Thomas Sopwith Diaries

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The diaries cover the period from 1828 up to Thomas Sopwith's death in 1879 and are a meticulous account of the professional life of Sopwith and detail his work, projects and his travels both for business and for enjoyment.

The diaries also include sketches and illustrations of people, views, buildings etc. and often include descriptions of lectures and conversations with people he met whilst travelling.

As Sopwith needed to travel a great deal, in particular between Northumberland and London and in the 1830's to Gloucestershire, he used the railways as a means of transport where he could, and always made a point of travelling on new lines as they were developed; accounts of most of his journeys are invariably described.

The diaries contain very little personal details and remain mainly an account of his business life, learnings, observations and technical expertise on various areas including surveying, engineering and architecture.

There is also a microfiche of a memoranda notebook of sketches and architectural notes which cover the period from c.1825-1828.

Administrative / Biographical History

Thomas Sopwith was born in January 1803 in Newcastle upon Tyne. His father, Jacob Sopwith was a cabinet maker and initially Sopwith trained in his father's business. From an early age he had been interested in drawing and design and he began to study land-surveying, taking on projects such as the construction of a prison in Newcastle upon Tyne and later working for Joseph Dickson of Alston, with whom he went into partnership in 1825.

Sopwith was mainly involved in surveys of mines, but he also worked on some of the early railway surveys, in England, Belgium and in France, taking on commissions as they were offered to him. He became one of the choice engineers for some of the main projects taking place at the time and was involved in various schemes including the Newcastle and Carlisle railway, railway surveys in County Durham, the survey of the mines in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire and the road from Newcastle to Otterburn.

In 1845 he became chief agent for W.B.Lead Mines based at Allenheads (otherwise known as the Blackett-Beaumont Company or simply the Beaumont Company) which mined lead in Allendale and in Weardale. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Sopwith's interests, however, did not just lie in engineering. He researched and wrote on antiquity in Northumberland, social concerns, architecture, geology, and technical drawing, often illustrating works with his own engravings. Whilst chief agent at Allenheads he was personally involved with improvements for the poor and workers of the area - designing better living spaces, improving conditions such as education, and introducing libraries and benefit societies.

He remained in Allenheads until his retirement in 1871, at which point he withdrew from all professional life and moved to London where he lived out his retirement, punctuated by excursions abroad, until his death on 16 January 1879. He was well known by fellow scientists and the diaries include descriptions of meeting with many eminent men and women.

He received an honorary M.A. from the University of Durham in 1857.

He was married three times, initially to Mary Dickenson of Alston in 1828, to Jane Scott of Ross, Northumberland in 1831 and finally to Anne Potter of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1858.

Sopwith wrote many pamphlets and publications, including; A historical and descriptive account of All Saints' church in Newcastle upon Tyne (1826); An account of the mining districts of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale in Cumberland and Durham ... (1833); A treatise on isometrical drawing as applicable to geological and mining plans ... (1838); The award of the Dean Forest mining commissioners ... (1841); On the practical importance of meteorology ... (1859)


The journals run in date order from 1828 to 1879 and are held on 16 reels of microfilm.

Conditions Governing Access

Access is open to bona fide researchers; appointment in advance and proof of identity required.

Acquisition Information

The microfilms were made by the university library from the original diaries then held by Arthur Sopwith in 1966. A microfiche of the memoranda notebook was made in 1989, the original copy and the main diaries are now held by Robert Sopwith.


Description complied by Helen Arkwright, Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, September 2001.

Conditions Governing Use


The library can provide photocopies from the microfilms to a discretionary limit for educational and private research purposes. Please contact the Special Collections Librarian for further advice (email:


Permission to make published use of any material from the Sopwith Diaries must be sought in writing initially from the Special Collections Librarian (email: and from the diaries' owner Mr R.C. Sopwith, or his heirs.

Related Material

Newcastle University Library:

W.C.Trevelyan papers : Letters from Thomas Sopwith ref. WCT;

National Register of Archives ref. : NRA 12238 Trevelyan

Wellcome Library:

Letters to Henry Lee, 1868-77 ref. MS 5394

Oxford University : Bodleian Library

Letters to Mary and Martha Somerville, 1838-73 ref. NRA (S) 0191;

National Register of Archives ref. : NRA 9423 Somerville

Location of Originals

The original 168 volumes, together with the memoranda notebook are in the possession of Mr R.C. Sopwith.


Thomas Sopwith : with excerpts from his diary of fifty-seven years by Benjamin Ward Richardson. London : Longmans, Green & Co., 1891.

Thomas Sopwith, surveyor : an excercise in self-help by Robert Sopwith. Edinburgh : Pentland Press, 1994.

Corporate Names