Journal of Geomancy vol. 2 no. 2, January 1978


The Black–Watkins Connection

by David Adams

Prompted by Nigel Pennick and references to the Geomancy Symposium, I have followed up the I.G.R. paper on W.H. Black in which was printed a talk given at the annual congress of the British Archaeological Association – one of only three published papers extant from this “pioneer geomantic researcher”. 

That B.A.A. congress was held in Hereford, better known to I.G.R. members and ley-hunters as the home of Alfred Watkins.  Now Watkins would have been only 16 when Black addressed the B.A.A. back in 1870 and it seems unlikely that he actually heard him.  But there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Black’s theories did come to Watkins’s attention. 

The Black paper, on the relation between boundaries and ancient surveying, contains a tantalizing reference to a visit to Credenhill, the site of a camp on a prominent hill a few miles from Hereford and mentioned several times by Watkins as a ley-centre.  Hoping to find out more about a field visit that had obviously taken place during the congress, I turned to the Hereford Times of the day to see if the Congress and the fringe activities had been covered. 

They had – several pages of reports, in fact – though there were no details of the Credenhill trip.  The text of the report of the visit to Credenhill, or that part involving Black, undertaken in the morning of September 6, is in full: “Mr Black considered that Credenhill had been taken by the Romans as a centre from which they measured their boundary lines and was thus part of their great geometrical system of measuring.  He considered that Ffwddwg was another of these points.  The learned gentleman’s arguments cannot be reproduced here, being frequently illustrated <by> maps”. 

What wouldn’t we give for those maps!  And so the generally frustrating assumption that his listeners knew all about his theories (he is full of “as I have stated elsewhere” asides) was on this occasion substituted by another excuse to deprive posterity of detailed exposition.  Maybe the reporter also didn’t understand what Black was talking about. 

Anyway, that evening Black resumed the subject and the paper is reprinted in I.G.R. Occasional Paper No. 4.  According to the Hereford Times the paper received some lively comments from the admittedly small audience, Messrs. George Godwin, the Rev. Preb. Scarfe and Flavell Edmunds being the most vocal.  However Black was not only taken seriously (as opposed to Watkins, as can be inferred from the odd comment recorded in the Woolhope Club Transactions), but was obviously a respected member of the B.A.A.  It was he who proposed the toast to the Mayor and Corporation of the City of Hereford at the inaugural dinner of the Congress. 

I doubt if the young Alfred Watkins attended the Congress – he joined the Woolhope Club in 1888 – but he undoubtedly would have read the exhaustive reports of the Credenhill visit and evening dissertation (reported extensively in the Hereford Times of September 10).  The Congress was big news and spread over three pages in what was a very large-format newspaper. 

Was he interested enough in Archaeology at the age of 16 to read all the very small print from beginning to end, and would Black’s contribution have registered?  We cannot know.  But the interesting point is that one of the leading Woolhope Club personalities of the late nineteenth century, Dr H.G. Bull, was at the B.A.A. Congress and was still active when Watkins joined the Woolhope Club.  In fact in 1882, before Watkins was elected a member but when he might well have followed the Club’s activities, Dr Bull read a paper that was subsequently published in the Transactions on Credenhill.  In it he specifically refers to Black’s theories. 

So that visit to Credenhill and the paper to the B.A.A. Congress in 1870 obviously made an impression on at least one Hereford man.  It’s fair to assume, I think, that Black’s theories were still remembered and possibly discussed in {29} Hereford many years after his paper and indeed his death.  After all, when a leading member of the British Archaeological Association has obviously spent a good deal of time investigating the significance of a part of an obscure and badly-recorded county then his words are going to be remembered and discussed. 

I am only surprised that Watkins himself did not pick up Black’s comments and explore them himself.  He was full of energy and enjoyed writing long before he put pen to paper and produced Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track; the Hereford Times and Woolhope Club Transactions are full of his articles on a wide range of subjects. 

One last point to emerge from my researches: Bull calls him Dr Black.  What sort of doctor was Black?  It is unlike Bull (himself an M.D.) to give someone a style they weren’t entitled to, although the Hereford Times and the B.A.A. has always plain mister. 

William Henry Black (1808–1872), public official and well-known antiquary, was also for many years a Seventh-Day Baptist minister.  A Seventh-Day history website calls him Dr Black too.  Perhaps he had a doctorate in theology, but not one that was generally recognized. – MB, January 2016