Visitors to the building may notice an addition to the Lower Library – a display about the fortunes and misfortunes of one the UK’s most famous geologists never to be a Fellow, William Smith. Smith’s most celebrated achievement, the first geological map of a complete country, now hangs in our entrance hall, but he didn’t always enjoy such recognition. His story is a cautionary tale of the downsides of self publishing…
Summer 1819 was not a good time for William Smith. Three years previously he’d been forced to sell his impressive collection of fossils that had been laid out in chronological order around a room in his London residence in the Adelphi district; next to the Thames and among the homes of the influential.
His financial problems had not abated after the sale, and twice in the previous 12 months, friendly MPs had importuned His Majesty’s Treasury on his behalf for some relief from his debts. Both times the Treasury had sent him a cheque for £30, barely enough to make a dent in his liabilities. The bailiffs had been banging on his door for some time, and now one of his creditors, a Charles Conolly owner of the mortgage on William Smith’s house at Tucking Mill, near Bath had asked the King’s Bench for satisfaction.
This was all in the time after his famous map had been published by the John Cary in 1815 to great acclaim and was even now being sold in formats ranging from 15 loose sheets of paper to a complete varnished wall map mounted on its own roller.
Sales had not been stellar. He had spent a large amount of time and money tramping round the country, prising fossils from outcrops forming that very collection he’d been forced to sell, and sketching what was to become a work praised by the great and good of the time up to and including the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. In 1817 he’d published the first of his sections through the country. This one from London to Snowden, illustrating the different sedimentary strata he’d charted, with the younger deposits containing more recent fossils overlying the older. That section and the map before it gave vital information of great economic benefit to the country. In a glance it showed not only where resources such as coal could be found, but just as importantly where they could not be found. The United Kingdom had a tool that for the first time would save the nation a great deal of expense looking for minerals where they could not be discovered. He published nine more cross-sections through the country’s strata in the next two years.
Meanwhile at the King’s Bench, Charles Connolly’s demands for reimbursement were met favourably. The King’s Bench was one of the large debtors’ prisons in London and fictional home of Mr. Micawber in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Debtors were locked up until their creditors’ claims had been met through the sale of their property. William Smith was incarcerated for ten weeks, being freed on the last day of August 1819. He returned to his Adelphi home to find the bailiffs in charge and was denied access, his home having been sold to repay those debts. He was forced to leave London.
Thomas Sheppard, a Fellow of the Society in the 20th century and the first cataloguer of the Society’s map collection, wrote an overview of Smith’s maps and memoirs a century after the map’s original publication. In it he claimed that it was principally the cost of publication of his sections that had resulted in Smith being unable to keep his creditors from his door resulting in his imprisonment and having to leave London. Whether that is true or not (and there were several other reasons for William Smith having accrued his debts in the first place), the sections published by William Smith that so helped fuel the economic health of the United Kingdom in the crucial decades of expansion during the Industrial Revolution also, in part, lead to him being imprisoned, evicted and outcast from the centre of power in London.
Now, his map is celebrated as one of the most significant achievements in the history of geology. Smith himself was recognised by the Society towards the end of his life, receiving the first Wollaston Medal and the moniker ‘The father of English geology’ from GSL President Adam Sedgewick – which, for his achievements but also for all the trouble he went through, he certainly deserved.