William Smith

William Smith, known to others as “Strata Smith”, is known as the Father of English Geology. He was responsible for initiating the production of a geological map of England and Wales.

Life and Education

Born in March 23, 1769 in Churchill, Oxfordshire, England, William Smith was the son of a mechanic. His father was out of the picture before he turned eight and was left to be raised by his father’s eldest brother, who was a farmer. Because of this, he did not have the privilege of having a steady formal education. This did not hinder his curiosity though, as he continued to explore and collect fossils. His uncle was not pleased with how he went around town carving sundials but later on learned to appreciate him when he also started taking interest in draining land.


He found ways to learn more about geometry, mapping and surveying. His raw knowledge allowed him to train under Edward Webb, a master surveyor. He traveled all over the country as he studied the formation of fossils and rocks and was able to purchase a small estate in the town of Tucking Mill in Midford.

He met several people along the way who helped him in his journey towards becoming one of the greatest figures in geology. He became acquaintances with Rev. Benjamin Richardson who taught him the different names of fossils and shared his knowledge in natural history.

Notable Contributions

As Edward Webb’s assistant, William Smith traveled all over the country and gained more knowledge on his chosen field. His continuous growth as a surveyor led him to supervise and oversee the digging of the Somerset Canal in 1794. This job was where he first observed the way rocks were formed. He noticed how fossils always seem to be in a specific order from top to bottom not only on sedimentary rocks, but on other sections of rocks as well. This was how the “Principle of Faunal Succession” or “Law of Faunal Succession” came to be. The principle states that there is a constant definite sequence in layers of sedimentary rocks and in other rock formations that contain fossils causing a correlation between these locations.

By 1796, Smith’s knowledge led him to be elected as part of Bath’s agricultural society where he discussed his findings and theories with those who shared his interest in fossils and rocks. He was the first person to draw local geologic maps using fossils as a mapping tool based on their stratigraphic order unlike those who created geologic maps before who merely used the composition of rocks. When his contract ended in 1799, he continued on his attempt to create a complete geologic map of Wales and England along with some parts of Scotland as well. Although progress was very slow due to lack of moral and financial support, the completed map finally went into production in 1812 and was eventually published in 1815. The map comprised fifteen sheets all in all on a five miles to one inch scale. A smaller version was later published in 1819. This paved the way for the creation of the Geological Atlas of England and Wales which was made up of 21 different county geological maps. There was also published information from Rev. Joseph Townsend, rector of Pewsey, who acknowledged Smith as the person responsible for dictating the first ever table of the British Strata to him.

In 1817, he produced an exceptional geological map of the area around Snowdon to London. Sadly, a lot of his works were plagiarized which caused him to go bankrupt and fall into serious debt. He was imprisoned in London’s King’s Bench Prison which was a debtor’s prison. The home and other properties he made investments in were seized as well. He was in and out of jobs until he regained his luck when Sir John Johnstone, an employer of his, helped him take back the credit for a lot of his work and paved the way for him to take back the respect the he truly deserved.

Although production of the map was a remarkable feat, the period’s scientific community did not give their full support right away mostly because they believed that he did not have a good background. They noticed his economic standing and his limited education more than his achievement.

Other Achievements

It was not until 1831 that William Smith was finally formally acknowledged as a vital part in the advancement of geology. He was given the first ever Wollaston Medal, an honor presented by the Geological Society of London to those who have shown great contributions to geology. He was also granted an annual life pension of ₤100. He received an LLD degree during a British Association meeting in Dublin in 1835. He was also among the group of commissioners who were given the privilege of choosing the building stones for the Houses of Parliament in 1838.

William Smith also lived in Scarborough from 1824 to 1826 where he built a geological museum called the Rotunda. The museum focused mainly on the Yorkshire Coast. Lord Oxburgh had it renamed The William Smith Museum of Geology in May of 2008.

William Smith died on August 28, 1839 in Northampton, Northamptonshire, England due to poor health. His remains were buried in St. Peter’s Church where a bust created by Chantrey was placed. The earl of Ducie commissioned for a monument to be constructed in his hometown of Churchill in 1891. John Phillips, his nephew who also trained under him, edited his memoirs which were made public in 1844. Phillips later on became one of the most notable figures in geology and paleonthology during the 19th century because of the stringent training and the wide knowledge that his uncle shared with him.

Today, his achievements continue to be highlighted in many different ways. The Geological Society of London presents an annual lecture in his honor. His work has also been acknowledged as an important factor in the discoveries and works of Charles Darwin.