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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2014  /  December 2014  /  Tributes to Professor Bill Mead

Tributes to Professor Bill Mead

Royal Geographical Society Celebration

Tributes to Professor Bill Mead

On 31st October 2014, a Celebration of the life of Professor Bill Mead, former Head of UCL Geography who died in July, was held at the Royal Geographical Society. Around 100 people attended to hear tributes from Bill’s friends and colleagues.

These tributes can now be read by clicking on the names below:



    Welcome to this occasion at the Royal Geographical Society devoted to celebrating the life of Professor Bill Mead, known to many of us as just Bill.   While all of us will have particular memories of this most human of human geographers I am sure we will all learn something new this afternoonabout this modest, generous and self-effacing man with a major scholarly reputation among British geographers, and throughout Northern Europe and Finland in particular.

    Bill would have been delighted and very appreciative of the size of today’s audience – over a hundred at the last count – and of its range of connections with him.  It includes members of his family, friends from Aston Clinton and south Buckinghamshire where he lived for most of his life, numerous former students many of whom studied in the Geography Department at UCL in the 1970s when he was Head of Department, and many colleagues from both UCL and beyond.

    I feel very privileged to chair this meeting.  After all, I only knew Bill for 48 years and there are many in this room with longer memories than mine.  But in 1966 he gave me a job in the Geography Departmentalong with five other young Assistant Lecturers who were all appointed in a matter of 18 months.  We are all here today, with the exception of Professor Frank Carter who died a few years ago. More remarkably, perhaps, all six of us were to remain at UCL for the rest of our careers and it is interesting to speculate what influence Bill as Head of Department had over our formative years.  What I remember is a relaxed, genial and collegial regime within which we were all encouraged to develop our careers largely as we saw fit.

    That is not to suggest thatBill did not have clear ideas about academic success – the joint importance of research and publication on the one hand and the need for quality teaching on the other - but he rarely preached about them.  You learned by osmosis.  Likewise, in my experience, he rarely talked in the Department about his research, or his distinctive take on regional geography, although his love affair with Finland was there for all to see.  This was something I learned at first hand when in my early days I was appointed second examiner on the final year Northern Europe course and then for Bill to apologise that he was extremely busy on university affairs and would I please first mark the papers.  I survived, the students survived and I learned a great deal about the cultural history and geography of Northern Europe.

    This appreciation was to hold me in good stead when in 1979 I took part in the exchange he had initiated between the geography departments of the University of Lund and UCL.  It was on that visit I came to appreciate fully his reputation as a scholar and friend of Northern Europe. The mere mention of his name opened numerous doors and initiated endless enquiries about his work and when was he next coming to visit.  More specifically, Professor Torsten Hägerstrand invited me to spend an afternoon discussing the future of geography and I hope this story does not cut across too much what Professor Buttimer is going to say later but Torsten talked about his project with Anne which involved filming conversations with leading academics about their lives and contributions they had made to ideas in their respective disciplines.  With a twinkle in his eye, Torsten asked whether I knew Bill had been in conversation with him – I did not know this - and would I like to see the film?  How could I refuse? I think other than Bill I may have been the first UCL colleague to see it. Despite more than 10 years in the department I still learned a great deal about how Bill got into geography, to work in Finland and what informed his research outlook.

    The real point of this story is the sequel.  On my return to UCL I went to see Bill to tell him of my visit and I said I had seen the film.  A look of some concern crossed Bill’s face but I ploughed on and suggested that it might make a valuable contribution to the teaching of geographical ideas in the Department.  Concern turned to horror and I was told no-one would be interested in seeing the conversation and it had little to offer.  “Certainly not” rang in my ears and I am unaware of its use in the Department to this day, which is a great pity.  In his excellent tribute at Bill’s funeral, Bill Willetts reminded us that the film could be accessed on the internet, and I have watched it again recently.  Bill must have been aware of this but what this intrinsically modest man made of its widespread availability I sadly failed to ascertain.

    Turning to this afternoon’s programme, my colleague from UCL, Professor Hugh Clout has brought together seven distinguished friends and colleagues to reflect on quite different spheres of Bill’s interests and life and I am sure we are all looking forward to hearing what they have to say. I plan to ask the first four speakers to speak and then for us to take short break.  After the interval there will be two more talks but before Professor Roger Kain provides some concluding remarks I will throw the meeting open to contributions from the floor.

    On Bill Mead

    Pekka Huhtaniemi, Ambassador of Finland

    I am very pleased and honoured to have this  opportunity to offer a Finnish perspective  on William ”Bill” Mead’s remarkable career as an international scholar of geography -  and historic geography, in particular -  and as a devoted friend of Finland, among other Nordic countries.

    Bill Mead’s professional, academic links with Finland went back to 1930s when he, as a young scholar, got interested in Finland and had his first chance to visit our country in 1938. He had already established contact with the Finnish Embassy in London and with the Anglo-Finnish Society. He also assisted in the collection of money for the Finland Fund set up to help Finland at the time of the Winter War (1939-40).

    Later during World War II, Finnish-British relations were broken, but thanks to a number of dedicated individuals – businessmen, politicians, diplomats, academics and others – they were later quickly restored. Bill Mead played a prominent part in this remarkable post-war process of ‘reconstruction’.

    Bill Mead’s contacts with Finnish academic colleagues were frequent and vibrant throughout his very long professional career.  He visited Finland regularly, kept close contact with his Finnish counterparts, attended and lectured at countless academic events in Finland and published a large number of books and papers about Finland, its history, economy and geography.

