Sir William Somerville
The first professor of Agriculture and Forestry at Newcastle was appointed in 1891 following the generous endowment of the chair by Northumberland County Council Education Committee. The position was intended to enable not only the teaching of degree students but also train younger members of the agricultural community on short courses on the ‘new’ farming enabled by fertilisers and by-product feedstuffs such as cotton cake as well as by the improved selection of livestock and better management. To facilitate this, the professor had also to set up experiments to demonstrate the benefits that could be obtained using the new methods and to disseminate these through publications and lectures throughout the area. All four of the northern counties, Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland and Westmorland were involved in this, which made travelling about quite an issue in the era of steam trains and horse drawn vehicles. Sir William set about organising all of this and quickly achieved many of his objectives but one nagging problem was with the field experiments. These were initially on commercial farms and providing continuity over time and total control over what happened was not easy, so he petitioned the councillors to provide a farm which would be a permanent base for long term experiments and where facilities could be created for accommodation of both staff and students. After long discussions a lease was arranged with Portland Estates and Cockle Park farm became the Northumberland County Agricultural Experimental Station. It provided a reasonably typical piece of heavy land of low fertility on the Northumbrian plain and quickly Sir William and his staff set about planning and laying out field experiments in 1896 which were to produce their first results in 1897. This was a major achievement and gave a northern equivalent of Rothamsted Experimental Station at Harpenden, Herts, and in fact had a set of experiments which were comparable in many ways. The treatments to be used were argued over long and hard and there were changes and modifications over the coming months and years but the outcome was the creation of a meadow hay experiment on Palace Leas field, a pasture grazing experiment on Tree Field and a Norfolk Four Course experiment on Backhouse field. It is perhaps unfortunate that Sir William was only to remain at Newcastle until 1899 when he was appointed to the chair of agriculture at Cambridge University, but retained an interest at Newcastle as Consultative Director as far as Cockle Park is concerned.
After leaving Newcastle Sir William ‘put his money where his mouth is’ and bought a farm near Hastings called Poverty Bottom where he applied the principles developed at Cockle Park and, in spite of the very different situation, in three years more than doubled the stocking rate and yields, and he made money both on it and another derelict farm at Compton Casey that he improved after retiring. Unlike many other researchers he valued the financial aspect of the experiments as well as the physical results.
Sir William was born in 1860 the son of a farmer at Cormiston, Lanarkshire and worked at home until 25 when he began his full time studies at Edinburgh University. After graduating he went to Germany where he studied forestry and returned to Edinburgh as lecturer in Forestry in 1889. When he moved to Newcastle in 1891 it was also to be professor of Agriculture and Forestry and he set up at Cockle Park a small arboretum and windbreaks as well as forestry plots. He was one of the first to see the value of integrating agriculture and forestry. After leaving Newcastle he was successively professor at Cambridge, Assistant Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Professor at Oxford, where he lived at Boar’s Hill until his death aged 71 in 1932.
