Obituary: Michael Stratton

Peter Burman
Wednesday 12 May 1999 23:02 BST

MICHAEL STRATTON made a significant contribution to the study of building types associated with manufacturing processes and transport in the 19th and 20th centuries, showing not only that they possessed considerable value but also limitless potential for re-use at the turn of the millennium. At the time of his death aged 45 he was a Senior Lecturer in Conservation Studies, responsible for the direction of Archaeological Heritage Management, in the Department of Archaeology (incorporating the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies), at York University.

His whole life seemed to be a kind of preparation for the sphere of knowledge to which he contributed so much. Born and schooled in Barnet, the son of a merchant banker, he retained a schoolboyish enthusiasm; and his early interests in railway engines and architecture, and in classic motor cars, translated seamlessly into the book, Conservation of the Railway Heritage, which he and I edited and part- authored together in 1997, and British Car Factories from 1896: a complete historical, geographical, architectural & technological survey, which he wrote with Paul Collins in 1993.

Close collaboration with other scholars came more naturally to him than to most, and he contributed outstanding essays to such classics as the new 1994 edition of Alec Clifton-Taylor and Archie Ireson's English Stone Building and to Michael Hunter's 1996 Preserving the Past: the rise of heritage in modern Britain. This latter book is required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding how we view and use our heritage in the late 20th century, and it is no surprise that Stratton's contribution should have been on "Open-Air and Industrial Museums", for he had been closely involved with the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in his capacity as Lecturer (and then later Senior Lecturer, and Programme Director) at the Ironbridge Institute of Birmingham University. Here also began his long and fruitful collaboration with Barrie Trinder, with whom, for example, he published Book of Industrial England (1997).

Stratton's first degree was in Geography, at Durham University; he followed this with MAs in Victorian Studies at Leicester (1976) and Town and Regional Planning at Sheffield (1978), before settling down to a doctorate at Ironbridge, under the auspices of Aston University, on the manufacture and use of architectural terracotta. Before receiving his PhD in 1983, he had a teaching job and an active role in the development of the Institute of Industrial Archaeology, as it was first called, as a self-funding collaboration between Ironbridge Gorge Museum and Birmingham University.

I met him for the first time while he was still at Ironbridge when he came to give a lecture for us in 1990 on terracotta at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies as part of our teaching programme on brick, terracotta and other ceramic materials used in architecture and decoration. He was already well advanced with the book The Terracotta Revival, subtitled "Building Innovation and the Image of the Industrial City in Britain and North America", which he published in 1993. It is now a well-established classic on both sides of the Atlantic.

From as early as 1981 he was a member of the committee of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, and he was also closely involved with the work of English Heritage, the Victorian Society, the Twentieth Century Society, and the International Committee on the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage.

From January 1995, when he joined us at York University full-time, he became my closest colleague and a dear friend; I learned to admire those gifts which will have struck everyone who came into contact with him: his friendliness, his openness and complete lack of academic rancour, his thoroughness and enthusiasm, his deftness as a "networker" which took him to so many countries and conferences as a greatly valued contributor, his ability (it seemed) to do several things at once, the guidance he gave which was eagerly sought by students and colleagues alike, his infectious enthusiasm, his energy and spontaneity.

In 1997 he was leading participant in the conference at York University on "Conserving and Using Industrial Buildings", in collaboration with the Prince of Wales's initiative on "Regeneration through Heritage". Later on he worked on a Database on the Re-Use of the Industrial Heritage, with Sue Taylor, and a forthcoming publication, Making Industrial Buildings Work, will be in many ways a fitting memorial to him.

Right up until the time his illness began (he was diagnosed in January with myeloma), he took every opportunity he could to go to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments' headquarters in Swindon to carry out further research. In another year, if only he had been spared, there would have been a tremendous flowering of publications, not only because he was at the height of his intellectual powers but also because he had a superb sense of timing and knew when to give priority to what would be most telling and effective.

Michael John Stratton, industrial archaeologist: born Barnet, Hertfordshire 15 May 1953; married 1989 Annabel Pears (two sons); died Oulston, North Yorkshire 29 April 1999.

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