Founded 1954 | Promoting interest in geology and geological knowledge



The Belfast Geologist Society is dedicated to providing individuals with a platform to learn, explore, and invest in the iconic landscape of Northern Ireland. Members can benefit from guided excursions, talks, and other activities.

Our timeline

The formation of the Belfast Geologists Society (BGS) goes back to 1954 and came about as a break away from the Belfast Naturalists and Field Club Society (BNFC).Up to this point the BNFC had been a successfulVictorian scientific society in Belfastwith a wide range of interestsincludingGeology.

However, within the club there was a strong viewfromsome BNFC members that there wasn’t enough Geology being covered and that oneway of resolving this was to set up a separate society exclusivelyfocussed onthe subject. This split appears to have been not entirely amicable…not surprisingly, but from this moment, drivenby a number of highly motivated amateur and academic Geologists,the Belfast Geologists Society cameinto being.The key founders of the BGS appear to be have been Herbert Black,Prof JK Charlesworth, Dr Jack Preston, Peter Rhodes and Harold Wilsonwith its first event a Field Exhibition held in the Presbyterian Hostel in Belfastin 1954.These individuals hold a special place in theheartand history ofthe society.Allwereleading enthusiasts, bothacademic and amateur,with an ambition and visionto promote thestudy and interest local geology.Over the 70 years since then, manypeople have given themselves and their time to furthering the society, particularlytheQUB Geology Deptin the very early yearsalong with theGeological Survey of N. Ireland and the UlsterMuseum.Most active intheearly daysfrom QUBin addition to DrJ. Prestonand J.K.Charlesworth wereProf A Williams,Dr W Schwarzacher and Mr REH Reidjoined in the 1960’s by followed by DrK.Jones,Dr T.B.Anderson,Dr I.G.Meighan and Dr A.D.Wrightlater.From the earliest daysGeologists from the newly formed Geological Survey of NIwere involved with the new society andH.E.Wilsonin particular –whose profile is below,is remembered annually in the joint GSNI/BGS lecture.J.A.Robbie was an earlyfounding memberand close the relationshipbetween GSNI and BGS has continued tothis day.Lastly,the Ulster Museum ( NMNI) has also provided great support to the Society down the years with P.S.Doughty fondly remembered

Peter Stephenson Rhodes

1919 – 2009

Peter Rhodes was born in New Moston in north-east Manchester in 1919. He was educated at Rock Ferry High School, Birkenhead and Liverpool University where he read architecture, without much enthusiasm he admitted, before joining the practice of Clarke & Sons. Almost immediately he was conscripted into the army where his facility with trigonometry, slide rule, seven figure logarithms and surveying paraphernalia placed him in the 41st Survey Training Regiment, Royal Artillery. He was now 959103 Gunner Rhodes PS. After basic training he was posted to the 155th Field Regiment RA and embarked on the SS Strathmore in March 1941 destined for India and then on to Port Swettenham (now Port Kelang), Malaya.

He was captured by the Japanese following the fighting retreat to Singapore and marched off to the notorious Changi Jail. The harrowing nightmare of this period, an experience that shaped the rest of his life, is related in his book To Japan to Lay a Ghost, published in 1998. The brutal and sadistic regime, first on the docks in Singapore and later in the coal mines of Orio in Japan, left an indelible mark. He once dug his own grave and, reduced to 5 stones 2 pounds, barely survived the war. His characteristic tenacity pulled him through.

He had long decided during his incarceration that he wished to abandon architecture to train as a civil engineer but despite government promises to provide university training to all men returning to civvy street, his “grateful” government denied him this opportunity and he had to return to Clarke & Sons. He reacted typically and after 4 years of night school gained his M.I.Struct. E. in 1950: three years later he moved to Northern Ireland. His career from then on was as a structural engineer in the architects’ branch of the Ministry of Finance with a particular responsibility for the stability of historic buildings but during the IRA bombing campaign in the 70s and 80s his skills and judgement were in increasing demand as advisor on the many damaged structures throughout the province. He ended his career, aged 65, as Chief Structural Engineer for Northern Ireland in 1984. It is also worth recording that he led the introduction of metrication there.

