Obituary: Professor James Brown
Monday 13 December 1993
NO UNIVERSITY in Britain was quicker off the mark to recognise the potential importance of North Sea oil than the fledgling Heriot- Watt. And for two decades this highly successful Edinburgh engineering- and science-based university has made a massive contribution to expertise in the oil exploration and development industry, world-wide.
Much of the Heriot-Watt contribution stemmed from the creation of a department of petroleum engineering. The then young engineers Roy Halliwell, Cliff Johnston, Tom Patten, George Stewart, Andrew Todd and Andrew Tweedie are united in their respect and indeed affection for the blunt, genial and expertly experienced Jim Brown, the first professor of petroleum engineering. Brown's was an inspired appointment at the age of 54. He had a flying start, as a much- travelled Scot.
The university had an already formidable reputation in offshore engineering but, as a petroleum engineer, Brown brought a deep experience off how actually to get the reserves out of the seabed. He also brought from his employer Royal Dutch Shell immense goodwill, and he was lent the services of a clever young Dutchman Bau van Oort.
The respect with which Brown was held in the industry as a whole went far beyond Shell and was reflected in the cash made available to his department at Heriot-Watt. Professor Tom Patten told me: 'Jim Brown was exactly the right chap to make direct approaches to the oil companies in the North Sea for finance and resources for the department.'
Born in Glasgow of a family of skilled pattern-makers in the foundry industry, he went to Queen's Park secondary school and became a tax officer, an experience which he claimed stood him in good stead when he joined Shell.
The Second World War changed his life. He volunteered for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and, characteristically, then for the Commandos. He recalled his toughest experience was the training in Cornwall and subsequently round the area of Fort William and Spean Bridge in winter, the area where the Commando monument at Achnacarry now stands. Brown was the youngest volunteer to participate in the hazardous raid on St Nazaire in 1942. They were told that there was little chance of getting back. The purpose of the raid was twofold: to destroy the Normandy dry dock, with the purpose of denying the Tirpitz any repair facilities west of Bremerhaven and therefore hopefully keeping the huge battleship in German waters; and to destroy U-boat pens. Along with other members of Number 5 Commando, Brown protected HMS Campbelltown, disguised as a German ship, which rammed the dock gates with explosive and was inevitably captured.
Brown was despatched to Stalag 8B 60 miles east of Breslau. Dick Bradley, of Number 2 Commando, his fellow escapee, said, 'when it came to courage Jim Brown was quite simply the greatest, he never gave in'. His first of five escape attempts was tragicomedy. He managed to dye his overcoat and scarf using polish. Alas, with sweat, the polish began to run on to his neck and skin, presenting a most remarkable spectacle. So he dived into a public lavatory in the town of Oppeln only to find five minutes later that the door was forced open by two members of the Gestapo. They frogmarched him and made him sit between them on a tramcar on the way back to camp. Nothing daunted, when the lady conductor came along Brown said sweetly 'A penny half to Sauchiehall Street, Missus]' Even the Gestapo, one of whom had been in Britain before the war, did not suppress a smirk. Bradley says that throughout his time in the camp Brown retained his sense of humour about his dire situation, as punishment went up five days, ten days, three weeks, bread and water only for escape attempts.
On another occasion, Brown and two fellow prisoners escaped in the Sudetenland dressed as Hitler Youth. Alas, after they had been out for a week they were at first befriended by some real Hitler Youth, who fast became suspicious, albeit one of their number was a fluent German-speaker. It was one thing escaping - staying escaped was quite another.
Brown was remembered as being ingenious in camp. Cardboard was needed. Brown concocted cardboard out of inflated pre-war deutschmark notes. Then it was 'Fifth Time Lucky' - the title of his still unpublished memoirs.
Alf Fearson who escaped with Brown and Bradley told me that they had managed to take slow trains, thus avoiding the inspectors. Bradley, Cockney-born, but with a fluent Swiss-German accent, was ideally placed to buy the necessary tickets, Brown having 'acquired money' by means that ought not to be inquired into. They arrived at Tutlingen and walked 30 miles to the Swiss border. Brown, ever playful, took off his shoes to be quiet for crossing the border in a wood. And then proceeded to splash into a ditch.
Once in Switzerland, Brown joined Desmond Young, later to be the author of Rommel, as sub-editor of Marking Time, an English-language publication in Switzerland between November 1943 and Autumn 1944, when the American army from southern France reached the Swiss border. He was awarded a Military Medal.
On return to Britain Brown spent a year in the Auchengeoch pit, near Glasgow, with a grant from the Commandos which he made a point of paying back. This experience gave him entrance to the mining engineering course at the Royal Technical College in Glasgow, and then to Glasgow University.
He joined Royal Dutch Shell, and served Shell in Trinidad, Turkey, Kuwait and Venezuela.
He used to brief me during legislation on North Sea oil. 'If you do this in UK legislation, remember that there is a tit-for-tat effect.' He had a world-wide perspective as to what ought to be done inthe oil industry.
He and his wife Kath entertained many overseas students at their house at Dundarroch on Loch Ard, near Aberfoyle. After he retired from Heriot-Watt he served with Britoil and set up a company, Edinburgh Petroleum Services, on the Heriot-Watt campus.
In 1990, after he had gone to Tenerife for health reasons, his wife suddenly died. Brown was looked after in Edinburgh by Mrs Grace Dake and then by his son William and his family in Hampshire. He was tenderly nursed by the staff of Derriford House, Fleet. Brown's memorial is surely his students all over the world. He initiated and launched many a successful career in petroleum engineering.
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