Chapter 7: Lady Blount and the Decline of British Flat-Earthism

The stage was now set for one who would dominate the movement for more than two decades, a genteel and tiny tigress, Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount. 

Lady Blount was born in south London at about 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7, 1850.  Her father, architect and land surveyor James Zecharias Williams, hailed from Cader Idris, a mountain in northern Wales.  Williams had an interest in astronomy and friends in high places—Prince Louis Napoleon, for instance, later Emperor of France.  He was a middle-aged widower with seven children when he married Elizabeth Anne Mould, daughter of a scholar and solicitor.  Elizabeth Williams was pious and musically inclined.  When the time came to deliver their first child, a girlhood injury impeded her.  After a long, difficult, and fruitless labor, surgeons delivered the child by Caesarian section. 

Forty-four years later, the surgeons were criticized in an astrological magazine.  According to the July 1894 issue of The Future, they picked the worst possible time, astrologically speaking, “for they began it just as the evil planet MARS had culminated!” Had they waited until Jupiter culminated three hours later, the stars would have been more favorable.  Stars or no stars, the now-routine operation was exceedingly dangerous when performed without anesthetics, antiseptics, or antibiotics.  The young mother died five days later.  Her twice-widowed husband gave the baby her name, Elizabeth Anne Mould Williams. 

Unfortunately, our only source of information about Elizabeth’s early life is the 1894 horoscope, apparently published with her permission:

Mercury being strong in Gemini and so near Venus, and configurated with the ascending degree (by the aspect of 135°) childhood was characterized by cleverness, studiousness, light-heartedness, and love of music.  Lady Blount inherited from her mother exceptional musical talent.  Jupiter being in a prominent position, in zodiacal parallel with the ascendant and connected with the Moon (in a Jovian sign) by zodiacal parallel, the religious feeling of the mother was also inherited by the child, free from narrow-minded sectarianism. 

With all due respect for Jupiter, James Williams, like his second wife, was a devout Christian, and he might have influenced the religious convictions of his youngest daughter.  In 1862, when Elizabeth was only 12, James retired to Hereford, a town of 10,000 lying in a wooded river valley near the Welsh border, 144 railway miles west-northwest of London and about 45 miles north of Cardiff as the rook flies.  There he educated Elizabeth far beyond the norm for 19th century English women.  As she matured, her beauty, intelligence, and wealthy father gave her above average prospects.  In October 1870 [ref. 7.1] , at age 20, she married Walter de Sodington Blount.  Walter was a Roman Catholic and seventeen years older than his Protestant bride, but he was eldest son of Baronet Edward Blount, and presumably his prospect of a title and 6000 acres more than compensated for these deficiencies. 

There are indications that the marriage was not a happy one.  Sir Walter inherited the title and land in 1881, but he was (in the eyes of his wife) cold, cruel, and Catholic.  If he had any unusual opinions, he didn’t express them in the public press.  Not so his lady. 

Lady Blount was a right-wing Shirley MacLaine, and she went out on many a limb.  She promoted causes, pursued publicity, and was not reluctant to express an opinion.  Like Charles Johnson, whom we will meet in Chapter 9, she was an ardent antivivisectionist.  Among her medical unorthodoxies was her booklet entitled Magnetism as a Curative Agency.  She was closely associated with the Anglo-Israelites, who still claim the Anglo-Saxons are the true heirs of Abraham, and the British monarchy reigns from the Throne of David. 

Portrait of Lady Blount

Lady Blount (from her novel Adrian Galilio).

Lady Blount first appears in flat-earth annals in 1892, when The Faith, a British Seventh-day Adventist periodical, published some of her planely worded letters-to-the-editor.  Around the same time, she published a broadsheet blasting the spherical heresy.  She was then 42 years old, the mother of four teenage children and, by her own admission, a geographer, explorer, mathematician, author, and poet. 

