1 A Science of Fossils

One of the bleaker and seemingly more remote parts of England lies in the Thames Estuary not far from London. In 1840 the Isle of Sheppey was five hours by steam packet from London Bridge – a fossil-collecting trip here occupied a full three days.[1] Surrounded by slumping muddy cliffs and an equally muddy foreshore, this island does not appear a particularly attractive place for the wealthy Victorian gentleman with time on his hands. But here you would certainly find James Bowerbank, a city businessman who had a passion for the fossils of the London Clay, for this was his favourite collecting haunt. One such man might be viewed as eccentric but he was not alone. A number of city gentlemen joined him in these pursuits and certainly many others wished to do so. In this year, aged 43, he published his History of the Fossil Fruits and Seeds of the London Clay, a book that for the first time gave names to fossils which had been collected for more than a century. Simply a descriptive catalogue, and by no means comprehensive, it became an invaluable guide and source of motivation for the ambitious collector.[2]

In the same year Bowerbank published, in a popular magazine, clear instructions for anyone wishing to emulate his collecting prowess. He suggested that visitors to Sheppey had two courses of action open to them. The first involved direct collecting on the beach and would result in a view of geology in the field but derive few fossils. Alternatively, the visitor could purchase fossils from a chain of contacts throughout the island consisting of dealers and, more importantly, the women and children employed by copperas makers to gather pyrite from the beach.[3] Much of this pyrite contained fossils – ‘curiosities’, ‘figs’, and so on as they were known locally – which they put to one side and later sold on for greater profit. Here the sophisticated collector ventured into another world, one not of antediluvial mystery but of Victorian poverty:

… a woman named Mummery, and several others, who work upon the beach … these people will direct the traveller to the cottage of a family named Crockford … [who] will direct our fossil-hunter to many other parties who also work upon the beach … At Hensbrook enquiry should be made for a man named Pead … from this point … calling on the various cottages on the way … he must enquire for Mud Row, many of the inhabitants of which work upon the beach … Beyond this point nothing will be obtained.

Certainly both modes of collecting resulted in materials useful to contemporary science. The best fossil collecting, however, required the use of a notebook to record exactly where a fossil was found, but here that notebook was more likely to record names and addresses than beds and horizons. Increasingly science wished to know not only what could be found but specifically from which beds and localities it came. However, the situation on Sheppey was a little more complex, as the true source of the fossil plants remained elusive throughout the century, not to be unravelled until the 1920s.[4] Indeed, it was so easy to pick up fossils washed onto the foreshore or from the labouring poor that there was little motivation for collectors to find their true source.

Fig. 1.1 Map of locations

Fossils had become the keys to understanding the natural history of former worlds. They were also used to differentiate the relative age of rocks. Around this time the Geological Survey was beginning to merge these two concepts into a more holistic view of the past. The science of geology had become quite sophisticated and fossil evidence was at its heart. But fossils were more than materials for the construction of knowledge. Here on Sheppey, as elsewhere, fossils took on other meanings as objects with intrinsic cultural properties. Many who traipsed along the cottages of Mud Row had little more than the pretence of serious study but they, like those from whom they purchased, were undoubtedly part of the same scientific culture, part of the new and rapidly evolving science of geology. 

The fossil-collecting labourers, upon whom Bowerbank and others relied, were now a ubiquitous feature of the British coast. In Yorkshire, jet and alum workers performed the same functions as the pyrite collectors of Sheppey. They, in exploiting the economic products of geology, were also of use to its philosophers and dilettantes. Equally, and increasingly as the fashion for fossils grew, coastal artisans including joiners, shopkeepers, fishermen, bait-collectors and others, saw the pursuit of fossils as a profitable sideline. And as fossil collecting grew into a small industry so it inevitably gave rise to middlemen who had premises through which such objects could be sold or who had the status, knowledge and contacts to seek out purchasers or create a market.

Fossil dealer Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, being both a collector and retailer, merged these avenues of exploitation. By a process of discovery and supply she became the most famous example of her breed, known by name throughout the country even by those who had little interest in rocks. Her contemporaries in this business, however, are barely known, and indeed were not too well known to their middle-class purchasers who, like Bowerbank, simply required to know sufficient of them to obtain supplies of fossils. 

Together this social understratum formed, if not the bedrock, then the infiltrating roots of an infrastructure which fed the loftiest and most esoteric pronouncements on geology. It did this simply through the supply of fossils and, by inference, data. Most of these collectors would be lost from the record, particularly those women and children, and ‘Innkeepers, Waiters, Ostlers, Postilions, Wellsinkers, Masons, Gamekeepers, [and] Mole Catchers’, who simply found fossils. Women at all levels appear to have played a significant part in the development of this supposedly masculine science but they were excluded from membership of the Geological and other societies, and by social conventions, so that charting their contribution is problematic. It is this which makes Anning all the more remarkable.[5]

Another assumption which needs to be dispelled is that the lowly were necessarily also the ignorant. Artisan collectors were often provided with information from their more informed buyers; they needed to build up some knowledge of their finds if they were to profit from them. It is clear from Bowerbank’s description that men such as he were regular visitors to Mud Row and provided information to enable artisans to search more effectively for rarities. Ignorance was just as likely to be found in the minds of the many gentlemen collectors for whom rarity and beauty alone were the most noble traits of the collection.[6]

In this same year, 1840, at Gorran Haven in Cornwall, the 39-year-old Charles William Peach was bringing together the results of a search for fossils which covered nearly a third of the Cornish coast. A coastguard on four shillings a day, with a passion for natural history, he was finding fossils in rocks described as ‘destitute’ by his superiors in science. And while the thoughts of the occupants of Mud Row on the ‘curiosities’ they collected will never be known, Peach was permitted to enter the stage upon which the intellectual progress of geology was played out. At the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Plymouth in 1841 he brought his discoveries before his contemporaries. But this is all he was permitted to do. It was for the established coterie of leading geologists to take his findings and place them into their own scientific constructions. Peach, always desperate to escape a poorly paid, insecure and dangerous occupation, hoped that his aptitude for geology would make possible his release, and that geology could become his life, but it never did.[7]

Meanwhile, on the Yorkshire coast, itinerant museum curator and skilled fossil collector, Martin Simpson, was having great difficulty finding any fossils at all. A coastline no less rich in fossils than that which furnished Anning with a living, it was caught up in a fossil collecting fever which affected anyone who had cause to be on the shore and wished to extend their income. Here whole communities of middle-class geologists had been spawned and combined into local societies. Fossil dealing had sprung up on the coast to service these new societies and progressively word spread to make fossils profitable finds for the artisan. Here too the same natural development of an infrastructure had taken place to service the development of the science. This infrastructure of collectors and dealers enabled geology to rise above the arcane knowledge of the field collector, to become a broader social phenomenon. 

Virtually anyone could participate if so stimulated. In Ireland, for example, the Marchioness of Ormonde had told Lord Walter Butler and his sister, both of whom had a love ‘for the beautiful relics of antiquity’, that the skeletons of red deer had been found in Poulacapple Bog. Butler lost no time in setting a search in motion, directing local boys with scoops and other utensils to the bog. By 5 o’clock, having reached a considerable depth, they uncovered ‘a gigantic skeleton’. 

The air was rent with huzzas and shouts of gladness as the social group proceeded to Garryricken, surrounded by crowds of spectators. They were met on their way by Lord Walter and Lady Elizabeth, who, amazed and delighted, stopped to view the fossil prize borne in triumph on the shoulders of the foremost of the party … Lady Ormonde was overjoyed when all was laid out before her on the lawn, and her noble son handed out a handsome sum of money, which was equally divided between the Poulacapple boys and a group of Mr Steven’s tenants, who kindly assisted their neighbours. Lady Ormonde will send for an anatomist to arrange the skeleton.[8]

Thus geology became a mirror of Victorian industrial society. Fed by a proletariat of fossil gatherers, middlemen supplied the leisured classes who in turn manufactured thoughts on the subject at society meetings or adorned their palatial homes with a new kind of intellectual wallpaper. In short, geology had all the elements of what Altick referred to as the British ‘caste’ system.[9]

Nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen, was reliant on all classes. Social rank, rather than talent, determined the role of each player even if one held ambitions of contributing to the construction of knowledge. But others derived different kinds of social advantage from an involvement in the science. As geology rapidly evolved so the cream of its bourgeois participants rose to prominence over their fellows as expertise became an increasingly valued commodity.[10] The science of geology, like all science in Britain (and unlike that in France), developed through free enterprise, in a culture of laissez-faire. It inevitably embodied long-held beliefs about individualism, the role of the state, and freedom of ‘will, choice and action’.[11] If anything this was the greatest strength of the British system, for it opened up geological territory to anyone who wanted to be considered a pioneer. But it also gave the scientific culture of geology the ambience of the battlefield.

