| William Smith: unlikely hero
The Map that Changed the World By Simon Winchester, Viking, £ 7.99
Readers of that marvellous book, The Professor and the Madman, also published under the title, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, will be familiar with Simon Winchester’s name and his ability to breathe life into the most tantalizingly obscure of stories, and his gift of bringing richly deserved recognition to unlikely heroes of the past. In his account of William Smith, who in 1815 drew the first geological map of England, he fully lives up to our expectations.
William Smith was born in 1769. He was a blacksmith’s son, with some school education; but what he lacked in formal training or in, as he sadly came to realize, a socially acceptable background, he more than made up for with application, a dogged determination, tremendous powers of observation, and, above all, a passion for the earth and all that lay beneath it. William Smith was one of the first to question what he saw, and to search for reasons. Geology was still an infant science in the late 18th century, and the field was dominated by an odd variety of people, clergymen and eccentrics, men of the world with money to spare, farming lords, and dilettantes. There were also a large number of fossil collectors, men and many women with a mad passion. But it was William Smith who, at the end of a troubled life, was recognized as the father of English geology. In Winchester’s words, “(t)he fact that one half-educated Oxfordshire yeoman, working alone, with compass and notebook and clinometer and an abiding appreciation of the beauty and importance of fossils, could surmise with such accuracy what a thousand surveyors and professional geologists in the decades since have really only succeeded in confirming, is little short of a miracle.”
The other miracle, of course, is the one that Simon Winchester has created. In fairness, the story of a geological map, admittedly a map that changed the world, could have become a bit of a bore. In Winchester’s capable hands, it is a thrilling story, not least because his interests are so wide. This is not simply the story of a man and a map. It is the story of England in social and intellectual turmoil, of a people in search of a future. Smith’s life cut across two centuries; in his time he saw the Industrial Revolution and the vast mining of coal, the transformation of the English countryside by the new policy of enclosure and the building of canals, to mention only three vastly important developments that had a bearing on his life’s work. Coal, cultivation and canals, all three involved the digging up of the earth, and consequently, and for William Smith, fortuitously, revealed what lay beneath.
But Simon Winchester’s interests are wider than those of William Smith. His world is that of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, the town of Bath and the debtor’s prison, both places which featured prominently in the life of William Smith. The early spread of the railways and the growth of London, the development of the scientific temper, and the declining years of the mad George, all come alive in Winchester’s elegant prose. Add to this a truly elegant prose style that few in India can aspire to. And above all, a love of England and the English way of life, and an eye for that great English institution, the inspired eccentric.
Consider Winchester’s story of Dean William Buckland of Oxford, “...a great sceptic, particularly where Catholics were concerned. Once, led to a dark stain on the flagstones of an Italian cathedral, which the local prelate insisted was the newly liquefied blood of a well known martyr, he dropped to his knees, licked the darkened spot and announced that it was in fact the urine of bats.” Now that is truly a lovely story, and not less so for being, presumably, true.
Or consider this. “The streets here, by now some distance from the prisons, pulsated with all the elegance and gaiety of Regency times. This after all was the day of Beau Brummel…The street that morning would have been crowded with the dandies and dandizettes who with their newly invented umbrellas sheltering them from the morning showers followed the strict particulars of his style...The entire stretch along which the glum but relieved Oxfordshire convict walked spoke all too gaudily of money, amusement and brio” . Lovely word, dandizette.
Our hero, the convict, has just emerged after a few weeks in a debtor’s prison. For all the magnificence of his work, and all the praise lavished on his map, he was singularly alone when his creditors caught up with him. His debts were the result of years of spending his own money on expeditions and searches; but William Smith was also guilty of buying or renting properties he could not afford in an effort to be recognized as something of an equal by the pygmies who ran the affairs of the Geological Society and similar bodies. In mitigation of his plight, there is also the sad fact that he was tied to, in the immortal words of his nephew and biographer, “a mad, bad wife”. But there is a happy ending. William Smith was rescued from his self-imposed exile in the north of England, feted and honoured, and became the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal, “the Oscar of the world of rocks, fought for gamely, campaigned for bitterly, and if awarded, then accepted with the secure knowledge that career and reputation are guaranteed for life”. There is also some satisfaction in knowing that George Greenough, the president of the Geological Society and occasional scientist who stole Smith’s work and passed it off as his own, did not get the Wollaston.
Simon Winchester calls Smith’s map “a classic representation of the ambitions of its day”, in a class with the OED, the Great Triangulation of India, the Concorde and the Human Genome. The OED has received already the benefits of his enormous erudition and skill, as has now the first geological map ever. One waits impatiently for whatever will come next.