GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 11-10
Presentation Time: 10:45 AM


TORRENS, Hugh, William Smith blg, Keele University, Room 101, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, United Kingdom,

Smith’s pioneering stratigraphy, started in Somerset in 1791 amid excavations for coal and canals, began his collection of high quality fossils. He continued collecting as employers took him all over England, Wales, and a part of Scotland until July 1815, when the rescue of his traumatic financial situation had to start with its enforced sale to the British Museum [BM]. His friend John Farey, in August 1819, wrote that those specimens which had been described in Smith’s published books,“had been almost entirely collected” in the previous century. His not yet 15 year old apprentice nephew, John Phillips (1800-1874), gave help with the first, Strata Identified, 1816-1819, (but only 4 of 7 parts), and greater help with the second, Stratigraphical System, 1817 (only part 1 of 2 published). Phillips stated that the sum paid to Smith for the collection, and its careful curation by him and his uncle, was £700, for 693 species and 2657 specimens.

Smith clearly hoped for a larger sum than he received. A letter of September 1815 shows that he already expected this amount just as ‘an advance’. A first problem was that English expertise then had no idea how such a unique collection was to be valued. Minerals were objects of beauty, and £13,727 had been found, shortly before, for the BM’s purchase of the Greville collection, of 14,800 specimens. Fossils were different; and their value in prospecting for other minerals, not yet established. It did not help that his collection had gone to an institution which was essentially taxonomic in focus, or that its BM curator was an unsympathetic German, who saw no value in such novel stratigraphy. Smith in 1838 noted “how his collection lay in obscurity”, while Phillips was unable to discover its state in 1844. It was only accessioned by the BM in 1885, after all natural history had moved to South Kensington.

Smith’s collection has been the subject of fine papers, on its taxonomy by L. R. Cox (1930), and on the machinations of its sale by Joan Eyles (1967). When Cox came to examine it, it comprised ”about 2000 (including 275 rock specimens) out of the original 2657". This contribution will discuss a) its novel curatorial system, which ensured high ‘data security’, b) its present state, and c) the lessons it should teach us.