The social élite of geology

Men of the Geological Society of London were key players in this culture of English geology. The society’s published record has traditionally been taken as the official record of the science’s development. Indeed the society’s own view of its past, as expressed in its obituaries, is one defined by publication. Collections, which certainly played a great part in its activities, are generally only mentioned where they involve benefaction. Yet it is evident from contemporary accounts of its operation, as a debating chamber and repository of specimens, that geology progressed as often by verbal communication, and the exhibition of specimens and diagrams, as by what was committed to the published record. As Charles Darwin told a friend in 1846, ‘I have long discovered that geologists never read each other’s works … Geology is at present very oral’. But the Geological Society saw itself as legitimising the intellectual practice of geology and gave great weight to published accounts, thus dismissing alternative geological cultures rooted in utility and leisure, where the oral tradition was more important.[12] Publication was primarily a means to make a claim, much less a means of progress. This has become apparent in more recent histories, built on archives of contemporary correspondence, which although they have not undermined the dominance of the society, have placed scientific interaction and communication in a much wider setting. 

While no history of English geology can be written for this period without reference to this society its dominance needs to be put into some perspective. In 1835, it was ‘hardly possible to overestimate’ its power and influence, but in 1815, where this book begins, it was simply a new and struggling organisation within a scientific specialism which was itself only then being defined.[13] There were few indications then of its likely significance to the future of the science; and any history built around this institution inevitably pushes the type of people already discussed to the periphery of geology, for they were not members. The Geological Society came to represent the élite in science, but to understand how that science made such rapid progress we must also look elsewhere as the viability and vitality of geology in this period was owed in large part to what are now largely invisible mechanisms. Geology had its own cultural ecology – its primary producers, scavengers, predators and so on – all viewing the science through quite different eyes. As Martin Rudwick put it, ‘The empiricism esteemed by geologists bound leaders and locals into a symbiotic partnership that was seen as a model of the ideal community of science’.[14] This empiricism was increasingly to be built on fossils. Symbiosis, however, is only one reading. Relationships (which achieved the same end) were generally more akin to those of the marketplace or, to continue the ecological metaphor, to also include parasitism and competition.

The importance of fossils in this cannot be overstated. As Geikie pointed out: ‘While the whole science of geology made gigantic advances during the nineteenth century, by far the most astonishing sprang from the recognition of the value of fossils.’[15] What fossils enabled was the ordering of rocks in terms of relative age; a science known as stratigraphy. This was to be the great geological achievement of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the early decades of the century geology was stratigraphy. That fossils should have this utility now seems obvious but then their role was far from clear. They had long been investigated and collected, and were reasonably well understood, in broad terms, at the end of the eighteenth century; they had also formed the focus of much social and cultural interaction. During the early decades of the nineteenth century there was an expectation that geology would follow the other sciences: ‘That some such general law in the arrangement of rocks should actually be discovered, is what we think might have been expected, a priori, from the uniformity which is in other respects observable in the mineral kingdom.’ But where should the new geologists look for the keys to unlock this law? Fossils were, according to London surgeon James Parkinson, primarily an adjunct of zoology and botany, and largely ignored by geologists. In the first decade of the century, Parkinson, in his Organic Remains of a Former World, attempted to illustrate all the known British fossils. It was a strikingly original project and drew nascent geologist and fossil collector Gideon Mantell under Parkinson’s influence.  In contrast, the early volumes of the Geological Society’s Transactions show an equally striking emphasis on minerals and rocks. Of eighteen papers published in the first volume only one, by Parkinson, treats fossils; in the second, five in twenty-four discuss supposed fossils and only one uses these stratigraphically. Yet many of these papers relate to highly fossiliferous areas. Understanding the order of the strata was already the dominant research theme in geology but this was stratigraphy without fossils.[16]

In Germany, Abraham Werner had transformed the notion of rocks from a chaotic mass into a universal order of formations which could be seen the world over – ‘like the rind of an onion’.[17] In England, this universality, and the theory which underpinned it, were soon dismissed but the concepts of the formation (as an identifiable and lithologically coherent group of rocks) and of regular succession became the starting point for the great stratigraphic enterprise of the first half of the century.

As the Geological Society’s first president, George Bellas Greenough, shows in his A Critical Examination of the First Principles of Geology of 1819, the answer to the relative age of rocks had been sought in their mineralogy, structure, specific gravity, stratification, inclination, dip, altitude, and metal and fossil content. In Greenough’s view none provided a perfect answer. Greenough, a gentleman of inherited wealth – his grandfather had made a fortune through patent medicines – was the instigator and controller of the Geological Society throughout the 1810s.[18] On its founding in 1807, the society had sought to bring together, socially, gentlemen interested in geology and to orchestrate the collection of facts which would fill desiderata in knowledge of the subject. This was to be achieved by electing as honorary members some of the most eminent thinking men outside London. These, it was hoped, would supply the correspondence necessary to fuel social gatherings in the capital at which what was known, and what remained to be discovered, were discussed. The society’s enrolment documents and its pamphlet, Geological Inquiries, issued in 1808, told these new members how facts should be contributed. The task before them – unlike other scientific enterprises – seemed almost quantifiable.

This mode of investigation – Baconian ‘experimentation’ or inductivism – had great novelty in the early years of the century. Members saw it as transforming geology into a science. It not only disclosed new knowledge but opened up new avenues of enquiry and new ‘instruments’ or ‘agents’ to enable their successful prosecution. By 1815 the society’s wish to gather facts could be celebrated as having successfully transported geology away from speculative cosmogonies, or theories of the earth, which had dominated its past and made it a subject of ridicule.[19]

The Geological Society was to be a repository of facts, much like the Linnean Society established two decades earlier, ‘making the metropolis of the empire the centre of such an institution’ not least because the city contained many ‘mineralogical cabinets’. Initially there was no mention of the acquisition of specimens. However, these rapidly became an important component of this fact collecting; by 1811 ‘a considerable collection’ had been formed. Indeed, in its prehistory the society had held the germ of a plan for a national mineral collection for its founders were primarily mineral collectors. In time the society’s museum did indeed take on the aspect of a national collection, at least in terms of its contribution to the subject’s intellectual development. A reviewer in 1817 listed the museum as one third of its prosperity: ‘the number of its members, the respectability of its papers, and, as we understand, in the value of the Museum annexed to the Establishment.’[20]

Fig. 1.2 The élites of English geology. John Phillips crouched in the foreground, then left to right: Roderick Murchison, Richard Owen, Henry De la Beche (with unknown figure with ear trumpet behind him), Adam Sedgwick, George Greenough, Charles Lyell, William Buckland and William Smith (with unknown face between these last two). From a painting by T. H. Gregg of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Newcastle in 1838. Courtesy of the Geological Society of London.

It was around this time that many of those who would transform the subject entered the society’s membership. The 30-year-old William Fitton first appeared at the society in 1810, having recently arrived in London to begin a career as a doctor. An Irishman of English descent, he had been pursuing fossils since his student days at Trinity College, Dublin, where it had caused him to be detained on suspicion of being a rebel. During the Irish rebellion of 1798, the tools and products of fossil collecting could easily be misinterpreted! The Revd Adam Sedgwick, who it is said began geology in 1818 on his election to the Woodwardian Chair of Geology at Cambridge University, first attended the society in 1816. The Revd William Buckland, a fossil enthusiast almost since birth, had acquired the Readership of Mineralogy at Oxford University in 1813 and became Reader of Geology in 1819 and professor shortly afterwards. Buckland had acquired his fossil-collecting tastes from his father, with whom he had ransacked his native Dorset quarries. It was a taste with which he infected his pupils and informants. Real objects, often fossils, were never far from his person, his sacklike ‘blue bag’ a constant companion. Buckland first attended with his friend William Conybeare in 1811 but took a further six years to join. Conybeare was the grandson of the Bishop of Bristol and became the most recent of a line of clerics. When at the University of Oxford he, with Buckland and a number of others, formed an influential geological club. Greenough, Fitton and others of the Geological Society made annual visits to Oxford to pursue geology with club members and to encourage their interaction. Though Buckland later lectured to Conybeare, he treated Conybeare as his equal, if not his superior. Sedgwick shared Buckland’s admiration of Conybeare, who left the University in 1814 to jointly pursue a life in the church and in science. Henry De la Beche first attended the society in 1817.[21] Like Buckland, he was brought up amongst the fossil wealth of Dorset and he too embraced it. He also found a mentor in Conybeare. The young Charles Lyell, a student of Buckland, attended the society in the same year. Roderick Murchison, who was to become the society’s most noted member, did not enter the field until the 1820s. Through the agency of these men the mineralogical bias of the nascent society was to be replaced by a science which put fossils at the centre of everything. 

