One of the most treasured possessions in the library of Newcastle’s Mining Institute is the ‘Geological Atlas of England and Wales’ by William Smith, ‘the father of English geology’. Imagine how excited we were to receive an email recently from from Roy McIntyre, an amateur enthusiast of William Smith and exiled Geordie, revealing that, in 1794, this famous scientist had actually visited Heaton.
William Smith was born in Oxfordshire on 23 March 1769. He was the son of John Smith, the village blacksmith and his wife, Ann. William’s father died when he was just eight years old and so William and his siblings were brought up by their uncle, a farmer. Young William, largely self-educated, showed an aptitude for mathematics from an early age and at the age of 18 he found work with a surveyor in Gloucestershire, soon becoming proficient in his field.
We know that, in 1791, Smith carried out a survey of the Sutton Court estate in Somerset, the seat of the Strachey family and then owned by John Strachey, a renowned geologist. Strachey had previously surveyed the family estate and nearby coalfields, measuring the layers of rock he could see below ground and recording them pictorially.
William Smith built on Strachey’s work and went on to work for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company. He had observed that the rock layers in the pits were arranged in a predictable pattern, always being found in the same relative position. He had also noticed that each stratum could be identified by the fossils it contained and so he was working towards a theory he called ‘The principle (or law) of faunal succession’. But he needed to go further afield to really test his hypothesis.
North to Heaton
In his email to Heaton History Group, Roy wrote that ‘Smith’s trip up north in 1794 is what showed him the need for a geological map of the country, and gave him ideas on how that could be accomplished’. He added that ‘some of the things that he observed while travelling on the coach can be seen on the maps he went on to make’. The notebooks he used on the journey have not survived, but what he wrote down from memory in June 1839, two months before he died, does. Smith’s memory was excellent and his biographer, John Phillips (a prominent geologist in his own right, whose interest in the subject had been nurtured by Smith, his uncle), said that his account of the tour was ‘ nearly in the same words he had often used before in narrating it’. Here is what he wrote:
“… We arrived at Newcastle on Saturday afternoon, time enough to get to Heaton Colliery, but unfortunately too late for me to go down the pit; but a very intelligent overlooker kindly drew me with his stick on the dust a plan of the mode of working the coal, which to me was perfectly intelligible.
The railways to the staiths on Tyneside were then mostly wood, or wood plated with iron; and such was the state of machinery, that at Heaton Colliery the deepwater was raised by a steam-engine into a pool on the surface, and at other times in the twenty-four hours from the pool, by much larger pumps, to the top of two high water-wheels, which raised the coal.
We did not expect to see the things so managed in the north; and I was surprised to see the fires they kept, and other contrivances for promoting ventilation, as in the Somersetshire collieries there is no want of pure air. I had observed that my friend Palmer’s string of questions sometimes produced a shyness in obtaining answers, and therefore I used to proceed upon the principle of give and take; and in thus offering my exchange of knowledge of the mode of working coal in Somersetshire, 1000 yards down the steep slope of 1 in 4, and perfectly dry and in good air, 100 to 250 perpendicular yards beneath the bottom of the pumps, I believe the honest manager of Heaton Colliery thought I was telling him a travelling story.
The mode of dividing their shafts and mother-gates by brattices of wood-work seemed inconvenient and unphilosophical, and we rather dissatisfied, hastened back through Ripon and Harrogate…’
A copy of Andrew Armstrong’s one inch 1769 map of Northumberland, used by Smith on the trip, annotated in pencil, and with colour wash added by him to show the strata , survives.
Smith continued to travel, taking rock samples and mapping the strata in various locations. He amassed a large collection of fossils and published his findings.
In 1799, he produced the first large scale geological map of the area around Bath and, in 1801, a rough sketch of what would become the first geological map of most of Great Britain. His completed version published in 1815 was the first geological map to depict such a wide area in detail.
He used different colours applied by hand to indicate the various rock types and conventional symbols to show geographical features such as canals, tunnels, tramways and roads, collieries, lead, copper and tin mines, as well as salt and alum works. He went on to produce a number of books and papers about strata and their fossils.
Unfortunately around the same time, Smith began to have serious financial problems. He had first met Sir Joseph Banks in 1801 and, the botanist, realising the importance of Smith’s research, became an important and generous patron, without whom at some points Smith would not have had the means to carry on his work. Indeed, he dedicated his 1815 map to Banks.
Smith sold his fossil collection to the British Museum for £700 but was nevertheless, in 1819, sent to a debtors’ prison. On his release, he worked as an itinerant surveyor until Sir John Johnstone, appointed him as land steward on his estate in Scarborough. Smith designed the Rotunda in the town, a geological museum devoted to the Yorkshire coast.
