Thomas Sopwith (geologist)

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Thomas Sopwith. Thomas Sopwith 1891.jpg
Thomas Sopwith.

Thomas Sopwith FRS (3 January 1803 – 16 January 1879) was an English mining engineer, teacher of geology and local historian. [1]

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science'.


Early life

The son of Jacob Sopwith (1770–1829), by his wife Isabella, daughter of Matthew Lowes, Thomas was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His father was a builder and cabinet-maker; [2] Sopwith maintained links with the family furniture and joinery business throughout his life. Initially an illustrator of antiquities, he then took up land and mineral surveying, and subsequently described himself as a civil engineer. He invented, and the family firm manufactured, an ingenious type of desk with all its drawers secured by a single lock, the 'monocleid', which won a prize at the 1851 Exhibition; an improved levelling stave; and wooden geological teaching models. [3]

The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations or The Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first in a series of World's Fairs, exhibitions of culture and industry that became popular in the 19th century, and it was a much anticipated event. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. It was attended by famous people of the time, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray. Music for the opening was under the direction of Sir George Thomas Smart and the continuous music from the exhibited organs for the Queen's procession was "under the superintendence of William Sterndale Bennett".

Geology The study of the composition, structure, physical properties, and history of Earths components, and the processes by which they are shaped.

Geology is an earth science concerned with the solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which they change over time. Geology can also refer to the study of the solid features of any terrestrial planet or natural satellite such as Mars or the Moon. Modern geology significantly overlaps all other earth sciences, including hydrology and the atmospheric sciences, and so is treated as one major aspect of integrated earth system science and planetary science.


Mining engineer

Title page illustration, Chesterholme from Sopwith's 1838 book on isometric drawing Chesterholme.jpg
Title page illustration, Chesterholme from Sopwith's 1838 book on isometric drawing

In 1824 Sopwith completed an apprenticeship with his father, and took employment as a surveyor. [4] He worked closely with Richard Grainger in the redevelopment of Newcastle Upon Tyne. He worked with Joseph Dickinson of Alston, Cumbria, on a survey of the lead mines in the area owned by Greenwich Hospital. [2] He later built up contacts in London, especially in the area of geology, where he became a fellow of the Geological Society (and its more exclusive Geological Club) in 1835, sponsored by John Phillips.

Richard Grainger (1797–1861) was a builder in Newcastle upon Tyne. He worked together with the architects John Dobson and Thomas Oliver, and with the town clerk, John Clayton, to redevelop the centre of Newcastle in the 19th century. Grainger Street and the Grainger Market are named after him; sometimes the whole area of Newcastle developed in the Neoclassical style around Grey Street and Grainger Street is referred to as Grainger Town.

Alston, Cumbria town in Cumbria, England

Alston is a small town in Cumbria, England, within the civil parish of Alston Moor on the River South Tyne. It shares the title of the 'highest market town in England', at about 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level, with Buxton, Derbyshire. Despite being at such an altitude and in a remote location, the town is easily accessible via the many roads which link the town to Weardale valley, Teesdale, Hartside Pass as well as the Tyne valley. Historically part of Cumberland, Alston lies within the North Pennines, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is surrounded by beautiful views of the surrounding fells and the South Tyne Valley. Much of the town centre is a designated Conservation Area which includes several listed buildings.

Geological Society of London learned society

The Geological Society of London, known commonly as the Geological Society, is a learned society based in the United Kingdom. It is the oldest national geological society in the world and the largest in Europe with more than 12,000 Fellows. Fellows are entitled to the postnominal FGS, over 2,000 of whom are Chartered Geologists (CGeol). The Society is a Registered Charity, No. 210161. It is also a member of the Science Council, and is licensed to award Chartered Scientist to qualifying members.

Sopwith advocated the collection of mine surveys; he was associated in a Northumbrian survey with William Smith, and he was instrumental, after the meeting of the British Association in 1838, in inducing the government to found the Mining Record Office. In the same year he made a mining survey in County Clare in Ireland. [2]

William Smith (geologist) geologist credited with the first nationwide map

William 'Strata' Smith was an English geologist, credited with creating the first nationwide geological map. At the time his map was first published he was overlooked by the scientific community; his relatively humble education and family connections prevented him from mixing easily in learned society. Financially ruined, Smith spent time in debtors' prison. It was only late in his life that Smith received recognition for his accomplishments, and became known as the "Father of English Geology".