However, despite the formation of the Geological Society, scientific development remained severely constrained in a Britain which had been immersed in the Napoleonic Wars for 22 years with little respite. The potential for the exchange of ideas with other scientific élites, which was so lacking in that period, is seen particularly in the work of Thomas Webster, who marked a sea change in the English approach to geology by imitating the French. Webster, a man with artistic leaning who had previously been employed at the Royal Institution, became the Geological Society’s first museum keeper in June 1812. Within eight months he had completed his second year of fieldwork on the Isle of Wight which enabled him to demonstrate the first long-distance correlation of rocks using fossils. It had been inspired by Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart’s Essai sur la Géographie Minéralogique des Environs de Paris published in 1811 which, based on four years’ work measuring sections in the Paris Basin, had established the stratigraphic utility of fossils. As Webster later remarked, his work had been ‘written at a time when circumstances entirely precluded the possibility of verifying my ideas by the actual examination of the Paris beds, or of corresponding with those savants who had so ably described them’.[22] The paper both epitomised this Napoleonic straitjacket and the potential of its final undoing. Here was the key to the future.

An alternative élite

Webster’s, and Cuvier and Brongniart’s, papers were fundamental to the change which was to take place in the focus of geology, but there was a third element which was just as important. This consisted of practical men, such as mineral surveyors and engineers, whom some in the Geological Society wished to class with ‘mole catchers’ as useful sources of data but no more. Amongst these practical men, two are particularly important to the story: William Smith and his disciple, John Farey.[23] Smith, a surveyor and engineer, had lived in the vicinity of Bath and then in London. In the last decade of the eighteenth century he had discovered that strata had an order of superposition which was repeated over a wide area and that certain strata could be identified from their fossil contents. This was a notion not unlike that of Werner’s formations though Werner had not isolated the significance of fossils.  Farey, who met Smith in October 1801, at once saw the value of Smith’s discovery. He now added mineral surveying to his list of occupations and made brilliant use of Smith’s methodology, all the while championing him in numerous articles and publications.[24]

The first explanation of Smith’s discoveries came in 1799 when his ideas were explained to two local clerics – the Revds Benjamin Richardson and  Joseph Townsend. A table of strata was drawn up and although not formally published became widely distributed and known. The first published account of Smith’s work was briefly given by the Revd Richard Warner in his History of Bath of 1801. In 1806, and the years that followed, Farey as principal exponent of the Smithian method published numerous accounts of Smith’s discovery. He soon produced a remarkably detailed geological section between London and Brighton which he distributed widely in 1807-8, followed by another across the English Midlands. A drawing of Derbyshire by Farey, based on Smithian principles, was also exhibited at the second meeting of the Geological Society in 1808. From 1811 Farey began the publication of his General View of the Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire, perhaps the first British geological memoir of substance. A longer explanation of Smith’s discovery was given by Townsend, by then an established local geologist and Rector of Pewsey in Wiltshire, in his curiously named geological text, The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian, Recording Events from the Creation to the Deluge, published in 1813. Here Townsend is unequivocal about Smith’s liberal ‘disinterestedness’ in making his discovery available to all.

Smith also explained his ideas to many influential men, often supporting his assertions with the evidence of real specimens in his museum, and he frequently spoke at agricultural societies and shows. Amongst those impressed by his approach was the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, whom he had met in 1801 and who was already beginning to doubt Wernerian teachings in favour of the knowledge of practical men. Through repeated contact, Banks was kept fully appraised of Smith’s discoveries. Farey was also in regular contact with Banks, and also with Sir John Sinclair, President of the Board of Agriculture. Others were influenced by the rapid diffusion of the method. Buckland, for example, gained information on Smithian technique from his Oxford associate, William Broderip, who in turn had acquired it from Smith’s friend, Joseph Townsend. Together the two Oxford men rode over the territory where Smith had first developed his ideas, collecting materials and drawing sections. In this way Smith’s revolutionary notions spread rapidly amongst the emerging geological community and soon became unauthored general principles (see Table 1.1).[25]

Yet Webster’s groundbreaking paper made no mention of the geological method of Smith or Farey. It was rooted in the French work, with which it sought to make direct stratigraphic correlation, and it concerned strata younger than those upon which Smith had worked. In his own way Webster was, like Smith, outside the mainstream of Geological Society thinking. In Farey’s view, the society was principally one of ‘Anglo-Wernerians’ centred around Greenough. During his residence in London, Smith had been highly suspicious of ‘men of scientific eminence’, concerned that they were all ‘pilferers of information’; ‘I began to think that all such men considered all unpublished observations as lawful plunder.’ The new generation of gentleman geologists saw it as their duty to gather and distil the facts of their lowlier brethren even when such facts had been determined by long-term investigation and reasoning. By Farey’s organisation, Smith was visited by members of the Geological Society on more than one occasion in March 1808. But they came not with the intention of patronising or adopting him, but simply as a piece of London fieldwork. They viewed his stratigraphically arranged collection yet remained unconvinced. This attention from a society ‘purposely established’ to investigate ‘the subject of strata’ initially caused Smith much excitement.[26]

Smith’s own use of fossils was difficult and expensive to communicate effectively in publication, the medium through which Geological Society had it was necessary to stake a claim. It was not simply a matter of translating his work into prose, this translation also required classification and illustration. As Farey explained to those who wished to practise geology, Smith was not well versed in the names of the fossils he used but referred to their ‘local seat and stratum’, allowing others to ‘depict, name and describe’ them.[27] To Farey this was not a flaw but an illustration of the accessibility of the new science. 

Table 1.1 William Smith’s names for strata in 1815 and those in use in 1833 as given by Fitton. From John Phillips’s 1849 article ‘Geology’ in Encyclopaedia Metropolitana.

Farey described Smith ‘as a plain and moderately lettered man, in a great measure if not totally unacquainted with the technical knowledge’ (this being mineralogy, botany, comparative anatomy and conchology). He had, however, been thoroughly trained as a land surveyor by Edward Webb. His nephew, John Phillips, later said that when Smith talked about his ideas ‘the language he employed was worthy of the simplicity of the man, the subject, and the auditors’. Smith did not rely upon a systematic understanding of the relationships of different species, or on binomial names, because these were notoriously unreliable, or poorly worked out, or simply did not exist. Instead he used bald empirical data: the key attributes of agreement or non-agreement of fossil faunas between two sites or two beds. However, his lack of technical language did not imply ignorance of the subtleties of his correlations; he was certainly aware that confusingly similar, but not identical, species lay in wait for the incautious. Given this method of working he inevitably preferred verbal communication underpinned by real fossil specimens. Real objects held morphological signs and signals which were immutable and could not be corrupted by the illustrator’s brush or the taxonomist’s abstraction. In 1799 it was his friend, the Revd Benjamin Richardson of Farleigh Castle in Somerset, who put names to the fossils in his lists, and also he who pressed Smith to improve the rigour of his published work in 1815.[28] However, by this time Smith had acquired the assistance of his talented fourteen-year-old nephew, John Phillips, whose extraordinary draughtsmanship, and verbal and literary skills, were to do much to transform his uncle’s image.

