Handwritten in Stone

How William Smith's maps changed geology

William Smith: Sea defence and drainage engineer

Contributed by Owen Green, Earth Sciences, Oxford University

WSG11006Flooding along the Norfolk coast and the encroachment of the German Ocean (North Sea) was a common occurrence during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During 1792 nine gaps in the protective bank between Horsey and Waxham were recorded, with the marine incursion extending three miles inland to the village of Hickling, contaminating the fresh water Hickling Broad and killing the fish. In 1805, following a break in the sea-defence of over a mile in length between Winterton and Happisburgh, William Smith was commissioned to assist in the construction of coastal defences and land drainage along the coast north of Great Yarmouth, and south into Suffolk. For nearly a decade he made a number of visits to East Anglia to oversee this work.

William Smith is known to have visited East Anglia and Norfolk in particular initially in 1800. During that year he was employed by Thomas Coke of Holkham Hall to assist in land drainage, and the following year he visited the Duke of Bedford at Woburn to offer advice on the drainage of his estate. He returned to Norfolk in 1802, and was a frequent resident of Norwich until 1807. During this time he was employed as a civil engineer to repair the sea defences along the North Norfolk coast between Winterton and Happisburgh, a distance of 1.5 kilometres. At first Smith had considered constructing a defence of clay banks reinforced with stone and timber. Over a period of time he recorded the tides, comparing the levels between high and low, and the effects of storms. He observed that during particular seasons, and following unusual storms, the sea bed was disturbed, and that the sand became covered by a layer of shingle. He noted that shingle beds were extremely effective in binding sand, which under normal circumstances would be blown away by the wind.

Title page from Smith's unpublished work on Norfolk

Title page from Smith’s unpublished work on Norfolk

Smith proposed to construct “a new artificial embankment, as like as possible to the natural embankments formed by the sea and wind”. This simple plan was ridiculed and almost rejected, until Smith pointed out how ineffectual the solid constructions had been compared to the natural banks of sloping sand. Employing a team of workmen using carts to move sand into the gaps, he then sealed it with a layer of shingle. Further stabilisation of the banks was achieved with the planting of marram grass (Arundo arenaria). Once continued seasonal flooding had ceased Smith was then able to turn his attention to suggesting ways for the owners of the low-lying marshland to proceed with draining. This was usually achieved by the construction of mills and pumping the water into the adjacent rivers. The sea-defences between Winterton and Happisburgh were completed during 1805, resulting “in the expulsion of the sea from 74 parishes in Norfolk and 16 parishes in Suffolk” and fulfilled “The Norfolk and Suffolk Sea Breach Act” of 1610 passed under James I.

Marram Grass. Attribution: Mary and Angus Hogg


During his professional working life William Smith used many titles to describe himself: a mineral prospector, canal engineer, land drainer sea-defence engineer – his astute observations of natural sea defences identify him as an early conservationist.

Digitizing William Smith

Contributed by Dr Sarah Joomun, Digitization Assistant

On my first visit to the William Smith Archive, I was shown 62 archive boxes full of his papers, including maps, letters, drafts of his publications, geological sections and sketches. My challenge was to digitize them so that they could be searchable online and I had eight months in which to do it. I had to draw on my extensive experience in digitizing fossils and apply it to my first archive digitization project.

Sarah Joomun in the archive

Sarah Joomun in the archive with the William Smith 1815 map

 The first questions I asked were ‘what exactly did digitization involve for archives?’ and ‘why were we doing it?’. The ‘what’ was straightforward; making digital images of the documents and cataloguing each item to the Archive standard ISAD(G) under the instruction of the Archivist. Answering the ‘why’ is essential when you are planning the best way to produce a digital image.  For this digitization project I had to consider two main aims, access and preservation.  We wanted to allow anyone interested in William Smith, from the general public to specialist researchers, to be able to access his archive from anywhere in the world via the internet.  We also needed to preserve the images in a suitable format as a permanent digital record stored on servers in a different location to the original papers and to allow us to provide people with high quality digital copies so that direct contact with the collections could be controlled to prevent endangering them by overexposure or handling.

Two very different types of digital files are required for this. An image to go online needs to be small so it is fast to load, but not so small that important information is lost through down sampling and pixelation. On the other hand, digital preservation means retaining as much information as possible about the document, from the thickness of the pen strokes to the shape of torn margins. This requires high resolution, full colour images which can be very large, in order to take into account future technological changes in the way that digital files are viewed, e.g. rapid increases in screen resolution.

