Derek Nicholls who died on Tuesday 19th September aged 84, was a pivotal member of the Department of Land Economy in the University of Cambridge for 25 years, but his association and contributions both within and beyond the University extended well beyond that.
Derek’s death breaks a direct link back to the founding ideas and approach to the discipline of Land Economy. Derek was brought up and educated in Cornwall. He took his first degree in Estate Management from St. John’s College, with First Class Honours in 1961 and his PhD in Land Economy under the supervision of Professor Donald Denman, graduating in 1966.
After Cambridge, he held the Sir John Mactaggart Research Fellowship at the University of Glasgow, subsequently becoming Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Town and Regional Planning there. At this time, Derek got to know Professor Gordon Cameron and they edited Urban Studies together between 1968-73.
Derek returned to Cambridge to take up the Gurney Lectureship in Forestry in the Department of Land Economy in 1974, where he remained until he took early retirement in 1999; the first of a number of different retirements. He was subsequently an Affiliated Lecturer, continuing a substantial teaching load in the Department, lecturing on the third year Paper on ‘Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development’ and taking a new role on the first year Paper on ‘Land, Environment and Structural Change’. He retired from this in 2005.
Derek’s scholarship was not limited into a single area; his work took him across the variety of subjects that can be found within Land Economy and across many countries. His PhD, awarded in 1966, focussed on aspects of forestry policies in England and Wales. The influence of Denman may be illustrated by the title of a 1969 Forestry Commission report ‘Use of Land for Forestry within the Proprietary Land Unit’. He worked particularly on forestry on private estates and he followed up his PhD survey work with subsequent surveys in 1980s, 1990s, and finally in 2005, giving a unique insight into estate forestry over that period.
But Derek’s interests ranged well beyond forestry. His publications and presentations range over recreation and tourism, rural development, housing and house building, sustainable urban development, land use planning, real estate and real estate markets, and real estate education. He held many visiting and examining roles internationally, in some cases maintaining links first pioneered by Donald Denman such as at the University of Nigeria, but also elsewhere, including the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and Malaysia.
Within the Department Derek took on a number of key leadership and administrative roles. My first contact with Derek was Secretary to the Appointments Committee, at that time run by academic rather than administrative staff. In 1983, I was in Australia when I applied for a lectureship in Land Economy. On being invited for interview, I had to decide whether the possibility of success made it worth my while to travel round the world for a short meeting in Cambridge and, of course, who might pay. This was negotiated with Derek, partly by exchange of telegrams and partly by phone. Derek was, of course, the soul of discretion: supportive, honest, and yet entirely neutral. In the end I decided to come.
Derek was Head of Department over two difficult periods for the Department. Donald Denman retired in 1977, prompting a debate within the University as to whether there should be a replacement to the Professorship, and by implication whether Land Economy itself should be continued. In a close run thing, it was agreed to establish a further single tenure Professorship in Land Economy, leading to the appointment of Gordon Cameron as the second Professor of Land Economy. Derek acted as Head of Department through this period. He took on a second stint as Head of Department during Gordon Cameron’s illness and later death, steering the Department through to the subsequent appointment of Malcolm Grant as the third Professor of Land Economy. This time the post was re-established on a permanent basis, reflecting the enhanced reputation of the Department and discipline within the University more generally.
Alongside his roles in the Department, Derek participated actively in college life and led extracurricular courses for vising students from overseas and mature students within the UK. Derek held fellowships at both Wolfson College, where he had spells as Senior Tutor and Vice-President, and at Fitzwilliam College where he was Acting President.
While he was at Wolfson, Derek, with Carol Moore, established the International Programme, running short courses for visiting students from overseas universities (1992-95). In the early 1990s, in light of a dearth of qualified graduates for the surveying profession, it was agreed to establish a Centre at Fitzwilliam College to offer conversion courses. The Wilson Centre was generously endowed in 1993 by Peter Wilson, owner of the Estates Gazette, to meet this need. However, the employment market shifted and the Centre had a difficult start. As a result, Derek took his Centre to Fitzwilliam to establish the Cambridge International Land Institute that would both run the conversion courses and maintain a programme for visiting students. Derek remained as Director until 2004.
Further beyond the University, Derek was elected a member of Cambridgeshire County Council between 1984-1993, serving at different times as Chairman of the Structure Plan Steering Committee, the Policy Committee, and the Cambridgeshire Police Authority. As a councillor, he was assiduous in his attendance at local meetings where others are often less conscientious.
For all this, perhaps Derek’s lasting legacy will particularly be in the fond memories of the students who have taken his courses and benefitted from his supervision over the years. He was President of the Cambridge University Land Society in 1983-84. Derek was a generous and thoughtful teacher. His undergraduate teaching was accompanied by visits to the Sandringham Estate and tours of Cambridge for first years to be introduced to Land Economy in action. His programmes at CILI were enlivened by such occasions as an organ recital at Kings College or a harpsichord recital at the Fitzwilliam Museum. But he will be remembered too for his personal kindnesses, such as welcoming overseas students to his home over the Christmas period.
Since his final retirement from academia, Derek has been active in the Methodist Church as a reader and lay preacher. He continued with this element of his life up to the end; he preached in Haslingfield on 3rd September.
Derek Nicholls might perhaps be seen as an ‘old-fashioned’ academic and scholar, whose work had breadth rather than technical depth. He gave time freely to his students and was a dependable attender at University meetings. He was held in high esteem by all and was a firm supporter to those facing challenges. But he didn’t play the journal article game that is now a prerequisite to garnering reward within the University. However, this might be seen as a failure of the University system rather than a criticism of Derek’s approach.
Professor Ian Hodge, Emeritus Professor of Rural Economy and former Head of Department (2002-2011)
Derek’s funeral will take place at the Wesley Methodist Church at 12 noon on Monday 9 October.