by George J. Dance


James Wreford Watson (1915-1990). Courtesy Modern Lives, Modern Landscapes.

James Wreford Watson
Born February 8, 1915
Shensi (Shaanxi), China
Died September 18, 1990
Occupation geographer
Nationality Scottish
Citizenship Canada Canadian
Notable award(s) Canadian Geographers' Association special award, Governor General's Award
Spouse(s) Jessie (Black)
Children 1 daughter (Margaret), 1 son (James)

James Wreford Watson (February 8, 1915 - September 18, 1990) was a Scottish/Canadian geographer and cartographer, who served as Canada's Chief Geographer. He was also a Canadian poet who wrote under the name James Wreford, and who won Canada's top literary honor, the Governor General's Award, for his poetry.


Watson was born in Shaanxi, China, the son of Evelyn (Russell) and James Watson, a clergyman.[1]

Watson was educated in China and Scotland, and earned a B.A. from the University of Edinburgh in 1936. In 1937 he began teaching at the University of Sheffield.[1]

In 1939 Watson married Jessie Black, a University of Edinburgh professor of education, who would bear him 2 children, Margaret and James. The couple moved to Canada the same year.[1]

Watson took a position at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, as the university's 1st regular appointment in geography. He lectured at McMaster from 1939 to 1949.[2] In 1945 he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.[1]

In 1949 Watson moved to Ottawa to become chief geographer for the Government of Canada, a position he held until 1954. He held a concurrent appointment at Ottawa's Carleton University from 1951 to 1954.[2]

Watson became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1953.[2] In 1954, though, he returned to Scotland, to take the University of Edinburgh's chair of geography.[3]

He taught at the University of Edinburgh from 1954 to 1975. From 1975 to 1982 he was the director of the Centre for Canadian Studies, in Edinburgh.[1] During that time he was also visiting professor at Queen's University (1959-1960, 1963, 1978), University of Manitoba (1969-1970), University of British Columbia (1971), Simon Fraser University (1976-1977), and the University of Calgary (1980-1981 and 1983).[3]


Social GeographyEdit

Watson was a pioneer of social geography. He applied the ideas of the Chicago school of social ecology to explain urban geography; the basic theory being that the urban landscape can be explained in terms of its society's social structure. His work "helped develop social geography as a systematic specialization." For instance, he "used the language of the social ecologists to recognize urban transition zones, cultural shatter belts, and distinct zones associated with the different socioeconomic groups within Hamilton."[4]

Watson also applied the concepts of social geography on a continental scale to examine regional differentiation in North America. "Here his work emphasized social problems associated with multiracial development, the 'energy crisis', conservation of resources, urban decay, and suburban sprawl."[4]


James Wreford's standing in Canadian poetry rests mainly on 2 publications. The first was the seminal 1944 anthology Unit of Five, which featured 13 of his poems (alongside poetry by Louis Dudek, Ronald Hambleton, P.K. Page, and Raymond Souster). The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) says that they show "his technical skill – particularly in the use of the quatrain"; but also his weaknesses: obscurantism, didactism, and a habit of asking questions, "which becomes ponderous at times."[1]

The DLB classified the poetry of Wreford's award-winning debut collection, Of Time and the Lover (1950), "as Christian pastoral elegy in that many of his poems portray man existing in a fallen world.... The poet seeks for himself and mankind ... redemption, renewed life, and hope." It also noted Watson's "use of climatological, geological, and geographical images and metaphors."[1]

Geography was also prominent in Wreford's second and last book of poetry, 1979's Countryside Canada. There the poet "responds through poetry to a series of places, from Newfoundland to the Yukon ... the geographer-poet attempts to demonstrate the strength of his culture and his own personal roots in it."[1]


Watson's 1st book of poetry, Of Time and the Lover, won the Governor General's Award for English language poetry or drama in 1950.[1]

Watson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1954, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1957.[2]

The Canadian Geographers Association gave Watson a special award in 1987 for his services to Canadian geography.[3]

He held honorary degrees from 5 universities.[3]




  • The Stockdoves Called from the Bottle-Brush Trees. New York: Vantage Press, 1988.


  • The Geography of the Niagara Peninsula, with Special Emphasis on Changes in Land Use and Settlement. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1945.[5]
  • The Changing Industrial Pattern of the Niagara Peninsula: A study in historical geography. Ontario Historical Society, 1945.
  • General Geography. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1957.
  • The Geography of Bermuda (with C.H. Foggo & John Oliver). London: Collins, 1965.
  • North America: Its countries and regions. London, Longmans, 1963; New York: Praeger, 1967.
  • Mental Images and Geographic Reality in the Settlement in North America. Nottingham, UK: University of Nottingham, 1968.
  • Canada: Its problems and prospects. Don Mills, ON: Longmns, 1968.
  • The Canadians: How they live and work (with Jessie Watson). Newton Abbot, UK, & North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, 1977; Toronto: Griffin House, 1977.
  • Social Geography of the United States. London & New York: Longman, 1979.
  • The United States: Habitation of hope. London & New York: Longman, 1982.


  • Nelson's Concise World Atlas. Edinburgh & London: Nelson, 1961.
  • Nelson's Shorter School Atlas. Edinburgh & London: Nelson, 1961.
  • The British Isles: A systematic geography (edited with J.B. Sissons). Edinburgh & London: Published for the 20th International Geographic Conference by Nelson, 1972.
  • The American Environment: Perceptions and policies (edited with Timothy O'Riordan). London & New York: John Wiley, 1976.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[6]

See alsoEdit



Notes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 "J(ames) Wreford Watson," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Bookrags. com,Web, Apr. 21, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "Watson, J. Wreford, Archives and Collections, McMaster University,, Web, Apr. 21, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Guy M. Robinson, "Appendix: An Appreciation of James Wreford Watson with a bibliography of his work," A Social Geography of Canada (Hamilton: Dundurn, 1991), 492 et passim, Google Books, Web, Apr. 21, 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "James Wreford Watson: A Biography," Info,, Web, Apr. 21, 2011.
  5. Search Results: James Wreford Watson, Open Library, Web, May 9, 2011.
  6. Search results = au:James Wreford Watson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc Web, Apr. 14, 2015.

External linksEdit

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