Sir Thomas Hudson Middleton FRS
Although Sir Thomas had the shortest reign at Newcastle, from Somerville leaving in 1899 until he himself succeeded Somerville at Cambridge University during 1902 in a game of musical chairs; he made considerable progress both with the development of the department of agriculture at Newcastle and with the running of Cockle Park Farm and the provision of facilities for young farmers. He already had experience of the short courses for young farmers in his equally brief sojourn at Aberystwyth University. At Newcastle he created six-week courses, those attending them becoming alliterated as ‘Squeakers’ to distinguish them from those on the longer ten-week courses – ‘Tweakers’! The experiments begun by his predecessor were now producing useful results and posing new questions which he attempted to address. The Tree Field plots had shown conclusively the value of basic slag as a grassland improvement, but its grazing by sheep only was not typical of the local use of grass by farmers. Rather than modify the existing site, Sir Thomas converted the adjacent field of Hanging Leaves, which had earlier been half of the field that was divided to create Tree Field, into large plots on which he grazed a mix of cattle and sheep. This was a resounding success for the live weight gain per unit area of land was twice as great on the mixed grazing plots than on the sheep-only ones which were fertilised identically. In addition it was found that the sheep on Hanging Leaves gained substantially from having the cattle present and this was attributed to the better grazing of the sward that was achieved. The feeding of concentrate cake from crushed cotton seed was also tried on the plots but it was found that the live weight gains did not justify the cost. Feeding store cattle over winter was also a development from earlier work by Somerville and it was shown that diets based on farm-grown swedes were most economic, but Sir Thomas suggested that in the future other farm based feeds would replace swedes, which silage kale and sugar beet pulp did. All of these trials emphasised strongly the economic outcome rather than the animal growth, something that would be developed further by Sir Thomas’ successor Gilchrist. At Newcastle Sir Thomas demonstrated his administrative skills in developing the undergraduate course and founded the Agricultural Students’ Association which in time would become the Agriculture Society with its own scientific journal and which kept graduates in contact with their Alma Mater and developments there.
Sir Thomas’ family originated in County Durham where they farmed, and during the 18th century they moved first to Northumberland and then in 1797 to Cromarty in Scotland where they prospered and their descendants still farm. In spite of this heritage Sir Thomas initially trained as an engineer at Glasgow University before he returned home, due to his father’s ill health, and ran the farm until he could hand it back; he then proceeded to Edinburgh University for a degree in agriculture. From there he was appointed Professor of Agriculture in Baroda, India in1889 where he remained until 1896 when he took up his post at Aberystwyth. Having followed Somerville to Newcastle and then Cambridge in 1906 the musical chase continued to the Board of Agriculture; he was to remain in the government service for the rest of his career, retiring in 1941. He was still the chairman of the Agricultural Research Council on his death age 80! Undoubtedly, he was the most able of the founders of the Agriculture Department at Newcastle, and we are grateful for the time he spent here and regret that it was so short. During the Great War he was the Deputy Director General of the Food Production Department and was responsible for the ploughing up campaign, based largely on the experience he had at Newcastle and elsewhere of the accumulation of fertility under well managed grassland, and the Women’s Land Army. After the war he worked on the Development Commission for roads, agriculture and fisheries.
Professor Douglas Alston Gilchrist
Gilchrist is the first of the staff at Newcastle to have an international reputation for his work on improving the output and quality of herbage from grassland. The two main factors influencing his success were his promotion of the use of basic slag as a low cost phosphatic fertiliser, which had the benefit of also reducing the acidity of the soil, and of the use or relatively simply seed mixtures including legumes and in particular wild white clover. He was fortunate to arrive at Newcastle as the experiments begun by others reached maturity and these provided him with much of the evidence he needed. Just having the evidence though was not enough, for he had to spread his views, but he also took and developed results from the existing experiments and began new ones of his own to test the impact of intervention by reseeding, whereas the older experiments had largely been manurial treatments. As a farmer’s son and a manager of the home farm for some 12 years he had a strong feeling for the need of the businessman to manage costs while optimising output of feed which would grow animals well. In this he achieved a great deal by increasing the mineral and protein content of the sward as well as the total yield. Many of the seeds mixtures of the time had many species and were very expensive, whereas his ‘Cockle Park mixtures’ were relatively simple, inexpensive and were provided in variants for different sward lifetimes. In addition to simplifying the mixtures he began a search for the best forms of each of the species, something which Professor Stapleton, Director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, was still crediting Gilchrist with as ‘The Veritable Pioneer’ for his work on the selection of strains of seeds and country of their origin as late as 1957, thirty years after Gilchrist’s death.