Phillips had been orphaned at the age of seven and then came under the guardianship of his mother’s brother, William Smith. Following a good classical education in Wiltshire, he spent a year under the personal tuition of Richardson, an Oxford graduate of some sophistication and intellect, and one of the region’s most noted naturalists. In 1815 Phillips arrived at his uncle’s house and from then on was Smith’s constant assistant. It was in this year, after some fourteen years of enforced gestation resulting from failed patronage, that Smith finally produced his groundbreaking geological map, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales. On a scale of five miles to one inch this was a remarkable feat for one man with few means. In the years that followed Smith completed a number of other publications explaining his methods and discoveries in the form of maps, tables, sections and prose. These too he could only progress by attracting sufficient subscribers or patronage. In 1819 Greenough published a similar map built up from a network of observers, but also using Smith’s map and information extracted from John Farey. Farey was unaware of the end to which this information was to be put, and was consequently much disgusted by the result.[29]

Throughout the decade Farey acted as Smith’s terrier against what he referred to as the society’s ‘Anti-Smithian Association’, though it was suggested at the time that his vehemence was as likely to lose support as engender it. Farey had himself been snubbed in his attempt to get a paper published in the society’s Transactions in 1813. Hugh Torrens has suggested that Banks’s resignation from the Geological Society in 1808, believing it a threat to the Royal Society, may have added fuel to the society’s resistance to Farey and Smith. This battle took many forms: some have seen it as a class war, others as one between rival ideologies (the ‘hypothetical’ formations of Werner and the characteristic fossils of Smith) and still others a battle for priority. It might also be viewed as an inter-society battle for intellectual territory.[30]

For all his verbal histrionics Farey was remarkably scholarly in his knowledge of the new science, its literature, and sequence of discoveries; a polymath who also had interests in mathematics and music, he was certainly an able match for the gentlemanly élite, if knowledge alone settled such things. James Parkinson had also explained the Smithian method within the society’s Transactions though with no intention of making waves. But in Greenough’s Critical Examination Smith was only said ‘to have embraced this idea at an early period’. It was not his discovery. Greenough remained sceptical of the use of fossils in determining stratigraphy and depositional environment, snubbing Smith, Webster and the French geologists. But he wielded considerable power within the Geological Society, and new members were ill-advised to cross him. His power rested on social status, disposition, his relationship to the founding moment, and perhaps even to management ability. He had a good knowledge of the stratification of British rocks as it was then understood. But in other ways his knowledge was not in tune with the times and he was to make few literary contributions to the science. His lack of awareness of the subtleties of fossil conchology, for example, would have been apparent to many of his contemporary readers.[31]

The German stratigrapher Werner’s teachings remained fashionable in Geological Society circles because they gave some insight into the logic of stratigraphic sequences. But his hypothesis on the deposition of rocks was, by the middle of the second decade, seen as just another fantastic cosmogony. After his 1816 tour of Germany, Greenough had no great opinion of Werner. However, it was not Greenough’s essay or the society’s Transactions which set the tone of geology in this period; the readership of Philosophical Magazine was far greater than either of these. Indeed most provincial philosophers knew about the affairs of the society through the publication of its proceedings in this and other popular magazines. This magazine was also the vehicle for Farey’s defence of Smith and the explanation of his method. In 1819, for example, he implored collectors to take the stratigraphic study of fossils to a higher level with wider geographical coverage, higher resolution investigations of strata and greater precision in fossil identification. In particular he recommended systematic descriptions based on large numbers of fossil specimens rather than single examples.[32]

Anonymously, Farey had earlier written of the transforming moment which a visit to Smith’s collection had become. Here was the paradigm for the geological collection; a physical statement of the intellectual power of the collection. But here also was Smith, living proof that geology need not be complicated by academic study or expense. Farey encouraged: ‘ladies and gentlemen residing or visiting in the country, to examine the quarries, cliffs, steep banks, & c. and collect and preserve fossil shells, as highly curious objects in conchology, and, as most important aids in identifying strata in distant places; on which knowledge the progress of geology in a principal degree, if not entirely, depends’. He suggested that the leisured frequent such unlikely places as wells, drains, foundations, pits and so on; Smith’s visitor had been well indoctrinated. Not only were they to collect materials ‘by small gratuities to the workmen for preserving all they meet with’ but most significantly get these workmen to point out ‘the exact bed … in which they lie’ and then curate the results:

Each specimen should have a number put on it, as soon as possible after collecting, referring to the notes taken, as to its habitat or place in the strata, as above mentioned, and the place on the surface of the country, described by the name of the particular quarry or work, in what farm, township or parish situated, and its bearing and distance, as near as these can be estimated or told by the workmen, from the nearest church or village which is shown in the ordinary maps, not forgetting to add the county to all such descriptions.[33]

This plea ended with a request for more communications from ‘men practically concerned and versant in the mineral concerns’. Here, not rooted in the Geological Society’s conservatism, a new kind of geology was being born, one which would rapidly add to the society’s membership and advance its transition into a modern research school. Smith’s (and John Phillips’s) influence was also seen in other ways, such as in William Phillips’s representations of geological sections of the Kent coast.[34] In October 1816, three years before Greenough found no answers, only errors, in his Critical Examination, one of the longest articles in Rees’s Cyclopedia was published. It was on ‘Strata’. For all its meanderings, it showed that stratigraphic geology, which was to form the foundation of Conybeare and William Phillips’s definitive Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, was already in place. In contrast Greenough’s book, for all its scholarliness, was blighted by pessimism. The ‘Addenda and Corrigenda’ published in the last volume of the Cyclopedia in October 1819 included a complete rewriting of the article on ‘Geology’ which had previously propounded Werner’s geognosy: ‘At the period when that article was written, geology as a science had scarcely excited any considerable degree of interest in this country.’ Both articles appear to be by or contain the work of Robert Bakewell, another practical man.

The decade after the war, then, was one which saw the role of fossils in geology, and therefore in wider society, transformed in part by agitators outside the Geological Society such as John Farey. Within the society factions developed their own methodologies. Fossils were not immediately adopted as a universal currency in geology, but as the science entered the early 1820s their utility could not be ignored. Nor could those who supported Smith, men such as Fitton, Webster, Buckland, Conybeare and Murchison. With the publication of Conybeare and Phillips’s Outlines, the very antithesis of Greenough’s Critical Examination, Conybeare and Greenough’s friendship broke down.[35]

Pockets of resistance persisted. One of the most vocal was John MacCulloch who referred to new ‘namby pamby cockleologists and formation men’ who were taking control of the science and who, he claimed, were unaware of the ‘proper business of geology’.[36] In 1822, he remained vehemently opposed to these new methods, seeing them as corrupting geology. Anonymously, in a witty yet scathing review of a French book on fossil fish, he made his views clear: 

Let the conchologists, the ichthyologists, the palaeologists [sic] of all kinds, flourish away as they may – flourish and fade. Geology, like Mont Blanc, will lift its head far beyond the region of oysters and ammonites, when these shall have been consigned to their proper places in those long catalogues of hard names which are the delight and study of the tribes that now ‘blacken all the way’.[37]

He was not alone in these beliefs but he, like Greenough, became increasingly isolated in them. In this same year William Fitton made moves to propose Smith an honorary member of the Geological Society but to no avail – Greenough, with his vice-like presidential grip, ‘could not swallow this pill’.[38] By the end of the 1820s the society’s emphasis was clear, as demonstrated by its curator’s instructions to collectors:

it should be a great maxim with geological collectors to direct their principal attention to the procuring of fossil organic remains, both animal and vegetable. These are always of value when brought from distant countries, especially when their localities are carefully marked; but when the rocks contain no petrifactions, very small specimens are sufficient.[39]

Opening Smith’s black box

In the first half of the nineteenth century the task of geology was universally understood: ‘The great object of geologists at present ought to be, to determine the different strata or formations … the extent of these formations, and their relative connexion with each other.’ As we have seen geologists had looked at every character associated with rocks in their search for a reliable key with which to correlate them and place them in their natural order. Smith had introduced this notion of a natural order and that each stratum had associated with it its own peculiar fossils.[40]

This idea, however, was not immediately embraced. What the mineralogical school feared was the erection of a principle which redrew the requirements, in terms of expertise, of the practising geologist. In this respect Smith’s ‘strata identified by organic remains’ was a classic Latourian black box which concealed not only a wide range of taxonomic, environmental, and distributional variables, but also complexities and ambiguities of application. Smith was simply applying what he saw as empirical knowledge without recourse to theory.[41] In this he was, as much as any man, the archetypal Baconian. His was to become the most fundamental law in contemporary geology, a law which was also fundamental to collection building. But it would perhaps have surprised the detractors of Smith that he and his followers also believed in the need for a broad, cross-scientific, approach to stratigraphy. 

