Map That Changed the World

Simon Winchester
Map That Changed the World
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William Smith was not rich or well-connected, but his passion for rocks and fossils, and his 20-year obsession with single-handedly mapping the geology of Britain made him one of the most significant men of the 19th century. But his vision cost him dear – his wife went mad, his work was stolen by jealous colleagues who eventually ruined him, and he was imprisoned for debt. Simon Winchester tells the fascinating story of ‘Strata’ Smith, a man who crossed boundaries of class, wealth and science, to produce a map that fundamentally changed the way we view the world. ‘Stylish, engaging … Part biography, part social history and part entertaining yarn, Winchester’s best book yet’ Daily Telegraph ‘An exciting tale. Winchester is the perfect narrator for this lovely story of success against the odds. One leaves this book enlightened, moved and entertained’ Spectator ‘Enthralling … its footnotes alone are more interesting than most fact-packed volumes. A fascinating tribute to the man who put the unseen world of the underground on display’ Financial Times ‘Elegant, affectionately told. A delightful book’ Sunday Times ‘A fine wonderful book. This is a model of what popular history can be’ New Statesman ESCAPE ON THE NORTHBOUND STAGE The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned grey, showery and refreshingly cool in London, a promising welcome end to a week-long spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital’s citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood. Anyone trying to hurry along the cobbled and granite-paved streets that day was still certain to be frustrated, despite the improvement in the weather. The crowds! The crush! The dirt! The smell! More than a million people had lately been counted as living within and beyond London’s city walls, and each day hundreds more, the morning papers reported, were to be found steaming in from the countryside, bent on joining the new prosperity that all hoped might soon be flowering now that the European wars were over. The city’s population was well on the way to doubling itself in less than twenty years. The streets were in consequence filled with a jostling, pullulating, dawdling mass of people. And animals too: it seemed of little consequence to some farmers that there had long been laws to keep them from driving cattle through the centre of town – so among the men and women one could spot mangy-looking sheep, more than a few head of cattle, the odd black pig and horses, countless horses, pulling carriages and goods vehicles alike. The stench of their leavings, on a hot week such as this had been, was barely tolerable. Since it was the very early morning there were, of course, fewer crowds than usual. Except in one or two more notorious spots, where a sad and shabby ritual of the dawn tended to bring out the throngs – and where this story is most appropriately introduced. The better known of the London sites where the morning masses gathered was in that rabbit-warren of lanes that lay near St Paul’s Cathedral, to the east of where the River Fleet had once run. Halfway along the Fleet Market a passer-by would have noted, perhaps with the wry amusement of the metropolitan sophisticate, that crowds had gathered outside a rather noble, high-walled building whose address, according to a written inscription above the tall gateway, was simple: Number Nine. An onlooker would have been amused, because the address was a mere euphemism: the building’s real purpose was only too well known. The streets to the west of St Paul’s were one of the two districts of nineteenth-century London where a clutch of the capital’s many prisoners were concentrated: the Newgate, the Bridewell, the Cold Bath Fields and the Ludgate gaols had all been built near by, in what in winter was the chill gloom and coal-smoke fogs of the river valley. And Number Nine was the site of the most famous of them all, ‘the prince of prisons’, the Fleet. There was a precisely similar ghetto of prisons on the south side of the Thames, in that area which, technically then beyond London, was the borough of Southwark: another small scrum of grim, high-walled mansion houses of punishment and restraint – the Clink, the Marshalsea, the Bedlam prison-hospital and formidable appearance and reputation, just like her sister establishment back at Number Nine, the infamous barracks-like monstrosity of the prison of the King’s Bench. The King’s Bench, the near by Marshalsea and the Fleet were different from most London prisons. They were privately run, for a start; they were very old; and they were managed according to a set of very strange rituals. They had been instituted for a sole purpose: the holding, for as long as was necessary, of men and women who could not or would not pay their bills. These three institutions were debtors’ prison – and the reason that crowds formed around their entrances each sunrise is because it was the policy of their wardens to free those inmates who had discharged their obligations each morning just after dawn. On the three, the Fleet had the more intriguing entranceway. On either side of the gate to Number Nine was a caged window, and above it the motto: REMEMBER THE POOR DEBTORS, HAVING NO ALLOWANCE. Through the grate could be seen a small and gloomy chamber, with nothing inside except a wooden bench. A doorway beyond, locked and barred from the outside, gave access to the main cell block. Each day a new impoverished prisoner would be pushed out into the cage – to spend the next twenty-four hours on begging-duty, pleading with passers-by to give money to help him in