Contributed by Owen Green, Earth Sciences, Oxford University
Flooding 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.
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.
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.