Sample at 600 dpi

Sample of a scan at 600 dpi

 Fortunately it is easy to down sample high resolution images of the documents and change the file format (note: it doesn’t work in the other direction). I scanned the documents using an A3 flatbed scanner, the Epsom Expression 10000 XL, which can make high quality, high resolution scans. It was big enough to accommodate the majority of the archive and then larger documents, such as maps and long sections were either scanned in parts and then merged using Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge feature or sent to an external contractor to scan with specialist large format scanners. Each image was scanned as a 600dpi, 48bit colour, uncompressed tiff image (with the unsharp mask filter to capture the paper texture). The images were opened in Photoshop, straightened, cropped close to the edges of the document and then saved. The file would be renamed using our naming system if necessary and then a copy would be down sampled and saved as a 1000 pixel wide JPEG for web use.  Another image would be scanning as I edited the image and created a record in the database for each item, including the reference code, title, creator, date, creator, number of pages and a brief description. The JPEG would be loaded onto the database and attached to the catalogue record and the TIFF would be archived on my hard drive and on an external server.

Same image sample at 72 dpi

Same image sample at 72 dpi

I scanned more than 1200 of William Smith’s archive documents over the course of this project, which are available in to explore and search here.

Smith’s diaries now online!

The William Smith archive online is growing by the day! We have now published complete records for all the diaries held here at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, predominantly covering the years 1801-1821. We have also published PDF copies of the complete documents, free to download. They can all be found on our new online catalogue.

Diary CoverWhile at this point the diaries can only be found using a few search terms, we are working on making them fully searchable. A team of dedicated volunteers have been transcribing the diaries over the past months, and a number are near completion. We have also added some of the dairies to William Smith Online users around to world can help us transcribe. To help us, all you need to do is create an account!

We hope that by making these diaries available online that we will support research, learning and understanding of Smith’s contribution to the science of geology. We are keen to hear from those working on the collection, so if you are gearing up for the bicentenary next year or found these documents helpful, please get in touch!

The early life of William Smith (1769-1793)

Contributed by Dennis Jackson

This bicentennial celebration of the appearance of William Smith’s Map of England, Wales and part of Scotland in 1815 laid the foundation for geological mapping the world over. Such maps now exist for all land areas across the globe and large areas offshore and are used for exploration of Earth’s resources. However, two decades prior to the publication of this map, Smith also gave the geological profession the means to date the relative ages of strata and to correlate them from place to place using their contained fossils. It is from such data that geological maps are made and the principle is the basis of biostratigraphy.


Section from marriage settlement giving his grandmother’s name as Lucy Rawleigh. [WS/A/2/2/002]

Smith’s achievements are all the more remarkable in view of his humble background. (From childhood, Smith considered himself to belong to a forgotten branch of a family that descended from Sir Walter Raleigh, fide Winchester 2002 p. 21). He was born March 23rd, 1769 at The Forge (now demolished) in the village of Churchill where his father was a blacksmith who according to Smith was “a very ingenious mechanic”. His father died when William was seven and after his mother remarried he moved to The Chequers in 1779. He attended the local school until he was eleven years old and Phillips (1844 p. 3) commented that young William loved collecting fossil “pundibs” (brachiopods) and “poundstones” (sea urchins) strewn over nearby fields and for carving sundials in local limestone.

Smith is quoted in Phillips (1844) describing himself thus: “I was early a tall and strong-grown boy and on my way to London between twelve and thirteen years of age…” finding work in a shop in  1780 but by 1782 he was back in Oxfordshire living with his unmarried uncle who was a farmer in Over Norton, Oxfordshire. During those years, the great uncle William Cook encouraged William to become interested in schemes of land improvement and drainage. Thus he began to draw and became tolerably versed in geometry and calculations then thought sufficient for engineers and surveyors.

Erected by Stow and District Civic Society in August 2009.

Erected by Stow and District Civic Society in August 2009.

In 1787, he was hired by Edward Webb (1751 – 1828) the surveyor who lived in Manor House (now called Tudor House) in the Square of Stow on the Wold. Webb was involved with surveying and valuing property and was responsible for several Enclosure Maps in the county, in particular those for Lower Swell (1790) and Churchill and Sarsden (1791) during the time that Smith was his assistant. These maps showed ownership and property boundaries that were subject to compulsory fencing and maintenance in perpetuity. This is the kind of work for which Smith was hired as an assistant at the age of eighteen.

The house of Edward Webb where Smith lived for four years

The house of Edward Webb where Smith lived for four years

Smith began writing his diaries in 1789 at the age of 20 whilst residing with the Webb family. After Smith died his diaries were in the safekeeping of his nephew John Phillips (1800 – 1874) and were subsequently donated to the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Unfortunately, they are incomplete for there are gaps for the period 1790 to 1801 and for 1808.The 1789 diary is the only one remaining that covers his time with Webb. Torrens (2004) believes that Phillips disposed of some of these diaries following the completion of the memoir about his uncle William published in 1844.