County Clare County in the Republic of Ireland

County Clare is a county in Ireland, in the Mid-West Region and the province of Munster, bordered on the West by the Atlantic Ocean. There is debate whether it should be historically considered a part of Connacht. Clare County Council is the local authority. The county had a population of 118,817 at the 2016 census. The county town and largest settlement is Ennis.

From 1845, Sopwith was based in Allenheads, Northumberland, where he was agent for W.B. Lead Mines (the Blackett-Beaumont Company). He kept the position until his retirement in 1871. [5]

Allenheads village in United Kingdom

Allenheads is a village in Northumberland, England, situated in the Pennines to the north of Weardale. Allenheads is situated 8 miles (13 km) further along the river East Allen from Allendale. Being a former lead mining community, it is widely believed that it would not have existed if it wasn't for the industry, it being too high for other types of settlement.

Railway engineer

Richard Grainger's 1836 plan of Newcastle created for his proposal for a central Newcastle railway station by Thomas Sopwith 1836 map of Grainger's railway termini proposal for Newcastle.jpeg
Richard Grainger's 1836 plan of Newcastle created for his proposal for a central Newcastle railway station by Thomas Sopwith

Sopwith became a railway surveyor, working on commissions. [5] This included being commissioned to work on a central Newcastle station project with Richard Grainger (see plan right). He became involved with George Stephenson and Sir William Cubitt creating the French railway network.

Surveying The technique, profession, and science of determining the positions of points and the distances and angles between them

Surveying or land surveying is the technique, profession, and science of determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional positions of points and the distances and angles between them. A land surveying professional is called a land surveyor. These points are usually on the surface of the Earth, and they are often used to establish maps and boundaries for ownership, locations, such as building corners or the surface location of subsurface features, or other purposes required by government or civil law, such as property sales.

George Stephenson English civil engineer and mechanical engineer

George Stephenson was an English civil engineer and mechanical engineer. Renowned as the "Father of Railways", Stephenson was considered by the Victorians a great example of diligent application and thirst for improvement. Self-help advocate Samuel Smiles particularly praised his achievements. His chosen rail gauge, sometimes called 'Stephenson gauge', was the basis for the 4 feet 8 12 inches (1,435 mm) standard gauge used by most of the world's railways.

William Cubitt British civil engineer

Sir William Cubitt, FRS (1785–1861) was an eminent English civil engineer and millwright. Born in Norfolk, England, he was employed in many of the great engineering undertakings of his time. He invented a type of windmill sail and the prison treadwheel, and was employed as chief engineer, at Ransomes of Ipswich, before moving to London. He worked on canals, docks, and railways, including the South Eastern Railway and the Great Northern Railway. He was the chief engineer of Crystal Palace erected at Hyde Park in 1851.

In 1843 he was employed on the development of railways in Belgium. For the Sambre-Meuse line he did preliminary surveys, and then accompanied George Stephenson, by then retired, on an inspection visit. The result was that the Belgian de Grandvoir constructed the line, supervised by Robert Stephenson. [6] Sopwith had called attention to the scientific importance of recording the geological features exposed in the cuttings of railways; and the British Association, at his initiative, made a grant in 1840 for the purpose. [2]

Teaching models

Sopwith was an early user of 3-dimensional models both for practical illustration of regional geology (Forest of Dean; Ebbw Vale; Nentsberry) and for teaching, for which he produced sets (as recommended by Charles Lyell in his 1841 Elements of Geology). He also took advice from William Buckland about what structures would be useful. [7] [8] [3] Different coloured woods represented the different types of rock.

Personal life

Sopwith married three times: first, Mary Dickenson in 1828, who died in 1829; secondly, Jane Scott in 1831, who died in 1855; and thirdly, Anne Potter in 1858.