In fact Gilchrist was at work on the day of his death; he was a great loss to the agricultural community and the University for he had not only been a lecturer to students, he had promoted the work of the department throughout the North of England and further afield, regularly visiting the outlying communities and giving evening lectures, often reported verbatim in the local newspapers. He was also a founder member of the Agricultural Education Association, and though, according to Professor Pawson, his lecturing style was less than inspiring, it seems that people came for the content rather than the rhetoric. He provided very clear illustrations of the impact of treatments on grass growth, for example, with no wild white clover or basic slag the yield was 6cwt/acre, basic slag increased it by 350%, clover by 50% and if both were used together by 550%! Surviving photographs of Gilchrist usually show him in plus fours and with his cane, with a spud for cutting thistles on the end, in the field at Cockle Park and holding forth to a group on his beloved experiments.
He was born in 1860 at Bothwell Park Lanarkshire where his father was a wealthy farmer. After school he worked on the farm, partly as manager, and studied part time at Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College before attending Edinburgh university and graduating in 1889. From there he lectured first at Bangor and then Reading before taking up his post at Newcastle in 1902. He became a Fellow of the Highland and Agricultural Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His only son Alan predeceased him and he was survived by his wife Jessie nee Ferguson. His extensive book collection was presented to the University and they are still marked with his label as part of the Gilchrist Collection. He helped to endow Memorial Exhibitions in his and his son’s names, which are still available to Agriculture students at Newcastle.
Professor J.A. Hanley
James Alec Hanley PhD ARCS was born in 1886 or 7 in Hemsworth, Yorkshire the son of Frederick Hanley, a miller and farmer working originally in his father’s business, and with a rapidly expanding family. After research work at Rothamsted Research Station he reached the position of Professor of Agriculture at Leeds University by around 1918. He subsequently moved to Bristol University and was principal of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester from 1927 to 1931 before coming to Newcastle. After the death of Douglas Gilchrist in 1927 the Chair of Agriculture was briefly held by Professor Heigham but he left in 1930 and was replaced by Professor Hanley. This was a period of considerable change, for as the output of Cockle Park Farm had increased greatly due to the department’s good management, new buildings were required. Welbeck Estates, the owners, were unwilling to expend large amounts and as the lease was due to expire in 1938 Professor Hanley oversaw the purchase of the 999 year lease by Northumberland County Council. At this point Paradise land (a smallholding which ironically was so named because it was some of the poorest land in the area), plus some woodland, was added to the farm. The new buildings after all this did not arrive for several years because of the outbreak of war. Prof Hanley became the Ministry of Agriculture’s Liaison Officer for the Northern Counties in 1940. Though he remained notionally the Professor his position at the College was taken by Professor Wheldon who finally became Director of the Agriculture Department in 1947 and Professor Pawson, who had acted as such, was confirmed as Director of Cockle Park. Prof Hanley tried to increase the stocking rate of sheep on some of the Tree Field plots to improve grazing, but found that the animals suffered, and even changing them for a Romney flock, which did graze more effectively, is concluded by Pawson only to have shown up the lack of understanding of grazing management. His main research over these years though was on conserved grass based feeds, both silage and dried grass. This work showed the importance of timing cutting date to reduce the amount of stems in the material and, in the case of silage, of ensuring that the clamp was effectively sealed to keep air and rain out. Before joining Newcastle Haney had published, with Reginald Stapledon, Grass Land: its Management and Improvement in 1927 and after leaving edited the four volumes of Progressive Farming: the maintenance of High Production in 1951. In 1937 he wrote The Improvement of Grassland for the Ministry of Agriculture and, in 1936 An Agricultural Survey of the Northern Province: the counties of Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland along with AL Boyd and W Williamson. He died in 1960 at Yew Tree Cottage, Applethwaite, Cumbria. His son Sir Michael ‘Jumbo’ Bowen Hanley was director of MI5 in the 1970s and his position in the security services might explain the lack of information on his father’s later life.
