OBITUARY : Sir William Wilkinson
Saturday 20 April 1996
He was the son of Denys and Gillian Wilkinson, Denys an inspirational Eton master and Gillian a distinguished classical scholar who taught at London University. William Wilkinson inherited an interest in things classical and a love of country pursuits and in particular bird- watching, fostered by holidays at the family home in the Gower Peninsula.
He was born in 1912 and educated at St George's Choir School in Windsor and in 1945 he obtained an Eton scholarship. His career at Eton was happy and well-rounded; he ended as President of Pop with a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. Indeed, with the width of his interests and his strong idealism, he was near to being Robert Birley's paragon schoolboy.
A strange illness caused by painting himself up for a fancy dress party disqualified him from National Service, and he went up to Cambridge in 1951 where he again filled each day to overflowing. On the one hand he was to make a rewarding wildlife expedition to Spitzbergen; on the other, he lived a hectic social life that at one stage left him sick from overdoses of Alka Seltzer. Academic respectability was only preserved with small- hours revision.
His first employment was with Borax Consolidated, and he soon made his mark: "It was bad enough putting up with William's extravagances at Cambridge, but now the damned boy is earning more than I am," said his irascible but proud and affectionate father. Typically this work was combined with coaching cricket in the East End, and acting as Treasurer for the Eton Mission.
He was posted to Turkey, where he was established with many visitors in a flat commanding the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. His job allowed him to travel widely in Turkey, obtaining an exceptional grasp of that country's rich archaeology, as well as helping to found the Ornithological Society of Tur-key, which became the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. He was to serve as Chairman and was later Vice-President. His love for Turkey and the Turks was revived on a final holiday in 1995, when William Bey recalled some of his Turkish and charmed all whom he met.
It was in Turkey too that he began his happy marriage to Kate Loudon. Nevertheless, when he became disenchanted with Borax's policy towards Turkey, he felt that he should leave the company. After a short spell with William Brandt, he became in 1970 a director of Lonrho. It was not a happy period: travelling in Africa he was infected by TB. Then in 1973, when the boardroom was split, he was one of the so-called Straight Eight and found himself without a job.
Wilkinson was however made a director of Kleinwort Benson, and soon acquired other directorships. But in 1983 he was appointed Chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council, which was intended to be a part-time job and was paid as such. He soon found that he could not give the Nature Conservancy Council the time that he felt it deserved, and in 1985 he consequently resigned from Kleinworts. He strengthened the influence of the council and secured it an increased budget; among its more publicised achievements was the resistance to afforestation of the Flow Country, in Sutherland.
This productive period in Wilkinson's life, in which he was able to provide exhilarating leadership in the environmental field, was interrupted by a serious stroke which occurred in 1988 while he was having a heart bypass operation. He was left with only keyhole vision, a terrible affliction to one who had spent so much of his life in the open air. He became immensely dependent on his wife, needing her support on unfamiliar terrain or when pressed in at a gathering by a crowd he might know but could not see.
Somehow he continued to work and was knighted for his services to conservation in 1989. He vainly resisted the dismantling of the Nature Conservancy Council but, when that occurred in 1991, he ended his public employment. The list of voluntary positions which he held continued to grow, and this kept his connection with birds and with the environment. He was president or vice-president of eight organisations, most notably of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which he had been a longtime council member. He had also been a council member of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust from 1985 to1993.
His fortitude in his last years deepened the respect in which his many friends held him. The enjoyment which he had obtained all his life from music, especially opera, was a continued solace. With his deeply held faith and rock-like values, he conquered the occasional attacks of depression. At its close his life would certainly have seemed to him a fortunate one. When his final illness began he was where he would have wished to be, in Gower.
William Henry Nairn Wilkinson, businessman and conservationist: born Warminster, Wiltshire 22 July 1932; Chairman, Nature Conservancy Council 1983-91; Kt 1989; President, London Wildlife Trust 1992-96; President, British Trust for Ornithology 1993-96; married 1964 Katharina Loudon (one son, two daughters); died 12 April 1996.
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