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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'