Two years after his arrival in Northern Ireland he became a founder member of the Belfast Geologists’ Society and was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1957. He remained a vigorous member of the Belfast society up to 1973. During that time he was President in 1964/5 and Treasurer from 1966/68 and featured regularly on the summer and winter programmes, introducing radical elements such as field sketching and panorama drawing to the programme. He also authored an impressively practical geological guide, The Antrim Coast Road, assisted in the detailed geology by Professor J K Charlesworth of Queen’s University, Belfast. Geology in Northern Ireland has lost a truly remarkable man.

He was predeceased by his wife Dea (Dorothy) and is survived by his daughter Janet.

Philip Doughty.

Herbie Black

and the Belfast Geologists’ Society

This text has been extracted from Peter Crowther’s Geologists Tamed! series of autumn lectures given at the Ulster Museum in 2011 (part of Lecture 4, Monday 14 November). The numbers 1-11 in parentheses refer to accompanying Powerpoint slides.

……..From the amateur geologist’s perspective, after the Second World War, the focus was to move away from the all-embracing Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, with its diverse programme of field excursions, to a new, exclusively geological support group called the Belfast Geologists’ Society. The momentum for this change came from within the Field Club, and can be attributed to one man in particular – Herbert Black (1).

Herbie (as everyone knew him) was a geography teacher who spent most of his working life at Annadale Grammar School (now Wellington College) in Belfast. In 1945 Herbie became an enthusiastic Secretary of the Geological Section of the Field Club, but he grew increasingly frustrated by the unavoidable restrictions placed on the Section’s activities, since Geology was just one of four or five sections contributing events to the Club’s Summer and Winter Programmes. In the early 1950s Herbert had had a couple of reasonably serious disagreements with the Field Club’s General Committee, resulting from some unilateral decision-making by the Geology Section regarding its unsanctioned use of the Club’s medal. This seemed to be the last straw for Herbert, who virtually declared UDI and set about gathering support for a new body, to be called the Belfast Geologists’ Society. A fledgling organising committee began to meet at Herbert’s house towards the end of 1953, while he remained Sectional Secretary for the Field Club. With strong support from both the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and the Geology Department at Queen’s, the Society held its first Summer Programme of Saturday excursions in April 1954. Herbie appears as Secretary and Treasurer (2), and his address, Shanvarna (3), is the only one that appears on the first programme card. Herbie officially parted company with the Field Club that year and took most of the active geologists with him into his new Society. He remained the Society’s Honorary Secretary and driving force for nearly four decades, supported by his wife Pauline, who shared his passion for Geology.

Herbert Black was a keen photographer and recorded his geological activities (both scientific and social) using black and white roll film to begin with, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before switching to 35mm colour slides in the late 1950s, quite early in the development of that medium. By assiduously recording the excursions of the Belfast Geologists’ Society over nearly 40 years, here to Moira Chalk quarry in the 1960s (4), he created a remarkable visual history of the Society and its members, including such well known supporters as J.K. Charlesworth (5). But he also created a pretty comprehensive record of geological sites right across the north of Ireland.

Herbert Black died on New Year’s Day 1992, in his eightieth year. In early February 1993, just over a year later, his widow Pauline collapsed and died at their home. Within days, Herbert and Pauline’s nephew, Brian Black (television presenter, producer and environmentalist) telephoned the Geology Department here at the Ulster Museum. He explained that the couple had no immediate family, and that, as Herbert’s nephew, he was their closest relative. Brian then kindly offered the Museum first pick of anything geological in the house. In the cloakroom off the entrance hall were shelves full of 35mm slide boxes (6), about 250 in all, and some containing more than 200 slides – once rehoused, the total number would turn out to be approaching 30,000 slides (7). One of the bedrooms upstairs had been turned into a study and was crammed with geological specimens (8), books and maps. In the attic (9) were yet more rocks, fossil and minerals, some laid out and labelled on shelves, with many more in cardboard boxes.

