Sir Aubrey Fiennes Trotman-Dickenson


Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson
Portrait of Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson by Allan Ramsay

It is with great sadness that the University records the death of Sir Aubrey Fiennes Trotman-Dickenson

Sir Aubrey Fiennes Trotman-Dickenson was born in Wilmslow on 12 February 1926 to Edward Newton Trotman-Dickenson MC and his wife Violet Murray Nicoll. He was educated at Winchester College, followed by a scholarship in 1944 to Balliol College Oxford where he studied Chemistry and won a half blue in cross country running. After Oxford he was a Fellow of the National Research Council in Ottawa from 1948 to 1950 followed by an ICI Fellowship at Manchester where he gained his PhD. On leaving Manchester he worked for DuPont in the United States before being appointed to a lectureship at Edinburgh University where he gained a DSc.

He published his first scientific paper in 1947 on work done while at Winchester College with Eric James (Lord James of Rusholme) whom he joined on the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals when appointed as Principal of University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) in 1968, Lord James was Vice-Chancellor of York. One of the very few occasions that master and pupil served on the same committee.

Sir Aubrey was appointed Professor and Head of the Chemistry department at Aberystwyth University at the age of 34 in 1960 and Tilden Lecturer (medal) at the Chemical Society 1963.

A leading authority on Gas Phase Kinetics, publishing nearly 200 papers in a 20 year academic career plus two major books Gas Kinetics in 1955 and Free Radicals in 1959 as well as being Executive Editor of the 5,000 page Comprehensive Inorganic Chemistry published in 1973.

He was one of the longest serving University heads in British University history serving for 25 years; as Principal of UWIST from the age of 42, then Principal of Cardiff University plus three terms as Vice- Chancellor of the University of Wales.

Sir Aubrey’s contribution to Cardiff University’s fortunes in the late twentieth century was crucial. He was the architect of the UWIST/University College Cardiff (UCC) merger and laid the strong foundations upon which it has grown and prospered academically.

He oversaw the development of UWIST – in 1957 Cardiff College of Technology was chosen to become one of a select number of Colleges of Advanced Technology in England and Wales. In 1968 there was a further major development when the Welsh College of Advanced Technology became the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST). It had started out as the City of Cardiff Technical School in the 1860s, offering evening classes and technical qualifications and was now a fully-fledged University. Two of UWIST’s proudest moments as a new university were winning the University rugby championship in 1976 through a drop goal by the Cardiff and Wales fly half Gareth Davies; the other was winning University Challenge in 1984.

UWIST and UCC merged in 1988 to become the University of Wales College of Cardiff.

‘T-D’, as he was affectionately called, came to Cardiff as Principal of UWIST in 1968. In 1988 he became Principal of the merged institution that is now Cardiff University. Many well-deserved public tributes were paid to the remarkable speed with which, under his leadership, the new university ‘took off’. Particularly impressive was the massive programme of building and refurbishment that made it possible to house newly created or merged departments in appropriate accommodation.

As any principal must do, Sir Aubrey could certainly see the big picture and was ever vigilant for the University’s well-being. At the same time, his grasp of detail was famous. Nothing about the running of the place escaped his attention. Legend has it that he personally designed the original carpets for the foyer and stairs in the Bute Building and for the Viriamu Jones Gallery in the Main Building. Sir Aubrey also designed UWIST’s iconic “clockwork dragon” crest. There is no doubt that he took the closest interest in the design of the Aberconway Building. It was thanks to his financial acumen that, at a time when most universities were facing stringent financial cuts, money was found to erect this impressive new development in four successive stages between 1981 and 1983. The Chair of the University Grants Committee, Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, described him as ‘one of the very best financial managers that any university or college has’.

His commitment to the institution was total. His detailed knowledge of the campus was based on frequent personal tours, at weekends, of the buildings. It was rumoured that he came into his office even on Christmas Day. He habitually used a green ball-point pen for signing documents, and ‘green ink’ was a phrase that came to symbolise the close control that he exercised over all administrative aspects of the running of the University. ‘Have you got green ink on it?’ one anxious administrator would ask another before implementing any proposal or suggestion. His approach to the academic life of the University was very different. He believed that departmental heads knew best how to run their departments. His job, he said, was in the first place to ensure that a high calibre of academic staff was appointed, and then to support departments as generously as possible.

Along with a piercing intelligence and grasp of detail went abundant physical energy. For a time he owned, and personally maintained, several houses in Cardiff in which flats were let to students. Generations of student officers found him approachable and easy to work with.

He also served on the Wales Gas Board, the Welsh Council, Chairman of Job Creation Wales and the DOE Planning and Transport Research Advisory Council. In retirement he was Chairman of his local parliamentary constituency party. He was knighted for services to education in 1989. He was also awarded a LLD by the University of Wales.

He was married to Lady Danusia Trotman-Dickenson MBE (nee Herburt Hewell), who is an Emeritus professor of economics at the University of South Wales, for 63 years. She survives him together with sons Casimir, who has a management consultancy business, Dominic who founded an IT company, seven grandchildren and one great grandson. His daughter, Beatrice was a Professor of Radiology at Harvard University.

