William Smith & the Somersetshire Coal Canal
Timsbury celebrated the 200th anniversary of his ‘map that changed the world’ from his start in the Timsbury area on the Somersetshire Coal Canal and the coal industry.
William Smith is a local hero, arriving in the area in 1791 aged just 22. He was commissioned to survey the Somersetshire Coal Canal in the Cam Valley in Radford and Paulton below Timsbury. He lived for a time at Rugbourne Farm near High Littleton.
After years of single-handedly studying land across the country, he published this map in 1815. It was the first geological map of an entire country, and the basis of all modern geological mapping.From his observations of the canal workings and from studying the local mines, especially Mearns Pit, he was the first to recognise the value of fossils in correlating strata, and for distinguishing between similar layers of different ages. This challenged the common thinking of the time that the earth was only a few thousand years old.
From humble origins he was only later nationally famous as ‘Strata Smith’. His story and his map were popularised in a book in 2001 entitled ‘The Map that Changed the World’ by Simon Winchester.
William Smith is world famous for publishing the first geological map in the world of England & Wales in 1815 and for helping our leap in understanding of how the land’s ‘strata’ and fossils illuminate the history of the earth.
© Geological Society of London
The Canal Route
The Canal had two branches, with connecting tramways to the numerous small coalpits in the neighbourhood. The main (northern) branch, ten miles long, ran along the Cam valley from the terminal basins at Paulton and Timsbury to the junction at Dundas in Monkton Combe. At Midford it was joined by the southern branch from Radstock along the Wellow valley. By 1801 most of the waterways were complete, although lack of water on the southern branch led to its abandonment in 1814 in favour of a tramway along the towpath.
During its operating life over the next 100 years, the Canal was one of the most profitable in the country. By the 1820s the Canal was carrying over 100,000 tons of coal per year, mainly to the inland markets of Wiltshire and Berkshire.
Although competition from steam locomotion was resisted for a while, the Canal could not adapt to the changing patterns of coal extraction in the coalfield, and in 1871 the Radstock arm was sold to the Somerset & Dorset Railway Company who built the Bath to Evercreech line over much of its course. Main line trade was also reduced in 1881 when the Bristol & North Somerset Somerset Railway was extended from Hallatrow to Camerton. In 1894 the Canal was unsuccessfully put up for sale and in 1898 was closed to traffic. It was eventually bought by the GWR in 1904 to build the Camerton to Limpley Stoke branch line (the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ line), completed by 1910.
Read more about the history of the Canal here.
The Canal Today
All these railways themselves were closed by the 1970s when coal mining in Somerset ceased. Although much of the Canal has also blended back into the landscape, remains of most of its structures have survived, including aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and basins, together with the Combe Hay lock flight. At its junction with the K&A Canal at Dundas, the first 500 yards of the Canal has been restored and is used as moorings at Brassknocker Basin. Much of the Canal you can walk along where it is accessible by public footpaths – please keep to these as other parts are on private land.
In 2015 the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society with landowners started restoring parts of the Coal Canal in the Cam valley, beginning with canal terminus at Paulton and Timsbury basins.
Story Board Trail
See the information boards by walking along the Canal route and the area telling the story about Smith, his map and the local history, at Timsbury & Paulton basins, Rugbourne Farm, Camerton and Combe Hay.
Walking maps around Timsbury are available here
You can see a copy of Smith’s Map in the Conygre Hall in North Road, Timsbury. Timsbury Parish Council supported this.
Education packs are available for school children for Key stages 1,2 and 3
Project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund