Thomas Sopwith (geologist)

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Thomas Sopwith.

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

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.

Mining engineer

In 1824 Sopwith completed an apprenticeship with his father, and took employment as a surveyor. 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.[3] 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.

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]

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.[4]

Railway engineer

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.[4] 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.

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.[5] 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

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

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).[6][7]

Awards and honours

Sopwith was awarded the Telford Silver Medal in 1842.[2][8] 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.[9]


Sopwith died in London and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery (grave 17,339, square 91) where there is a "Sopwith Path".


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,[10] and two editions (1834, 1838) of a treatise on the use of the isometric projection for drawing surveys.[11] He also made the case for mining records in book form.[12] He travelled widely, first by coach, then on the railways. He left records of the times, prices, and conditions of travel in his diaries spanning the years 1821–1878.[13] Other works were:

  • Eight Views of Fountains Abbey … with Description, Newcastle, 1832.
  • Description of Monocleid Writing Cabinets, Newcastle, 1841?.
  • An Account of the Museum of Economic Geology, London, 1843.
  • Education: its Present State and Future Advancement, Newcastle, 1853.
  • Notes of a Visit to Egypt, London, 1857.
  • Notes of a Visit to France and Spain, Hexham, 1865.
  • Education in Village Schools, London, 1868.
  • Three Weeks in Central Europe, London, 1869.[2]


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 children were Ursula who married, on 11 June 1878, David Chadwick, M.P.;[2] Olive, who married Jack Barnato Joel; Anna, who married Sir William Shelford, K.C.M.G.[14]

His son was a civil engineer and his grandson, also called Thomas Sopwith, founded the Sopwith Aviation Company.


  1. Sopwith, R. (1994), Thomas Sopwith, Surveyor An Exercise in Self-Help
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6  [ "Sopwith, Thomas" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Linsley, Stafford M. "Sopwith, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26033.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Archives Hub, Sopwith Diaries.
  5. Michael Reeves Bailey (2003). Robert Stephenson-the eminent engineer. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 140–. ISBN 978-0-7546-3679-3. Retrieved 1 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Turner, S (2010) Thomas Sopwith, the miner's friend: his contribution to the geological model-making tradition
  7. Turner S. and Dearman W., The Early History of Geological Models. 1980. in: Bulletin of the International Association of Engineering, 21, 1980, Krefeld Geology
  8., Great North Museum – Geological Models and Maps.
  9. "Library and Archive catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. An Account of the Mining District of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale (1833)
  11. A Treatise on Isometrical Drawing as Applicable to Geological and Mining Plans
  12. Thomas Sopwith (1844). The National Importance of Preserving Mining Records. John Weale. Retrieved 31 March 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Richardson, B. W. (1891) Thomas Sopwith, with excerpts from his diary of fifty-seven years.
  14. "Lady Anna Shelford nee Sopwith". Lafayette Negative Archive.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain[ "Sopwith, Thomas" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>