Note extracts taken from the book “Cardiff University: a celebration” by Vanessa Cunningham and John Goodwin.

Tributes to Sir Aubrey

I am responding to the invitation to pay tribute to “T-D”. I worked in the University Estates Division from 1975 until my (early) retirement in 2007. I was therefore around when the merger of UCC and UWIST took place in 1987-1988. My primary responsibility at that time was to manage the merger of the separate telephone systems of the two institutions.

T-D was a tough taskmaster – I saw the green ink many, many times – but he was always very fair. What I realised after the merger was all over, was that it enabled me to cut my teeth in management. I learnt so much from the experience which helped me as my career in the newly merged university developed.

And something I have never forgotten: during that time my wife was very poorly for a little while and my line manager gave me some leave. A couple of weeks later, when walking along Park Place, I saw T-D coming towards me. He had clearly seen me and was approaching! I braced myself for the inevitable question. And it came: “Ah, Deslandes. How is your wife?”

Kim Deslandes, Cardiff UCU Administrator/Organiser

Aubrey was my VC as a student and as an officer. I have fond memories of working with him and of tours around his garden at home. He was supportive of our work in the Students’ Union and believed in us as young people (at the time!) as agents of change.

He will be sadly missed.

Josie Grayson (was Ford) (BScEcon 1994)
President, Equal Opportunities Officer and Non Sabbatical Women's Officer

So sorry to hear of his passing.

I was in UWIST from 1973-1977 and served as NUS Secretary on the Student’s Union Executive 1975-1976. When I was in University he was something of a legend and certainly someone to be revered.

Shortly after taking up my new post, the Student’s Union Executive committee were all invited to his rather grand house near Radyr for lunch. He gave us a tour of the grounds, showed us his ancestral paintings and treated us to a splendid lunch. A day I will always remember.

Brian Bishop (BEng 1977)
EMEA Network Manager

It is with the greatest sadness that I learn of the passing of TD. I was a member of the UWIST Student Union executive in 1977-1978, and Sabbatical Union President in 1978-1979. I therefore had the very great privilege of working closely with him for the benefit of our students. For TD, they were the reason the University existed. The promotion of their welfare - academic, social and pastoral was his abiding goal. It was a mark of his respect for us that the President was officially a member of many college committees, enabling the students' voice to be heard on issues that in many universities were the preserve of the teaching and administrative staff.

TD preserved an air of informality about his relationship with the Students' Union. It was his want to summon the President to his office at 5:00pm for a Cutty Sark whisky and soda every couple of weeks for a report, and a discussion of potential projects. It was then that you could glimpse at close range his enormous intellect. You failed to keep up at your peril!

There are many very happy memories I could share about TD (or "Strawberry" as he became affectionately known following his well-deserved knighthood). I offer this one - UWIST were building a new science lecture building, particularly for Optics and Pharmacy. The plans had been drawn up and were going to a college committee upon which I sat in my role as President, for formal approval. On the morning of the meeting, I received a call from the Head of the Optics faculty. He explained he and his staff had meticulously researched matters and had concluded there was a serious flaw in the design of the lecture theatres, particularly in relation to the placing of television screens. TD had already approved the plans and could not be persuaded to revisit the design. "We need your help persuading him to change his mind. He'll listen to you". That afternoon, TD announced the agenda item for a nod through. "Any objections?". I rose to my feet and explained the students had come to me expressing grave concern regarding the design and, in particular, the problems they would encounter trying to watch the television screens in the lecture theatres. TD's response was, as always, to promote the welfare of the students: "Bursar, this simply won't do. The plans will need to be changed". They were - and the rest is history.

TD was always there for his students. We were very privileged to have such a special man as our Principal.

James Myatt (LLB 1978)
UWIST President 1978-1979

It was with great sadness that I read in today's Telegraph of the death of Sir Aubrey.

I regret that I did not know him personally, which perhaps applied to most undergraduates, but I knew of him as both my last principal at UWIST (succeeding Dr Harvey) and the first Principal of  UWCC.  As there had been a certain amount of rivalry between UWIST and UCC ('Top Coll'), it was with pleasure that I heard of his appointment, and that of UWIST's Bursar, to the corresponding posts in the new university.

However, I (and I suspect most of my colleagues) had known nothing of his academic career. UWIST & UWCC are lucky to have had a man of such towering intellect and organisational ability at the helm, especially in such testing times.

It was my pleasure to make my first trip to Twickenham to see UWIST beat UC Swansea in 1976 (though Gareth Davies didn't win his first Welsh cap until a couple of years later), but let us not forget that UWIST had already beaten the almost invincible Loughborough Colleges in 1969 with a current Welsh full-back, Paul Wheeler, in the side.

If I may, I offer my condolences to Lady Danusia and the rest of his family. I wish them strength and comfort in their loss.

Ken Edensor (BSc 1969)
BSc Applied Science (WCAT/UWIST 1965-1969)

To share a memory or message of condolence for publication, please get in touch:

Communications Team