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By Lisa Di Tommaso

(Special Collections Librarian)


Thomas Sopwith (1803 – 1879) was an influential figure in the world of geology throughout the 19th century. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to a family of cabinet-makers, Sopwith learnt the trade as an apprentice to his father, winning an award at the 1851 Great Exhibition after designing a desk where all drawers could be secured using one single lock. He discovered a natural talent for drawing and planning, and developed a keen interest in mineral collecting.


Largely self-taught, Sopwith kept a diary and notes about his life from the age of 19 until his death, which leaves us with a great insight into his career and achievements. He became a land and mineral surveyor, and later a civil engineer - his work requiring him to determine mining boundaries, undertake mapping for land-owners, and survey for new railways in Britain and abroad. He is credited for convincing the government of the day to establish the Mining Records Office, strongly advocating the importance of preserving mining records.









Sopwith published a number of papers and treatises in relation to mining, geology and isometric (3-dimensional) drawing, often using his own engravings, which he taught himself to do. Throughout his career he collaborated with, among others, William Smith, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Adam Sedgwick, Michael Faraday, Roderick Murchison, Charles Lyell and Henry De La Beche. He also worked with George and Robert Stephenson on developing railways in France and Belgium.


Having made a number of large-scale wooden geological models designed to demonstrate the positions of veins of coals and iron-ore workings in various locations, Sopwith identified a need to create smaller versions to use for educational purposes and to aid those in the mining industry to understand common structures in the field or underground. Ranging in size from 3 inches to 4 inches square, the models were released in sets of six or twelve in a specially made case designed to resemble a book. The models were accompanied by a detailed explanatory text. The price varied from £2 to £5 depending on the number and size of the models purchased. First produced in 1841, the models were re-released in 1875. The Natural History Museum Library holds a set of twelve models which had been presented to the eminent geologist Professor William Buckland by Sopwith in gratitude for his continuing support.



(Above left) Model IV - Model to Show Fallacious Appearances. This depicts the scenario where from the surface an abundance of coal appears to exist, but there is actually very little quantity below.


(Above right) Model VShowing Dislocations of Coal Strata. This example indicates that while very little may appear at ground level, coal seams (subject to faults and dislocations) can be found below the ground.


The generic models weren’t representative of specific locations; they were depicting examples of strata containing faults or dislocations and showing inclines, helping to predict locations of coal seams and lead deposits in the faults and to explain the nature of certain geological features. They represented various and potential geological phenomena in relation to mining – those aspects which were difficult to explain in words or represent in drawings. Each of the models shows the topographic surface of the ground, and then depicts layers, inclines, folds, faults and strata beneath. Some can be moved about to show different variations in a fault, and in some cases at least six different drawings would be needed to show the same scenario without a 3D model. They highlight the difficulty of seeing from ground level what may or may not be below, and they proved to be of invaluable assistance.


In his lifetime Sopwith belonged to no less than twenty-six learned societies and advocated many social causes such as universal suffrage and the entry of working class Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. He died in London in 1879, leaving a lasting legacy and contribution to the mining industry in Britain and geology more generally.


Further reading:

Sopwith, Robert. (1994) Thomas Sopwith surveyor: An exercise in self-help, Edinburgh: The Pentland Press

Richardson, Benjamin W. (1891) Thomas Sopwith, London: Longmans, Green & Co


(Below left) Model IX Model of Undercut Strata. Showing how strata can be inclined at a steeper angle to the horizon than the surface of the ground.

(Below right) Model VI Model Showing the Intersection of Mineral Veins. Depicting a succession of veins formed by various dislocations of the strata.



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