Obituary: Robert Beckinsale

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE is such a thing as Essex man, Robert Beckinsale was its polar opposite: Wessex man, learned, reflective and humane, impish and quicksilver in wit and appearance. In some ways, he was a Hardyesque figure. He was of humble origins (his father was a gardener and harness maker, although his mother was a governess) and he was drawn by scholastic ambition to Oxford: "Jude the prominent", perhaps.

Beckinsale was born in the Vale of the White Horse, was brought up near Burford in the Cotswolds and spent most of his academic life, as a geographer, at Oxford. He had a deep and enduring love of the Berkshire, Oxford, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire landscape. He made a significant contribution to his subject, not only through his own writings (some of which merit the title of classic) but also through a diverse string of talented students, of whom Richard Chorley, who became Professor at Cambridge, is the most notable.

He took a First in Geography in 1929 at Reading (then offering external degrees of London University). His London MA followed in 1935 and his DPhil at Oxford in 1949. His first job was as a schoolmaster in 1930 at Chipping Campden Grammar School. The school had a closed scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, which the college had refused to award to their candidate in the previous year. As the dynamic, young schoolmaster, Beckinsale was given their brightest student to teach, to overcome this Pembroke impasse and thus set "Paul" Paget, later a Fellow of Jesus, on his geographical career. From Chipping Campden, Beckinsale moved to Saltley Teachers Training College in Birmingham, where he was lecturer in Geography.

During the Second World War, the Oxford School of Geography and several of its academic staff were taken over to become a branch of Naval Intelligence. In 1941, Beckinsale was appointed a research officer at this centre. There he worked on the production of the Admiralty Handbooks, particularly the volumes on Spain and Portugal. It was during this time, and under difficult conditions, that he also produced his major physical geography text Land, Air and Ocean (1943). His energy was phenomenal.

Towards the end of the war, Beckinsale was appointed to a Departmental Demonstratorship at the Oxford School of Geography and from 1944 until his retirement in 1975 his academic career was in the university. In the department he was appointed to a University Lectureship and subsequently a Senior Lectureship, but by today's standards, and indeed by the standard of those days, he merited more.

Beckinsale was a member of St Catherine's Society, then a non- residential society for poor students, while he worked for his doctorate. He told me that, at the degree ceremony, the Dean of Degrees had hidden him in the middle of his graduands to disguise the fact that his dress was not properly subfusc. He lectured in Geography at Exeter College (Chorley's Oxford college) and became a Fellow of University College, to which he was devoted, in 1965.

His publications are striking for their immense range and scholarship in both human and physical geography. His international scholarly reputation, however, is as a physical geographer, spanning the fields of geormorphology and climatology. His magnum opus, co-authored with Richard Chorley, is The History of the Study of Landforms, of which three volumes appeared (1964-90). He also contributed to Chorley's important edited volume Water, Earth and Man (1969).

However, Beckinsale's doctoral thesis was on the textile industries of the West of England; published as The Trowbridge Woollen Industry in 1953. He edited, with James Houston, the Festschrift for Professor E.W. Gilbert, his former head of department, Urbanization and its Problems (1968). In addition there were a host of local geographical studies including many parish entries to the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire.

Publication was something of a Beckinsale family cottage industry. He published jointly with his son, a professional geologist, and particularly with his wife, Monica, who is also a geographer: Southern Europe (1975) and The English Heartland (1980). Almost until his last year, he and Monica had joint enterprises in hand and could be seen together poring over volumes in the School of Geography library.

"Becky", as he was known to his friends and foes (his sometimes sardonic humour and gnomic pronouncements were not always popular) was a wonderful lecturer. He had a fund of stories and was also the object of many more. In 1962-63 he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, where he won a bet with a colleague, against all the odds of experience in that institution, that he would have more students in his graduate class by the end of his lecture course than at the beginning.

In 1965-66 he became part of the British-government-nominated arbitration committee on the disputed Chilean-Argentinian border. One story he told (it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the slow, deadpan John-Arlott- style delivery of what seemed outrageous statements was serious or not, but his jokes were always serious) was that he resolved the issue of a hotly disputed, but inaccessible island in a lake in the high Andes. He investigated the matter in the field to discover that the island did not exist; it was a blot on the map.

Robert Beckinsale died one day short of his 90th birthday and of his 60th wedding anniversary. He wished his body to be given for medical research. He is survived by his wife Monica, his son and two daughters. The elder daughter was married at one time to Paul Foot, the political journalist.

Robert Percy Beckinsale, geo-grapher: born Stanford in the Vale, Oxfordshire 23 July 1908; Lecturer, School of Geography, Oxford University 1944-49, Senior Lecturer 1949-65; Fellow, University College, Oxford 1965-75; married 1938 Monica Crump (one son, two daughters); died Farmoor, Oxfordshire 22 July 1998.