The William Smith Museum of Geology
The Rotunda is a unique museum in the town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire, which houses a collection of fossils and rock samples gathered by William Smith – “the father of English geology”.
It underwent modernisation in 2008 to enable it to display the collection to its best advantage.
The original round tower was constructed in 1828 and opened a year later as the town’s museum, at the behest of the newly-formed Scarborough Philosophical Society.
Stone for the building was provided by Sir John Johnstone of Hackness Hall, who employed Smith as his land agent.
William Smith was born in 1769. As a young man he was appointed surveyor’s assistant and helped to map out the route of the Bridgewater coal canal. As part of his work he was involved in creating deep cuttings for the canal to flow through.
He took great notice of the exposed rock sections that were created during the works and began to notice regular sequences in the layers. He noticed that each layer had its own distinct fossils and began to theorise that his observations could be used to predict the presence of coal or ironstone.
In 1799 Smith produced the first ever geological map, showing distribution of rocks in the area of Bath (Avon) that was based on his discoveries while working as a canal surveyor. It was called “the map that changed the world” but in spite of his success Smith was not a wealthy man and he was bankrupted. He sold his collection of fossils to the government to clear his debts and moved to Scarborough in 1824 where he began work for Lord Derwent at Hackness Hall.
As Smith’s success grew in the North and the Scarborough Philosophical Society’s collection increased the Rotunda was also extended to accommodate new finds. Wings were added to the original building in 1860 and it became the home of examples of local geology, archaeology and history as well as significant items from overseas.
Over the years the geological samples were scattered to other museums but they have been brought back together following the museum’s refit.