History Shorts - number 3

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This is the latest in a series of short items contributed by the History Society.
The full list of "shorts" can be seen here.

William Smith, the father of English geology (1769-1839)

When I was nine, growing up in Bath, we moved to a larger house in a row then called Cottage Crescent, built in 1792. You may guess this was a simpler affair than Royal Crescent, only seven houses and high on a hill on the wrong side of town. It faced north instead of south but consequently looked out over to the more fashionable streets. (Bath is in a bowl formed from seven hills, which along with hot springs, is reputedly why the Romans liked the spot).

bath

Bloomfield Crescent (formerly Cottage Crescent), Bath.

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We were in number 7, the end house, but we found that number 4 had in the past had an eminent resident. William Smith, now called the father of English geology, lived there 1795-98.

From humble origins, he was more or less self-educated and started work as assistant to a surveyor. Working in Somerset in some of the coal mines, he noticed that the rock showed clear layers (strata) and that certain fossils could be seen in certain layers. He amassed a large collection of fossils and it may just be coincidence that there was a large ammonite about two feet across in our garden. Too big, unfortunately, for us to take when we moved on.

As he travelled around in the course of his work, including a spell with John Rennie building canals, he ended up able to construct the first geological map of the country. He also created the Rotunda in Scarborough as a geological museum and which has been regenerated recently.

I believe there is now a plaque commemorating him on the house which I walked past every day and I always feel a personal attachment when I hear his name. His pioneering work in geology is also remembered at Keele University where the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment occupies the William Smith building.

Celia Bloor

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