Obituary: Professor H. P. White

Henry Patrick White, transport economist and railway historian: born Fort William, Inverness-shire 18 January 1920; Lecturer in Geography, Edinburgh University 1949-52; Senior Lecturer, University of West Africa 1952-63; Reader in Geography 1963-72, Salford College of Advanced Technology (later Salford University), Professor of Geography 1972-82; Editor, Railway & Canal Historical Society Journal 1990-93; Editor, Railways South East 1991-93; author of South Eastern Scotland 1951, Southern England (Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain) 1961, Greater London Regional History of Railways of Great Britain 1963, Forgotten Railways: South-East England 1971, Terrain Technology and Transport History 1971, Forgotten Railways 1986; married 1948 Jean Cooke (one son, two daughters); died Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire 21 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.

(Photograph omitted)

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Chief Executive

£28, 700: Whiskey Whiskey Tango: Property Management Company is seeking a brig...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style