    Apart from stimulating his Finnish academic friends, Bill Mead worked tirelessly to disseminate information about Finland, particularly in the UK, but also in the USA. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he gave dozens of lectures every year about Finland in various fora here in the UK, and very often also outside London

    He was also instrumental in reconstituting, in the aftermath of World War II, the Anglo-Finnish Society, established already in 1911 but in limbo during the war. He carried for long periods the functions of Honorary Secretary and, later, Chairman of this society, whose 100th anniversary we judiciously celebrated a few years ago. On that occasion, Bill Mead published the Anglo-Finnish Society’s history covering these first 100 years. That publication contains very few references to his own role, but it is clear that for some 40 years he was the key figure in the running of the Society.

    Finland has officially recognized Bill Mead’s exceptional merits in the promotion of Finnish-British relations by granting him, on three occasions, high Finnish awards: first, already in the 1950s,  Knight, 1st Class of the Order of  the Lion of Finland, then in the 1960s,  Commander of the same order, and finally in the 1970s, Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland

    I had personally known something about Bill Mead before coming to London as Ambassador in 2010.  Through my Norwegian friends, I had learned about the contributions he had made over many decades also to Anglo-Norse relations. And in Finland, I was privileged to know, since we came from the same Finnish rural region, Professor Eino Jutikkala (1907-2006), one of Bill Mead’s closest Finnish friends and colleagues. Prof. Jutikkala, who also reached the high age of 99 years, sometimes talked about Bill and their numerous joint endeavours.

    Here in London, I was happy to be able to establish quite soon a personal contact with Bill Mead. He visited our residence here in Kensington a few times, and I  - together with my wife Liisa and the Chairperson of the Anglo-Finnish Society Mrs. Marjatta Bell - was pleased to visit him a few times at his Buckinghamshire home.

    On the last occasions, just before Christmas in 2012 and 2013, Bill took us for most enjoyable luncheons at his favourite restaurants near his native Aylesbury. He was, of course, very old and frail, but his brain, memory and eye-sight worked perfectly. He was full of nice, witty stories covering events over past 60-70 years and shedding light on his countless activities with Finns and for Finland.

    Bill Mead’s departure leaves a big hole in the tapestry of Finnish-British relations. But thanks to his writings and the profound legacy of his many friendships, his great impact will be felt for a long time to come.

    Remembering Bill Mead: Gratefully

    Anne Buttimer, University College Dublin

    My first encounter with the work of William R. Mead was during years of graduate study at University of Washington in Seattle. One day, while reviewing European work on social geography, I came across a review article by him on Dutch historical geography with its emphasis on seasonality – on daily and seasonal rhythms of agrarian activity. This was a welcome alternative to the then dominant definition of geography as the study of ‘spatial interaction’. Later I read his work on the displacement of Karelian farming families from eastern to western parts of Finland, again a study that emphasized the importance of taken-for-granted calendars of agricultural activities in different zones and land systems.  In his marvellous volume An Historical Geography of Scandinavia (1981) revealed there are also many examples of his sensitivity to temporality and the ingenious use of graphic language to illustrate variations among the historical experiences of migration, of commercial and technological developments, transport and urbanization among these Nordic societies

    But my most intense interaction with Bill was in Sweden, at University of Lund, where I had been invited – primarily by Torsten Hägerstrand - to pursue research on the ‘integration of knowledge’. This followed a cross-disciplinary seminar on ‘Nature, Space and Time: Knowledge and Human Experience’ which I organized as part of my role as Visiting Fulbright Professor to Lund in 1976. 60-80 participants – from 15 different disciplines – attended this 8-week seminar, at each of which individuals were invited to reflect on their own career experiences.

    ‘Please come back and teach us more about this humanist tradition’, Torsten wrote to me and thus, in 1977 I accepted a Research Professorship at Lund. The issue of knowledge integration was vital then in Sweden. At that time, there was a strong sense that analytical specialisation had led to knowledge fragmentation, and there were policies in place to ensure cross-disciplinary collaboration and even new university curricula on thematic (rather than disciplinary) grounds. My conviction was that specialisation was not only inevitable but also very valuable, but there was need to discover bases for mutual understanding and improved communication among specialists. I therefore proposed a ‘Dialogue’ project based on video-recorded interviews and discussion with senior and retired scholars (Buttimer and Hägerstrand 1980). Over 150 individuals – from 35 different countries and several different fields – were recorded between 1978 and 1988. One of the early interviewees was William R. Mead in 1979 and Torsten was the interviewer.

    This interview was hugely popular in Sweden, not only for its content, but also for its English. Courses in the English language used it to illustrate proper enunciation. But it was also one of the most popular in courses I taught on the history and philosophy of science (for all the years since 1988). Each course required students to choose one of these interviewed individuals as a term project, reading ten of their most important works, following the author’s career journey, and raising questions about one’s own projected career. At term’s end students were invited to submit questions which they would wish to raise with their individual. I then sent these questions to the persons involved inviting them to (a) reply to our questions, and/or (b) write an autobiographical essay bearing our questions in mind. Most did both and a selection of these essays were published in The Practice of Geography (Buttimer 1983). Mead’s essay is especially fascinating:

    ‘It was about 11:00 p.m. around midsummer and we stood on a birch-clad tumulus overlooking Nordfjord. Our Norwegian company … broke spontaneously into “Ja, vi elsker”. It was a perfect illustration of what George Steiner calls “a form of interanimation” between people and the land they occupy’.