Section from Smith’s autobiography describing this period in his life. [WS/A/2/1]

Interestingly, Webb and Smith visited the Sapperton Canal Tunnel and the Thames and Severn Canal in 1788. We assume that the two surveyors were there as visitors and that this was the first canal Smith had seen, certainly he was too young to have surveyed it, for construction was completed by the time the 1789 Diary was written. The 1789 Diary also tells us that Smith, now aged 20, was thirsty for knowledge buying ten numbers of the New Royal Encyclopedia in Chipping Norton on December 30 when his wage was 1 guinea per week.

In 1791, Webb sent Smith to survey Lady Elizabeth Jones estate called Sutton Court in Stowey, north Somerset. Smith resided at Rugbourne Farm near High Littleton until 1793. During his time in Somerset, Smith built upon the pioneering study of John Strachey (1671-1743). He descended Mearns Pit near High Littleton in 1792 and  “… collected much information from the old colliers respecting the coal, ancient collieries, faults…” These observations helped him form a picture of the geological succession in that area and indeed he built a model of the strata around High Littleton using the local rocks arranged in the same order as nature had placed them.

It was during his time at Rugbourne Farm that Smith, still in his early twenties, made two important discoveries. Firstly, that the local succession in descending order comprised blue clay (Lias) and red marl (Triassic) dipping at three degrees eastward and that these were underlain by steeply dipping, faulted and folded coal beds (Carboniferous). Subsequently, he found this held true for other places in Somerset and two years later James Hutton was describing such a relationship as unconformable. Secondly, that the fossils of the Coal Measures were different from the Lias and thus he was well on his way towards being able to date the relative ages of strata on the basis of the enclosed fossils. This principle, made public until 1796, is the basis for making geological maps.

In 1793, Smith ended his association with Webb when he was recruited by John Rennie, engineer for the Kennet and Avon Canal, to survey the route for the proposed Somerset Coal Canal. It was along this cutting that Smith was able to test the conclusions he arrived at on descending Mearns Pit in 1792. As of this time, Smith was not to know that fame awaited him in the two decades that followed.


Phillips, J. 1844. Memoirs of William Smith. John Murray, London. Reprinted by Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute 2004.

Winchester, S. 2002.The Map that Changed the World. Penguin Books, London, 338 pp.


Happy Birthday William Smith!

The bust of William Smith at the Museum was the hub of activity on his 245th birthday.

The bust of William Smith at the Museum was the hub of activity on his 245th birthday.

To celebrate the launch of William Smith Online the Museum held its very first William Smith Day on Sunday, 23 March 2014, marking his 245th birthday.The day featured a jam-packed programme of activities with 60 participants over the course of the day.

It began with a special tour for the residents of Churchill, Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Smith. They got to see some highlights from the archive collection, in particular items that were linked to Smith’s early years, such as his grandparents marriage deed and notes about his ancestors.

Churchill visit

There was also a tour of the archive, a rare treat for visitors to the Museum, as well as two table talks about William Smith’s work. The first talk was about his famous geological map of England and Wales, published in 1815. For the first time ever this rare and valuable map was taken out to the south aisle of the Museum for visitors to see. Quite a large group gathered for this opportunity, with both Smith experts and lucky passers-by joining the crowd.

Dr Sarah Joomun giving a table talk about Smith's work on fossils.Dr Sarah Joomun also did a talk, outlining the scientific importance of Smith’s observations on fossils and their locations in strata. It was accompanied by a selection of some beautiful illustrations of fossils from Smith’s archive, and a number of colourful geological sections.

With William Smith Day proving to be a tremendous success we will be sure to celebrate his birthday every year. Mark it in your calendar- we look forward to seeing you next year!

Let the celebrations begin!

Today is the official launch of this blog, and the William Smith Online project at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Over the past year we have been busy cataloguing and digitising the William Smith archive, thanks to the generous funding we received through the Designation Development Fund of Arts Council England. The project now complete, the website live and the launch out of the way, it is now time to begin the celebrations leading up to the bicentenary of the publishing of William Smith’s most famous map next year.

This blog aims to celebrate the remarkable accomplishment of William Smith’s 1815 geological map of England and Wales by sharing the story of his life. You will see posts from Smith experts, enthusiasts and those who worked on the project. You will learn about the history of the man and the modern relevance of his work. You will become part of the celebrations and see the build-up of excitement as it happens over the coming year.

Let’s make William Smith a household-name by the end of 2015!