Cyrus E. Brooks, editor of The Faith, represented the majority view in adventism.  Brooks rejected zetetic astronomy and (after publishing a few letters, including one from Lady Blount) refused to print zetetic letters.  His periodical remained a favorite of “Zetetes” and other zetetics, however, and he retained the respect and friendship of many of them.  In 1898, for instance, Brooks published Lady Blount’s flat-earth novel Adrian Galilio: A Songwriter’s Story

Lady Blount was one of the more prominent new zetetics.  She made her Earth Review debut in the second issue with a letter praising the publication and ordering fifty copies for “free distribution.” She then lived in Bath, a resort town famed since Roman times for its hot mineral springs.  Bath was about a three-hour train ride (107½ miles) west of London, so she was a bit out of the mainstream of zetetic affairs.  She could, however, contribute to the Earth Review, and contribute she did.  To the July 1893 issue, she contributed a poem (or song), “The Glory of God;” [ref. 7.2]  to the October issue, a letter and an article, “Scientific Credulity versus Religious Beliefs;” to the next issue, dated January 1894, an 80-line poem, “The Why and Because.” The last verse gives its flavor and neatly sums it up:

The Law of the Lord is reliable, sure,
The Creator’s description is perfect and pure,
And the Word of our God shall forever endure,
While the wisdom of worldlings shall fall:
And heaven’s “above,” saith the Lord, the most High,
The earth is “beneath” the grand dome of the sky,
And “under the Earth” is the “water,” then why
Believe in the infidel’s “ball”? [ref. 7.3] 

The same issue contains an organizational manual for the UZS, the first published.  It shows the Committee included Lady Blount of Bath.  The July 1894 issue contains a sort of flat-earth catechism which she produced.  At first she played second fiddle, but she gradually took over the orchestra. 

Lady Blount felt called upon to raise the cultural level of the zetetic society.  Modern sophisticates think it unseemly to commit hopes, fears, aspirations, or fetishes to rhymed verse.  Victorians were less inhibited.  “The Nebular Hypothesis,” characteristic of Lady Blount’s poetical works, scoffs at the idea that the solar system (including planet earth) condensed out of a cloud of hot gases.


Hypothesis quoted,
“All matter once floated
In atoms wide roaming through space”;
When a power, perhaps “Nether,”?
Pulled all down together,
How it happened no mortal can trace! 

But, dear me!  however
Could there be a “Nether”?
Or an upward or downward at all?
With “atoms” dis-severed,
Now gravity-tethered,
And shooting through space like a ball. 

This power of such fame,
“Gravitation” by name,
Pounced down on the atoms while strewing;
But further back gaze,
O’er eternity’s maze,
What before was good gravity doing? 

The gravity theory,
When started was clearly,
A fancy which Newton had “run”;
Imagine the notion,
This world, mostly ocean,
Once a cinder shot out from the sun! 

Like Solar relation,
Inherent rotation,
Sent the “globe” whirling round, till full soon—
Just picture the view—
The sparks, how they flew!
And a beauty so bright made the Moon! 

The Sun, the great “Master,”
Sure ought to go faster,
Than the sparks it sent backwards reviewing;
Yet globe and Moon too,
Keep old Sol well in view,
And play all around while pursuing! 

The Globite avers,
It took Millions of Years,
For the earth to develop and cool, Sir,
But he who will try
To give God the lie,
Shall yet prove himself but a “fool,” Sir. [ref. 7.4] 

Shortly after this was published in Earth Review, it was reprinted in America, presumably by the growing zetetic contingent there.  Lady Blount herself set the words of “The Nebular Hypothesis” to music.  The result, a sprightly travesty of Gilbert and Sullivan, is incorporated into her flat-earth novel Adrian Galilio, or, A Songwriter’s Story.  The latter seems to include her “serious operetta” entitled “Astrea, or The Witness of the Stars.”

