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Michael Morgan 1928-2008

18 August 2008

Dr Michael Morgan, former head of Geography, died on 23 July. He is remembered here by current and former colleagues.

Michael Alan (‘Mike’) Morgan, who died in Southmead Hospital on 23 July 2008 in his 80th year, was head of the University’s then Department of Geography at a particularly traumatic period in its 90-year history. Fire had broken out in the basement stairway leading down to the Speleological Society on the night of Saturday 30 January 1982 and, by the time it was brought under control four hours later, great damage had been done to the South Building, including the historic Main Hall. One of us remembers Mike standing in Wellington boots in his burnt-out study, surrounded by fire-twisted filing cabinets and the sodden remnants of his library. Gazing heavenward through the now-open roof timbers, he murmured: ‘Someone up there thinks it’s high time I rewrote my old lecture notes!’

This was typical of his phlegmatic approach to problems and he tackled the rebuilding of the central part of the department with courage, energy and flair. Rejecting early plans for ‘modernisation’ of the original 1892 building, he pressed instead for its sympathetic reconstruction. This included searching sites in south Somerset where Oregon pine from old Methodist chapels (the original timber panelling was no longer obtainable) was pressed into use. The fact that this historic heart of the original University College Bristol was thus able to keep its late Victorian elegance for today is a tribute to his sense of history and concern with detail.

Born in Bath in 1928, he attended the City of Bath Boys’ School from where he won admission to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. But first came National Service, where he spent two years with the Royal Engineers. He went up to Cambridge in 1948, where he gained a Double First in both parts of the Geographical Tripos and was awarded a college scholarship. He stayed on at Cambridge to do doctoral research under Jean Mitchell on the use of 19th-century trade directories to map the changing central-place structure of villages and small towns in his native north Somerset. For the next three years he held a University Demonstratorship in the Department of Geography at Cambridge, specialising in demographic studies.

Appointed to a Bristol lectureship by R. F. Peel in 1959, he served the department in many capacities for the next quarter century. He continued to develop his Cambridge interests in demography but diversified to include lecture courses in political geography, urban form and design and locational theory. Those who attended them will remember Mike’s elegance of illustration and eloquence in delivery, as he opened up an array of new insights. For 11 consecutive years he, with a colleague, took the whole of the first year (often in excess of 60 students) on field weeks to sites in south-west England (Swanage, Dartmouth and Praa Sands). There he refined for the students a series of tasks based on central place theory where small groups, by observation and enquiry, generated material whose analysis brought animated discussion until late in the evenings. For many years he was an awarder in geography for the Oxford & Cambridge Schools Examination Board. With his fellow awarders, he was able to help implement Madingley-inspired changes to the curriculum which put that Board's school geography years ahead in the modernisation process. Although he published relatively little, his introduction to sources in historical geography, history of Sneyd Park, editing of the Colston Symposium of Geography and Politics, and SSRC-supported work on reworking H. E. Bracey’s surveys of Somerset rural services showed the span of his interests. He was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1980. On early retirement in 1985, he served the University part-time for a further nine years as director of the University Overseas Office, specialising in the recruitment of overseas students to Bristol from South-East Asia. 

Always searching for original angles, Mike enlivened his study with unusual experiments.  These started at school, where he pioneered the use of local aerial photography by ingeniously hitching a camera to a box kite.  In teaching, he was fascinated by models and gadgets, using, for example, kaolin gels in hand-built topography to illustrate glacier crevassing and floating magnets in a tub of water to show adaptive Christaller patterns. His fieldwork with third-year students in Mallorca involved the capture and analysis of urban character by the use of video cameras, long before they became an ‘avant garde’ research tool. He was a fine cartographer, who used delicately drawn block diagrams to illustrate some of his scientific papers. Many of the books in his library were beautifully leather-bound by Mike himself. Throughout his career, painting in gouache and oil was a major relaxation and, to his delight, this was reflected in his younger son Jeremy’s career as an artist in California. He combined this artistic flair with a willingness to undertake formidable building tasks, from re-roofing and refurbishing at least four houses to designing and executing imaginative room interiors.

The most congenial of colleagues and a team player who always placed the department’s broader interests before his own, he will be remembered by older colleagues with affection and respect, not least for his quiet sense of humour. Students will recall the intense and supportive interest he took in their progress, finding time to help many who might have faltered over a variety of academic stiles. For those who did know him but now work in the School of Geographical Sciences at Bristol, his enduring monument remains in the preservation of the South Building, the historic heart of a University that once stood in danger of being swept away. In this sense, he not only taught the need to safeguard our urban heritage, but achieved it too. 

Peter Haggett, Allan Frey, Tony Hoare

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