his plight. Debt prisoners were obliged to pay for their time in prison; those who turned out to be totally out of funds were forced to go into the grated room, and beg. The crowds outside the Fleet and the King’s Bench prisons on that cool August Tuesday morning, and which so interrupted the progress of men of affairs on their ways along the granite setts with which the road in Southward and St Paul’s had recently been paved, were there to see a spectacle. Tourists came to the Fleet to see the beggars; the merely curious – as well as the small press of family and friends (and perhaps some still unsatisfied creditors) – came to greet with amiable good cheer the small group of inmates who each day emerge, blinking, into the morning sunlight. According to the prison records, one of the half-dozen prisoners who stepped free from behind the high walls of the King’s Bench Prison on that Tuesday morning was a sturdy-looking yeoman whose papers showed him to have come from Oxfordshire, sixty miles west of London. Those few portraits painted of him in his later years, together with a single silhouette fashioned when he was in his dotage, and a bust sculpted in marble more that twenty years later, show him to be somewhat thickset and balding, with a weather-beaten face. Some less charitable souls might call him a rather plain-looking man, perhaps even a little ugly. His forehead slants backwards, a trifle alarmingly. His nose is rather too large for comfort. His mutton-chop whiskers are wayward. But in most of the pictures he seems to be wearing an expression that serves by way of compensation for the facial shortcomings: he seems by his looks at once tolerant, kindly and perhaps even vaguely amused by the droll complexities of life. At the time of his release from gaol he was fifty years old, and he must have emerged from the main gate into the Southwark crowds that day in an embarrassed and fretful state. He had good reason to be anxious: the previous four years of his life had been trying, racked by debt and uncertainty, by privation and public humiliation. And, as he was soon about to learn, only a matter of hours after his release, his trials were far from over. The address of his lodgings was given in bankruptcy court as No. 15 Buckingham Street, and it was to this imposing stone mansion in which he had lived for the previous fourteen years that he now walked, alone. He had spent the better part of the past ten weeks in the miseries behind the bars of the King’s Bench, living for most of that time in a crowded cell, a chummage, with two or three others, similarly ruined. Now he had his freedom, and the pleasure of his own company. He quickened his pace – he was a staggeringly fast walker – as he strode steadily westwards to his house. It was a short enough walk. He had his choice of bridges across the Thames, and had only to turn left when he had made it over the fetid and polluted river with its muddily inelegant banks. He walked steadily along the entire length of the Strand – newly fitted-out with cast-iron lamps of the Gas-light & Coke Company – and past familiar churches and shops and tailors and ale-houses. The streets here, by now some distance from the prisons, pulsated with all the elegance and gaiety of Regency times. This, after all, was the day of Beau Brummell (though Brummell himself had only three years left before he left London for France, preparing for his own date with the debtors’ prison and his death in a French lunatic asylum). The street that morning would have been crowded with the dandies and dandizettes who (with their newly invented umbrellas sheltering them from the morning showers) followed the strict particulars of his style. The entire stretch along which the glum but relieved Oxfordshire convict walked spoke all too gaudily of money, amusement and brio – a sharp contrast, no doubt, to the grim mood of the man who passed among them. In ordinary circumstances he might have stopped at No. 181, the elegant bow-windowed building where his best friend, the noted cartographer John Cary, had his offices, but this particular morning he was in a hurry, and eager to move on. It took him ten minutes to pass the length of the Strand, after which he had turned off left – no Trafalgar Square had yet been built, to act as landmark – and into that small maze of fashionable Georgian neoclassical houses that had been put up by the four Adam brothers half a century before and that they had named after adelphoi, the Greek word for brothers, the Adelphi. Down he strode past the Savoy, along John Adam Street, and finally into Buckingham Street itself, and up to the front door of No. 15. The door to his house, he was shocked to find, was shut and bolted. A tipstaff stood outside on sentry–go, and there was a notice pinned to the woodwork: the landlords had taken back possession of the house, had emptied it of much of its furnishings and papers. Work was still going on: the officer was on hand to ensure that on one – and in particular this one man – attempted to gain entry. To make doubly certain, the bailiff asked for the man’s name. William Smith, the arrival replied. There was an expression of mumbled regret, and the burly sentry took up a stance with his arms folded in from of him, brooking no argument. No, he could not come in. William Smith, beaten down yet again, but now determined not to suffer the indignity of a confrontation, turned away. There was a particularly cruel and desperate irony in this situation. On the following morning, the Wednesday, the same John Cary at who offices Smith might well have chosen to call, was due to publish a book form the second part of a formidable new collection of geological maps, the latest