Humberside Geologist No. 13


Student memories of Lewis Penny as Head of the Geology Department

by J.A. Catt

I first visited Hull and met Lewis on a foggy day in November 1956, when I came to be interviewed for entry to the University as an undergraduate. In those days it was just possible to make the return trip by rail to Hull in a day from my home in Kent. But you had less than three hours in the city, so with such a tight schedule and the uncertain weather I was anxious not to be delayed. I need never have worried. Lewis met me in the entrance hall of the Administration Building within two minutes of my arrival, and was already aware of the limited time available. The interview was conducted "on the hoof" while he showed me round the Geology and Chemistry Departments (I had applied for a Joint degree in both subjects), the library (then in the Cohen Building) and the Students Union Building, where we had coffee together. I came away feeling more of an adult than I had ever felt before and very keen to prove myself worthy of returning. That reflected the degree of respect and loyalty that Lewis commanded immediately in all who met him.

Within a few days I received a letter of provisional acceptance from the university, and I never thought for a moment of studying anywhere else. I was later invited for interviews at Birmingham and Leeds, but politely declined both with a proud statement that I had already been offered a place at Hull. This so astonished Fred Shotton, then head of the Birmingham department, that he immediately wrote me a "you’ll live to regret it" letter, which of course only strengthened my resolve to get to Hull.

The choice of Hull in the first place for a Kentish country lad may seem surprising. However, it was explained by a not-to-be-disobeyed instruction from the rather autocratic but benevolent and far-sighted headmaster of my grammar school. He had developed a mental picture of the newly chartered Hull University as a severe training ground for scientists, and several boys from the school had previously been "sent" to Hull to read Chemistry, Maths or Physics. A-level geology had also been ably taught at the school for many years, and at least one other sixth-former (Bill Hancock) had already gone to Hull to study geology. The offer I received from Hull undoubtedly came on the strength of Bill’s performance, and we were followed by a long list of other Kentish immigrants. Similar mutually beneficial links were built by Lewis with several other schools that taught geology around the country, with the result that the Hull Geology Department expanded rapidly and developed something of a family atmosphere.

A congenial atmosphere was also engendered by the efficiency and good humour with which Lewis administered the department. Its small size did of course help. When I came as a student in October 1957 there were only two other lecturers (John Neale and Marc Piasecki) and two technical staff (Mike Holliday and Peter Robinson). Nevertheless, with his natural leadership abilities and wartime army training Lewis could easily have managed a much larger department. Despite their limited numbers, Lewis sheltered his staff from unnecessary administrative work, so that they could concentrate on teaching and research. I remember him saying "one of us wasting time on this nonsense is enough". As a result the department developed a good reputation for the qualities of its graduates and for its research in East Yorkshire and elsewhere.

Reading for a joint degree was too close to hard work for me, so after the first breathless year of 22 hours lectures plus 12 hours practical classes per week I pleaded with Lewis and John Neale to join the Special (single) Honours Class in Geology. When they agreed I was deliriously happy and felt I had become a full member of the family. Also without this change I could never have obtained a sufficiently high class of degree to qualify for a research grant to stay at Hull for another three years and obtain a PhD. Nor would I have been able subsequently to land the job in which I was fortunate to spend my entire career.

All of the previous research students in geology had pursued palaeontological topics and had been supervised by John Neale. But the year I graduated (1960) Lewis had obtained a DSIR scholarship to study the Quaternary of East Yorkshire, and this was offered to me. To accept it I had to turn down the offer of a lucrative job mineral prospecting in West Africa, but there was no difficulty in making the choice.

The next three years were quite the happiest and most stimulating of my life. Lewis was an enthusiastic and encouraging supervisor, leaving me to get on with field and laboratory work, but always ready to discuss results and their interpretation. The main lessons I gradually learned from him, usually over a beer at the family house in Newland Park, were how to draw logical conclusions from data, the importance of clear unambiguous written reports and the need to meet deadlines. As a result I was able to deliver the requisite number of copies of my thesis to be bound on the day my grant terminated and I left Hull to take up a new job at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Furthermore, the thesis had been checked so carefully by both of us that the examiners passed it without requiring any corrections or changes.

My external examiner was none other than Fred Shotton from Birmingham. Whether he remembered me declining his offer seven years earlier I shall never know, but he certainly tried to give me a difficult time at the oral examination. Fred was then President of the Geological Society and the examination was held in London at Burlington House, where two members of the library staff were kept busy finding references so that the accuracy of quotations in the thesis could be checked. After about two hours of this tedious and unsuccessful procedure, it became clear that Fred’s only remaining concern was to question my/our suggested dating of the Holderness tills. He felt the Basement, Skipsea, Withernsea and Hessle should be equivalent to the Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Wurm of the Alpine sequence, but having heard Lewis repeatedly condemn the foolishness of such long-distance correlations, I was prepared to stand and fight. After another hour or so of heated discussion, the Society’s Secretary entered to announce that we must leave as the apartments were about to be locked for the night, so we parted having agreed to disagree.

Commercial radiocarbon dating of fossil moss from the Dimlington Silts later supported the Penny/Catt dating of the tills, but Fred was still sceptical and insisted on resampling and redating the moss in his own laboratory at Birmingham. When he sheepishly announced that the Birmingham date was within 1.4% of that obtained by the Hull team, Lewis’s laugh could almost be heard from Hertfordshire without the aid of a telephone.

From the time I left Hull in 1963 until Lewis really became too ill to communicate, he maintained a lively interest in my life and work, and both he and Mary were always pleased to see or hear from me. On the all too rare occasions when I arrived on their doorstep in Hull or (after Lewis’s retirement) in Northallerton I was always greeted with beaming smiles, generous hospitality and all the latest news of their family or of Hull people I would have known. But this was not special treatment reserved for a PhD student. Whatever their academic record and later achievements, all those he taught at Hull between 1949 and 1980 were honoured in the same way. For this and for his wisdom, humour and perceptive contributions to Quaternary science, Lewis was deeply respected and will long be remembered by all who knew him.

(c) Hull Geological Society 1999 + 2001

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