Do a search for the British 'Flat Earth Society' and you will soon come across the name 'Ellis Hillman' as the last President. Many uninformed accounts have been promulgated as to how Ellis, very improbably, 'became' the President.


I knew Ellis quite well for twenty years up to his death, and heard from his own lips, first hand, how he came to be listed on the notepaper of the IFERS as its President.


Ellis Hillman (1928-1996) was a very unusual person – a human dynamo with many varied and disparate interests which one would not have thought would be combined in one man, but to which he devoted his boundless energy and enthusiasm equally. Geologist (he was an expert on British Earthquakes); Trotskyist; Labour politician (ILEA/GLC 1958-1981); Councillor Barnet 1986–death; founder and President of the Lewis Carol Society 1969;  Senior lecturer in Environmental Studies at the North East London Polytechnic 1972-(death); founder of the London Subterranean Survey Association (LSSA)1970; author (with Richard Trench) of  'London Under London' 1985; and Fortean (a follower of Charles Fort). As a Fortean phenomenologist  Ellis was interested in eccentrics with unconventional ideas and  people who 'bucked the system' and pursued 'dammed' theories against scientific orthodoxy. This is not to say he believed such ideas, but he was interested in the phenomenon of people having such ideas.

 

The LSSA furthered its educational remit by giving adult evening classes on subterranean London and wider underground topics under the auspices of  the University of London and City University Extra-mural  Departments. Ellis was always on the look out for contributors for these, and if he met, or saw referred to, someone he thought would be interesting he invited them to speak.


This is what he told me:


He heard an interview with Samuel Shenton (1903–1971) who had revived the British Flat Earth Society in 1956. Intrigued he investigated the Victorian Flat Earth Society, their survey of the Bedford Level which found it to be flat, and their various other pronouncements and publications. He said he came to the conclusion that the members didn't necessarily believe in a Flat Earth, but were using it as a way of satirising and disrupting scientific orthodoxy – just being awkward to make the point that you shouldn't necessarily believe what scientists (or anyone) tell you – very like Charles Fort.


He thought Shenton would be an interesting speaker and wrote to him. Shenton invited him down to his bungalow in some seaside town in Kent or Sussex- I have the impression somewhere like Peacehaven - and they spent an afternoon chatting. The bungalow was a hoarder's cave, stacked from floor to ceiling with piles of musty Flat Earth Society archives on every available flat space. Shenton's wife Lillian made it quite obvious she loathed the archives, and the Flat Earth, and her husband. Ellis on the other hand was extremely interested in the archives.


I can't recall if he said Shenton actually did speak, but about 6 months afterwards he was phoned up by a journalist doing a story on the flat earth who opened the conversation with “Mr Hillman, I understand you are the President of the Flat Earth Society?” Ellis was astounded, and asked why he thought that, “Well you are listed as such at the head of their notepaper” said the journalist. Shenton had put him on the notepaper without his permission or knowledge, no doubt hoping that 'Ellis Hillman B.Sc, Chairman Arts and Recreation GLC, Senior Lecturer at N E London Polytechnic' would add some gravitas to his by now almost moribund organisation. After he had got over his surprise Ellis was quite amused, but he never believed in a Flat Earth, and never had any further involvement with the organisation. But he continued to be the 'go to' point for journalists because of  being on the letter head, when he would explain as I have just done.


He did however keep a watching eye on Shenton, because it was quite obvious to him that immediately he died Lillian would destroy the archive. Immediately he heard Shenton had died in 1971 he organised a van and some students from the N E London Polytechnic and drove post haste down to Shenton's bungalow. They arrived to find a large bonfire in the back garden being fed by Lillian with irreplaceable Victorian archives (and how much other irreplaceable stuff has been lost to history in exactly similar circumstances to vindictive widows?).


She took no persuading at all to let him load what hadn't yet been burnt into the van and take it back to the N E Polytechnic, where he installed it in the Library.


Roger J Morgan June 2019

wolstan-dixie@hotmail.co.uk

www.xenophon.org.uk


ELLIS HILLMAN AND THE BRITISH FLAT EARTH SOCIETY

How he unwittingly found himself the President

Ellis Hillman  (1928 - 1996) putative President of the British Flat Earth Society

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