    A sense of temporality, historical depth, and esthetic sensitivity rings through the work of William Mead. With vignettes like this his spoken and written word has lured many to geographical awareness. Cradled in the Vale of Aylesbury, his own geographical sense developed early, and grew through excursions, diary-keeping, and adventures in literature. It was an accident of university curricular requirements that led him to economic history and geography rather than to English literaure: felix culpa indeed, for to geography he had brought so much insight from poetry, saga, music, and regional novels.

    Finland stands out as the cherished focus of emotion and reason: it remains for him ‘in a continuous process of unfolding’. North America was once a close rival: it was by the summer shores of Lake Ontario that this essay was written. William describes himself as a promeneur solitaire, but I doubt if there is an aspiring humanist anywhere who would not find in his life and work the resonance of a kindred spirit (Buttimer 1983, 44).

    His most poetic words were about his beloved Vale of Aylesbury:

    ‘My green valley is a broad Vale. I can recall moments … when time was suspended in it. It is a green vision, luminous in early June haze, best perceived floating downhill into the warmth of the Vale on a bicycle or riding along a bridle path with near-ripe grasses tapping the toes in the stirrup. It is just before the hay is mown and just before Matthew Arnold’s “high summer pomps” take over. Then the sense of place is at its most personal’ (William Mead). “To this narrow stretch of countryside I have bound myself through an intimate acquaintance with the trees, the seasons, the scents of the living earth, all sorts of tastes, joys and passions. From it I have received my first and most affecting impressions of the world… This is my fief, my personal possession, my very earth” (citing Georges Duhamel, on the Ile-de-France).

    Quoting August Strindberg:

    ‘Future generations ought to set up offices in which every person, at a certain age, should hand in a truthful biography, which could provide material for a real science of human beings’ (Strindberg quoted in Birger Mörner, Den Strindberg jag känt, 1924, p. 167).

    Bill defended my position on knowledge integration, convinced now about the value of autobiography as potential catalyst for mutual understanding and improved communication among specialists.

    One of Bill’s most important contributions, however, was to our joint work on Geographers of Norden, a collection of essays and interviews on all the geographers who were active up to 1980 (Buttimer and Hägerstrand, 1988). Obviously he was the one person who knew all of them and he wrote the Preface:

    ‘“All history is the history of thought”, R. G. Collingwood declared in The Idea of History. Scrutiny of published texts does offer one route toward a reconstruction of the past and discovery of how ideas have developed. But there are other routes. Thoughts do not emerge or articulate themselves in thin air; they are authored and communicated by individual persons. History could thus also be construed as that of career journeys, interacting among one another and with their surrounding milieux. Thought and life are intimately intertwined. Ideas do not succeed one another in de-natured space; rather they grow out from roots in progressively changing life experiences. Autobiography is one effective way to elucidate such intimate connections’.

    Across the years, Bill’s annual visits have been moments of great joy and inspiration. He initiated collaborative visits between University College London and University of Lund. Everywhere he went in Scandinavia he was essentially an ambassador. Of particular wonder for students was his ability to lead field trips and comment whilst on excursions. As Visiting Professor at the Sorbonne in 1986 I invited a group of Swedish students to meet with French students and travel together on an excursion to Brittany, also including Bill on this event. He was quite at home everywhere we stopped and showed more energy than any of the students at each stop on our journey. He could tell things about each place which even the guides did not tell.

    The obituary written in Swedish by Nils Lewan and Olof Wärneryd that was published very soon after his death expressed the widespread appreciation for Bill among Nordic scholars. In translation it reads:

    ‘It was in 1977, during a field excursion in Kent, that Nils Lewan met Bill Mead who invited him to London. Earlier, in pre-war times, Bill had visited Finland. From then on there were also visits to Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Over the years, Bill’s annual visits became like ambassadorial initiatives to link new networks with England.

    Bill quickly learned the languages of these Scandinavian countries – even Finnish – and this afforded him direct insight into the research records of these scientific communities.

    Bill was, in many ways, a “poly-historian”. His enormously wide scholarly interests led him to undertake reviews of Nordic works in a variety of fields, rendering these accessible to English scientific journals … His research visits and writings, his lectures and contributions to Nordic conferences extended over many years.

    He was an honorary doctor at the Universities of Uppsala and Lund. He received similar honours from many other Nordic institutions’.

    Nordic geographers will never forget their stimulating and memorable travelling ambassador.

    Celebrating Bill Mead’s life and work as a geographer: His importance for Finnish and Norwegian geography

    Remembering Professor Bill Mead, 1915–2014, at the Royal Geographical Society, London, 31 October 2014

    Professor W.R. Mead – Bill to those who knew him personally – had immensely wide knowledge of the Nordic countries. In celebrating his life and work as a geographer, I will concentrate on his importance for Finnish and Norwegian geography. Bill was important also for me personally in many ways and stimulated my interest in the Nordic countries. He supervised my PhD thesis, completed in 1972, on human responses to land uplift in the Vasa archipelago of Finland. I went on to work in Norway and in 1975 became a founder member of the Department of Geography at the University of Trondheim. Finland and Norway were the two Nordic countries closest to Bill’s heart, in that order.

    Bill’s deepening familiarity with the Nordic countries was expressed in his PhD thesis on ‘The Geographical Background to the Community of Interests among the North European Peoples’ (1947). His book An Economic Geography of the Scandinavian States and Finland (1958) became the standard work on the Nordic countries for many years. Scandinavia (1972) was written jointly with Wendy Hall and intended for a popular readership. The Scandinavian Northlands (1974) appeared in the series of short books on ‘Problem Regions of Europe’. Bill turned from economic geography to historical geography in his book An Historical Geography of Scandinavia (1981).