In 1831, the Geological Society finally recognised Smith’s achievements by making him the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal, its highest award. It was at the presentation that the society’s then president, Adam Sedgwick, first used the term ‘the father of English geology’. In 1838, Smith was one of the commissioners appointed to select the building stone for the Palace of Westminster.
William ‘Strata’ Smith died in Northampton on 28 August 1839, aged 70, and is buried there.
Smith’s many publications, his fossil collection, and especially his maps, are his most important legacy, of course. His maps are now appreciated for their beauty as well as their function and his genius. But there is also, for example, an annual Geological Society lecture in his honour and a crater on Mars named after him. The Rotunda in Scarborough has been refurbished and is a worthy memorial to its designer.
Heaton Main Colliery had only been opened two years at the time of Smith’s visit. Its viewer (chief engineer and manager) was George Johnson of Byker, the leading colliery engineer on Tyneside at the time. It was one of the largest and most technically advanced coal mines in the world. It is not surprising that a man of Smith’s calibre should pay a visit.
Indeed he was not the only distinguished scientist to pick the brains of people associated with the colliery. Another distinguished visitor was chemist and mineralogist, Charles Hatchett (1765 -1847).
Unlike William Smith, Charles was the son of well-to-do parents. His father, John, was a London coach builder ‘of the greatest celebrity’ and later a magistrate. Charles attended private school but is said to have taught himself mineralogy and analytical chemistry.
He had an opportunity to travel abroad with his wife, Elizabeth, when his father asked him to deliver a coach to Catherine the Great in St Petersburg. On this trip, with an introduction from William Smith’s later benefactor, Sir Joseph Banks, he visited a number of well known European scientists. In 1796, he began another extensive tour, this time through England and Scotland, where he visited geological sites, mines and factories. On Thursday 26 June 1796, he came to Heaton.
Charles Hatchett, ‘breakfasted with Mr Johnson at Byker and afterwards went with him and his son to Heaton Colliery’.
Hatchett commented that ‘the ropes are worked by a steam engine…the cylinder of which is 70 inches in diameter…the same raises the water out of the mines, 300 gallons each stroke’ and noted that ‘the coal is raised in basket corves, which contain 24 pecks.The coal is conveyed to the waterside by what they here call wagons, made of wood with small iron wheels, which have a rabbit which fits the wooden railroads.’
The following year Hatchett was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, largely as a result of his work analysing lead. Like Smith, albeit for very different reasons, he sold his collection comprising 7,000 mineral samples to the British Museum.
In 1801, Hatchett discovered the element, niobium (which he named ‘columbium’), widely used today in the superconducting magnets of MRI scanners, as well as in welding, nuclear industries, electronics, numismatics and jewellery. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1798 and in 1822 was presented with a gold medal by the society.
Soon after this, Hatchett largely gave up his scientific pursuits. He had inherited his father’s business and began to pursue other interests: book collecting, manuscripts, musical instruments and painting. Hatchett died at his home in Chelsea in 1847. The Charles Hatchett award is presented annually by the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining for the best research on niobium and its alloys. The medal is cast in pure niobium.
Threatened with extinction as a consequence of global warming by fossil fuels, the world now views ‘King Cole’ in a different light. But these visits remind us that the Northumberland and Durham Coalfield was for several centuries the world leader in mining technology and Heaton one of the most technically advanced collieries in that coalfield.
Mining technology played a significant role in the creation of the society which we enjoy today. The genie had been let out of the bottle but that doesn’t detract from the achievements of our forebears or the importance of a visit to Heaton to pioneers like William Smith and Charles Hatchett.
Researched and written by Les Turnbull, Heaton History Group, with additional material by Chris Jackson. Huge thanks to Roy McIntyre without whom we would not have known about William Smith’s Heaton connection. Thank you to the National Portrait Gallery and Welcome Institute for permission to use the images of Smith and Hatchett.
‘A Celebration of our Mining Heritage’ by Les Turnbull; Chapman Research, 2015.
‘Geological Atlas of England and Wales’ by William Smith, 1815
Geological Map: a delineation of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland…’ by William Smith, 1815
‘The Hatchett Diary: a tour through the counties of England and Scotland visiting their mines and manufacturies‘ by Charles Hatchett; edited by Arthur Raistrick; Barton, 1967
‘Memoirs of William Smith’ by John Phillips; John Murray, 1844
Resources of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers library
Can You Help?
If you know more about William Smith or Charles Hatchett and, particularly, their visits to Heaton, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org