About half the slides in the collection were taken during field excursions organised by the Belfast Geologists’ (10) – the Sperrins, the Mournes, Cos. Antrim and Donegal were favourite destinations. It is this half, numbering over 10,000 slides, which provides a particularly valuable resource. Thanks mostly to the work of volunteers in the Museum over several years, they are fully databased and searchable. 

The other half of the collection comprised slides taken by Herbert during the couple’s extended summer holidays to the Alps – trips made every year from the 1960s to the 1980s (11). The pattern apparently involved leaving for Europe the day after school broke up and returning to Belfast the day before term started in September. A few years ago, nephew Brian Black gave Society members an insight into how such a lifestyle had been possible. It was apparently Herbert’s habit of regularly selling off some of the family’s assets inherited from an earlier generation that helped to make the Alpine jaunts possible – a practice that didn’t go down all that well with the wider family circle! …

Dr John (Jack) Preston

Extracts from Earth Science Ireland Magazine 2011

Jack was born in Keswick(21/1/22) but his family moved to Burnley, where he was brought up, went to Burnley Grammar School ,took part in cross country running and met his wife Joyce.

His father was a watch maker from whom Jack inherited his considerable mechanical skills enabling him to deal equally with microscopes or motor cars, to which his long-lived Land Rover was a lasting testament. After National Service – spent as a Bevin Boy,he went to Manchester University where he read geology under Pugh, Straw and Stuart Agrell. His PhD was undertaken at Helsinki University in Finland with Eskola, where he investigated mantled gneiss domes at Kuopia. Much of the field work was accomplished using a canoe and he and Joyce found that returning to their camp against the glare of the setting sun, to the accompaniment of mosquitos, had limited appeal.

Jack joined the Dept of Geology Queen’s University in the Autumn of 1951 and together with the other new arrival Walther Schwarzacher, was immediately thrown into delivering a wide range of courses including stratigraphy, palaeontology and sedimentary petrology.

Jack was an honorary member, as well as a long-time advisor, of the Belfast Geologists’ Society. He was a stalwart of the Society almost from the beginning and gave innumerable talks as well as leading over 60 field trips. Most of these concentrated on his speciality, igneous petrology, but Jack was a versatile geologist and could turn his hand to almost anything.

Dr Paul Lyle remembers

‘As well as being my PhD supervisor Jack had earlier supervised my undergraduate dissertation which was on the distribution of zeolites in the Antrim basalts. At that time in the late sixties Jack was interested in the origin of these cavity minerals and tried to duplicate the conditions under which they formed. To that end he rigged up a sealed copper tube containing a wet mixture of finely ground basalt. This tube was pressurized using the pump he used to test the jets of the diesel engine of his famous Land Rover and the whole contraption was gently heated using a long fish- tail Bunsen burner . This was left hissing alarmingly for days on end in the fume cupboard in his room in the Geology Dept. I asked him (rather daringly now that remember now) what he expected to achieve with this equipment, and he said rather tongue in cheek I think, that he hoped to open the tube in a few weeks’ time and find sparkling crystals of chabazite or some other member of the zeolite group.’                

J K Charlesworth


John Kaye Charlesworth (Figure 25) was born in Leeds, but was orphaned at the age of eight. Determined to gain an education, he attended his hometown university where he was influenced by Percy Fry Kendall (1856-1936), and later continued his studies at London, Breslau and Munich. On being turned down for military service in the First World War he took up a temporary lectureship at Queen’s University, Belfast in 1914. After a brief interlude at Manchester between 1919 and 1921, Charlesworth returned to Queen’s in 1921 as Professor of Geology.

Early in his career in 1919 he went to Spitsbergen where he observed glaciers; by its close he was an acknowledged expert on the Pleistocene. Back in Belfast he began detailed mapping of glacial features across Ireland (with occasional excursions into Scotland), following men such as William Bourke Wright (1876-1939) and fellow Yorkshireman George William Lamplugh (1859-1926) who had also trod the Irish glacial deposits. From his field observations he built up a dynamic picture of glacial activity, a

story he pubhshed in numerous papers, including one co-authored with his son Henry who later became a professor of geology in Alberta.

He was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1919, received the Commemorative Medal from the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1936, the Neill Prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh for his Scottish work, the Prestwich.

Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1957, and in that year became a C.B.E in recognition of his geological and public work (from 1947 for a period he served on the National Insurance Advisory Committee established by the Government). His glacial researches aside, his other major contributions to Irish geology were his books The Geology of lreland (1953) and Historical Geology of lreland (1963), and the four bibliographic listings that appeared in the The lrish Naturalists’ Journal between 1937 and 1972 which list 1466 papers on Irish geology. These were undoubtedly a most valuable resource to those interested in Ireland’s geology at a time before such compilations could be self-generated in seconds using specialist databases such as GeoRef.

Today Charlesworth’s work is rarely cited in treatments on the Irish Pleistocene. The reasons for this may be due to a number of factors. The interpretations of some features that he described are now seen in a different light, i.e. features regarded by him to be moraines are not, and so his patterns of the Irish deglaciation differ from those prevalent today. Secondly, detailed sedimentological examination of sections of glacial material which revealed much about landform formation only became the norm from the 1950s onwards, and by then Charlesworth’s field days were over. Thirdly, late in his career new dating methods were being applied to Pleistocene stratigraphy which moved the understanding of this complex time span significantly onwards. Nevertheless, his work was for its time well regarded. Charlesworth’s large canon of work was encapsulated in The Quaternary Era which appeared in 1957, and although largely dated by the time of its publication, may be regarded as his most important legacy.

H E Wilson


Once or twice in a generation someone special comes onto the geological scene in Northern Ireland. Such was Harold Edmund Wilson, born in Belfast on 25 July 1921, and a member of the Geologists’ Associ­ation since 1954. His father was a country clothier from County Fermanagh and he had two brothers, Eric and Brian. After attending Methodist College, Belfast, he went on to The Queen’s University, Belfast where he graduated with a War Degree in 1942. A distinguished period of military service followed, mostly spent in India. He attained the rank of Major before returning to Queen’s University. There, under the guidance of the renowned Professor J. K. Charlesworth, he went on to obtain a First Class BSc in Geology in 1947. The following year was spent as an Assistant Lecturer in the Geology Department where he studied the enigmatic red and green pebbly sandstones of Northern Ireland (Devonian, Carboniferous or Triassic?) resulting in the award of a Masters degree in 1948. The work was published by the Royal Irish Academy in 1953.

In late 1948 Harry (known by older friends as Harold) joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain where, although it subsequently changed its name to the Institute of Geological Sciences (IGS) and then the British Geological Survey (BGS), he spent his entire career. He was based first in Edinburgh, working in the Scottish Highlands and the Midlothian Coalfield, before returning in 1952 to the then small (three geologists!) Belfast office. On arrival back he started as he meant to continue. Objecting to being summoned by his senior officer via an electric bell rung from the room above, he simply cut the wires! A little later he became engaged in a series of ‘Letters to the Editor’ of the local newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph. The vitu­perative exchanges made good reading but the pro­tagonist (similarly using a nom de plume) proved to be his colleague, Peter Manning, who occupied a desk in the same room at 20 College Gardens. Fun aside, Harry was a hard working and dedicated geologist. He worked successively on the detailed surveys of the Ballycastle, Belfast, Giant’s Causeway and Carrickfergus areas, maps and memoirs all subse­quently published (Wilson & Robbie, 1966; Manning et al., 1970; Wilson & Manning, 1978; Griffith & Wilson, 1982). It was a time, however, when the Province was being investigated by deep drilling to try to extend the coal reserves and find other minerals. Harry was involved in the programme, publishing the results of the Larne Borehole (Manning & Wilson, 1975), and it was at this time that his passion to ensure the work contributed properly to the local economy started to show.

