Gordon Tilsley OBE - the man who helped change the face of Norwich -
12:16 10 March 2014
An influential local authority official who helped to bring the University of East Anglia to Norwich, Gordon Tilsley, has died aged 96.
In his 21 years as town clerk of Norwich, the international airport became a reality and the Theatre Royal was bought by the city council – preventing its closure and conversion of the 210-year-old site into a bingo hall.
A long-serving chairman of Norwich Churches Trust, he was also a trustee of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival for 21 years.
Mr Tilsley, who retired as chief executive of Norwich City Council in September 1980, oversaw major slum clearances and a massive council house building programme.
He was a key figure in the creation of UEA. His first report, signed as town clerk in January 1959, was on the prospects of having a university in Norwich. Fortunately, the then corporation owned the perfect site – at Earlham, the site of a municipal golf course.
When he came to Norwich in 1949 as senior solicitor, having worked in Lincoln, one of his first tasks was to help direct slum clearance programmes. Norwich had slums in abundance and only 8,500 council houses. It had no tower blocks, office blocks, university, airport, Bowthorpe development, civic theatre or links with foreign cities. When he retired, the council had a total of more than 24,000 homes.
Born in Wolverhampton, Gordon Greenway Tilsley attended the local grammar school before going to Birmingham University and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he took first class honours in law.
Articled to West Bromwich County Borough Council for two years, his first job after the Second World War was assistant solicitor to Lincoln City Council for two years. During the war, he had served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, a Quaker organisation, and was in the Middle East, Italy and Greece.
In 1950, he was promoted to Norwich’s deputy town clerk, and in January 1959 became town clerk. After local government reorganisation in 1974, he became chief executive but still retained the dignity title of town clerk. In 1978, he was made OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
When proposals for a university in Norwich were proposed as a memorial after the First World War and then again after the Second World War, it was abandoned for lack of local financial support. When the proposal was revived in 1958, it fell on fertile ground. Apparently, some of the earliest meetings to plan the university were held in Park Lane Methodist Church, which Mr Tilsley attended. After the service, Lord Mackintosh and Sir Lincoln Ralphs, then county education officer, met to plan a campaign to establish the university.
Mr Tilsley became secretary to the university promotion committee and a formal submission was made in December 1959. After the UEA had been one of the first three among the seven new universities, he was secretary to the executive committee. It was part of his vision that he understood Norwich’s ancient charter status made it legally possible to innovate and carry out tasks denied to other local authorities.
In February 1981, he received an honorary degree, Doctor of Civil Law, from the UEA alongside the novelist Iris Murdoch.
The university’s public orator, Dr Randall Baker, at the degree congregation, said: “No one has done more to help establish and support the university and we owe him a long-overdue debt of gratitude.”
He was closely involved with the city council’s plans to buy the former RAF station at Horsham St Faith for use as a civic airport. As town clerk, he visited the ministry of aviation and was town clerk when it was bought by the council in 1966, later becoming the first secretary to the Norwich Airport Joint Committee.
At his retirement reception, his city colleagues burst into spontaneous chorus of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. A colleague, John Barnard, the former city treasurer, presented him with a landscape painting by Norwich artist Lesley Moore.
“I don’t think Norwich is going to repay the debt it owes you for the next 100 years. If we had not had Gordon here there would have been no university in Norwich, there would have been no theatre and I don’t think there would have been an airport,” he said.
Looking back on his career, Mr Tilsley said that the quality of life in the city had improved, certainly in terms of the physical environment with conservation programmes and development areas. He singled out Magdalen Street and the London Street pedestrian schemes.
Gordon Tilsley’s many roles in the community
Theatre Royal - When there had been proposals to close the theatre and turn it into a bingo hall, it had been bought by the city in 1967. Four years later, the Theatre Royal Trust was established and Mr Tilsley became its company secretary for 16 years. When he retired in September 1988, it was said he had played a key role in securing the services of the legendary Dick Condon as general manger.
Festival role - On his retirement as a trustee of the Norwich and Norwich Triennial Festival in 1989 after 21 years’ service, the then chairman Sir Timothy Colman said Mr Tilsley’s “quiet wisdom, dedication and wide experience of the community have proved invaluable and he will be greatly missed.” He had joined the committee in 1961 and was chairman of the 1967 and 1970 festivals.
Norwich Churches - When his 13-year term as chairman of Norwich Historic Churches ended in October 1993, Mr Tilsley reflected that the city’s churches were in better condition than they had been for centuries. He had helped to set up the trust in his role as the city’s town clerk in 1973 and became chairman in 1980, having retired from City Hall. Of the trust’s 16 churches, 10 had been disused for years – with three or four used for warehouses and eight “silent, dark and crumbling.” In 20 years, the trust had spent £1,250,000 in major schemes for 11 churches. St Edmund’s Fishergate required £60,000, which give it a new lease of life. Mr Tilsley had also played a major role in the £400,000 appeal, launched by St Peter Mancroft, in the early 1980s.
At his UEA degree award in 1981, his trim athletic figure was noted. A good cross-country runner in his youth, he was still wearing the same dinner jacket he had at Cambridge. A keen swimmer at Lakenham open air pool in the summer, he founded and became the first chairman of the Daily Icebreakers Club at the nearby Norwich High School for Girls.
He enjoying cycling and when he passed his School Certificate in 1932, he was given a Sunbeam bicycle by his parents – called Bucephalus, which he still had in May 1996.
His wife, Pauline, died in August 1982. He leaves two sons, John and Andrew, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
A service of thanksgiving will be held at Chelmsford Cathedral on Thursday, March 27 at 2.15pm.