Humberside Geologist No. 13
Lewis Frederick Penny 1920-2000
by J W Neale
Lewis Frederick Penny who died on 10th August 2000 was born in London. After an orthodox education he decided to follow his father and grandfather in a geological career, going up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1939. One year later he found himself on a troopship bound for India with a commission in the Rajputana Rifles. After serving in Persia and with Iraq Force, by 1945 he had reached Singapore where with H.Q.Intelligence he was engaged in interviewing and de-briefing released prisoners-of war. Demobilised in 1946 he returned to Cambridge where he graduated with a first in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1949. In the meantime he had married Mary and Catherine was born to be followed later by three brothers. In 1949 the University College of Hull appointed him Head of the Sub-Department of Geology (then under Geography) where he inherited one wooden hut, one technician, one English and two African students followed by a new intake of 18 students and a newly appointed Assistant Lecturer. It was some time before we met since immediately after his appointment he left for Trinidad where his father, Chief Geologist of Trinidad Leaseholds, was dying.
When we did meet we established an instant rapport. Having the true Victorian values of honour, integrity, loyalty, compassion for the underdog and service to others - all reinforced by his army experience - he rightly decided that the students and teaching should take priority over personal advancement and research arguing that only by producing good, well rounded, well trained, knowledgeable, employable graduates would the Department gain a reputation for excellence. His insight paid off and his graduates were always readily accepted by mining companies, oil companies and geological surveys which were then their main destinations.
As a University College, teaching the full University of London Honors B.Sc. Degree as well as one year (Ancillary) and two year (Subsidiary) service courses for other Departments involved an arduous work load of at least 22 to 25 hours of formal teaching per week together with administration and the building up of map and teaching collections of specimens. His junior staff had a particular debt of gratitude towards him in that he took his remit as Head of Department seriously and shielded them from administrative chores as much as possible thus allowing them to get on with what research they could manage in the limited time available. His own research was on the Quaternary, a difficult field with a vast literature which needed to be mastered before anything meaningful could be written. His research was meticulous and eventually he was able to show that the Ice Age in East Yorkshire ended 18,000 years ago, not 50,000 as previously thought and his interpretation is accepted to this day.
Everything was done on a shoestring budget. The first Easter Field Excursion of golden memory involved taking all the Department (including the technician) and their bicycles on the train down to Shropshire and spending ten days bicycling round the important localities. In 1954 he successfully took the Sub-Department through to full independent status coupled with all the drafting of courses and syllabuses consequent on the old University College becoming a full University in its own right. In all this time Mary provided back up and was an ideal Head of Department's wife. During term time students were invited round to tea at 94 Newland Park on Sunday afternoons and the Department had an esprit de corps unrivalled in the University. It was always a joy to visit them, enjoying their company and viewing the 'cricket pitch'. Lewis was also no mean flautist and indeed his love of music was conveyed to two of his sons who took up musical careers.
By the end of the fifties he had built the Department up to achieve parity with those of other provincial Universities and one that was highly esteemed by employers. In 1962 the University decided to create a Chair and brought in an outside candidate giving rise to a strong feeling of injustice, not only among his own staff but also more widely among professional geologists outside. His peers soon refuted the University's lack of faith. He proved to be an excellent and popular President of the Yorkshire Geological Society and his two Presidential Addresses are a model of lucidity and still regarded as the authoritative account of the Quaternary Geology of the East Riding. He was one of the authors of the definitive Report No. 4 on Quaternary Correlation published by the Geological Society of London. Cambridge awarded him a doctorate on the basis of his published research. He became President of the Quaternary Research Association, the University of Helsinki awarded him its Quaternary Research Medal, the Yorkshire Geological Society its Sorby Medal, a genus and species were named in his honour, Hull Geological Society made him a life member and such was his standing with Quaternary research workers that on his retirement he was presented with a specially written Festschrift of Quaternary essays published by Pergamon.
He also had a very fine sense of humour. Postcards from him on student field excursions would always contained an apposite comment culled from P.G.Wodehouse or Gilbert and Sullivan or some completely irrelevant poem, limerick or clerihew. He was an acute observer and since he was always the first to meet the new students he would send the staff an annotated student list to aid identification. His descriptions were so witty and accurate that at times it was difficult to keep a straight face when confronting them. He could also deflate an overbearing student in the nicest possible way. In the late 1960's the old values were breaking down and students were wearing outlandish garb, particularly old military uniforms, and one engaging Irish lad wore a brilliant scarlet tunic which became rather a pain after ten days or so. One day he made the mistake of boasting in Lewis's hearing that he had paid only ten pounds for it. Next day Lewis presented him with a newspaper cutting advertising good quality scarlet uniforms for five pounds with the comment "You've been had". That uniform jacket was never seen again.
When occasion demanded it he could also exercise all the authority one expects of an ex-Indian Army officer. The late 60's were a time of University unrest which started in Paris and the U.S. and rapidly spread to this country. Students occupied the Administration Building and Senate had to put up with unacceptable noise levels which disrupted their meeting - so much so that they decided to transfer it to the Geology Building. The mob followed. Lewis happened to be passing at the time. Most academics would have passed by looking the other way and opted for a quiet life. Lewis met them head on, harangued them as to what their parents would think, the sacrifices they were making in supporting them, their expectations of them getting a good education and degree and so on. To their chagrin the ringleaders saw the mob quietly slink away and Senate had its quietest meeting for some considerable time. I don't know whether Senate ever discovered why, or who they had to thank.
In 1980, after 31 years service to the University, Lewis and Mary retired to Northallerton where they enjoyed spending time with their family, regularly visiting their two children who had settled in New Zealand and pursuing their interests in gardening, ecclesiastical architecture and other hobbies.
I have searched for some suitable epitaph to sum up his life and how he is regarded. Unfortunately, the Geology Department was closed down ten years ago so I cannot transfer Wren's epitaph from St Paul's " If you seek his monument look around". However, I have one recollection which I think will serve. Here it should be explained that in the early days when he still smoked he would set the students to work on an exposure, look round the outcrops then select a comfortable rock to sit on, light a cigarette and cogitate. At the appropriate moment he would give the students a lucid, penetrating analysis of what they had seen, the problems involved and how they could be solved. Some thirty years ago one of our graduates who had been away ten years or so called in at the Department. By now he was senior field geologist with an international mining company in Africa well used to working alone for weeks on end in the bush with only an African support team and no one with whom to discuss problems. I asked him how he coped. "Ah!", he said "On those occasions when I do find that I have an intractable problem I find a comfortable rock to sit on, light a cigarette and think 'What would Dr Penny do?' .It invariably solves the problem"
Mary and her family have lost a loving and devoted husband and father. I have lost a staunch friend whose judgement and integrity I admired and respected. The natural sadness at his death for all who knew him is tempered, I am sure, by many memories of happy encounters and time spent in his company.
(c) Hull Geological Society 1999 + 2001
Copyright Hull Geological Society.
copyright Hull Geological Society 2020
Humberside Geologist Online