In the 1820s Smith’s concept of strata identified by fossils became increasingly disembodied from the integrated techniques of the surveyor. Contemporary geologists were apt to take this rule and use it in isolation but Smith never viewed his biological indices as anything more than one tool of many which enabled him to ply his trade. For a surveyor, working primarily in the Secondary strata, attributes of lithology and position were more fundamental to such immediately relevant issues as water supply, mineral extraction and agricultural exploitation, than the fossils the rocks contained. In 1806, Farey gave Smith’s rules as he understood them. They are worth quoting in full: 

for identifying each particular stratum, either by the knowledge of its relative position with other known strata in its vicinity, by the peculiar organized remains imbedded in it, and not to be found in the adjoining strata, or by the peculiar nature and properties of the matter composing the stratum itself. 

Farey admitted this was an extreme simplification of the ‘theory’. Phillips similarly described the Smithian method in 1825. It had three interrelated elements which he listed in the following order: 

1.    The Geological Position;

2.    The Mineralogical Character of the Rocks;

3.    The Organic Remains therein embedded.

There are interesting differences between these lists.[42] Farey appears to give the rules in the order of their reliability, his use of ‘either’ and ‘or’ imply this and also suggest how he might have used them. In 1817, he gave additional emphasis to the role of fossils, where the rock sequence was poorly exposed (and therefore superposition could not be clearly seen) or individual strata were discontinuous. Phillips’s list appears to reflect the order of application of the rules with the third element tending to confirm through its reliability what might be intimated from the other two. This latter approach underpins the kind of interpolation for which Smith was renowned, in terms of reading the stratification of the landscape without constant need to bore into the ground. It was based on the ‘natural order of the strata’ ‘which probably never varies’.[43]

we have only to find in any district of the Country some one well-known Stratum in the Series – observe its declination and escarpment – consider its relative situation or judge by Tables of Sections what other strata either higher or lower in the series should thereabout appear, then trace their outbursts in the order of succession, consider the width of ground occupied by each of their uncovered portions of the Strata and thus judge of their respective thicknesses and dip and so ascertain what is thereabout the internal structure of the Earth without penetrating the soil for that purpose.[44]

It is a method of interpolation that any modern surveyor or mapmaker would recognise; mapmaking is impossible without it. It made constant reference to fossils unnecessary because certain beds, once established, form continua – markers – and once a sequence is determined lithological signals can be sufficient to clearly indicate the stratum, at least locally. Problems arise when lithological keys are as expected but structural elements such as faults have thrown a lithologically similar stratum into the sequence unexpectedly or where the lithology varies from one province to another. Inevitably, interpolation will at times result in error and these are the types of error which sometimes beset Smith’s work. In Yorkshire, for example, Smith had to deal with alien lithology and sequences, and the complexities of structure, and consequently errors arose.[45]

Smith typified his marker horizons by a combination of lithology and fossil content, the former being particularly useful where the state of fossil preservation was poor. He understood that many other beds were, to all intents and purposes, devoid of fossils – an opinion which he later stated in Scarborough only for it to be disproved by local collectors. As a working surveyor he did not have the luxury of spending considerable periods of time searching for fossils. He needed to use beds in which fossils could easily be found. This awareness that certain beds were more fossiliferous simplified practice by bringing fairly distinctive and fossil-rich strata into high relief in his conception of stratification.[46]

Smith’s methodology is seen in both Sedgwick’s and Murchison’s field investigations of the 1830s.[47]The geological section, with its clear delineation of structure, underpinned the use of fossils. It is also seen in the use of lithological markers by Phillips and his Geological Survey colleagues in their investigation of Wales in the 1840s: a very Smithian piece of fieldcraft. By this time fossils had acquired an increased reliability and those undertaking long-distance correlations now used them in isolation. This is apparent from Sedgwick’s criticism of Murchison’s Silurian expansion across Russia, claiming it was built on fossil evidence alone with no reference to structure. Phillips and Edward Forbes also used fossils in this way in the 1840s. It should be no surprise then that some historians have thought Smith could travel from one end of the country to the other, find a handful of fossils in a rock (which provided no other lithological or positional clues), and thereby prove its correlation. In fact, before the mid to late 1820s this was rarely possible. 

The novelty of Smith’s idea seemed to make its context invisible. As one contributor to the Edinburgh Review put it in 1830: 

the best way of determining the identity of a formation, when it occurs in different localities, is by the fossils which it contains; – identity in the fossil remains indicating identity in the formation, and diversity in the fossils indicating different formations. Mr Smith made a collection of fossil remains, compared them with each other, and made himself acquainted with their different characters, so as to know them when he met with them.[48]

At first sight fossils appear to be everything in this fossil-based stratigraphy, but the term ‘formation’ conceals a prior knowledge of position and lithological consistency. In part Smith’s ‘notion’ had been stripped of the surveyor’s cautions and provisos by those who saw its novelty. Indeed, Smith in defending his discovery in the years before 1820, gave emphasis to ‘characteristic fossils’; his Stratigraphical System of 1817 gives little indication of how these fossils should be used. Simple economy and ease of exposition made the publication of the ‘most characteristic’ fossils the only practicable solution.[49] However, to see Smith as simply using characteristic fossils himself is to misunderstand the fullness of the surveyor’s method, the complexities of the criteria of presence or absence he adopted and the inadequacy of contemporary distributional data relating to fossils. It also fails to distinguish a discoverer from a user, and assumes that Smith’s methodology had reached a state of completion.[50]

It is clear from the above that Smith’s approach relied upon consideration of the three elements already described. While he had established fossils that characterised particular beds, these were constantly being re-evaluated. And this re-evaluation could only take place against the structural framework of superposition. He knew that certain species were not to be found in the same stratum everywhere, even in a country the size of England, and he saw travel (such as to Yorkshire) as a means to test these indices and to better understand fossil distribution. There was no certainty regarding the vertical or geographical ranges of many fossils. Thus Farey could not see the Brora coal in Scotland as belonging to the Oolite strata. The fossils he found were undeniably of this period but he could not be certain that they did not also extend down into the coal-producing beds.[51] Smith remained cautious about fossil distribution and many years later Phillips admitted that he would not be surprised to find certain fossils in rocks from which they were currently assumed to be absent. After all, hyenas and elephants were around this time proven to have existed in Yorkshire, when all the distributional evidence of modern faunas gave no suggestion that this might be so.

Smith on time

Smith’s approach was rooted as much in the collection as in the field. His collection held thousands of fossils or packets of fossils (and 720 species in all), each marked with their source stratum and locality. When this collection was sold to the British Museum he recommended that the most characteristic fossils be displayed on shelves in the order of the strata, with the rest of the collection in drawers but cross-referenced to each stratum.[52] For Smith, the interest was not simply in characteristic fossils but ‘all the organized fossils in each stratum’. ‘Characteristic fossils’ was a notion which could be sold to those who wished to identify established formations, but those who wished to investigate unknown strata, as Smith had done, needed to gather fossils more widely and then distil fossil indices and associations, and so establish the stratigraphic resolution of particular fossils. Indeed the great work of stratigraphic palaeontology from the 1820s to the 1840s was essentially distributional – understanding species distribution in time, space, environment, basins of deposition and so on but many of these concepts were not available to Smith.[53]

For Smith, his ‘theory’ was simply the key to a methodology which he used to seek utilitarian solutions in agriculture, mining and so on. In pursuing these ends he had no need of fossil names or of concepts such as time; he relied entirely on empiricism. However, from 1817, Smith’s visualisation of stratification had a temporal component – seen as the product of successive creations: ‘As the section of a tree shows its increase by annual rings of growth, so the Strata seem to show the earth’s lamellar increase.’ But on this point Smith appears contradictory, for he also says: ‘How far these facts tend to establish a certain theory, which pretends to give the relative ages of strata according to the presence or absence of organized fossils, others may determine.’ This phrase is far more ambiguous than some commentators claim. Here he is not denying the role of time, claiming modesty or resisting a brave step; he is simply stating time’s irrelevance to his business of discovering stratigraphic order and correlation. Smith was not seeking a causal explanation or theory but empirical truths that were a product of true cause. From other statements in this work it is clear that he felt he was probably witnessing the product of time just as he was using the products of taxonomy in his exploitation of fossils. But the intricacies of both were of no concern to him. Does this mean then that he was not distinguishing relative age as some have claimed? The issue is more complex than has been assumed. Smith was conveying two messages: one of cause, which was not important to him, and one of method, which was. In this light there is no contradiction.[54] And as we know, it was not what Smith said that is wholly important but the meanings others made. His disciples certainly picked up on the temporal aspect and none more so than Phillips but in 1817 there was a need to remove certain facts from anything remotely resembling theory.

