Obituary: Michael Nightingale of Cromarty

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MICHAEL NIGHTINGALE was not a man to melt into any crowd: his tall, angular figure with flowing beard and hand-me-down suits made him stand out in the merchant banks and boardrooms where he spent much of his career. He appeared more at home feeding hay to his Sussex cows early on a winter's morning, or clambering around church roofs, or leading objectors at public inquiries. Indeed his true bent was as an antiquary and conservationist, but he added financial and negotiating skills to a mastery of legal and historical minutiae which made him a formidable protagonist in the countless campaigns he led to preserve the landscape, woodlands and churches of the North Downs in Kent, where he lived for most of his life. His impact on the landscape and on attitudes to conservation will be his most lasting memorial.

His unfashionable views and unconventional approach to problems were no doubt inspired by his Fabian parents, Victor Nightingale, a City stockbroker, and Bathsheba Buhay (whose family had fled Lithuania in 1888). His mother's death and father's prompt remarriage impelled the 16-year-old Michael to set up a separate establishment in a cottage up the village street from the family home at Wormshill - his precocity, independence and intransigence were already well-established traits.

Michael was educated at Winchester, where he organised archaeological digs, and went on to Wye College to study agriculture, following a course that was more antiquarian than agrarian, and then on to Magdalen College, Oxford.

In 1951 he organised an exhibition of "Treasures from Kent Churches" at Canterbury, but his father, concerned that he should be able to make a more profitable living, arranged a job for him as assistant to the investment manager of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Although he spent much of his two years in this post completing his thesis on Roman field systems, the position set him on a course spanning different careers which seem a world apart in an age of ever greater specialisation.

An appointment in his mid twenties as an assistant and speech writer to the Principal of London University was precipitately ended at one o'clock in the morning because he wrote a speech which advocated that the university should cease to redevelop the squares of Bloomsbury and treat them in the manner of Oxbridge quads. But his sacking did not stop him from continuing to carry the Chancellor's mace as the university's Esquire Bedell for over 40 years (even though he had only acquired the office because he fitted into the silken breeches that went with it) or becoming, in 1954, the university's first ever investment manager (he had discovered its considerable assets were merely held on deposit).

He was appointed in the same year Secretary of the Museums Association and editor of the Museums Journal, in which he was assisted by Hilary Jones whom he married in 1956. As Secretary he pioneered the Regional Museum Service to give expert advice and assistance to small regional museums and persuaded the Treasury to grant-aid the Walker Art Gallery's purchase of Rubens's Holy Family, thus opening a new era in which government money could be sought by provincial museums.

Appointed OBE for his services to museums in 1960 at the age of 32, he might have had a promising career in the museum world but, but with three small children to support, he turned his attention back to the City, joining friends to form a merchant bank, J.F. Thomasson & Co, which quickly prospered before merging with Charterhouse Japhet in 1965.

Being a director of a large bank was not to his liking and after a few years he saw the opportunity of rescuing a former Dutch East Indies plantations company following the nationalisation of its estates. Cutting as striking a figure in Jakarta or on a Javanese tea estate as he did in the City, he relished the protracted negotiations for compensation and the company's role, following a merger, as the principal maker of hand tools (the Chillington Crocodile brand) throughout much of the Third World. But as always his interests extended beyond the purely commercial - great efforts would be expended on the building of a new mosque on one of the estates, or on the transporting of an organ through the jungle to a Lutheran church. And although he continued as chairman of several companies and a board member of the Commonwealth Development Corporation through the 1980s his energies were always widely spread among his other interests.

In the early 1960s he had bought Cromarty House, Ross & Cromarty, attracted there by his wife's family connections with the historically and architecturally important town of Cromarty. His purchase of the fine 18th-century house, which became a much-loved family home, saved it from destruction. In the 1980s, in an effort to regenerate the economy and fabric of the town, he cajoled public and charitable bodies to add to his own contribution of money and buildings to create an outstation for Robert Gordon's Institute of Technology (later Robert Gordon University) and Aberdeen University.

A lover of tradition and pomp (but never pompous), he strove to impart to others the importance of historical continuity, whether in the liturgy (as a lay member of the General Synod), libraries, landscapes or heraldry. But this sense of tradition did not make him content with orthodoxies. He used conventional methods of influence but, was never happy on a committee unless he was chairman. If there was not an organisation designed to achieve his purposes he would form one. Within months of joining a new body (and the list was intimidatingly large) he would be advocating that it should be doing more, and differently.

