Obituary: Professor Donald Denman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DONALD DENMAN can fairly be described not only as the founder of the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge University but also as the founding father of land economy in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Partly because his subject did not fit a traditional academic mould of a single discipline and his teaching had practical relevance in the modern world, his contribution to scholarship was often underrated, particularly in his own university. That contribution, however, was immense.

Not only did he break new ground with empirical studies of capital and land ownership, of common lands and African land tenures, but he also applied his mind with success to the challenge of developing new theoretical constructs of an interdisciplinary nature, weaving together concepts drawn from law and economics to provide an essential reference point for research and a clearer framework for teaching. He conceived of the proprietary land unit as the fundamental unit of decision-making in relation to the use of land, the locus of the application of property power to land resources. Much of his thinking on this subject was brought together in a series of lectures delivered in Australia and published in 1978 as The Place of Property.

Denman was appointed to the Department of Estate Management at Cambridge in 1946, after war-time service with the Lands Office of the Air Ministry and then the Cumberland War Agricultural Executive Committee. Under the leadership of Noel Dean, Denman's task was to assist in the expansion of the curriculum of the department to embrace a new urban course alongside the rural programme which had begun in the 1920s. He relished the special challenges of teaching lively groups of men returning from the forces and many of those early students look back on those days with great affection and respect.

The Department of Estate Management at that time suffered from a major handicap in that most of the teaching officers, having lectured in the morning, had to earn their stipends by undertaking professional advisory work in the afternoon, and then return to supervise groups of undergraduates in the evening. Research, the vital life-blood of a subject and its teachers, was perforce extremely limited. If the subject was to have a future in the university, that had to change.

Denman and his colleagues set about raising funds to support research and he focused on defining and establishing a new academic subject - one which would represent a significant educational foundation for land-related professional activity and which, at the same time, would merit a place in the Cambridge Tripos system. Medicine, law, engineering and architecture, among "vocational subjects" had achieved recognition in Cambridge: why not a subject of such fundamental importance as the use and management of land?

In the teeth of often bitter - and largely uninformed - opposition, Denman's vision was eventually brought to fulfilment in 1962, with the acceptance of proposals for a Land Economy Tripos and the creation of a department freed of its advisory obligations. Opposition to the subject and to Denman personally did not end, and further battles had to be fought before justice was belatedly done through his election as the first Professor of Land Economy in 1968.

For most mortals, Donald Denman's achievements at Cambridge would satisfy a lifetime's ambition. Not so for him. So committed was he to his subject and so convinced of its universal importance that he devoted much time and undertook many arduous journeys to take the land economy gospel to the far corners of the Commonwealth - to Nigeria and Ghana, to Jamaica and to Fiji, not to mention Scotland. His advice to universities and governments, partly under the auspices of the Commonwealth Foundation, had great influence on the establishment of new degree courses to equip young men and women to grapple with a plethora of challenges of land management and development in a rapidly changing world.

Donald Robert Denman was born on 7 April 1911, one of twins - which partly explains the title of his 1993 autobiography, A Half and Half Affair. The twins were both attracted to property - Sidney as a developer, Donald choosing a more academic route, in due course taking external London degrees - BSc, MSc and the PhD. Early in his academic experience Donald Denman learned that all was not to be plain sailing. The sole manuscript of his newly completed PhD thesis was stolen from his briefcase during a meeting in Leeds and he had to start all over again.

Despite an exceptionally busy professional life, Denman found time for many other things. He was an accomplished watercolour artist and delighted his friends at Christmas-time with a reproduction of one of his sketches as a card. He had a deep and abiding Christian faith and was the longest serving Lay Reader in the Ely Diocese. Long after his retirement from the chair at Cambridge he was a finalist in the 1995 "Preacher of the Year" contest organised by The Times. In his last weeks, when asked by his doctors how he might wish them to react in the event of total heart failure or other trauma, replied: "Don't worry about resurrection. I am content to leave that in Another's hands."

Nothing was ordinary about the life of Donald Denman. Who else can count among honours and distinctions a combination of five kingly Ozo titles from Nigeria, an honorary DSc from the University of Kumasi, Ghana, the Distinguished Order of Homayoun conferred by the Shah of Iran and Fellowship of Pembroke College, Cambridge? All these he greatly treasured.

Denman was a giant of his generation, a pioneer and prophet, a most colourful character and above all, an exceptionally loyal and generous friend. Throughout his life he helped countless people, from more than 40 generations of Cambridge students to Biafran refugees. No one was turned away.

His greatest devotion was to his family, to his wife Hope, who supported him with immense patience and fortitude through 58 years of marriage and now survives him, and their two sons, Jonathan and Richard, and six grandchildren.

Donald Robert Denman, land economist: born London 7 April 1911; University Lecturer, Cambridge University 1948-68, Head of the Department of Land Economy 1962-78, Professor of Land Economy 1968-78 (Emeritus); FRICS 1949; Fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1962-78; married 1941 Hope Prior (two sons); died Cambridge 2 September 1999.