Among his eight children were:

Sopwith died in London and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery where there is a "Sopwith Path". [14]

Awards and honours

Sopwith was elected a member or a fellow of many learned societies, including the Royal Society, the Athenaeum Club, the Geological Societies of England and France, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Royal Institution, the Royal Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Arts, the Royal Meteorological Society, the Statistical Society of London and the Archaeological Institute and Archaeological Association. [15]

He was awarded the Telford Silver Medal by the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1842 [2] [16] and elected the fifth President of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1859.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1845. His candidature citation read: Thomas Sopwith Esq FGS London, Memb Inst CE and Member of the Geological Society of France, Civil Engineer [of] St Marys Terrace Newcastle on Tyne. The Author of a Treatise on Isometric Drawing. The Inventor or improver of Methods of representing Mineral structure by dissected Models. [17]


Map from Sopwith's An account of the mining districts of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale in Cumberland and Durham (1833) Alston Moor map Sopwith.jpg
Map from Sopwith's An account of the mining districts of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale in Cumberland and Durham (1833)

In 1826 Sopwith published A Historical and Descriptive Account of All Saints' Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Newcastle). [2] He later wrote a book on the Alston mining area, [18] and two editions (1834, 1838) of a treatise on the use of the isometric projection for drawing surveys. [19] He also made the case for mining records in book form. [20]


Sopwith wrote detailed diaries spanning the 57 years 1821–1878, recording daily events in his professional and personal life. [21] He travelled widely, first by coach, then on the railways, and kept records of the times, prices, and conditions of travel in his diaries. His diaries also provide accounts of his meeting with people who were, or became, significant such as Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin and John Ruskin. The diaries are now held in the Special Collections at Newcastle University Library. [22] Contemporaries also considered that Sopwith had substantial artistic ability, including as a cartoonist, although few of his drawings now survive. [3]

Other works

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  1. Sopwith, R. (1994), Thomas Sopwith, Surveyor An Exercise in Self-Help
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Wikisource-logo.svg "Sopwith, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  3. 1 2 3 Ashworth, William. "Scientist of the Day - Thomas Sopwith". Linda Hall Library - Science, Engineering and Technology. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
  4. "Thomas Sopwith". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  5. 1 2 Archives Hub, Sopwith Diaries.
  6. Michael Reeves Bailey (2003). Robert Stephenson-the eminent engineer. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 140–. ISBN   978-0-7546-3679-3 . Retrieved 1 April 2012.
  7. Turner, S (2010) Thomas Sopwith, the miner's friend: his contribution to the geological model-making tradition
  8. Turner S. and Dearman W., The Early History of Geological Models. 1980. in: Bulletin of the International Association of Engineering, 21, 1980, Krefeld Geology
  9. Sopwith, Thomas (18 May 1849). Journal, vol 46. pp. 20–23.
  10. Vernon, Robert (2009). "The Linares Lead Mining District: The English Connection". De Re Metallica. 13: 1–10. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  11. "Mrs Jack Barnato Joel, née Olivie Coulson Sopwith (d. 1937)". Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  12. "Thomas Sopwith", 1881 UK Census, Battersea, London: TNA, RG11/646, p. 36, 1881
  13. "Lady Anna Shelford nee Sopwith". Lafayette Negative Archive.
  14. Norwood Cemetery Conservation Plan (PDF). Lambeth: London Borough of Lambeth. 2018. p. 80. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  15. "OCCASIONAL PAPERS ON METEOROLOGICAL HISTORY No.6 - 'AIR, EARTH, AND SKIES ... AND MAN'S UNCONQUERABLE MIND'" (PDF). Royal Meteorological Society. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  16., Great North Museum – Geological Models and Maps.
  17. "Library and Archive catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 October 2010.
  18. An Account of the Mining District of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale (1833)
  19. A Treatise on Isometrical Drawing as Applicable to Geological and Mining Plans
  20. Thomas Sopwith (1844). The National Importance of Preserving Mining Records. John Weale . Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  21. Richardson, B. W. (1891) Thomas Sopwith, with excerpts from his diary of fifty-seven years.
  22. "Sopwith (Thomas) Diaries". University Library Special Collections. Newcastle University. Retrieved 9 August 2018.

Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : "Sopwith, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.