Henry Cecil Pawson
Pawson was very different to the other professors, as he grew up through the department from unmatriculated student in 1915, to a Newcastle Diploma in Agriculture, to Record Keeper at Cockle Park, where in 1916 he was responsible for the results of all the experiments there. He subsequently became Gilchrist’s assistant when, by his own admission, one of his tasks was the wonderfully ‘of the time’ duty of carrying in the great man’s notes to the lectures, untying the pink ribbon that held them together, and presumably holding the door for him too! At the end of the lecture he tied up the notes and removed them. Those were the days! During the Great War he was an assistant to Professor Gilchrist who, from 1914 to 1919 was Chief Agricultural Adviser. He became a lecturer in 1917 and rose through the ranks becoming Senior Tutor in 1945 and Professor of Agriculture in 1948. Although he retired in 1957 he remained Emeritus Professor until 1964. He was very much involved with the students and his first publication was on ‘The study of agriculture or hints for agriculture students’ in 1921. Much of his work though concerned the research on the farm and the recording and publication of the results in the Annual Report of Cockle Park Farm. Outside this he also wrote the Survey of the Agriculture of Northumberland in 1961 and ‘Robert Bakewell: pioneer livestock breeder’; this latter volume was provoked by the discovery of 18th century correspondence between Bakewell and George Culley the celebrated Northumbrian farmer who developed the Border Leicester sheep breed from Bakewell’s Leicester breed. He also published on ‘Problems of hill farming in Northumberland’ and ‘Grassland Husbandry in the last hundred years’; his magnum opus on Cockle Park Farm was published in 1960. He was awarded the MSc in 1946 and DSc in 1959. It is not clear whether this was an honorary award but the library holds a folder of his publication up to 1957 which implies that the degree was awarded on the basis of his body of published works. From 1939 to 1945 he was Chief Technical Advisor to the Northumberland War Agriculture Executive Committee where his second in command was Sandy Main, another long term member of the Department, who succeeded him as Senior Tutor. Sandy noted that ‘he had executive control of 4100 farms in the county, with power to demand the surrender of farms if the farming or farmers were inefficient. His tremendous patience and encouragement meant that very few surrenders were necessary. He drove thousands of miles, often at night in blackout conditions, visiting farmers with advice and encouragement.’ Production in Northumberland increased by 70% and for this he was awarded the MBE in 1946 and was elected FRSE in 1949.
Pawson was born in Bakewell in 1897 and was educated at Lady Manners’ Grammar School. Although he was top at school his headmaster’s parting words were ‘Well, Pawson, you’re not brilliant but you’re a slogger, and if you keep it up you’ll get there.’ He certainly did. In 1927 he married Edith Jean Sinclair and they had a son and two daughters. Separate to his life as an agriculturalist, he was an enthusiastic Methodist, becoming a Methodist Local Preacher in 1917 and in 1951-2 becoming vice-president of the Methodist Conference. He was under considerable pressure to become a full time minister, for his father and son both were, but ‘he had a strong feeling that this was not God’s purpose for him’. He had a considerable reputation for loquacity and humour. Introducing a speaker in 1961 he said ‘Mr President, I am very sensitive to the honour and privilege of chairing this meeting. I know that it’s a sign, Mr President, of the wonderful grace of Christian toleration seeing that I have been in this circuit for more than 36 years. It is also a witness to what might be called a calculated risk. You see, I have no reputation whatever in this district for brevity (loud laughter)’. He died in December 1978.
Robert William Wheldon DSc FRSE
Wheldon was the son of at least three generations of farmers at Middle Herrington outside Sunderland and graduated with a BSc in Agriculture from Armstrong College in 1915, where he was appointed as a lecturer in the Agriculture Department. He was already farming in his own right at The Moors near Fencehouses where he kept a notable herd of pedigree Jersey cows one of which, Moors Pacified Diana, held the world record for milk production for the breed. His knowledge and skill led to him becoming President of the Jersey Cattle Society and later he held office in the international organisation to foster this breed. He was awarded an MSc in 1919 and a DSc in 1926. Clearly his scientific research was widely viewed as important for he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 1943.