Phillips also saw Smith’s theory as constantly evolving – not simply a static product of 1796. Thus he could later see his uncle as the discoverer of the chronological significance of fossils because that is how his theory was visualised before his death. This notion that Smith’s idea was constantly developing contradicts some established views which themselves beg the question, how should it have developed? After all, it was still very new science even in the 1820s. Viewed externally Smith’s notion does appear unchanging but this is because the theory was good. Viewed internally – its inner workings represented in fieldwork, collections, indices or in its relationship to prevailing theory – it is constantly under revision by both Smith and Phillips (the two minds can hardly be separated after 1817).[55]

Degrees of characterisation

Smith’s collection was in physical form a mirror of the distributional tables of fossils which later became something of a fashion. As Jack Morrell detects, Phillips brought a new level of sophistication to Smith’s work. What Smith could previously achieve only with specimens in his cabinet, Phillips could enhance, and capture on paper using his taxonomic knowledge and all the subtleties this would bring. Smith’s famous ‘Table of Strata’ drawn up after a dinner party in 1799, which marked the first explanation of his discovery, included a fairly extensive list of broadly defined fossils for most beds. It should be no surprise then that in October 1817 Phillips was listing fossils for Smith in Whitby and that fossil lists should become a key element of Phillips’s explanation of the coastal geology of Yorkshire. Indeed the origins of the tables of fossil distribution that were to later dominate Phillips’s work came from Smith. As Phillips recalled, following his curation of Smith’s collection in 1816, ‘he set me to compose those tabular synopses of the distribution of the more remarkable groups of fossil in the several zones of stratification.’[56] Some of these were published in Smith’s Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossilswhere he clearly identifies the importance of distribution studies.

The problem here is determining the contribution of the two men to the subtleties of using fossils in the correlation of strata. Martin Rudwick, for example, follows the established view pointing to Phillips’s comment to De la Beche, in 1835, that he had once believed ‘that every Rock of the oolitic Suite had its own “peculiar” fossils’. This seems to imply that Phillips had ‘dismissed as a “fantasy” Smith’s own view of the various formations of the Oolitic sequence, for these were the supreme exemplar of the use of characteristic fossils’. In 1829 Phillips proposed that, in addition to the use of characteristic fossils, where they were available, sophisticated criteria of presence or absence might be used where they were not.[57] It was this apparent enhancement of Smithian method, rather than its rejection, to which Phillips was referring in his letter to De la Beche. But the question then arises as to whether this was a Phillipsian invention. The evidence of earlier publications suggests that it may not have been. 

The precision with which Phillips uses language may give a further clue. One of the key rocks where this more sophisticated method was applied was in Smith’s own lithologically variable ‘Cornbrash’, a rock determined by its position and ‘the general character of its organic fossils’.[58] What distinguished it was not its own peculiar fossils but rather the occurrence together of shells found in the rocks above and below. Phillips could articulate this and develop the concept for use elsewhere but for this rock he does not claim this discovery as his own. It is known that Smith was aware that the Cornbrash could even be subdivided in this way in 1817. Elsewhere in his Yorkshire coast treatise Phillips uses the personal pronoun to claim other fossil associations. It is useful here to refer again to Smith’s phrase ‘most characteristic’ because it infers other specimens which were less characteristic but still indicative or confirmatory. Smith was not simply using isolated fossils as indices but rather viewing them in the context of the wider fauna. It is now clear that Smith saw degrees of characterisation in fossils. In 1817 he gave no clear indication of how presence/absence criteria should be used, and all evidence points to the kind of sophisticated interpretation Phillips articulated for the Cornbrash.  It gives an indication that Smith read rocks by their general faunal characteristics, position and lithology. What he was applying was that peculiar kind of connoisseurship any fossil collector, stratigrapher or museum curator would recognise. A number of signals (which could not be easily defined or articulated) gave a ‘characteristic impression’ of a stratum.[59]

Phillips remained convinced that characteristic fossils existed (such as Ostrea deltoidea), but increasingly saw these as a subset of wider fossil distribution. He would pursue comprehensive lists for each stratum, just as Smith had pursued comprehensive collections, except that Phillips could achieve this through refined taxonomy. Both enabled the detection of ‘characteristic’ forms. 

Throughout his time in Yorkshire Smith was never set in his ways of thinking about fossil indices, and indeed his cautiousness points to constant refinement through empirical research, in which Phillips played an increasingly important part. In later life Phillips came to understand the environmental factors that might derive fossil associations but also cause them to break down. It was then that Phillips saw Smith’s notion as ‘bald’.[60] Smith had utilised fossil occurrences intentionally as a ‘black box’, whereas Phillips used contemporary theoretical knowledge of creation, dispersal and depositional basins to lay that box open. In his article ‘Organic Remains’ for Penny Cyclopedia, published in 1840, he both endorsed Smith’s law but also gave the provisos through which it operated. The notion which determined the characterisation of the Cornbrash was now formulated as ‘characteristic combinations of life’. He was marrying the two quite disparate views of fossils, one as stratigraphic indicators and the other as biological series. The latter sought completeness, a completeness which could then be fed into stratigraphic studies. But in many respects his extensive tables were closely akin to Smith’s practice of gathering and laying side by side the fossils of all the strata in the hope of characterising them. Just as Smith had developed his correlations from nothing in the fairly clear and well-stratified Secondary strata around Bath, so Phillips would have to start afresh in much older and, lithologically and structurally, more complex strata in Wales, Devon and Cornwall. In doing so he would not rely upon his own collections but the collections of others recorded on paper with the consistency of his own identifications.

In viewing the development of geology through the first half of the century, the influence of Smith is quite remarkable. It can be traced as a series of evolving concepts. This is seen particularly in the work of Phillips and his vital role in developing the Geological Survey’s style of investigation. Smith’s Stratigraphical System (which also contains the contributions of Phillips) sets an agenda, half concealed in rambling and ambiguous prose, which determined, or detected, the main areas of geological research and development for the following decades. These included distributive analysis of fossils and rocks, the emphasis on locality as the central concept of fieldwork, the role of collections in constructing knowledge, the fieldcraft of boundary chasing and the draughtsmanship of sections and maps. These ideas would transform the science and the culture of geology. Yet here was a man of little educational advantage, who as a result presented a very private and unsophisticated persona, so unlike the cultured gentlemen who took the subject forward. Beneath this exterior there was a truly perceptive mind, which Farey saw better than any. While the French conception of strata identified by fossils would bring the method increasingly into fashion, Smith was to become a dominant influence particularly following the publication of Phillips’s Yorkshire coast treatise in 1829. Smith’s Stratigraphical System provided a perfect model for this book – but then Phillips had been instrumental in producing the earlier work. Phillips’s later book simply added greater linguistic and scientific sophistication. From 1817 to the 1860s, Phillips became a major player in stratigraphy and the study of fossil distribution. In later life he was still drawing tables much like those Smith had asked him to draw in 1817.

So here was the culture of English geology: mature and complex in 1840, but only being born as a recognisable specialism in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. In time a social élite would make this science its own but in the 1810s geology was still largely in the possession of an underclass of practical men. These had clearly established the utility of placing rocks in their order of succession and had determined that fossils provided the key to making this possible. As the boundaries and opportunities of the new science became visible so others were drawn in to stake a claim. Both artisan and aristocrat found a purpose in geology but its cultural world was to be driven and typified by middle-class desires. 


[1].          Bowerbank (1840b).

[2].          For a history of collecting here see Ward (1885: 413) and Parsons (1757).

