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Book Review

by Tim Hodgson

‘Pioneer Under the Mendips’ – Herbert Ernest Balch.  A short biography by W.I. Stanton.  Published by Wessex Cave Club Occasional Publications Series 1 number 1.

Without doubt this biography deserves a place on the bookshelf of caving on Mendip.  No doubt it will also appeal to many others who are interested in B.E. Balch the archaeologist and man.  It is outstandingly well produced, containing many very good photographs and drawing which have hitherto not been published.

The author of this short – and one must emphasise short – biography, quite rightly devotes much more space to B.E.B.’s work as an archaeologist than to his caving activities. He also provides us with much fascinating information about his early and private life.  Most people know that B.E.B. was a man of many interests, but perhaps it is not generally realised that his interest were quite so diverse, what with the church, gardening and his other more publicised pursuits.  It would seem that B.E.B. never had a dull moment.

As I said in the previous paragraph, most of this biography is devoted to Balch’s work as an archaeologist, and constantly criticises it.  This is one of the points about which I take issue with the author. Generally, the criticism is valid in the light of present day knowledge, but we must remember, as the author himself points out, that B.E.B. was an amateur archaeologist.  Even so, his methods were similar to those of the professional archaeologists of his time and indeed, he worked very closely with Prof. Boyd Dawkins, who must have exerted a tremendous influence on him.  Because of this, I think it is unfair to labour on criticism of his methods which were only common practice at that time.  No doubt, future archaeologists will criticise present day methods, but I hope they will not be quite so hard on our generation of archaeologists.

The author is also critical of B.E.B.’s caving methods.  Again, this is justifiable but, in my opinion, carried too far.  To be fair to the author, he does point out that B.E.B. was a most cautious man, who insisted upon taking vast amounts of unnecessary equipment with him on his caving expeditions and that if present day caving parties were similarly equipped, they would quite possible achieve no more that B.E.B.

More than half the book is devoted to five appendices, and an index which was compiled by Howard Kenny. I was slightly disappointed by this arrangement as I would have preferred more space to have been devoted to the biography.  However, these appendices are all interesting and worthwhile, particularly the fifth, which is a facsimile of a previously unpublished (in this country) by B.E.B. entitled ‘The Caverns and Subterranean Waterway of Mendip’.  I can understand the excitement of the opportunity to publish an almost unknown work by B.E.B. written in 1904, but in my opinion, it would have been better to have printed the manuscript.  An example of B.E.B.’s very good handwriting is no doubt interesting, but 47 pages of it is hard graft.  The manuscript has also had corrections and footnotes added to it by Dr. B.A. Baker.  Unfortunately, his handwriting is not as clear as B.E.B.’s and for this reason, and also because the reproduction is not as good, the footnotes are almost impossible to read.

Despite these few failings, I am sure that most people will agree that this publication is well worth the 12/- asked for it.