The flat-earth operetta, according to the Earth Review, was eventually performed in public.  Unfortunately (though perhaps mercifully), no reviews have survived.  The May 1896 issue of Earth Review reprinted a fragment of it while the work was yet in progress.  It is a conversation between two evil spirits sent to earth to attend a séance in the early centuries A.D.  They discuss their plans for deluding poor humans and leading them away from Christianity.  One spirit, a Prince among the powers of darkness, speaks as follows:

Spirits prepared throughout the ages,
Shall do our will at fitting stages:
Man’s word ’gainst God’s, shall be accepted,
And false cosmogony erected.
That earth’s a tiny whirling globe,
Shall men set forth in righteous robe!
Above concern that Moses erred,
Tho’ Jesus verified his word,
Denying Earth’s Creator! [ref. 7.5] 

The demon Prince was astonished to see a pope (of all people!) nearly muck things up by persecuting Galileo, but he was gratified to see the effort fail. [note 7.1] 

One of Lady Blount’s close collaborators was William Thomas Wiseman, F.R.G.S. [note 7.2]  In 1895, the Sixth International Congress of Geographers was held in London, and they attended together, writing a joint report for Earth Review[ref. 7.6]  At about the same time, they apparently recycled Lady Blount’s old “Nebular Hypothesis” once more.  In a letter published in the July 1895 Earth Review, Wiseman wrote:

Lady Blount and myself have the pleasure to inform you that our Valse, “The Earth not a Globe,” or “The Nebular Hypothesis” having been set to music has been played at the Crystal Palace by Godfrey’s Military band.  It was played there again to-day, May 3rd, I and her ladyship had notice, and both attended to hear it.  It was well executed, and as you no doubt imagine gave us great pleasure, not alone for the music, but in having the subject made so prominently public. [ref. 7.7] 

The pair collaborated on a number of musical compositions.  A later issue of Earth Review advertised sheet music for the “Earth Not a Globe Valse” and “about 30 other Waltzes, Songs, Hymns, etc., by the same authors, from 1/- to 4/- each.  Military Band Parts, when published, from 6/- each set.” One of the numbers offered was “Je T’Aime” (“I Love Thee”). 

Like his friend and collaborator, William Thomas Wiseman was a wellspring of unorthodox ideas.  In 1882, under the pseudonym “Abdiel,” he had published Vaccination and Smallpox, a pamphlet opposing vaccination.  He was also author of two religious tracts and a pamphlet entitled The Metropolitan Water Supply.  An ardent Anglo-Israelite, Wiseman later founded and edited the The British Ecclesia, journal of the Anglo-Israelite group with the latter name. 

Wiseman made a fleeting appearance in Earth Review with a one-page article, “The Earth an Irregular Plane.” He tells how, as a youth, he stood on the Dover shore of the English Channel and watched a departing ship.  When it appeared to be “hull down,” he borrowed a telescope from an “old salt” who happened to be nearby.  Through the telescope, he could still see the hull.  The old sailor said he’d been all over the world and never believed it was spherical.  Wiseman wrote:

I now, after many years, endorse the old sailor’s experience, that the world is not a globe, and I have never found the man who could prove by any practical demonstration that he, or I, are living on a whirling ball of Earth and water!  How is it that the atmosphere goes round with it?  By what law does the dense Earth and the rare air rush round together?  Declare, ye scientists, IF YOU KNOW!  The Scriptures of God’s inspired Prophets contradicts [sic] the unreasonable, illogical, unscientific delusion, and false philosophy, that the fixed Earth is a hollow fireball with several motions! 

After a flurry of zetetic activity in 1895, Wiseman seems to have faded from the zetetic scene.  Others came on to stay. 

Though the British zetetic movement was certainly down, Lady Blount made sure that it wasn’t out.  She soon founded another journal, Earth, which she edited from at least January 1900 to November 1904.  And she continued her lectures, debates, and letter writing. 

Apparently, someone went back to the Old Bedford Canal in 1900–1901 and performed new experiments.  These aroused sufficient interest among conventional scientists that on September 17, 1901 one H. Yule Oldham read a paper about the various Bedford Canal experiments before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Oldham assured conventionalists that everything was all right.  His paper is mentioned in the B.A.A.S. Proceedings, but it was not deemed worth printing.  The paper is cited in English Mechanic 80:256. 

Lady Blount was author of a little tract called “The Lord’s Day,” which advocated the Seventh Day sabbath.  It was distributed by the same Stanberry, Missouri, Adventist group from which Herbert W. Armstrong later emerged. 