In 1963 promotion took him to Leeds as the District Geologist for North Wales where he built a reputation for vigorously pushing work forward and not being afraid to express his opinions in a typically forthright manner. So when the leadership of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) be­came vacant in 1967, Harry was an obvious choice, although members of staff at the time were a little nervous about the arrival of someone with such a dynamic but, at times, brusque manner. Their worries proved unfounded because he established the survey as a vibrant organization, encouraging anyone with new ideas and leading by example. In spite of ‘the troubles’ he pressed on apace, initiating the Engineer­ing Geology Special Map of Belfast (published 1971), the first such thematic map published in the UK. Virtually single-handedly he wrote the first Regional Geology of Northern Ireland (1972) and put together the first 1: 250 000-scale map of the north of Ireland (1977). The latter was a masterpiece of diplomatic skill, linking the work of the Dublin and Belfast surveys, as well as the County Donegal mapping of Professor Wallace Pitcher’s team from Liverpool University.

He fostered relationships with the Geological Survey of Ireland and Irish universities, setting a pattern that continues to this day. He was also keenly aware that earth science, to be appreciated, had to be communi­cated to the general public. Accordingly he broke the ‘Victorian-style’ of survey memoirs by writing the memoir on the ‘Causeway Coast’ in two volumes (Wilson & Manning, 1978). The first was aimed at a general readership and included a section entitled ‘Geology and Man1. The longer second volume held all the details, of which he said “it will only be read by a few specialist geologists and purchased by fewer still”. Between times, he drew up the Mineral Licensing Regulations for the Province and, in 1970, was the recipient of a Nuffield Travelling Fellowship that al­lowed him to visit geological organizations around the world. He also initiated a systematic and successful search for gold in the Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone and was responsible for finding the major brown coal (lignite) deposit near Ballymoney in County Antrim.

Harry led the GSNI through a particularly produc­tive period. Perhaps the rumour he always had a gun in the drawer of his desk helped encourage staff to meet project deadlines. It was certainly true that he was an active member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (as were two of his sons), which involved night-time operations and considerable bravery.

In 1977, Harry became an Assistant Director of the 1GS and moved over to London as Head of the new Special Surveys Division that included for the first time a ‘Deep Geology Unit’. This unit and others under his command have gone on under various guises to form the spearhead of the BGS today. Additionally he was chosen to direct the move of IGS from London to Keyworth, Nottingham. A move he regretted, feeling the survey was losing its shop-window and contacts in London. In 1978, Harry was one of the first to arrive at the new headquarters (the ex-Mary Ward College that had been a teaching order of the Roman Catholic Church, mainly training female students). During a period of hand-over, the picture of Harry, an Ulsterman, sitting down to lunch each day with the Mother Superior has gone down in Survey history.

Harry was a Senior Fellow and one-time Council Member of the Geological Society of London (Vice-President, 1976); an Honorary Member of the Geological Society Dining Club; a founder member of the Institute of Geologists; and a Member of the Geologists’ Association, the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (earning him the suffix of CEng), and the Irish National Committee for Geology; and a Past President, as well as Honorary Member, of the Belfast Geologists’ Society.

He retired in 1982, returning to his home in Newtownards, County Down. He then wrote an amus­ing but serious history of BGS in a book called Down to Earth (1985), commemorating the Survey’s 150th anniversary. With typically good humour he says of those he mentions in the book, “I hope they will forgive me”. In fact, he had mellowed by this stage and was far kinder to his colleagues than he might have been at an earlier time.

In retirement he continued to be involved, as a Special Lecturer, with teaching at Queen’s University, in Consultancy and with the Belfast Geologists’ Society. He had been a founding member of the latter and always supported it enthusiastically by giving lectures and leading trips. Members remember best the excursions he led to Rathlin Island off the north Antrim coast, a place he knew like the back of his hand and clearly loved. He followed an interest in railways through the Irish Railway Record Society, played golf

and was President of the Newtownards Probus Club (the photograph shows him wearing his chain of office). Probus clubs are organizations for men and women who have retired from their profession or business and want to maintain a social network with others who have similar interests. Latterly, he rarely missed the monthly ‘old hammerers’ lunches at the Strangford Arms, just down the road from his home. He died on 26 October 2004 and leaves his wife, Valerie, whom he married in 1950 and was his most important ‘rock’, sons Michael, Stephen, Nigel, Simon and ten grandchildren (Suzanna, Matthew, Alana, Lauren, Katherine, Fergus, Rory, Isabella, Richard and Christopher).

tony bazley

Killinchy County Down