Stripping the Earth Bare: William Smith's 1815 Geological Map of England and Wales

On August 1st, 1815 arguably the most important geological map ever produced in the United Kingdom was published. It proudly announced itself to the world as "A DELINEATION of the STRATA of ENGLAND and WALES with part of SCOTLAND; exhibiting the COLLIERIES and MINES; the MARSHES and FEN LANDS ORIGINALLY OVERFLOWED BY THE SEA; and the VARIETIES of Soil according to the Variations in the Substrata; ILLUSTRATED by the MOST DESCRIPTIVE NAMES". But the most important name comes next - "By W. SMITH".

This gigantic colourful map, measuring 8 ½ feet by 6 feet, documenting in detail for the first time the geology of England and Wales, was the culmination of years of work by one man: civil engineer, canal surveyor and self-made geologist, William Smith (1769–1839). On August 1st, 200 years to the day since its publication, a copy of the map has gone on permanent display in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. It is thought that that this will be the only one of these maps on public display in the world.

Accompanying the map is a temporary exhibition titled "Stripping the Earth Bare: William Smith's 1815 Geological Map of England and Wales"

The exhibition displays a sequence of 15 maps, which show how geological map making has developed over the last 200 years. These maps have been selected from the unique and historic collection of geological maps belonging to the Museum and Department of Earth Sciences in the University of Cambridge. They range from Smith’s remarkable singlehanded attempt to map the distribution of strata across Britain to the kind of hi-tech geological map which students of geology are taught to make today.

Maps are back in fashion, from satnavs, Googlemaps to the now almost antique London Underground map, most of us can read and use such a map. However, a geological map is a very different and unfamiliar beast. Despite being amongst the most colourful and attractive of maps, the geological map is still very perplexing and difficult for non-geologists to understand because it combines observational data with a significant amount of interpretation of what lies beneath the ground.
The aim of a geological map is fundamentally different from that of a topographic map. The geological map not only displays the surface distribution of rocks but also indicates how they relate to one another in time and space. Vertical sections illustrate the structure, both measured and hypothetical, and columns of strata illustrate their sequence of deposition and the history of formation of other rocks.  

Essentially, the geological map is an aid to understanding of the history and formation of Earth’s geology. And, at the practical economic level, the geological map is an essential aid to sourcing economically valuable materials from oil and gas to diamonds and gravel.

Thomas Webster (1815) Geological Map of the Isle of Wight and the adjacent parts

Robert Mylne (1871) Geological Map of London and Environs (second edition)

William Smith (1819) Lower Chalk fossils

George Greenough (1819) Geological Map of the British Isles, The Lake District.j

Henry Bristow (1862) Geological Map of the Isle of Wight.jpg

John Ramsay (1960s) Geological Map of Monar Lodge, West Highlands, Scotland.jpg

John Ruthven (1855) Geological Map of the Lake District.jpg

The First of it's Kind
Learn more about the history and creation of the map and it's designer William Smith
Discovery and Conservation
Find out more about how the map was conserved and then displayed in the Museum.


Monday to Friday
10:00 to 13:00 & 14:00 to 17:00

10:00 to 16:00 


This half-term, WALLY, the world’s favourite children’s book character – wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and black-rimmed specs – will be travelling the country, appearing in museums, including a visit to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, and the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Families will be able to join the search for Wally as part of Where’s Wally? The Big Museum Hunt, organised by Walker Books and Kids in Museums, to celebrate the release of the new book, Where’s Wally? Double Trouble at the Museum.

My name is Andrew Simpson and I am a gallery volunteer at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and a recent MGeol graduate in Geology with Paleobiology from the University of Leicester. My main interest is in vertebrate palaeontology, however, I like writing about all facets of palaeontology, from evolutionary history to fossil lagerstätten.