On May 11, 1904, Lady Blount returned to the Old Bedford Canal.  Thirty-four years had not stilled zetetic outrage over Wallace’s “Bedford Canal Swindle.” Several flat-earthers, including Rowbotham, Carpenter [note 7.3] , and Naylor, had returned to the fateful stretch of water between the Old Bedford and Welney bridges and performed more satisfactory experiments, but these got little attention outside zetetic circles.  Lady Blount was determined that this time it would be different.  She would return with irrefutable evidence.  Accompanying her were photographer E. Clifton and a camera equipped with a 5000 mm Dallmeyer telephoto lens. [note 7.4] 

Lady Blount had a white sheet 15 feet square hung from Old Bedford Bridge, with the bottom of the sheet just above the water.  Meanwhile, the skeptical Clifton retired to Welney Bridge, about six miles away.  As he recalled later in a letter to Lady Blount, “On arrival at Welney I was surprised to find that with a telescope, placed 2ft. above the level of the water, I could watch the fixing of the lower edge of the sheet, and afterwards to focus it upon the ground glass of the camera placed in the same position.”

Clifton was strongly impressed by the results.  “I should not like to abandon the globular theory offhand,” he wrote, “but, as far as this particular test is concerned, I am prepared to maintain that (unless rays of light will travel in a curved path) these six miles of water present a level surface.” In fact, Clifton’s description of atmospheric conditions that morning—“an aqueous shimmering vapour [floated] unevenly on the surface of the canal and adjoining fields”—suggests mirage, which is the bending of light rays by temperature variations in the atmosphere.  But Clifton and Lady Blount didn’t think so, and when they subsequently repeated the experiment, Clifton reported that he could distinctly see two images, the sheet and its reflection on the water. 

Lady Blount tried to place these results before the public, but with indifferent success.  A few newspapers published her letters.  That autumn, the weekly English Mechanic and World of Science published an exchange of letters between her and their bemused readers.  This culminated on October 28, 1904, with publication of the famous photograph (in which I can’t even find the bridge).  But there was no wholesale abandonment of the globe and, except among zetetics, the experiment was quickly forgotten. 

The Universal Zetetic Society, of which Lady Blount was now president, was a mere shadow of its former self.  Along with Albert Smith and perhaps William Thomas Wiseman, she tried to keep it going, though Wiseman was very busy as head of the Anglo-Israelite movement.  In 1906, Lady Blount and Smith published Zetetic Astronomy, a modest book of 91 pages.  The inside rear cover contained the following notice:

“UNIVERSAL ZETETIC SOCIETY—Founded in New York in Sept., 1873, and in London in Dec., 1883 (ten years after the American), as The Zetetic Society, by ‘Parallax,’ and others, is now firmly established, by E.A.M.B., (Lady Blount), Ed. of The Earth, and her army of helpers, throughout the civilized world.  Many local branches of the organization have been started, during the past five years, in all the principal countries, with the exception of Russia, where The Earth is not allowed to circulate.”

The President of the Society is E.A.M.B. and vice president is C. de Lacy Evans, author of Errors of Astronomy, who was also “Vice-President of the Zetetic Society when first founded.” The stated object of the new Universal Zetetic Society was “The propagation of knowledge relating to Natural Cosmogony in confirmation of the Holy Scriptures, based upon practical scientific investigation.” Society Rule number 1 was: “The so-called ‘sciences,’ and especially Modern Astronomy, to be dealt with from practical data in connection with the Divine System of Cosmogony revealed by the Creator.”

Also listed were the twenty-four members of the UZS Committee, a nice mixture of old and new names.  The new committee included British stalwarts Alexander McInnes of Glasgow University; A. E. Skellam, for two decades an avid flat-earth lecturer; the brothers John and Isaac Smith of Halifax; and Albert Smith, here sans his zetetic pseudonym.  Reverend E. W. Brookman of Toronto, the Adventist Elder Miles Smith of New York, and Dr. Thomas E. Reed of Middleton, Ohio lent an international flavor.  Major-General Edward Armstrong and Dr. E. Haughton, Senior Moderator in Natural Science at Trinity College, Dublin, added a touch of authority.  The British clergy were represented by the Reverends A. T. de Learsy, E. V. Mulgrave, E. W. Bullinger, and Archbishop C. I. Stevens. 

