During the early 18th Century when Georgian Bath was being built, there was a major boom in quarrying the local stone to meet the demands of John Wood and other architects. Ralph Allen, who promoted this used both cranes and a tramway to transport the stone from Combe Down down to the river Avon.
All this activity revealed the rocks to be full of fossils, or petrifactions which aroused great interest and fossil collecting began on a large scale. Alexander Pope who stayed with Ralph Allen in 1739 added Bristol diamonds, alabaster, spar (calcite) and snakestones (ammonites) to his grotto at Twickenham. Even John Wood regarded ammonites as ‘peculiar to the soil of Bath, and nowhere else to be met with in such abundance and in such infinite variety’. By 1750 scientific collections were being made of plants, fossils and minerals either local or from distant places by interested people who corresponded with each other or met at ‘Philosophical Societies’ which were being formed in various cities.
One special name and easy to remember, as part of Bath bears the same name was John Walcott, both father and son were fossil collectors. At the age of twenty-four, John the son, in 1779 published ‘Descriptions and Figures of Petrifactions found in Quarries and Gravel Pits near Bath’ priced 2s-6d. It contained beautifully engraved specimens, ‘found lodged in stone in every part of the environs of Bath’. He also classified groups and tried to match them with the living shells, but he confessed himself defeated by some, for now we know they were extinct species. Later James Sowerby in 1822 named a local brachiopod ‘Spiriferina Walcotti’ after him. This book would have been known to later geologists.
By 1777 Edmund Rack, a quaker, a resident of Bath formed an Agricultural Society (now Bath and West and 200 years’ old), and in 1779 the first Bath Philosophical Society. This was limited to twenty-five members which included Joseph Priestly, Wm Herschel (he gave thirty-two papers to the Society) and John Walcott. Many papers were read on the subject of fossils. Edmund Rack himself became a keen collector and records charges in the Agricultural Society’s accounts for delivery of fossils. Another important member was John Arden, an itinerant lecturer in science who settled in Bath and probably lectured on fossils. Edmund Rack, the secretary, appears to have been the focal point of activity and the dissemination of knowledge outside the area. He was in contact with other Agricultural and Philosophical Societies in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, with his death 1787, this all ceased anjd the Philosophical Society was dissolved. So in general there was a considerable amiunt of geological knowledge in Bath at this time.
In 1719, John Strachey, owner of a colliery at High Littleton drew a map showing the coal seams in the nenighbourhood, complete with the fault zone and the Liassic overstep, the first ever geological section. Later, James Stephens, Squire of Camerton and chairman of the Somerset Coal Canal made a collection of coal measure fossils, while another collector was Thomas Davies, steward to the Marquis of Bath.
In 1791, William Smith, an assistant surveyor to Edward Webb of Stow on the Wold, was sent to Stowey in Somerset to survey an estate and in 1793 was employed by Rennie to survey the proposed route of the Somerset Coal Canal. There were to be two canals, one from High Littleton in the Cam valley, and another from Radstock in the Wellow valley, to join at Midford and then meet the Kennet and Avon canal at Limpley Stoke. It was by comparing the strata in the two valleys that the idea of stratification developed in Smith’s mind. A visit to inspect canal building in the north of England confirmed his ideas. It may be said in retrospect that the cutting of canals was the first time in history that rock strata had been exposed for any distance. We since have had railways and motorways producint the same condition.
At first, Smith lived at Rugborne Farm 1792-5 near High Littleton and then moved to Cottage Crescent on Bloomfield Road to direct operations and nearer Bath. Here he had a panoramic view of Bath to further his ideas. It was at the Swan Inn at Dunkerton in 1796 that he first wrote down the idea that each strata had its own associated fossils. By 1799 he had met via the Bath Agricultural Society, two other keen collectors of fossils, viz, Rev B Richardson and Rev J Townsend. These three became known as the ‘Triumvirate’ for it was after a visit to Dundry near Bristol, to check Smith’s observations and dinner at Townsend’s home at 29 Pulteney Street, that Richardson wrote down from Smith’s dictation the different strata according to their succession in descending order, beginning with the Chalk and going down to the Coal Measures. In the next year Smith presented his geological results to the Agricultural Society and was publicly thanked and asked for further remarks on the subject.
Smith’s next accomplishment was to superimpose the strata on an already printed map, of five miles around Bath with fossil localities already marked.
Smith left the canal company in 1795 (his last cheque was £200) and set up shop and office at 2 Trim Street, as an independent surveyor. He continued his work on his geological map of England, while being a successful surveyor, land drainer, civil engineer and mineralogist, although often in debt.
On the centenary of his birth in 1869, W S Mitchell wrote in the Geological Magazine - ‘Bath can claim that the first collection of fossils stratigraphically arranged was made by Smith whilst at Cottage Crescent. The first table of the strata was dictated by Smith at Pulteney Street. The first geological map known is his map of the district around Bath, The first geological map of England was coloured by him, whilst living near Bath. The first announcement of the publication of a geological map was his prospectus, dated from Midford. The first introduction of his discovery to the public was through the friends he made in Bath’.
He well deserves the title ‘Father of English Geology’.
Sites Associated with WM Smith
Rugborne Farm, High Littleton - 1791-4
Cottage Cresent, now Bloomfield Crescent - 1795
Swan Inn, Dunkerton, now a private house.
Present Road at Dunkerton goes over a canal bridge and seen up a track opposite the house.
Tucking Mill, Midford - 1798, plaque
Broadfield Farm near Norton St Phillip, where Smith’s brother John farmed.
No 2 Trim Street, the office and shop set up in 1801 with: J Cruse as an independent surveyor.
29 Pulteney Street, where in 1799 the Table of Strata near Bath was dictated.