[3].          Pyrite – an iron mineral also known as fool’s gold but which often is black in colour. Copperas is an iron compound made from pyrite and used widely in manufacture.

[4].          Bowerbank (1797-1877). For ‘a woman …’, Bowerbank (1840b: 206); Bowerbank (1840a: 1) for ‘figs’; and with Hunter (1835: 43) for women and children; also Rees (1819) on ‘Shepey’ published 28 February 1816. See also Elliott (1970: 334) for a description of the location and the informal London Clay Club which joined Bowerbank to other lovers of the clay. I am grateful to Hugh Torrens for bringing Bowerbank’s collecting instructions to my notice. Antediluvial – meant pre-deluge and was often applied to the period before the Biblical flood. The source of the plants was resolved by Arthur George Davis (1936: 328), a mechanic using his leisure time for science, who in another era received financial patronage from C.D. Sherborn (Norman 1944: 47). For more on Davis (1892-1957), see Elliott (1970)

[5].          ‘Innkeepers …’, from Greenough correspondence, 1814, quoted by Laudan (1977: n.19).

[6].         Self-education of artisan botanists is well documented, see Layton (1973: 30-31) and Secord (1994). 

[7].          Peach to De la Beche, 24 December 1838, 2 February and 14 April 1840, NMW. Peach, mss. ‘An account of the fossil organic remains of the south east coast of Cornwall …’ presented at the British Association, NMW. Rudwick (1985: 392) discusses the use of this material at this meeting and the relative status of the human components in geology (for which see pp. 418-26). In 1848 Peach was a Tide Surveyor and Searcher at Fowey (for which see Pickering (1995: 122-5)), and shortly afterwards was moved to Peterhead, Scotland where he said ‘Geology is a dead letter here’, Peach to De la Beche, 20 September 1850, NMW.

[8].          Anon. (1842b) taken from the Kilkenny Journal.

[9].          Altick (1973: 18).

[10].        For the value of expertise in local politics, Garrard (1983: 5); in geology, see Rudwick (1985).

[11].        For the struggle between science and rank in the Royal Society, see MacLeod (1983: 57-8). For a contemporary opinion, see Bulwer-Lytton (1830: II: 198); for individualism, voluntarism, libertarianism and self-help, Morrell (1971).

[12].        Rudwick (1988: 253; 1985: 18) shows that debate at this society was an innovation of Fitton during his presidency in the late 1820s. This is also apparent from contemporary accounts, for which see Eyles (1978: 387). The overstated importance of publication in the scientific community is also referred to by Shapin and Thackray (1974: 8) with regard to literary and philosophical societies. This is a regular concern of Torrens in his pursuit of practical men; see, for example, ‘papyrophobia’ in Torrens (1996a: 68) and Torrens (1994) for the difficulties of Smith and Farey in getting their more scientific work published (discussed below). ‘I have …’, Charles Darwin, quoted by Secord (1986a: 21).

[13].        Rudwick (1988: 251) for ‘hardly …’. For the society’s own view of itself as a struggling organisation in 1817, W.J. Hamilton, Presidential address (1856), QJGS12, xxxv. Porter (1977: 148) indicates the specialism was largely defined by the early activity of this society.

[14].        Rudwick (1985: 3), who also revealed these other relationships; Torrens (1990c: 659) also detects symbiosis rather than parasitism in the relationship between Murchison and local collectors.

[15].        Geikie (1905: 401).

[16].        For the development of the understanding of fossils, see Rudwick (1972). For their eighteenth-century cultural function, Torrens (1997). ‘That some …’, [Fitton] (1817b: 72). Parkinson and Mantell, in Dean (1999: 21). This transition from mineralogy to palaeontology in Transactions is also discussed by Porter (1977: 181), Rupke (1983b: 130) and others. 

[17].        For ‘rind …’, Rees (1819) revised article on ‘Geology’ in final volume by Robert Bakewell (1767-1843).

[18].        For range of investigations, Greenough (1819: 260-95). Torrens (1998a) for Greenough’s parentage. ‘Greenough’ was added to his name from his mother’s side of the family, on inheriting her father’s fortune. See also Presidential address (1856), QJGS12, xxvii.

[19].        [Fitton] (1817a: 175) for Baconian experiments; also Anon. (1874b: 510) for end of cosmogonies and also Miller (1986: 230). Porter (1977: 148) suggests early ‘speculative darkness’ was a myth created by the Geological Society.

[20].        Rudwick (1963) provides an important account of the society’s formation including pp. 334-5 for an account of the network and its imitation of the Linnean. Moore et al. (1991) discuss the nature and growth of its museum. For ‘metropolis of the empire’ see Preface, Transactions of the Geological Society1 (1811), v-ix, and also for the society’s intent. Historical perspectives can be found in Weindling (1983: 127; 1997: 256). Miller (1986: 236) discusses the relationship of the mineralogical approach to other methodologies available to the society. Greenough’s obituary states that the society arose out of a contemporary interest in mineralogy and mining which had led to the formation of important mineral collections. The aim of the society was to give these interests practical direction. Presidential address (1856), QJGS12, xxviii. The reviewer was [Fitton] (1817a: 175).

[21].        William Henry Fitton (January 1780-13 May 1861). Presidential address (1862), QJGS18, xxx-xxxiv including p.xxx for rebel. Rudwick (1988) gives a broad portrait of the life of the gentleman geologist in 1835. For dates of appearance Gillispie (1951: 85) and Gordon (1894: ix). For Buckland’s (12 March 1784-24 August 1856) childhood and blue bag, Gordon (1894: 2, 85-6) and Rupke (1983b). William Daniel Conybeare (June 1787-August 1857), Presidential address (1858), QJGS14, xxiv-xxxii. Conybeare undertook pioneering work on the Lias vertebrate fauna in the early 1820s, and was an accomplished field geologist (North 1935). Henry Thomas De la Beche (10 February 1796-13 April 1855), Presidential address (1856), QJGS12, xxxiv. ‘Beche’ pronounced ‘Beech’ – this is evident from Mary Anning’s misspelling of the name in a letter quoted by Lang (1939: 156). De la Beche was later to found the Geological Survey and play an important role in professionalising geology, see McCartney (1977) and Sharpe and McCartney (1997).

[22].        There had been some interchange of scientific ideas in 1802 during the Treaty of Amiens (Eyles 1985: 45). Cuvier and Brongniart’s paper was published in various forms from 1808. It appeared as a separate publication in extended form in 1811 and also in Cuvier’s Recherches of the following year (Dean 1999: 23). Webster (1814). For a brief biographical summary of Webster, Edwards (1971). ‘Written …’, Webster to André Brochant de Villiers, 5 October 1821, and also Webster to Sedgwick, [n.d.], (Challinor, 1964-1965: 1: 188; 2: 148), [Fitton] (1817a: 186) shows contemporary recognition of the importance of Webster’s paper.

[23].        William Smith (23 March 1769-28 August 1839); John Farey (24 September 1766-1826).

[24].        Ford and Torrens (1989) give a detailed account of Farey’s life.

[25].        Eyles (1985) for Warner, whose collection was organised by Smith. For Farey see Farey (1806) and Ford and Torrens (1989). Joseph Townsend (1739-1816). George Cumberland described Townsend as ‘a patient investigator’ who had taught him the Greensand, in Cumberland, Bristol to Thomas Webster, 13 January 1826, Fitzwilliam Museum. There are numerous contemporary accounts of Smith’s explanation of his ideas in his cabinet, but also discussed by Eyles (1967: 180; 1985: 38). For William John Broderip’s (1815-27 February 1859) training of Buckland, see Gordon (1894: vii) and Presidential address (1857), QJGS13, xxvii. For Smith’s own list of men of influence to whom he explained his ideas see Smith in Sheppard (1917: 215); his original table of strata was copied and distributed extensively (Smith (1815) quoted by Sheppard (1917: 128)). His geological map of England and Wales had 414 subscribers, far more than subscribed to Greenough’s similar venture (Torrens 1983: 136). Eyles (1969: 180ff) gives a further list of men of influence who visited Smith in 1815; Eyles (1985) for the definitive account of Smith’s influence in the first decade of the century. Increasingly Wernerian in her outlook, revisionist historian Laudan (1990) writes Smith off as of little consequence to the development of the science, a historiographic process which can be documented to the early 1800s (for which see Torrens (1990c: 659)). But the evidence clearly points to what Torrens (1994: 59) often refers to as an over-emphasis of the published (because it survives) and an underplaying of the oral (which does not). Eyles (1985: 43) counters Laudan’s (1976) claims which tend to ignore the great weight of evidence in Smith’s favour. For Smith’s literary difficulties, Cox (1942: 15). For deep context of Smith’s discoveries around Bath, Torrens (1997); for Banks, Smith and Farey relationships, see Eyles (1985: 41-4), Torrens (1994: 56-69) and Ford and Torrens (1989). Torrens also for Banks’s Wernerian switch and also Sinclair. Eyles (1985) provides evidence that the Smithian method may have been relayed to France in 1802. Also Farey (1815b) and Judd (1898: 100). See Anon. (1869) for indications of mid-nineteenth-century status. Dean (1999) for the acquisition of Smith’s ideas by Parkinson and Mantell. Arkell (1933) and Hancock (1977) give succinct accounts of the development of his discovery.

