The Discovery of Yorkshire’s Landscape Heritage

This particular summer many of you will have embraced the outdoor life more fully with a great, hearty “Phew!” and for that you will have used maps of all kinds and many of you will have run, walked, cycled, driven, wild swum and sailed through the Yorkshire moorland, parkland and countryside, hopefully marvelling at its great variety and beauty. However, not that many of you will have heard of John Phillips and his uncle William ‘Strata’ Smith who both contributed so much to the identification and classification of our wonderful land, despite both lacking in any kind of formal higher education.

William Smith (1769-1839) pioneered geological researches. His techniques and those of other such surveyors and engineers promoted the development of canal and navigation networks to be constructed over suitable water retaining fault-free ground.  William Smith analysed the strata of rock layers and he was the first to realise that the age and properties of rock strata in the British Isles could be indicated by the fossils found in each stratum. William’s life was not an easy one, facing competition and theft from colleagues, a wife who tragically went mad and eventual imprisonment for debt. His fascinating life and achievements can be followed in The Map That Changed the World, A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption by Simon Winchester (Penguin Books, 2002), available for loan in Bradford Libraries.

John Phillips (1800-1874)

Smith’s nephew, John Phillips, became one of the most influential scientific figures of the mid 19th century. What is remarkable about his eventual achievements is that Phillips, like his uncle William Smith, had no formal higher education. Early tuition was paid for by his uncle William but funds did not stretch far and so he began to work for William as his assistant between 1817-1819, making regular surveying trips around England. Consequently, he absorbed Smith’s practical engineering and surveying skills and the application of the new science of geology.

John Phillips must have really appreciated that without the influence of his family and friends in his early life, he would not have enjoyed career success in pursuing interests that had fascinated him from a young age. This is probably why he later became committed to the general education of people of all classes and gender and in particular to helping make the modern science of geology more popular and accessible to the public. He contributed much to modern understanding of the natural world through research, lecturing, academic and popular writing and published the first geological timescale. Phillips also adopted and was passionate about the landscape heritage of Yorkshire, especially its history and archaeology. He was amongst the first to produce studies of the carboniferous limestone of the Yorkshire Dales as well as detailed studies of the Yorkshire coast. Amongst other achievements, he helped to found the Yorkshire Geological Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (British Science Association), established in York in 1831. He was Senior Secretary of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society ( ) and became Keeper of Collections (1825-1840) of one of Yorkshire’s first purpose built museums, the Yorkshire Museum in York which still has a library dedicated to the Society and displays of maps, fossils and other artefacts depicting the work undertaken by William Smith and later with John Phillips.

New book for loan

A recently published and very enjoyable book by Colin Speakman, John Phillips, Yorkshire’s traveller through time is now available for loan in Bradford Libraries and, as well as discussing the above, presents John Phillips as a pioneer walker-writer and artist in his adopted Yorkshire and tells of how he went on to produce two of the best early guidebooks to Yorkshire and one of the first ever railway guidebooks in the world. Perhaps a Michael Portillo moment coming up? The book traces his footsteps through the moors, dales and coastal beauty of Yorkshire and how he became a source of inspiration behind Britain’s National Park and outdoor movement. You never know John Phillips may even have had a hand in influencing your own summer time adventures this year.

Read and Visit

John Phillips, Yorkshire’s traveller through time by Colin Speakman (Gritstone Publishing co-operative, 2020)

The Map That Changed The World, A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption by Simon Winchester (Penguin Books, 2002), the story of William Smith

Now the main tourist crowds have gone, why not visit the ‘Reading Room’ and see William ‘Strata’ Smith’s ground breaking 1815 geological map of England and Wales at The Yorkshire Museum, York Museum Gardens, York

You could also visit the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough. This was designed by William Smith in 1829 and is one of the world’s first purpose built museums:

If your interest is peaked in geology and you don’t want to travel further than Bradford visit our own Cliffe Castle museum in Keighley which houses the Airedale Gallery exploring the geology of the district, the Molecules to Minerals Gallery, and its own Natural History Gallery all wonderfully curated. The Molecules to Minerals Gallery has been described by the former head of the Geology Museum as ‘…probably the best, as regards the range and quality of its minerals and its design, outside the major national museums’.

Gina Birdsall, Keighley Local Studies

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