Some of these are old friends.  Others we will meet in the next chapter.  Several should, however, be noticed here. 

Charles Watkyns de Lacy Evans, “M.R.C.S., Ph.D., etc., late Surgeon, Gold Coast” did not call himself M.D., but he obviously had an interest in medicine.  Evans had been vice president of the original Zetetic Society when it formed in December 1883.  Later, he wrote a book on the cause of death, increased longevity, phosphorus, and so forth that appears suspiciously familiar from the title.  Obviously, he was a disciple of Rowbotham.  He also wrote Consumption: A Reinvestigation of its Cause and Cholera: Its Causes and Prevention, the latter being a reprint of a lecture. 

The British flat-earthers had always hoped to convert the Church of England to the plane truth, but their successes were limited.  Bagging a real, live Archbishop for the UZS Committee was perhaps Lady Blount’s greatest coup.  In the eighty-odd intervening years, however, Archbishop Stevens has been largely forgotten.  The same cannot be said for his contemporary, Ethelbert William Bullinger. 

Ethelbert William Bullinger, English divine and writer on New Testament criticism and Biblical theology, was born 15 December 1837.  One of his ancestors, Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich (1504–1575), was a follower of Zwingli, a collaborator with Calvin, and a sometime theological opponent of Luther.  Just as Heinrich Bullinger’s views strongly influenced the Reformation in England, so Ethelbert’s views would influence American fundamentalists. 

Educated at King’s College, London, Bullinger was ordained in 1861.  For nearly four decades, he served a succession of major churches in England.  He was Secretary of the Trinitarian Bible Society from 1867 until his death.  His recreations were music and chess, and he published two books of original hymn tunes.  He was editor (and perhaps founder) of the periodical Things to Come.  Bullinger’s first appearance in flat-earth annals was probably in 1873, when one “E.B.” of “the Vicarage” wrote a flat letter published in the June 1873 Zetetic [ref. 7.8] .  In 1877, he subscribed for six copies of Carpenter’s Delusion of the Day, but he was still at pains to conceal his flat-earth sympathies (he is one of two subscribers whose names are not listed).  In the premier issue of Earth Review, there was the following quote from Bullinger (incorrectly identified as “Rev. W. E. Bullinger, D.D.”): “I AGREE with you in your contention respecting the Earth; for my motto has long been, ‘Let God be true and every man a liar.’” [ref. 7.9] 

His Number in Scripture and The Witness of the Stars are both in print and are highly regarded by many fundamentalists, including Henry M. Morris, founder and president of the Institute for Creation Research.  The first tackles the numerological significance of virtually every number used in the Bible (seven, for example, is the number of spiritual perfection); the second proposes the theory that at Creation God encoded into the constellations a prophecy of the coming of Christ—thus, Virgo is the Virgin Mary, for example. 

Though he died in 1913, Bullinger remains influential among fundamentalists who accept dispensationalism.  This is the belief that God’s master-plan for the World, from Creation to the End, set out as a sequence of stages or dispensations, can be gleaned from a literal interpretation of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.  One of his books was The Foundations of Dispensational Truth (published posthumously, 1930), consisting of material reprinted from Things to Come.  Of his seventy-seven published works, seven (including Number in Scripture and The Witness of the Stars) are still in print. 

Meanwhile, the flat earth had sprung another pole.  Albert Smith (and to a lesser extent Lady Blount) developed the “two poles” version of the flat-earth theory.  Smith gave himself (under his pseudonym “Zetetes”) credit for it in part two of his son Carl Albert Smith’s book, Is the Earth a Whirling Globe?:

Zetetics owe much to a London medical gentleman, who last century, under the nom de plume of “Parallax,” revived the zetetic cause by his able writings and powerful lectures.  But it is seldom given to pioneers to dig out all the truths they unearth.  Hence, early zetetics only acknowledged one pole, no evidence of a south pole having then been actually discovered by Antarctic explorers.  It was left for “Zetetes” principally to carry on the war, and to be the first zetetic to acknowledge the proved existence of two so-called “poles.” This he did many years ago in various articles published in a book entitled Zetetic Astronomy, now sold out of stock; and also in lectures in different parts of the country, and in public debates.  He was the first editor of The Earth—Not a Globe—Review[ref. 7.10] 

Lady Blount continued her lectures, and in 1914 she published Our Enclosed World, a book of extracts from them.  Her husband, Sir Walter de Sodington Blount, died in October 1915.

