great Geological Map was published.

William Smith (1769-1839), the "father of English geology" (so named in 1825) from central Oxfordshire, had first worked out the dual geological principles for which he is now world famous in the Bath area, between 1791 and 1799. His first visit to Yorkshire, in 1794, gave an early indication of what he might expect this far north, as he worked here sporadically over the next 20 years, and his knowledge of Yorkshire's geology increased.

His dual discoveries were first that English rocks were ordered, or stratified, and that this order could be determined and tabulated (the “superposition of strata”). This was of great significance in the search for useful, stratified, minerals (like coal, ironstone, lime, fire-clay etc) during the world's first industrial 'revolution'. His second discovery was that those rocks which contained fossils could be identified using the fossils they contained.

The lecture will describe these discoveries, and Smith’s visits to Yorkshire, and outline what was known of Yorkshire's geology before Smith's map was published in 1815. This revealed a significant mistake in the correlation of Yorkshire's rocks with those he had 'standardized' farther south near Bath, by mis-representing the horizon of the Alum Shales. The important reasons for this previously misunderstood "error" will be explained.

In 1817 Smith was working near Whitby and walked over to Scarborough. Here he met the town's historian and benefactor Thomas Hinderwell (1744-1825). Soon afterwards Smith was imprisoned in London, when many of his possessions were re-possessed by the member of the Bath landed gentry who had caused Smith’s imprisonment for debt. Smith, who was never a bankrupt, had incurred many of these debts, in his selfless pursuit of geological knowledge, during Napoleonic wartime, in an uninterested England, whilst producing its first Geological Map..

After his release from prison, in the autumn of 1819, Smith went into exile with his newly geologically-apprenticed nephew John Phillips. They became at first itinerant all over the north of England. But his short visit to Scarborough in 1817 had made Smith aware of the delights and geological potential of Scarborough. So Smith settled in Scarborough, with his mysterious wife, Mary Ann, after she had showed serious signs of mental disturbance in 1819.

Smith’s immediate contacts in this part of Yorkshire in the 1820's will be dealt with next in the lecture. These included his important part in the foundation of the Scarborough Philosophical Society and Rotunda museum, and his work at Hackness for Sir John Johnstone. He planned, and was works' foreman, for this museum, built in Scarborough to demonstrate his geological principles. After extensive renovation, it was re-opened early in 2008 as “The Rotunda: the William Smith Museum of Geology”, a magnificent tribute to Smith's work.

Smith’s forgotten work here as a trainer of geologists will also be described. His pupils included such later significant geologists as Roderick Murchison and George Featherstonhaugh from America.

Finally Smith's part in that significantly Yorkshire advance in geology, involving the careful discrimination of fossil distributions within single litho-stratigraphic units (as exemplified by the work in the 1830's of Louis Hunton and William Williamson) will also be outlined, as will Smith's death, its aftermath and its sad effect on his widow. The lecture will provide an oral tribute to Smith and explain why the Rotunda Museum should be so special to geo-scientists.

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