    Affective bonds to places and regions contribute to choices that affect the development of a discipline. Bill tells how the music of Sibelius and an English translation of Kalevala, the Finnish national epos, triggered his interest for Finland. Later, he taught at a summer school for teachers in Nordfjord, Western Norway, followed by a series of field excursions. He took part in a similar summer school in Nastola, Finland. He made annual visits to Finland and Norway, as well as Sweden, throughout most of his career. Bill published several autobiographical books during the last two decades of his life. An Experience of Finland (1993) is a memoir of how his personal interest in Finland immediately before and after the Second World War informed his work as a geographer. He elaborated on this in 2007 in the book Adopting Finland. His book A Celebration of Norway (2003) reflects his strong sense of place and what he called the ‘interanimation between people and land’. Bill wrote:

    …Norway became the country where one played rather than worked. Reciprocally, in Finland, work took precedence over play. Happily, work in Finland often became ‘play’ and play in Norway sometimes became ‘work’ (p. xi).

    By ‘play’ perhaps Bill was referring to his annual hiking trip in the Norwegian mountains with his life-long friend Harald Meltzer, a Norwegian businessman whom Bill first met in 1946 at the London School of Economics (LSE).

    Wherever he travelled, Bill recorded his observations in a notebook that he always had at hand. His experience of the Lofoten fisheries in the 1950s is vividly retold in his book on Norway. There are anecdotes, too, such as the dinner speech he gave in Oslo in 1989 at the centenary celebrations of the Norwegian Geographical Society, held at the Norwegian Academy of Science in the presence of King Olav. Suddenly the main lights were extinguished. The company were left in candlelight, and Bill could not read his prepared script. Then he spotted a portrait of the astronomer Christopher Hansteen, not mentioned in his prepared speech. He remembered that Hansteen had been the first Norwegian to become a member of the Royal Geographical Society, and found an ideal alternative opening theme.

    In 2001 Bill returned to the Norwegian Academy of Science, when he contributed to a seminar for the ethnologist Rigmor Frimannslund Holmsen on her 90th birthday. Bill had regularly visited Rigmor and her husband, the historian Andreas Holmsen, on his annual trips to Oslo. In 2011 a commemorative volume was published to mark what would have been her hundredth birthday. Bill’s chapter, titled ‘Potetlandet’ (‘The potato land’), was inspired by Rigmor’s photograph of a farming family digging up potatoes on an island west of Bergen in 1938. Bill recalled witnessing in Finland in 1948 the first potato harvest on the new farms established by Karelians expelled from the area lost to the Soviet Union in 1944. He referred to the role of agricultural societies in Norway and Finland in disseminating the potato in the early nineteenth century.

    Bill first visited Finland in 1938, together with his brother. This visit was for work. Bill was there to collect material for his master’s thesis on the geographical background to Finland’s foreign trade. He went on to publish countless articles on Finland. His breadth of interests is seen in the titles of his first three articles, all published in 1939: ‘Anglo-Finnish commercial relations since 1918’, ‘Agriculture in Finland’, and ‘Finland and the winter freeze’. Bill was a pioneer – he wrote that to work on the geography of Finland at this time was ‘to walk alone’.

    There followed a series of books on Finland. Farming in Finland (1953) included a chapter on his extensive studies between 1947 and 1950 of the resettlement farms of the Karelians. In 1967, he published Winter in Finland together with his Finnish colleague and mentor, Helmer Smeds. The marked seasonality of the north was a topic of enduring interest for Bill. In 1975,The Åland Islands was published, written with Stig Jaatinen, a close colleague whose family had their summer cottage there, to which Bill was a frequent visitor. His children’s book, How People Live in Finland (1965) followed a similar book he did in 1959, How People Live in Norway. In 1968 he published a general work titled simply Finland.

    Bill was interested in the journals of early British travellers to Finland. Conversely, the diaries of a Finnish traveller to England caught his interest. This was Pehr Kalm, the botanist, topographer and agriculturalist, who was a disciple of Carl Linnæus. Pehr Kalm visited London and Bill’s home area of the Chilterns in 1748 on his way to North America on a botanical mission. Bill translated the diaries from Swedish and published them with lengthy commentaries – the Chilterns diary in 2003 and the London diary just last year, 2013.

    My personal acquaintance with Bill goes back to 1963, two years after he was promoted to professor at the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL). His inaugural lecture was titled The Geographical Tradition in Finland. I went up to London from Southampton on a cold day in January 1963 for an interview to study geography at UCL. Bill Mead and Eric Brown conducted the interview. Bill immediately put me at my ease by commenting on the snowflakes in the air outside as he shook my shivering hand. He also told me that his father had been a grocer, just like mine. As an undergraduate I followed his lectures on the regional geography of Northern Europe. In 1965, I was among a group of undergraduates who went to Finland to undertake one of the two self-chosen pieces of fieldwork that were part of our studies. We were indebted to Bill for his helpfulness in contacting Helmer Smeds. Smeds had a summer cottage on the island of Björkö in the Vasa archipelago and helped fix up a month’s accommodation for us there. We studied the successive removal of harbours due to postglacial land uplift. This led to my PhD thesis, which I started in 1966. Bill helped me find accommodation at a student home in Helsinki, and introduced me to the archivist at the Finnish National Land Survey Office. I went through the unique body of land survey records, dating back to the seventeenth century, at the archives in Helsinki and in the Vasa County Land Survey Office. Bill’s own research provided the exemplar of combining in-depth archive research with several summers of fieldwork, observing and meeting people with notebook in hand. This allowed me to reconstruct the land- tenure patterns that helped explain how the extensive areas of emergent land in the flat landscape of Ostrobothnia had been taken into use. Bill introduced me to his wide circle of Finnish colleagues. Helmer Smeds, Ilmari Hustich and Stig Jaatinen all helped shape the path of my thesis. Later, Bill was instrumental in getting me a job at the Finnish Forest Research Institute through his colleague Lasse Heikinheimo, which allowed me to work part-time to complete my thesis.