The 19th century British flat-earth movement foreshadowed the modern American creationist movement in every way but success.  The British zetetics never succeeded in selling zetetic astronomy to a critical mass of Christians-in-the-pews, and it’s not clear why.  Zetetic Astronomy is far better science than Flood Geology, which modern creationists have sold to millions of Christians, some of them well-educated.  Yet the general education level of the British public was substantially lower than that of the modern American public.  (Education was not made compulsory in England until 1880.) Some possible reasons why the British flat-earthers failed are:

a) The flat-earth movement never had big money behind it.  Creationism is promoted by multimillion dollar television ministries. 

b) Mainstream British Christianity had no strong tradition of absolute literalism.  The Bible is far more explicit about the Noachian Deluge than about the shape of the earth, but the Church of England had already made peace with uniformitarian geology (which finds no evidence of a universal flood) by the time the flat-earth movement got started.  Indeed, the absolute literalists such as the Seventh-day Adventists were large contributors to the movement.  Until this kind of absolutism developed among American fundamentalists, creationism got nowhere.  Again, it was the absolute literalists—the Seventh-day Adventists—who led the way in creationism. 

c) It is much easier for would-be literalists to rationalize away the flat-earth verses of the Bible than it is to do the same with the creation story.  English-speaking fundamentalists were aided in this by the King James translators, who themselves rationalized away some of the more explicitly flat-earth passages in the Bible. 

d) The flat-earth movement never converted many Falwells.  The only prominent churchman they converted was Ethelbert William Bullinger, and he was not nearly as influential in his lifetime as later.  Furthermore, he was mainly a closet flat-earther, and he never beat the drums for the Plane Truth like Jerry Falwell has for creationism. 

e) Scientists were more successful at ignoring the flat-earthers.  The flat-earthers did get people to debate them, but they were freelance do-gooders, not respected scientists.  Thus, the flat-earthers never managed to create the illusion that a scientific controversy exists.  (The only scientist who actually did challenge the flat-earthers—Alfred Russel Wallace—did nothing but strengthen the movement.)

f) The sphere does not threaten fragile Christian egos like the image of the chimpanzee.  (Fundamentalists want desperately to “be as gods,” and they can’t deal with the idea that they might be something less.) Preachers can easily argue that all of Christianity collapses if evolution is true. 

g) The flat-earthers actually had a model to defend, and not a very good one.  The creationists typically refuse to talk about creationism in public, concentrating almost exclusively on attacking evolution.  The creationist tactic is intellectually dishonest but successful. 

h) Preachers in British churches were not constantly attacking the sphericity of the earth.  Fundamentalists have been preaching hatred for evolution (and, by extension, most of science) ever since Darwin.  Many fundamentalists have been listening to anti-evolution sermons off and on all of their lives.  Thus, when someone with scientific credentials comes along and says the same thing, they have been programmed to believe it. 

i) Psychologically, fundamentalists “bet the farm” on doctrines tied to a certain interpretation of the Bible.  First of all, there is autocorrelation; they wouldn’t be fundamentalists if they didn’t have a powerful opinion of their position in the universe—the image of God and all that.  They have sold their souls for a doctrine much threatened by evolution. 

In 1923, Lady Blount married Stephen Morgan, and she apparently had little to do with the Blounts or the flat-earth movement after that.  Her grandson, Sir Walter Edward Alpin Blount (1917–2004), remembered her as a tiny old lady who always wore black and didn’t say much—unless someone set her off with a word like “globe.” Lady Blount died in December 1935.  By then, the British flat-earth movement was in limbo, but zetetic seeds were firmly rooted across the sea.