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John Vord Hepworth 1919-2012


Field and laboratory geologist who began his career in the Colonial Geological Survey and spent much of his life in Africa

John Hepworth died aged 92 on 15 January in hospital near his Stevenage home. He was born in Southport on 29 November 1919 and, influenced by his father, developed a love of natural history and the outdoors. Army service (1939-45) through the war ‘achieved very little’ and on demobilisation he accepted a place to read geology at Bristol under Walter Whittard, with Frank Coles Phillips a powerful influence.

Graduating with a First, he was told by Whittard he was not cut out for an academic career, and learning he was too old to join the home Geological Survey, was accepted by the Colonial Geological Survey and in 1951 was assigned to Uganda. His left-wing reputation at Bristol caught up with him during his probationary period and he was advised his position would not be confirmed. But with the support of his Director, an approach to the colonial Governor was successful and London’s ruling was overturned. Field mapping and laboratory work were much to John’s liking and from 1951-62 he authored reports and maps of widely different areas. During that period John spent a year at Leeds University under W Q Kennedy where he was awarded a PhD for a dissertation on the Western Rift of Uganda.

After a spell in the Photogeology Division in London, which saw him complete a study of the Mozambique Front in Tanzania (1969), John was appointed Director of the Botswana Geological Survey (1971-74), which fuelled his interest in older Precambrian terrains. Also, his interest in international development led him to becoming a founder member (1974) of the Association of Geoscientists for International Development (AGID).

John’s Africa-centred career lasted 24 years, but in 1975 he joined the IGS Overseas Division in London and was appointed Regional Geologist for Asia. His remit included overseeing coal exploration in Kalimantan and major IGS mapping projects in Thailand and Sumatra. In 1979 he married his third wife, Angela, before retiring from the IGS (1980) and taking up a position with the United Nations (ESCAP and RMRDC) in Bandung. In 1983 John retired and settled in Stevenage.

A Fellow of the Geological Society since 1950, he served on Council and was Foreign Secretary from 1975-78. Also a keen member of the Geologists’ Association since 1953, his research on the Hertfordshire Puddingstone was published in the Proceedings of the Geologists Association (PGA) in 1998. As well as his interest in Hertfordshire geology, he was active in seeking to protect the countryside north of Stevenage made famous by E M Forster. Other retirement pastimes included hill-walking trips with the Rucksack Club, and in later years a keen interest in art nouveau and the arts-and-crafts movement, which he would track down on ‘safaris’ to the Continent and to Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow.

Toward the end of his life, when encouraged to write notes to help his obituarist, he would (with typical self-effacement) regret that he published so little during his lifetime. In fact, his bibliography has over 50 entries, many of them maps and government reports, but they include several published in the QJGS, the PGA, and Nature.

Michael Ridd