    The mention of Bill’s name was a door-opener among Nordic geographers, not only in Finland, but also in Sweden during my journeys to and fro from London. I got to know Olavi Granö in Turku, Staffan Helmfrid in Stockholm, and Erik Bylund in Umeå, all of whom shared ideas that greatly benefited my thesis. Bill’s consideration was demonstrated when I visited Uppsala University in 1967. In London, he had given me a 50 kroner Swedish banknote to buy flowers for Gerd Enequist. She was Norden’s first and at that time only female professor of geography, and was Uppsala University’s first female professor in any discipline.

    In 1968, I travelled by car with Oiva Saarinen and his wife Edey via Lund University, where we had a meeting with Scandinavia’s most famous geographer, Torsten Hägerstrand. We were astonished at the kind reception and the time that he gave us. Oiva was also undertaking a PhD under Bill’s supervision, on the co-operative movement in the Finnish forest economy. Bill also supervised the philologist Michael Branch’s thesis on the East Karelian travel diaries of the nineteenth-century philologist and ethnographer A.J. Sjögren. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the three of us met in Helsinki as often as we did in London.

    I met my later Norwegian wife, Venke Åsheim Olsen, in Finland, and I moved to Norway in 1973. Venke is an ethnologist, specialising in the Finnish communities of North Norway. One of her lecturers at the University of Oslo was Bill’s colleague, Rigmor Frimannslund Holmsen. Rigmor became one of the mentors of my Norwegian postdoctoral studies.

    Through all the years since, there has been regular correspondence with Bill. We saw Bill in person in Trondheim, Oslo, Bergen, Lund or Turku as much as in London. Particularly memorable was the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Turku in 2009. This conference was dominated by geographers who were one and two generations younger than Bill. However, Olavi Granö, 84 years old, opened the Turku conference, and Bill, almost 94, gave the closing presentation. He held a fascinating lecture on the changing fashions in geographical terminology he had experienced during his more than 70 years’ long career.

    The last time Venke and I met Bill face-to-face was at the Royal Geographical Society during the Society’s annual conference in September 2011. He had come by public transport from Aylesbury especially to meet us. In March 2012, we got the news from Hugh Clout that Bill had suffered a stroke. Yet despite the fact that Bill had lost the use of his right arm, the publications continued to come. The last one, in 2013, was on the early years of the Finnish Economic Society (Finskahushållningssällskapet), which had celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1997. Bill had been dipping into the Society’s archives for half a century. Hugh Clout played a central role in bringing this booklet to fruition. Bill could no longer keep up his handwritten correspondence, but we continued to have contact by Skype, which was set up by Tracy Anipa, his personal carer during the last two and a half years of his life.

    Bill’s nearly 80 years of active research are an inspiration for all of us.

    Professor Bill Mead,  29 July 1915-20 July 2014

    Bill Mead was a very special man – and a unique geographer.

    He was associated with University College London for almost all his working career – and then during the 33 years of exceptionally long retirement.

    Bill’s conception of geography was very distinctive – and I need to look back to the early years of his life to seek an explanation. His first appreciation of places and landscapes came through walks with his father through the fields of the Chilterns and the Vale of Aylesbury. At Aylesbury Grammar School, enthusiastic geography teachers whetted his appetite further. However, Bill’s real fascination was with literature and language, with words on the page often dancing before his eyes.

    In the mid 1930s, he trained as a school teacher, while also reading for an external degree of the University of London. He wanted to study English Literature but had not studied Latin after his early years at grammar school which made him ineligible for enrolling for an arts degree at that time.

    So Bill registered for a BSc Econ degree that had nine examinable papers, including economic and political history as well as economic theory and commerce. One paper required a working knowledge of French and German. Within the degree structure, his chosen specialism was geography, but this involved only two papers on geography:- one on economic geography and the other on Europe. Since this was an external degree there were no formal classes, although Bill occasionally attended evening lectures and weekend events at the London School of Economics.

    He once declared that he read nothing ‘geographical’ for the two geography papers, but devoured books on economics and history. His approach to the Europe course was unusual, since he read a novel, play or book of poetry every week that related to one of the countries to be studied. This diet of reading was supplemented by attending plays and concerts. Indeed, he said that as a student music was his only recreation.

    In this way, Bill devised his own approach to geography, which was emphatically literary, linguistic and cultural, set on the bedrock of economics, and tempered with a personal appreciation of natural history.

    Thanks to a bequest from a generous uncle, Bill then started research for a masters degree devoted to Finland’s overseas trade, having learned enough Swedish to use official statistics. In the summer of 1938, he and his brother Jack visited Finland. The spell was cast, and Bill’s love affair with Finland began.

    During the years 1937-39 Bill was a more frequent presence at the LSE and attended classes and seminars by the five geography faculty. Bill then registered for a PhD and was evacuated to Cambridge with other members of the LSE. There he read voraciously about Finland and made good progress on his research work before volunteering for the RAF.

    Bill’s wartime years, spent mainly in Ontario, saw him in an administrative, educational post. He had plenty of time to read in local university libraries about Northern Europe, and to write about Finland and Denmark, which he had visited in 1939. By the time the war was over, Bill had published a dozen academic papers, some in top-rate journals.