[26].        Issue of priority between Smith and the French geologists is discussed by Eyles (1985). ‘Anglo …’, Farey (1815b). For Werner, see Rupke (1983a: 404), Miller (1986: 235) and, for an extended and ‘divergent’ view, Laudan (1987). For ‘pilferers …’ etc., Smith quoted by Cox (1942: 54). Farey (1815b; 1818). Farey was in frequent correspondence with Greenough at this time, animosities had not begun (Ford and Torrens 1989). The Geological Society visitors were Greenough and Sir James Hall (Sheppard 1917: 216) and Torrens (1998c: 111) who also quotes Smith’s ‘purposely …’.

[27].        [Farey] (1817b: 49).

[28].        On Smith, [Farey] (1815a: 277). By ‘simplicity’ Phillips meant uncomplicated logic; ‘the language …’, Phillips (1860: xxxii). See also Phillips (1839:215). On subtleties of Smith’s approach, Farey (1819: 119). On Richardson’s role, Phillips (1844: 29) and Edmonds (1982: 146). Benjamin Richardson (1759?-1832), of Farleigh (also Farley) near Bath.

[29].        John Phillips (25 December 1800-24 April 1874). Edmonds (1982) gives Phillips’s family background and early development under Smith. Farey (1806: 44) talks of the failure to support Smith’s enterprise, and is explained in part by the bankruptcy of his publisher, for which Eyles (1985: 40) and Torrens (1983: 135). Eyles (1969b) for a chronology of Smith’s publications. Eyles (1967: 197) for the advance required for the publication of Smith’s (1816) Strata Identified by Organized Fossils. For  Farey’s disgust, Ford and Torrens (1989) and Farey, ibid. For discussion of the Smith/Greenough maps see Rudwick (1963: 339-40), Weindling (1997: 263-4), North (1934: 52) and Torrens, ibid. 

[30].        ‘Anti-Smithian …’, Torrens (1990c: 659; 1994: 69) quoting Farey in 1822. For criticism of Farey’s tone, [Fitton] (1818: 313). For the writing, editing and withdrawal of Farey’s paper, Torrens (1994: 67). See also Ford and Torrens (1989). For ‘hypothetical’, Tredgold (1818). Porter (1977: 143) and Miller (1986: 237ff) saw this as class war. Farey and Smith were convinced this was an issue of priority and ideology; Banks certainly saw this as a stealing of intellectual territory. The battle between the two societies is well covered in the references already cited, and is discussed in Presidential address (1856), QJGS12, xxviii.

[31].        Greenough’s knowledge is apparent from his own notes of his European tour (Torrens 1998a). On fossil conchology, Greenough (1819: 287).

[32].        On Werner’s theory, [Fitton] (1817b: 71). Porter (1977: 181) detected Wernerian explanations yielding to the truth of Nature around 1811. Rupke (1983b: 111ff) discusses the interplay between Wernerian and other ideas on stratification in the early work of Buckland and others. Torrens (1998a) describes the tour. Farey (1819). Rudwick (1988: 254) for publication schedules of the society’sTransactions.

[33].        [Farey] (1815a: 278). Ford and Torrens (1989) identify this as the work of Farey. This specification for collecting would meet late twentieth-century standards – which are equally ignored by many collectors. The call for increased resolution was not answered until the mid-1830s.

[34].        Smith’s sections published in 1817 are stylistically very similar to John Phillips’s famous section of the Yorkshire coast produced in the 1820s. The lithography was by Phillips, see Eyles (1969b: 98-9) and Edmonds (1982: 148) but it is quite likely that he was also the draughtsman. William Phillips’s (no relation to John Phillips) simple sections bear a similarity.

[35].        For the breakdown of relations, Torrens (1998).

[36].        John MacCulloch to Leonard Horner, 2 June 1820, quoted in Miller (1986: 243). Ironically it was he who Murchison would ultimately describe as out of touch (Cumming (1985: 83)).

[37].        [MacCulloch] (1822: 59-60).

[38].        Torrens (1990c: 659) alluding to the source of Greenough’s fortune.

[39].        Lonsdale (1830: 445).

[40].        ‘The great …’, Anon. (1830b: 45). Hancock (1977: 3).

[41].        Smith (1817: vii).

[42].        The two lists are from Farey (1806: 45) (Torrens (1994: 62) gives this list but not in full) and Phillips, YPS Scientific Communications Volume 1, 8 February 1825.

[43].        For ‘natural order’, Farey (1806: 45; 1817b); Torrens (1990b: 109).

[44].        Smith’s Hull lecture, December 1824, quoted by Edmonds (1975a: 401).

[45].        Problems of a type which Laudan (1976: 221) incorrectly claims indicated Smith’s non-use of fossils, and which Phillips supposedly overcame.

[46].        Smith (1817: ix).

[47].        Secord (1982: 436-7), and Secord (1986a: 236), which includes a useful introduction to stratigraphic methods, p. 24-7). See also Morrell (1988a: 10).

[48].        [Thomas Thomson] (1830: 46).

[49].        Smith’s (1816) Strata identified by organized fossils containing prints on coloured paper of the most characteristic fossils in each stratum.

[50].        Laudan’s (1976) expectations, for example, seem to be of a perfected and wholly biological method.

[51].        ‘Relative ages …’, Smith (1817: ix). Farey on Brora, Ford and Torrens (1989).

[52].        The wrapper of Strata identified …, and Smith’s correspondence 12 July and 7 August 1816, and Lowndes of October 1816, in Eyles (1967: 195-202). For further information on Smith’s curatorial methods see Phillips (1844: 19-20), Anon. (1874b: 510), Eyles (1967: 202) and chapter 5.

[53].        Phillips (1860) for distributive studies.

[54].        Fuller (1995: 8) exposes this contradiction and questions Smith’s contribution to notions of relative age; Dott (1997: 162) prefers the counterview in Smith’s seemingly contradictory statements. ‘How far …’ and ‘As the section …’, Smith (1817: ix and x).

[55].        For a more conservative view, Fuller (1995: 8) following Cox (1942: 68).

[56].        On Phillips, Morrell (1988a: 11;1989: 329). ‘Table of Strata’, reproduced in Phillips (1844: 30) and Sheppard (1917: 109). For ‘he set me …’, Phillips (1860: xxxviii) which also contains an unpublished ammonite table composed in 1817. On distribution, Smith (1817: viii). This was published in August 1817. It has been inferred that Stratigraphical System was principally the work of Phillips (Cox 1942: 57; Edmonds 1982: 148). While Phillips certainly produced the catalogue, the introductory discourse was Smith’s and it is clear from Phillips’s comments above and elsewhere that his work was closely supervised at this time.

[57]. For ‘dismissed …’, Rudwick (1985: 122). Phillips (1829: 116).

[58]. Phillips (1829: 41, 87). Arkell (1933: 326) and Hancock (1977: 5) point out that Smith subdivided the Cornbrash. It was another century before the significance of this was realised.

[59]. Equivalent to the naturalist’s ‘jizz’.

[60]. Morrell (1988a: 10-11) refers to ‘naïve Smithian palaeontology’.

From: Simon J. Knell. The Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851: A Science Revealed Through Its Collecting (Aldershot/Burlington USA/Singapore/Sydney: Ashgate Publishing, 2000).