Lecture: William Smith's earliest career to 1810 (and thus his time in the Bath area)

Speaker: Professor Hugh Torrens, Keele University

Entry Fee

Members: Free

Visitors: £5.00

Date and Time

19:30 -


Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square, Bath BA1 2HN

Lecture Description

Smith’s early ‘career paths’ were highly complex. His first employment was as 1) a land surveyor. Then in 1793 he became both, 2) canal surveyor, and 3) engineer, to the Somerset Coal Canal (SCC). These had guaranteed him a regular, and known, income. But this suddenly changed, when he was successively dismissed, first as surveyor, then as engineer, in 1799. He now had to find some other means of supporting himself. From the mid 1790s, he had done some 4) land drainage and irrigation work, for the chairman of the SCC, and immediately after his dismissals, was able to generate an adequate living from such work around Bath, during a period of very high rainfall. Some of this work took him to Tytherton in Wiltshire. Here he first encountered a new rock unit (the Kellaways Rock) and it was here that Thomas Coke of Norfolk was able to study Smith’s skills with water. News of this competence quickly passed throughout an agricultural community, then desperate to increase food production, during a long period of wartime crisis.

Smith’s water drainage and irrigation work were now widely taken up, first by the Dukes of Manchester and Bedford, in Bedfordshire, and then by Coke and his relatives, both in Staffordshire and Norfolk, and then by Coke himself and his many tenants in Norfolk. On top of this, Smith’s skills as an engineer meant he was in high demand also as 5) a Sea Breach Engineer, in attempts to keep the German Ocean (now the North Sea) out of The Broads. But war time conditions were harsh, and bills often not swiftly paid (or even paid at all). So Smith also tried new careers as 6) a consultant mineral surveyor, or 7) as a failed author, on both Irrigation, and on Norfolk. But throughout this period, Smith’s obsessive attempts to publish his geological discoveries, or even to find financial support for such a novel publication, were thwarted, by the bankruptcies of others, and proved to no avail.

This lecture will try and survey, for a first time, Smith’s complex, and fluctuating, financial situations, over the period 1793 to 1819 (when he entered a debtors prison). His ‘knight in shining armour’ is undoubtedly the cartographer John Cary (1755 - 1835) who, in 1812, at last agreed to publish his great geological map. Thus, was accomplished by “the enterprise of a private tradesman…, [what] had been in vain expected from princely patronage and the sanction of national boards”.

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