    Returning to London, he drew together the results of his reading to produce a doctoral thesis on ‘The geographical background to community of interests among the North European peoples’. This was another external qualification, undertaken without supervision, although Gordon East offered advice before the final hurdle was surmounted.

    Bill responded to an advertisement to teach geography at Liverpool University, where Professor Henry Clifford Darby recognized his evident qualities (including a doctorate and an enviable list of publications) and gave Bill his first job. Darby also introduced Bill to the writings of Pehr Kalm (admittedly on his travels in North America) and we all know what an important place Pehr Kalm would play in Bill’s later life.

    When Darby prepared to move to UCL in the autumn of 1949, he asked Bill to join him, but the move was not immediate since Bill had obtained a Rockefeller Grant to spend a year studying displaced farmers from eastern Karelia.

    At UCL Bill concentrated on teaching economic geography, and had special responsibility for BSc Econ students. In addition, Bill and Eric Brown delivered a major course on North America. Bill’s flood of publications continued and promotion duly came, to a Readership in 1953, and to a Personal Chair in 1961. Bill also served as acting head of department on several occasions when Darby was on study leave in the USA, however it was Eric Brown who dealt with many aspects of departmental management.

    Within the department, Bill took an active role in encouraging a cohesive student life, not just for colleagues but also for students who were invited in small groups for a light supper in his Kensington flat. Occasionally, they met distinguished guests. Dave Unwin recalled the unforgettable words: “Unwin, come over to meet Torsten Hägerstrand”.

    And of course, Bill greatly enjoyed many aspects of social life within UCL, and beyond; not only at the Royal Geographical Society (to which he had been elected in October 1944), the Anglo-Finnish Society and the Anglo-Norse Society, but also at other Anglo-Scandinavian organizations in London.

    Bill’s lecturing reflected his personal, cultural view of geography, and with the passage of time he cut free from teaching economic geography. In 1963, he launched a new course on Northern Europe. These lectures were delivered without notes, as the spirit moved. They were replete with references to poetry, music, plays and works of fiction – even restaurants! As the years passed, the course became more historical in emphasis.

    As a supervisor of graduate students, Bill was probably at his best with mature scholars, or with those who had already devised a clear and acceptable plan of work.

    In 1966, Darby left UCL for Cambridge, and Bill became head of department. Students and – I suspect – members of staff wondered whether this horse-riding, European traveller would really take to the job. But, as Eric Brown, once confided: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

    Bill proved to be an effective head of department for 15 years. His management style was discrete. Once a task had been allocated to a colleague, then that person was left to get on with the job without interference. We were simply trusted to do our best.

    When it came to new appointments, Bill always sought ‘the best one for the job’. Staff meetings could be mystifying events for junior colleagues, since on occasions Bill tended to speak in parables. It took time to crack the code.

    Outside the Geography department, Bill was Vice-Dean and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts. His tact and personal touch proved extremely successful, and he was much appreciated for his ability to pour oil on troubled waters.

    However, major challenges confronted Bill.

    The first was the fluctuating and at times worsening financial situation in British universities, when the Department’s interests had to be defended fiercely. And here Bill was undoubtedly successful, enabling Geography to flourish at UCL.

    The second was the changing nature of the discipline, associated with the stirrings of the quantitative and theoretical revolutions. UCL’s physical geographers required laboratories and equipment, and all (well almost all) colleagues needed calculating and computing facilities.

    The third challenge involved the appropriate specialization to be required of new appointees, with some colleagues seeking innovators while Bill favoured a more traditional emphasis.

    Back in the late 1970s, when the southern part of the UCL site was scheduled for redevelopment – that never happened – Bill accepted the relocation of Geography to a new building some 5 minutes walk away as the only realistic solution to overcrowding and the crying need for new facilities. And he remained as head until 1981, by which time the Department was comfortably installed in Bedford Way.

    Beyond Geography, Bill served on numerous committees at UCL for many years. I can do no more than list them:

    Promotion of Scandinavian Studies; Student Accommodation; Pensions and Superannuation, of which he was chair; Technical Staff; Finance, and here Bill was a member of the small sub-committee of half a dozen that dealt with really crucial decisions; Appointments and Promotions (for filling positions right across the College, not just in the Faculty of Arts); and the Council of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies – where Finnish was taught (for almost two decades).

    In this way, Bill made countless contributions to the daily life of the College and to its future development that most of us knew little or nothing about.

    In ways that affected us directly, he was wonderfully supportive in dealing with internal promotions. Likewise, for those who sought professorships in other universities or chased large research grants, he was remarkably generous as he composed appropriate letters of support.

    Outside the Department, Bill greatly enjoyed meetings of the College’s Chamber Music Society, the Professors’ Dining Club, the bibulous Crabtree Foundation, and many other social gatherings. Indeed, he made good friends right across the institution. Within Geography, the Maconochie Foundation, that brought together colleagues and associates from further afield, continued to flourish during his regime.

    As we all recall, his smile, the twinkle in his eye, and his laughter – yes, of course, his laughter - were important elements of Bill’s contribution to the Geography Department and to the College – and outside the domain of Gower Street.

    During his long retirement, Bill sometimes came into the College for a chat, an academic or social event, or en route to the RGS, the theatre or a concert. And what a productive retirement he had, with new books and articles continuing to be written until the very end! Indeed, we await with eager anticipation the appearance of his ‘Commonplace Book’.

    Bill Mead was a most remarkable man and a peerless geographer. As Peter Haggett has written: he was ‘a beacon in our world for so many years’.