He was awarded a personal chair in Agriculture in 1943 after taking over management of the department as Acting Director, and Cockle Park as Scientific Director, when Professor Hanley left to work in the Ministry of Agriculture in 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War, and during these war years he worked closely with Professor Pawson at Cockle Park on the feeding and housing of livestock in winter. He became Chairman of Durham County Agricultural Executive Committee during the War, complementing Pawson’s role in Northumberland, and subsequently, from 1953, was Liaison Officer with the Ministry of Agriculture in the Northern Province of Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland and Durham. It should be noted that during this postwar period he had taken over management of the family farm at Middle Herrington so was now running it and his own farm at The Moors, a task he did part time for over 25 years, as well as managing the Department of Agriculture and the two farms at Nafferton and Cockle Park. To this was added his appointment as senior professor in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Economy and Dean of Agriculture in the newly formed Faculty of Agriculture from 1947. He was well known and popular as a speaker to the agricultural community and in 1948 visited Uganda. When appointed the first Dean of Agriculture he gave up his role as Scientific Director of Nafferton to Professor Pawson.
Following the Second World War the Ministry of Agriculture set up its own Experimental Husbandry farms and advisory service (NAAS) and as a result both it and Northumberland County Council Education Department withdrew from the use of Cockle Park Farm. The University took over the 999 year lease and the University Grants Committee provided £9000 to replace some of the outdated buildings and repair drains etc., which had deteriorated during the war years. The pressure of all of this was to tell on Professor Wheldon who, on 15 January 1954, was taken ill at his desk and died shortly after in the RVI; he was one day short of his 61st birthday. He had lived a packed, eventful and productive life and the Registrar wrote in King’s Courier ‘The agriculture industry lost an outstanding counsellor, the university a distinguished teacher and scholar, and the College a much loved son and colleague who, for more than forty years as successively student, lecturer and professor had played an active part in its development … for many years he had served on the Council of King’s College and the Court and Senate of the University and on important committees concerned with decisions on academic policy.’
His funeral at Newbottle near Mid Herrington was attended by over 300 mourners and a memorial service was held in St Thomas’ Church in the City. The Duke of Northumberland, who had worked with him on the Hill Farming Advisory Committee and the Duke’s Fund, and who later would be Chancellor of Newcastle University, wrote a tribute praising his ‘sound judgement’. He was survived by his wife Edith Marjorie and three sons. In tribute to his work the University set up a memorial laboratory at Cockle Park, which was opened in 1958 by the Duke of Northumberland.
Professor Malcolm McGregor Cooper
Mac was an iconoclast. He arrived at Newcastle in 1954 after a long period of both wartime depression and lack of new ideas, especially at Cockle Park. There had been little new blood for many years and Mac’s broom, like the bewitched one in Sorcerer’s Apprentice now cleared out so much that even the undergraduate song gained new lines including ‘Treefield’s reign is now all over, now will grow no more white clover. Hark the herald angels shout, Cockle Park turns inside out!’ There was considerable resistance, but as even the All Blacks had found, Mac Cooper’s charges were not to be resisted; he got his way. Only Palace Leas of the original experiments survived, though, what is rarely acknowledged, there was a detailed study of the residual effects of the previous treatments. A dairy herd came to Cockle Park, and at the new farm at Nafferton, Jim Merridew was installed as manager and put in charge of mechanisation, and both farms lost their horses. Clun Forest sheep, pigs and poultry arrived and the farms buzzed again. New Zealanders came, including a statistician, so parochialism was lost and science arrived. Many heads were shaken, misguidedly, but those who heard Mac speak were inspired. His lectures were given without notes, although he flopped over the lectern with only his watch in sight and would talk until time ran out, at which point he stopped and began where he left off, wherever that was. It was, it transpired, stage managed performance, but it was very impressive. The department grew into a Faculty of Agriculture and then into Britain’s largest; eminent scientists from a range of other disciplines, as well as economists, arrived, Clement Stephenson’s 50 year old building was outgrown, and a new modern tower block, the university’s first, went up complete with a ‘spider’ on the top housing insect enclosures. The growth would soon outstrip this building too, and floors in Herschel, Porter and Bedson buildings would be occupied by the much despised ‘Agrics’ with their hard drinking, hard playing, larger than life reputation. The farmers’ sons, and now daughters, who came, took back with them not only the knowledge of Cockle Park and its famous seeds mixtures and basic slag, but learned much more what was relevant and modern to an industrial agriculture era, and to them and others in the industry Mac Cooper’s words went out across the newspapers, radio and magazines to a far wider audience than Gilchrist could ever have reached. Always a publicist, one of Mac’s early British forays had been that ‘British farming was going off at half-cock’ and he was thereafter known as ‘Half-cock Cooper’; he personally was anything but half-cock and many of his later thoughts went into a series of best-selling books on farming.
