Obituary: Professor H. P. White
Thursday 24 February 1994
WHEN he was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, H. P. White devised complicated railway journeys across the United Kingdom in his mind as he planted the paddy-fields with rice. Others recited Hamlet or hummed concertos to escape the grim reality around them, but for White nothing cheered the spirits like a railway journey. The precise routes of his mental trips we shall never now know, but in his diaries Pat White has left meticulously detailed logs of the thousands of trips he survived to enjoy.
White's interest in railways was with him from first to last. From pre-war employment on the Southern Railway to the eccentric and brilliant lecturer he later became; inspiring generations of students who went on to hold significant posts in public transport management.
White was the son of a diamond merchant from Northern Ireland and a schoolteacher from Kent. His father, who had been badly gassed during the First World War, died from pneumonia while Pat was very young, and his mother returned with him to Kent. After schooling in Sidcup, he took up a position as a booking clerk at Charlton Station, where he sold tickets to supporters of a football team for whom he would always hold a bizarre affection.
During the Second World War, he served with the Royal Artillery in the Far East until captured at the fall of Singapore. White seldom talked of his four-year incarceration, but when he did it was without self-pity: he once said that compared to those building the Burma railway, he and his fellow prisoners in Formosa were 'living in a holiday camp'.
Liberated by the Americans, he returned to England with two motivations, neither of them evident before - an urge to learn, and a growing religious belief. The vicar of his local church asked him to relate his wartime experiences, and he vowed he would do it only once. He never spoke of them publicly again. His interest in religious matters continued to grow; he later became a lay reader in the Church of England, a biblical scholar renowned in his parish for his inability to resist the temptation of making a joke from the pulpit.
Under the government education scheme for demobbed servicemen he enrolled at Queen Mary's College, London, to read Geography, where he gained the top First of his year. He followed this with an MA, and took a lecturing post at Edinburgh University.
By now married with a young family, he moved on, in 1952, to the University of West Africa, working in the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and teaching many of the men who later emerged as their country's leaders. Leaves were spent at the house in Hawkhurst, Kent, where he formed a great affection for a railway line later to emerge regularly in his writings: the branch between Paddock Wood and Hawkhurst.
In 1963 White took a post as a tutor attached to the Arts Department at the College of Advanced Technology in Salford, soon to become one of the new generation of universities. Over the next 20 years he established a geography department of some 20 staff, a leader in transport economics. In 1972 he was appointed Professor.
In 1982, tired of battling the education cuts which have now obliterated the department he created, White took early retirement. Liberated from bureaucracy he took on ever more work: writing, lecturing throughout the world, editing esoteric railway journals. The wheel turned full circle, too, when he returned to the booking office, as a volunteer on the preserved Nene Valley Railway, near Peterborough, where he revelled in creaking technology.
He leaves us six books on transport subjects, including Forgotten Railways (1986), in which he visited all the branch lines closed by Dr Richard Beeching in the Sixties, discovered their ignominious fate and mourned them with a passion.
My own enduring memory of Pat White is his boundless enthusiasm. He had, it seemed, an unquenchable affection for knowledge on any subject - from compost heaps through solar heating to Northamptonshire Cricket Club - and more than one of my own literary offerings came back with some comment like 'Is it possible we could know a little more about so and so, please?' Most of all, he had, I remember, a sense of humour, which he seemed unable to contain.
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