    Bill was loved and respected by his students and his colleagues. His cheery presence – and his wisdom – enriched our lives. He will continue to occupy an important place in the memories of each and every one of us.

    I am delighted to say a few words about Bill and the RGS-IBG, all the more so as I had the pleasure of being an undergraduate at UCL in the mid 1970s when Bill was Head of the Department of geography, in the days of Foster Court.

    He was, of course, much loved by many students for his infectious enthusiasm and sense of humour, his patience, encouragement and indeed by some students even for the quirkily demanding essay titles he often posed. Not least students enjoyed the Scandinavian delicacies that were produced from time to time during tutorials. Through Bill generations of students were introduced to his affection for northern Europe and its peoples.

    In the course of his academic career Bill was a staunch supporter and shaper of both the IBG and the RGS, playing key roles in geography beyond the academy. There are just a handful of people who have been Vice-Presidents or Presidents of both the RGS and the IBG. Bill was one of them, holding the positions of President of the IBG in 1971, following a year as Vice-President in 1970. He was simultaneously Honorary Secretary of the RGS, from 1967 to 1977 and then Vice –President of the RGS between 1977-1981. Following that he resided among an important and much loved group of Honorary Vice-Presidents of the Society, until his death.

    To complete his breadth of involvement in UK geography learned, scholarly and teaching communities, he was President of the Geographical Association in 1981, and awarded the Research Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1988. For many years he was a very active member of the Geographical Club, presiding over many dinners. And in 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

    Bill’s academic achievements were fully recognised by the RGS, first in 1951 with the Gill Memorial Award, for his promise as an early career scholar, and then in 1980 with one of the Society’s highest accolades, the Founders Medal, for ‘contributions to geographical knowledge and in particular to the geography of Scandinavia’.

    His scholarship and ambassadorial role in promoting knowledge of Scandinavia were similarly recognised and celebrated by those nations. Among the many accolades were his membership of the Norwegian and Finnish Academies, the award of high public honours in Sweden and Finland, and medals from both the Finnish and Swedish Geographical Societies.

    Finally, among the many accolades of achievement and status, there are quirkier roles. One of his more arcane titles while VP at the RGS was as the Chairman of the Programme and Hospitality Committee! It says something that the Society needed a committee for hospitality in the late 1970s. It was, of course, a title most fitting to Bill as an immensely cultured man. That aside, it was a serious role which was to arrange – and he did that most successfully – the details of the Society’s 150th anniversary celebrations at which HM the Queen, as the Society’s Patron, presided, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Duke of Kent and other members of the royal family. I think I am right in saying that the Society has never since had such a collective royal presence. Masterminded by Bill!

    Professor Bill Mead and Aylesbury Grammar School

    I believe that no former student has contributed more to Aylesbury Grammar School than Professor Bill Mead in the 88 years of his relationship with the school.  First, from 1926 as a pupil, then as an active member of the Old Aylesburian Association, and finally from 1981, as a long standing School and Foundation Governor, including service as the Chair of both bodies.  On the fourth centenary of the school, in 1998, his ‘History of Aylesbury Grammar School’ was published after many months of research and countless interviews with past and present members of the school. This achievement was itself of great service to the school.

    I have known Bill Mead since 1967 when I was appointed to the Headship of the School, and by the virtue of that office also became the Honorary President of the Old Aylesburian Association.  On attending their meetings, I soon realised that Bill was one of the key former students, heavily involved in all the activities of that Association.

    In 2007 Bill wrote an article for the Association entitled ‘Six of the Best’.  It was his reflections on 100 years of the six Headmasters at the school since 1907 when the new mixed school was opened by Lord Rothschild. Later, he was to meet with two more Heads, including the newly appointed present Headmaster Mark Sturgeon.  This was an appointment which gave great delight to Bill that the Governors had chosen a former Geography specialist teacher at the school.

    In 2009 Bill’s personal ‘Memoir of Aylesbury in the Nineteen Twenties’ was published.  Bill wrote that, in 1918 when he was 3 years old, his mother died in the Spanish flu epidemic, and he was sent to be looked after by his uncle and aunt in Aston Abbotts, a country village in the Vale of Aylesbury.  Eventual return to Aylesbury was to his father’s home, above his grocery store, where a housekeeper had been ‘installed’ to help care for Bill. The first school Bill attended was the Temple School for Girls and Junior Boys in the centre of Aylesbury.  In 1926 he transferred to the Mixed Grammar School of 150 boys and 100 girls,who were drawn from the entire Vale of Aylesbury, most of whom paid a modest fee. Later he was to see in 1959 the girls move away across the road to produce two single sex schools at the insistence of the Buckinghamshire County Council.  Parental opposition even led to questions being asked in the House of Commons to meet the Education Minister’s response that he believed in single sex schools!

    In his ‘Memoirs’ Bill acknowledges the powerful influence of his botany teacher who was not satisfied until his pupils could even identify every type of botanical specimen to be found in the locality including even the weeds.  He organised many walks in the countryside which Bill claimed ‘could never be forgotten by one of his pupils.’

    I believe that his influence and the attraction of the Aylesbury Vale countryside were major influences in determining Bill’s future direction in life.  Bill tells us that he was taught Geography by the music teacher whose main qualification was that he had travelled widely as a naval officer throughout the First World War.  Geography, Bill rapidly discovered, was a matter of casting a circle around the globe in 40 minutes!   It seems that his other major influence was a great love of literature inspired by his English teacher at the school.  This can be seen in much of Bill’s future writing about Geography and other topics.

