Obituary: Lt-Col Nigel Gell

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The Independent Online
Nigel James Gell, soldier and conservationist: born Harwich 21 December 1918; MC 1942, 1944; married 1958 Margaret Low (two sons); died Bath 13 November 1993.

NIGEL GELL was one of the very few officers in the Second World War to be awarded the Military Cross twice, in each case for outstanding bravery when clearing minefields as a Royal Engineer, the first while attached to the Eighth Army in North Africa, the second in the Low Countries later in the war. Subsequently he became a building conservationist and one of the founding fathers of the Bath Preservation Trust.

He was born in 1918 to a family with long military and imperial traditions and after school at Wellington College he attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he studied Engineering. He was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant in 1938, and found himself involved with the government research programme into the experimental use of petroleum-based substances in warfare under Geoffrey Lloyd and his team. As soon as war broke out, he was, at the age of 21, put in charge of this work on the Kent coastal defences.

After Dunkirk he was posted to the Eighth Army in North Africa, and began the construction of a 30- mile-long water pipeline from Tobruk to the Free French troops, then took charge of a field company clearing gaps in enemy minefields near El Wiska, with the rank of acting major. It was here that he won his first Military Cross, in 1942, showing coolness and courage under enemy fire while opening up a line for the Allied advance.

He commanded 246 Field Company of the Sappers for four months during 1944, and won his second MC for outstanding bravery during the crossing of Molen Beck while personally clearing minefields under heavy enemy fire, and was also involved in a leading role in many other actions. After being wounded, he continued as a staff officer for the rest of the war, and its aftermath, until eventually being invalided out of the Sappers in 1951.

With his background and temperament, he found the transition to civilian life difficult, as somebody who needed a good cause to fight, but he found one in resisting what is now called the Sack of Bath. In the late Fifties and early Sixties the city suffered quick-money property development and streets of smaller houses from the Georgian period were being bulldozed.

Despite outward similarities to the legendary Sir Herbert Gusset in Private Eye, Gell having a notably military bearing, a gimlet eye, clipped manner of speech, and a real problem of names escaping him, the property sharks and others who were attempting to ruin Bath at the time found they had met a formidable opponent. He was a trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust from its foundation in 1966, and with a small group of fellow activists was instrumental in turning the organisation into one of the most powerful conservation bodies in Britain. That Bath has now become the only Unesco-recognised World Heritage City in Britain is a tribute to the efforts of Nigel Gell and his fellow campaigners.

To build the kind of coalition needed to save Bath was not an easy task, and Gell was not someone to suffer fools, but despite his stereotyped background and appearance he had a marvellous knack of getting on with almost everybody. He believed that the poorer sections of the community in Bath had as much right to have their heritage preserved, and to enjoy living in the artisan's quarters, as the grander residents in The Circus or Royal Crescent. And as an engineer he understood better than most how the poorer sections of the city, such as Walcot, had concealed some of the worst slum housing conditions in the west of England behind their Georgian facades, and how the failure to do enough to improve them after the war had led to demands for the demolition of the properties and wholesale redevelopment.

In his old age he was a marvellous ambassador for the city, installed at exactly the same time each evening in the bar of the Lansdown Grove Arms with a glass of white wine and a pink tonic, immaculately dressed, answering endless local queries from visitors of every nationality. Bath owes him a great deal and will be a much poorer place without him, as will the correspondence columns of the Bath Chronicle, where he was never slow to point out what he considered to be the erroneous views of others, in particular the city planning committee.

(Photograph omitted)