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Bert Willcox, 1910-2007

Bert Willcox at his retirement party in 1976

Bert Willcox at his retirement party in 1976

23 January 2007

Alderman Herbert William Willcox passed away earlier this month. Don Carleton offers an account of his life and achievements.

Bert Willcox was Old Labour. He said what he meant and he did what he said. All Bert’s efforts were aimed at delivering real benefits in the daily life of the people he represented. He had no time for fools and charlatans. He condemned the Looney Left and the Woolly Right of his party in equal measure.

Born on 24 November 1910, he grew up when Labour was a minority party in Bristol and in the country. He worked with leaders such as Ernest Bevin and the young firebrands of the party like Barbara Castle to make it electable. He saw Labour grow through the first faltering steps in Government and then through the General Strike, and the wilderness years of the Depression to the great triumph of the 1945 election.  Like Bevin and other Labour leaders of that generation, Bert was tough, patriotic, shrewd in judgment, able in governance, and dedicated to the people he served.

Bert Willcox could undoubtedly have had a national political career but he was devoted to the people he knew best, the people around him, the people of Bristol. He chose to serve in local government and in 1970 he became Lord Mayor.

That posed a problem for the University. Bert had joined the University Works Department in 1947. His job was basically maintenance and that involved looking hard at what was needed, estimating how repairs might be afforded and fixing it – an ideal task for a politician who was also a skilled carpenter, general handyman and storekeeper.

Those of course are honourable callings, but the University felt that a talented Lord Mayor should have a more suitable role within the University – one that required wearing a suit, in effect. I had just joined the University as its first Information Officer. I was asked if I could find a role for him in my new office. I agreed to interview him to see what might be possible.

He was to come to the University at an appointed time but, as it turned out, an important international visitor to the City was expected then. The interview was moved to the Council House and I found myself sitting in the Mayoral office, sipping municipal sherry (very good, Harvey’s best) and interviewing a man who had helped shape the city we both lived in.

We talked about the University and how it was regarded in the City. It quickly became clear to me that the University had grown away from the City. It was seen as a foreign outpost squatting at the top of Park Street. It was no longer what its founders had sought – a ‘University for Bristol’. I had no doubt that both Bert and I had found a role – to bridge that gap. So he joined my office without a title. He was simply to assist me.

He did that for six years. Bert had repaired things in almost every department. He knew the fabric (and the people) of the University intimately. For a new office charged with communication and relationships, his knowledge was of extraordinary value in sorting out the little mundane challenges that so often can become hurricanes if left unattended.

Public relations as much as internal relations were our focus. There were overt initiatives of course outside the University. We instituted a sort of home and away match by which the City and the University took turns to entertain. University professors and councillors and Aldermen got together over a glass of wine and some sausage rolls or whatever.

The fare was a little asymmetrical at times. I recall one Lord Mayor saying how pleased he was that the event was taking place in the Mansion House – he was delighted not to have to face the University’s sherry (which was sometimes appalling). That he could make the joke and that it was well received by the Vice-Chancellor and others was a sign of how far and how profitably we had travelled.

Our progress inside and outside the University was in no small measure due to the quietly efficient efforts of Bert Willcox. He fully deserved the honorary degree of Master of Arts conferred on him by the University and the title of Alderman given him by the City.

After his retirement Bert’s shrewd judgments and firm principles were deployed to the University’s benefit through Council, when he became one of the City’s representatives. His advice was still available to me; he was always just a telephone call away. But I lost the most prestigious sign of his involvement with my office and the University: Bert had been one of the pioneers of the Bristol-Bordeaux exchange, and his qualities were well understood and appreciated in Bordeaux. When he visited as Mayor he was introduced to Pablo Picasso, who gave him a signed limited-edition print. Bert’s wife Maisie did not care for it, so it hung on my office wall until it was reclaimed by Bert’s sons Mike and Colin.

A serious car accident about 20 years ago left Bert’s fighting spirit intact, but painfully using a walking stick to get about inhibited his effectiveness. He gradually withdrew from public life to a well-earned, quiet retirement, pursuing his interest in gardening.

Sometimes a man can live too long to be properly appreciated when he dies. Many of Bert’s old friends (and enemies) have predeceased him and there are few people now active in the University who have had direct experience of working with him. But if you require monuments look around you. The city Bert Willcox left when he died last week is an incomparably better, more diverse and fairer place than the city he grew up in. The University is no longer divided against itself (as it was when he joined my office) and it is no longer so remote from the city whose name it bears.

There are other things too. Thanks to Bert Willcox, Bristol has excellent crematoria (Bert was a national expert), it has a strong Labour Party, the Bristol Flower Show, and the Bristol-Bordeaux and the Bristol-Hanover exchanges. Bert never stood up and claimed credit for any of it but those of us who were there at the time know how his patience, skill and occasional truculence in a good cause decided many things that were vital to success.

Within the University he has one legacy that is now so normal that it is completely unremarked. In the early '70s University Governance was a very lively topic of debate. The advocates of change wanted to involve students, non-professorial staff and non-academic staff in running the institution. Their opponents wanted to preserve the old hierarchies and thought trades unions had no place in academia. They doubted that non-academic staff had the capacity to make a real contribution to how the University dealt with its affairs.

No one thinks like that now and that is partly due to Bert, who was one of the first non-academics (if not the first) to play such a role. If that is unremarkable now, it is because he, by his simple honesty and effectiveness, destroyed all the arguments of those who opposed change. Of course we owe a lot of that change to the leadership of Alec Merrison as Vice-Chancellor, but as Bert knew well, real change is all about delivery on the ground. He was an expert at that. He made good things happen.

What should be his epitaph? In the ’70s the Labour Government threatened to create enough peers to allow it to dominate the House of Lords. Bert was on the list to be a Lord. I asked what title he might seek if this came to pass.

‘The one that I would like is taken’, he said. ‘There is already a Lord Redcliffe’.

‘But Bert’, I said, ‘you are a Bristolian. There must be other district names you could adopt.’

‘Bristolian?’ he said scornfully. ‘I am a Redcliffe man’.

It must be at least a thousand years since Bristol absorbed Redcliffe, but Bert Willcox knew his roots and he was loyal to them. He sought no legacy or high reputation for himself. He would have been content to set all his honours and reputation aside and rest under a stone that said ‘Herbert William Willcox, a Redcliffe man’. For that we should honour him. He was – and is – an example to us all.


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