Born on a dairy farm in Hawkes Bay NZ, Mac was expected, like his siblings, to help, and through the rough and tumble of farm and family life proceeded to school and thence to Massey Agricultural University. Within this his progress had not been entirely smooth but he graduated and was recommended for a Rhodes Scholarship, which he took up at Oxford University. This concluded without submission of the expected thesis but he did gain a wife to take back to NZ and had played rugby both for Scotland and against the All Blacks! The final report on his scholarship notes, ‘he has established himself in a unique position by sheer force of character and determination… it would be impossible to find a man with a higher sense of duty.’ They returned to NZ to be shortly swept up in the war; Mac always had an inclination to military life but the authorities valued him too much and resisted him joining until 1943. He proceeded to the Western Desert and Monte Cassino. Throughout the NZ authorities had prevented him getting too near the front and eventually he was put in charge of organising a NZ rugby team and tour. His team played around Europe and won 29 of 33 matches; little has changed. After the War he moved to Wye College before Newcastle, where he remained until 1971 when he joined the World Bank and worked in Spain. He died in 1989.
Stephenson was the greatest of the benefactors of the early Department of Agriculture at Newcastle but was never a student or a member of staff there, though he did hold the position of Honorary Veterinary Advisor in the early 20th Century. He graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 1858 and subsequently was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1881; he was a highly successful local veterinarian and successful farmer in his own right. Following the outbreak of cattle plague in 1865/66 he became one of the first local authority Veterinary Inspectors in the country, firstly for Newcastle Corporation and then also Northumberland. He was an expert in animal disease control, particularly in tracing how disease was being spread, and he uncovered important new knowledge about its pathology and how it could be spread by apparently healthy cattle. With his fellow inspectors, he advanced our understanding of animal health in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is credited with being instrumental in eradicating rinderpest (cattle plague), contagious pleuro-pneumonia and foot and mouth disease.
After the foundation of the Department of Agriculture, at what was then Armstrong College at Newcastle, he offered the Council £5000 in 1912 to pay half the cost of the building to house the department in the developing Quadrangle. The government’s Board of Agriculture remarkably paid for the other half, and the foundation stone was laid by Stephenson in 1914. To honour the event a painting was given to Stephenson of the building and the adjacent Hatton Gallery and this picture and a portrait of him are now in the University’s collection. The portrait has recently been restored and is now hung outside the Clement Stephenson lecture theatre in the modern, replacement, Agriculture Building. In fact, the department was unable to occupy the original Clement Stephenson building in the Quadrangle until after the end of the Great War for it was requisitioned as part of the 1st Northern General Hospital, and the department moved to St George’s Terrace in Jesmond. The original building is now occupied by the School of Architecture but the foundation stone can be seen in the entrance area by all visitors. Stephenson’s generosity extended further, to the endowment of a chair of Comparative Pathology and Bacteriology at Durham University (now Newcastle University), and a Clement Stephenson Scholarship at the Royal Veterinary College. Durham University awarded him with an honorary DSc in 1908.
