2.  Private enterprise and geological mapping

William Smith

In Britain the politics of laissez-faire ensured that the earliest attempts at geological mapping on a national scale were left to private enterprise.

Among the early forerunners pride of place goes to William Smith, the ‘Father of English Geology’ (Sedgwick, 1831), whose now famous map, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, appeared in 1815 at a scale of five miles to the inch (Eyles & Eyles, 1938; Eyles, 1969).

This map is a landmark in the history of British geology and a remarkable achievement for a single individual, undertaken moreover with limited means of support.

Unfortunately for Smith his map was eclipsed in 1820 by the quite independent production of A Geological Map of England & Wales under the direction of George Bellas Greenough, founding President of the Geological Society of London.

This new map, at a scale of about six miles to the inch, owed much to the 1815 map (though this was only acknowledged many years later), but it benefited from the efforts of the élite membership of the Geological Society (which included an aspiring young De la Beche) and was thus more accurate and more detailed.

Its arrival in France in 1820 prompted the French government to initiate a similar undertaking at public expense.

First geological map of Ireland

Greenough also encouraged Richard Griffith, another celebrated pioneer, to embark upon the construction of a geological map of Ireland.

Griffith began work in 1811, but the difficulty he experienced in procuring an accurate topographical base-map delayed publication of his Geological Map of Ireland until 1838.

Even then it was issued only in provisional form, at a scale of about ten miles to the inch, to accompany a report of the Railway Commissioners.

A more detailed map at four miles to the inch (1:253 440) appeared in the following year. Both of these maps were published at government expense thanks to Griffith’s fortuitous appointment to the Railway Commissioners Ireland in 1836.

He succeeded in convincing his fellow commissioners of the need to publish a geological map to assist the expansion of railway communications.

This included the compilation, under the charge of the Ordnance Survey, of the all important topographical base-map.

Much of the geological fieldwork was actually undertaken by unacknowledged assistants employed by Griffith on various commissions under his direction, such as the Boundary and Valuation Surveys.

The utilisation of these assistants in the pursuit of geological investigation was effected without official sanction, but their efforts enabled Griffith to realise his personal ambition to publish the first geological map of Ireland (Herries Davies, 1983; Archer 1980).

Smith, Murchison and De la Beche

Had things turned out differently, William Smith might have become the first government geologist. He had earlier produced a small outline geological map of England and Wales in June 1801 which, though rudimentary in detail, was the first such map of its kind.

This and subsequent embryonic maps, together with the results of Smith’s tabulation of the British strata, were displayed at annual agricultural meetings between 1801 and 1807.

Sir John Sinclair, sometime President of the Board of Agriculture, was sufficiently impressed with Smith’s credentials to attempt in 1805 to have him attached to the government Trigonometrical Survey (under the Board of Ordnance) for the purpose of connecting his ‘survey of the strata’ with the official one-inch topographical mapping then in progress (Phillips, 1844, pp.46–9).

Nothing came of this proposal, nor indeed of a separate attempt by R I Murchison at the end of 1831 to have Smith appointed as ‘Geological Colourer of the Ordnance Maps’ (Geikie, 1875, vol I, pp.131–2).

It was left to De la Beche to successfully secure this role for himself just months after Murchison’s failed initiative. Murchison was one of Smith’s keenest advocates, and as such was to play a key role as De la Beche’s adversary in the Devonian controversy that would erupt at the end of 1834.

Go to next chapter

Download the full text version

Bate, D G.   2010  Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche and the founding of the British Geological Survey.  Mercian Geologist, 17 (3). 149–165.