    One of Bill’s main interests was music, and he generously supported many musical activities.  The music prize at the school bears his name.  He also greatly enjoyed riding his own horse which he kept in the stable near to his home.It was a great sadness to him when this was no longer possible.

    Bill was a strong supporter of both grammar and upper schools and was one of those who helped Buckinghamshire to be the only county that retained all its grammar schools.  He was always against any idea that the school should become independent and believed that the school was there to help all those with the right ability regardless of their parental income.

    In recent years I have seen Bill on many occasions.  On one visit, about a year ago, I was astonished when Bill explained to me about a new article that he was proposing to start writing at the age of 98! Bill was always very kind and considerate.  If one of his friends was ill, he would regularly visit them and invariably cheered them up. Bill will be remembered by many as a good friend and a great scholar and teacher whose influence, I am sure, will go on for years to come.  For it is even said ‘a great teacher affects ETERNITY’.  In fact we can never tell when their influence stops.

    Keith D. Smith O.B.E. (Former Head of Aylesbury Grammar School 1967-92.)

    Celebration of Bill Mead

    Your Excellency, colleagues and friends of Bill:

    I feel hugely privileged to stand here to give some personal reflections to round off this celebration of the life’s contribution of Bill Mead, a true giant on the international scholarly stage and a really lovely man.  It was my further privilege to have been taught by Bill in the Geography Department at University College London, to have been employed by Bill as his research assistant, and then to serve with himas colleagues within the Fellowship of the British Academy, the UK’s National Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Let me say just a few words about each of these experiences which run across a large tranche of Bill’s long life and nigh on 50 years of mine.

    I begin with Bill as teacher.  In my time of the mid-1960s UCL had an incredibly talented set of geography teaching staff – but Bill was simply inspirational.  We students were essentially instrumentalist – we measured impact and effectiveness of our teachers by the amount of notes we took in a lecture.  With Bill it was different; it was an inverse ratio.  Less really was more.  I still have my notes from Bill’s Scandinavia lectures – half a page at most – which says it all.  What he did for us was make connections that opened our minds to new dimensions of geographical analysis.  On field trips we walked with him in the footsteps of Pehr Kalm in the Chilterns and then we trooped off with him, somewhat in awe it has to be said, to his flat in Kensington where we sat around on the floor with a drink and supper and were mesmorised – not just by the occasion, but by Bill’s ability to engage with we students a generation or more younger than him.  Engage with people he really could.  Let me stay with pedagogy but travel on a few years to when I had just moved to be a lecturer at Exeter University.  Bill had been invited down to the West Country to speak to a local Geographical Association group – mostly school teachers of geography.  The meeting was at a venue where the technology was at the opposite end of the spectrum of his UCL Foster Court lecture theatre.  The nightmare happened; the slide projector broke down – and it was terminal.  I have seen speakers of our multiple screen, power-point age struck utterly dumb by such a happening. But not Bill.  With what must have been great prescience, the local geography teacher had decorated the walls with some Scandinavia tourist posters.  So Bill took us through those, making connections drawing allusions and weaving a spell-binding hour which I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday.

    For a brief period I worked for Bill as his personal research assistant.  It changed the whole course of my life.  How?  Well I was in my third year as a postgraduate in the UCL Geography Department.  I began applying for university posts and Bill as my head of department was one of my referees (as he was to be always).  I went to a preliminary interview at what we would now call an institution in the less research intensive part of the sector.  It went well and I was invited back.  I was young and flattered; Bill was older and much wiser.  He sensed it would be wrong for me – so he simply spoke three hyphenated words to me: ‘ridge-and-furrow’.  Ridge and furrow was at that time one of the lively topics in agrarian history – micro landscape features present in some fields and hotly debated as to whether they were relicts of medieval farming systems or much later in origin and stemming from nineteenth century ploughing practices.  Occurrences of ridge-and-furrow fields had already been mapped by Bill and his collaborators for some midland counties (including his own Buckinghamshire).  ‘Why don’t you extend that by mapping Cambridgeshire and Kent’?  And that is what I did spending some happy months in the Ministry of Defence with special access to RAF air photographs.  The UCL drawing office compiled the maps and I wrote two papers jointly with Bill.  It was an experience that changed my life absolutely and launched me on my career as a university academic.

    Hugh Clout has spoken eloquently about Bill as Professor and then Head of Geography and a Senior Office Holder in UCL.  Bill’s long life in retirement was marked by a signal event, his election to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1994.  He was one of the most respected and loved Geography Fellows.  Bill was elected via the toughest of routes – to what was then known as Senior Fellowship.  Not only does a nominee’s published work need to be judged as of high distinction but the Fellowship at large needed to be convinced that Senior Fellows, if elected, are research active.  In my time as a Fellow I have made the case at Academy Social Science group meetings for candidates to be elected to Senior Fellowship, and particularly of geographers overlooked at the normal age of election because of the marginal position that Geography held in the British Academy in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was an easy case to make for Bill; inactivity was not one of Bill’s qualities.  He was one of the Academy’s most conscientious of Fellows and we all benefitted from his wise counsel.

    Bill Mead played a central part in my life from my first day as a student through to the last conversation I had with him – on the occasion of my PhD supervisor and co-author Hugh Prince’s funeral last year –at which event Bill was as engaged, enquiring, sharp, aware and as always asking all the apposite questions about the British Academy and the University of London – and he was still the raconteur he always was, and always will be, in all our minds.  Bill, we all hold you tight in our thoughts and give thanks for having known you and you us; and for all that you have done for world of Geography; and for your human fellowship.

    Thank you


    Bill Mead

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