He was born in 1835 and began work as apprentice to his father, who was an unqualified veterinary surgeon and farrier, at Scotch Arms Yard off the Bigg Market in Newcastle. From there he went to the Royal College where, on completing his diploma he was offered the post of Demonstrator and Junior Lecturer at the College, but chose to return home where he became a successful veterinarian, and the family business moved to Newgate Street. In 1865 he became Veterinary Surgeon to the Northumberland and Newcastle Regiment of Voluntary Yeomanry Cavalry; and also to the North East Railway. He clearly did well financially for he rented a farm at Longbenton from Balliol College, Oxford, and there he raised prize-winning Aberdeen Angus cattle. The cattle were referred to as ‘Blackskins’ and he did much to popularise them in the North of England. He considered that the breed was the best native cattle with which to confront the increasing popularity of imported breeds. His animals were champions at fatstock shows in Norwich, York, Birmingham and Smithfield on numerous occasions. His generosity as a self-made man helping both the University and his Alma Mater, the Royal College, showed a high degree of benevolence. On 15 July 1918 he died at Sandyford Villa aged 86 and is buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery.
As the Archivist of the various departments and faculty that have made up greater agriculture over the last 125 years he is the contact person for anyone wishing to find information about staff, research and the farms and buildings or degrees. He is also keen to hear from anyone who has information, photographs, documents or publications relevant to the departments and faculty. Any materials which owners wish to retain can be scanned or otherwise reproduced and returned. The e-history of the departments is young, and we look forward to it growing over the coming years. All of you out there have an important role in helping us to provide the best and most comprehensive information, and that includes on the Agricultural Society too.
Robert is a Northumbrian who was at school at King Edward VI Grammar in Morpeth before studying as an undergraduate from 1966 and graduating with first class honours in soil science in 1969. He moved to Aberdeen and worked at the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, where he completed his PhD on a part-time basis in 1979 before returning to Newcastle as a member of the Soil Science staff in 1980 and worked as first a lecturer and then senior lecturer until his retirement in 2014. However, he is still employed by University Estates (ESS) to advise on access for disabled staff and students as well as being Honorary Archivist.
Immediately after returning to Newcastle Robert took over the management of the Palace Leas meadow hay plots at Cockle Park and only handed them over on his retiral. His first brush with archivism originated with trying to locate the results of the plots in the eighty three years before he took over! Much of the original results from Palace Leas are now in Special Collections but the web site at https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/r.s.shiel/Palace_Leas/ not only shows many of them, it also explains how they can be accessed by others who wish to use them for research. The publications list shows most of the published material from the site although there may be additional results. If anyone knows of them please let me know how they can be retrieved. There are in addition large amounts of material from the numerous other Cockle Park experiments over the last hundred years and the intention is to bring them into the same state of knowledge as those from Palace Leas. Any assistance in this from aspiring thesis preparers and others would be warmly welcomed.
When not hunting in the dusty corners of The Old Gilchrist Library or the new Philip Robinson Library Robert was busy lecturing on soil management both using conventional and organic methods, and latterly Precision Farming. Former students will no doubt also clearly remember his determined efforts to instil in their minds the use and interpretation of statistical analysis of data. He also started and ran for many years a module on climate and climatic change and remained throughout it a global warming sceptic, though he believes totally in long term climate change. This final point brings us to his other great interest in long term changes in the soil as a result of human use, but this refers to the use of land by our ancestors rather than the Victorians who started Palace Leas. Yes, he taught the archaeologists about soil too; after all they find most of their treasures in it! His research and 150 publications follow similar lines, hay meadows, here and in Yorkshire, Precision Farming, soil fertility, landscape and economic reconstruction for archaeologists.
In 1985 Robert was badly injured while working with the British Council in Zimbabwe but returned to the University within six months and took up his post again. He has lived with his wife Alison in Jesmond since 1980 and they see their children and grandchildren regularly and continue with their interest in classical music.