Inevitably this upset many but it often paid dividends. Joining the Rochester Bridge Trust in 1985, a 14th-century charity with a considerable annual income and a principal object of building bridges across the Medway, he pushed for it to take a large role in supporting higher education in Kent; inspired by the Cromarty experience, he conceived in 1993 the idea that the trust should do something similar in the Medway Towns - the largest conurbation without a university. The result was the Bridge Wardens' College, appropriately established in the wonderful setting of the Royal Dockyard buildings at Chatham.

As a Warden of the trust, he also played a leading role in the complex negotiations to finance and build the new tunnel under the River Medway, but of equal importance in his scale of values was his organising what was probably the first service in the Bridge Chapel since the Reformation and ensuring that the resulting Latin Requiem Mass on All Souls Day should become an integral part of the trust's annual calendar.

Nightingale will be more generally remembered for his role as a conservationist; his sphere of action was resolutely local but the effects often had much wider repercussions. With no interest in politics he nevertheless persevered as a local councillor from 1961 until his death (including spells as leader and mayor) in order to use his position on successive planning committees to fight against the destruction of houses and medieval barns (especially in the 1960s when demolition was the rage of the day) and for tighter planning laws in the countryside, particularly the preservation of coppice woodland and hedgerows. He was the bugbear of hedge grubbers and tree fellers not least because his council was the first to have a farmer imprisoned for breaking Tree Preservation Orders.

Although he often preferred to be a fixer behind the scenes, his absolute faith in the rightness of his cause frequently led him to break committee ranks. When causes appeared lost to others he had an unnerving ability to find a further line of appeal or legal remedy.

His involvement in the restoration of churches and church monuments was the greatest pleasure of his life. As a longstanding member of the Diocesan Advisory Committee and Chairman of the Churches Committee of the Kent Archaeological Society (which he sometimes treated as his personal fiefdom) he had a knowledge and often close involvement with most of the medieval churches in Kent. This often involved far more than advice and financial support. In order to restore the little church of Bicknor on the North Downs, he persuaded a local stonemason to help him reopen a disused chalk quarry and they spent weekends together hand-sawing chalk blocks in his barn. He had an empathy with craftsmen, often persuading them to work for little or nothing but in turn helping them in their careers (the stonemason at Bicknor went on to lead major restoration programmes as head stone- mason at St Paul's Cathedral and then Clerk of Works at Magdalen College).

Typically, his passionate commitment to the fabric of churches and his belief that they should remain as functioning churches regardless of dwindling congregations or clergy (whom one sensed he considered as somewhat superfluous) made him the bane of church authorities. Whenever Kent churches were threatened with closure or the sale of their treasures in the name of rationalisation, he would be found giving advice on how to frustrate it; few could equal his knowledge of the mechanics of appeals to the Privy Council or the Court of Arches. Gradually, over the years, his views which had been those of a lonely protester began to be caught up with by mainstream conservationist orthodoxy.

At the very end of his life, his house full of tottering piles of papers recording the countless battles fought by petition and correspondence (whole files could be devoted to a constituent's boundary dispute or driving offence), he was still bullying friends and charities to raise a substantial sum for another unfashionable cause, the conservation of the important medieval archives of Winchester College.

In 1997, already seriously ill, he had successfully raised Lottery and other funds to save the Brook Museum, when he found that Wye College was proposing to sell this important medieval barn and oast, housing a collection of early agricultural machinery and implements. It was Michael Nightingale himself who had, more than 50 years earlier, saved the collection from destruction and found it its current home.

Such continuity was typical: as a 16-year-old he had opened a savings account with 10 shillings for the restoration of Wormshill's bells. Fifty years later he completed the full peal of six bells, one original, five rescued from abandoned churches. They will ring for him on Friday.

Edmund Gatton

Michael David Nightingale, banker, conservationist and antiquary: born London 6 December 1927; Esquire Bedell, London University 1953-94; Secretary, Museums Association 1954-60; FSA 1956; OBE 1960; chairman, Anglo-Indonesian/Chillington Corporation 1971-89; chairman, Anglo-Eastern Plantations 1985-90; married 1951 Antonia Morland (marriage dissolved 1956), 1956 Hilary Jones (two sons, three daughters); died Wormshill, Kent 2 September 1998.