Obituaries: Sir George Bishop

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE BISHOP'S career can be seen as falling into three parts. The first, culminating in his appointment as the youngest ever Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was devoted to government and the Civil Service. The second, culminating in his period as chairman of Booker McConnell, focused on industry, commerce and banking. The third, culminating in his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society, was linked to mountaineering, photography and travel. Of course, the three parts intermingled.

Bishop was proud of his Lancastrian roots, having grown up near Wigan and winning a scholarship to the Grammar School at Ashton-in-Makerfield before going on, again with a scholarship, to the London School of Economics where he studied Economics and Government under Harold Laski. During his time at the LSE he developed a strong social conscience, but he vigorously opposed the Communists who at that time had a prominent presence there.

On leaving the LSE in 1935, Bishop went to work in South Wales for a Quaker organisation which was helping the unemployed through the encouragement of subsistence production. In his spare time he climbed in North Wales, running the half-mile and driving fast cars. In 1937 he was the winner of the winter trials of the Riley Motor Club.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was a statistician working for the Ministry of Food; to his deep disappointment he had been rejected for military service because his skills were needed in the Civil Service. During the war he ran the Emergency Services Division of the Ministry of Food which, along with the Women's Voluntary Service, was responsible for bringing food and refreshment to the victims of German bombing throughout the UK. The arrival of cups of tea and fresh bread did much for morale. Bishop was greatly helped in the anticipation of the bombing raids and consequent food needs by the code breakers at Bletchley.

After the war, Bishop was Private Secretary to two Labour Ministers of Food, Ben Smith and John Strachey. The improvement of food supplies, particularly fats and oils, was of paramount importance. The Government was persuaded to launch the ill-fated Tanganyika ground-nut scheme - growing ground nuts to help supplement the British fat ration - which was ill-prepared, inadequately planned and over-ambitious.

With his Minister, John Strachey, Bishop saw the impending disaster and later, as Under-Secretary, had responsibility for winding the scheme up. This experience left him with an abiding scepticism of grandiose agricultural projects justified by untested assumptions of yield, production and profit. Bishop's other responsibilities included milk, sugar and cereals, and he was involved in the international wheat and sugar negotiations where he led the UK delegations. In 1959 he was promoted to Deputy Secretary, at that time the youngest such appointment ever.

In 1961 a civil service friend and mentor, Sir Henry Hancock, introduced Bishop to Jock Campbell (later Lord Campbell of Eskan), the chairman of Booker McConnell, which at that time was mainly involved in sugar production in British Guyana. Bishop joined Booker the same year as a director, becoming vice-chairman in 1970 and chairman in 1972, until his retirement in 1979.

During this period Booker was transforming itself from a colonial plantation company to a diversified food conglomerate, mainly based in the UK. Bishop was proud of the fact that when the Booker estates and factories in Guyana were eventually nationalised in 1975, the financial impact on Booker was minimal. However, Bishop never neglected the outposts of the Booker empire, holding the firm view that he and his wife Una should visit any place where staff were serving.

In this context they spent many months in British Guyana during the emergency in the Sixties when the backlash from the political rivalry between Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham resulted in attacks on Booker staff and families. The sugar industry also benefited from Bishop's efforts in Washington where he was largely responsible for securing a US sugar quota. In the UK, his business interests widened with directorships of Ranks Hovis McDougall, Barclays International and Barclays Bank. His continuing public service included membership of the Nato Civil Supplies Agency, the Panel for Civil Service, Manpower Review and the Royal Commission on the Press.

George Bishop climbed his first mountain at the age of eight and climbed regularly thereafter in North Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. In the 1960s he and Una went climbing in the Alps. Realising that Kashmir was in the sterling area, and thus not subject to exchange control, they discovered the Himalayas, the destination of 18 subsequent expeditions, mainly to Nepal.

Some 12,000 photographs testify to Bishop's commitment to the Himalayas. The photographic archive went further, encompassing his travels for Booker and the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was President from 1983 to 1987. His achievements for the RGS included the restoration of the iron railings at its London headquarters and the mounting of a large, broadly based scientific expedition to the unexplored Kimberley area of Western Australia. With Una he made the first crossing of the King Leopold range and visited the unknown and untouched sites and caves.

George Bishop was a tremendous friend and colleague, particularly to that group of ageing executives at Booker whom he constantly referred to as "my young men". He was warm and loyal in good times and bad. He was properly concerned and involved with families. He believed in people.

George Sidney Bishop, civil servant and businessman: born Wigan, Lancashire 15 October 1913; Private Secretary to the Minister of Food 1945-49; OBE 1947; Under-Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1949- 59, Deputy Secretary 1959-61; CB 1958; director, Booker McConnell Ltd 1961-82, vice-chairman 1970-71, chairman 1972-79; Kt 1975; President, Royal Geographical Society 1983-87; married 1940 Marjorie Woodruff (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), 1961 Una Padel; died High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire 9 April 1999.