volume of what was coming to be recognised as one of the most profoundly important books ever made. Cary’s great new Geological Atlas of England and Wales had been begun four years before, when the cartographer and his apprentice son, George, had laboured mightily to issue a work that was as scientifically epochal as it was physically majestic – the finely engraved, hand-coloured map, the eight-and-a-half feet high by six feet wide triumph of cartographic brilliance that was formally called A Delineation of The Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland but that has been known ever since as the first large-scale geological map of anywhere in the world. It was a document that was to change the face of a science, to create indeed a whole new science, to set in train a series of scientific movements that would lead, eventually, to the inquiries of Charles Darwin, to the birth of evolutionary theory and to the burgeoning of an entirely new way for mankind to view the world and their universe. The inevitable collision between the new and rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief was about to occur – and in the vanguard of the new movement, both symbolically and actually, was the great map, and now this equally enormous atlas that John Cary of the Strand was about to publish, and the revolutionary thinking that lay behind their making. Both works were the creations of William Smith, the yeoman from Oxfordshire, who on the very eve of publication was now being turned away from the marble steps in front of the house in which he had lived and worked for so long. And yet, however much of an embarrassment this must have been for him, the situation was not entirely unfamiliar. For although Smith’s years of careful observation and his wholly innovative ways of thinking were about to alter the course of scientific enquiry for ever, he had at the same time been forced to wage what must have seemed a ceaseless war against his own humiliation and ill-fortune, forced to waste his energies raging against the cheating and class-discrimination that seemed, time and again, to frustrate him. And here he was now, without a home, without possessions, without any evident future – and yet with his new book, his new great work of science, his masterpiece of craftsmanship and endeavour, about to be offered to the general public. His situation must have seemed grim indeed, and the brutality of coincidence can hardly have escaped him. Precisely how Smith reacted during the rest of that wretched day goes unrecorded. It would be tempting to suppose that he marched swiftly back up to Cary’s office that very afternoon and borrowed money, taking and advance against the sale of his atlas that would be published the following morning. All that we do know is that he decided there and then that he would turn his back on the London that, in his view, had so contributed to his ruin. So he found and collected his wife, he found and collected the nephew who also then lived with them, he gathered together what few possessions the two of them, in being turned with evident haste out of the Adelphi house a few days before, had managed to save for him. He made his way across the crowded capital to the Black Swan Inn at Holborn, which was known as the principal stagecoach terminal for travellers making their way to Edinburgh via the Great North Road. During the summer there was a northbound coach every other day and if he was lucky* he might even on that same night have three seats and have been thundering northwards in a rocking carriage behind the four great fire-breathing horses of the Northern Mail. His driver would carry him and his fellow passengers maybe sixty miles a day; and so the next morning would seem him at Peterborough, then Stamford, then Grantham. Finally the coach reached the small Yorkshire post-town of Northallerton, and this is where, bone-weary and hungry, Smith finally got down and began the process, much like any itinerant tradesman or journeyman, of looking for custom and for work. ‘The man might be imprisoned – but his discoveries could not be,’ he was to write some years later.** ‘London quitted with disgust. The cheering fields regained.’ It was to be twelve years before William Smith returned to spend much time in London. The man who was hurtling and banging his way northwards on that summer evening stagecoach was currently at the low point of his life – a life that, when recounted in as full a manner as the evidence allows, turns out to have been more honourable, more deservedly honoured and on a world stage much more important than he, at that moment, could have imagined. * We know all too little about these particular days in Smith’s life, since his diary, normally filled with even the most mundane details of his life, remains blank, and abjectly silent. Only circumstantial evidence, together with the writings of his nephew and his own reminiscences written many years later, allows us to hazard a guess at how Smith functioned during this exceptionally trying time. ** Smith made a stuttering attempt at an autobiography very late in life: he made pages of notes, from which these remarks are drawn. Simon Winchester, author of the bestselling The Surgeon of Crowthorne, brings us another extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man. The Map that Changed the World, now out in paperback, tells the story of William Smith and the birth of the science of modern geology. Eventually emerging triumphant from a troubled life involving poverty, homelessness and an insane wife,
Data wydania: 2001
ISBN: 978-0-14-028039-5, 9780140280395
Język: angielski
Wydawnictwo: Penguin Books

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