Obituary: Robert Adley

Robert James Adley, politician and writer: born 2 March 1935; MP (Conservative) for Bristol North East 1970-74, Christchurch and Lymington 1974-83, Christchurch 1983-93; Chairman, Conservative Transport Committee 1991-93; Chairman, Select Committee on Transport 1992-93; books include British Steam in Cameracolour 1962-68 1979, In Search of Steam 1981, The Call of Steam 1982, In Praise of Steam 1985, Wheels 1987, Out of Steam 1990; married 1961 Jane Pople (two sons); died London 13 May 1993.

ROBERT ADLEY was one of the most endearing, enthusiastic, and idiosyncratic of men. He had a multitude of interests, but there is no better example of his individuality than his justifying his concern with Chinese politics on the grounds that the mainland Chinese government still ran steam-powered trains long after most of the rest of the world had gone over to the use of diesel fuel. Trains were his great passion, and he once observed that the only civilised form of transport was by rail.

Some years ago I happened to be passing an antiques shop in Fulham. In the front window I saw two delightful model steam engines. My home was just around the corner. When I got there I rang Adley. I had no expertise in the matter, but I told him that he might think it worth his while to have a look. The following day he rang to thank me: he had bought the model engines and proclaimed them to be perfect. Rail transport was his main passion, and it is fitting that when he died he was chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport. He never lost the zest of those little boys who sit in railway stations and collect train identification numbers.

Born in London in 1935, Robert Adley went to school at Falconbury and Uppingham. His was a reasonably wealthy family: his father was one of the founders of the employment agency Pearl & Dean. In later life, however, he abandoned his Jewish origins and was thereafter - alas somewhat stridently - opposed to Zionism.

Adley was always above all a rebel. Some of his critics accused him of an almost manic inconsistency in politics. When he entered the House of Commons as MP for Bristol North East in 1970 (having served as a councillor in Slough, and fought a hopeless parliamentary seat) he was an enthusiast for Edward Heath. In 1975 he was an enthusiast for Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, he entertained Conservatives who were in doubt as to whether they should vote for her in the leadership election of that year. He soon turned against her; and his last comment on her was to describe her as 'a fishwife from Finchley'. He was, however, strenuously on her side during the 1984 miners' strike, though, with equal passion, against her on proposals to privatise British Rail.

Nobody who knew Adley, however, could attribute his various changes of allegiance to ambition or frustration. He was very much sui generis. In 1968 he supported Enoch Powell on the matter of immigration. He then visited South Africa (at the invitation of the then government of that country), and promptly came out most strongly against apartheid. He was ever his own man. He made his judgements according to the merits of an issue as he saw it. But no Tory Whip approached Adley for a vote except in trepidation.

His manifold interests included Eastern Europe (and especially Hungary), the Middle East and Africa. But his first love remained, to the end, rail transport. He wrote a string of scholarly books on that subject, and illustrated them with his own photographs. The last of them, Countdown to 1968, on the last days of steam on British Rail, will be published in July.

Earlier I used the word 'enthusiastic' about him. Nobody, I believe, who spent more than a few minutes in his company could fail to be infected by that enthusiasm, or come away without a feeling that they had been in the company of a most loveable man.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice