Obituary: Nigel David Walker, Wolfson Professor of Criminology, CBE PhD, D.Litt

Prof Nigel Walker CBE: Titan of criminology who championed a humane approach to rehabilitating offenders
Prof Nigel Walker CBE: Titan of criminology who championed a humane approach to rehabilitating offenders
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Born: 6 August, 1917, in China. Died: 13 September, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 97

When my father and mother met as undergraduates, she asked him about his career plans. When he said: “Become a professor”, she thought: “What an arrogant man.” She must have changed her mind later. He eventually realised his ambition – albeit by a circuitous route.

He was born in Tientsin, China, where his father was British Vice-Consul. The family lived there for 10 years, until the threat of invasion by the Japanese prompted his father to go into the wool business in Karachi while the rest of them returned to Edinburgh.

By all accounts, my father was a bit of a handful as a child. He once climbed on to the top of the tigers’ cage at the zoo, from where he had to be rescued by a keeper. He was sent to Edinburgh Academy, where he turned out to be academically gifted. He was Dux in 1935.

He then went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Classics. There he won the Chancellor’s prize for an original Latin poem and was made an Honorary Scholar. His tutor predicted a first class degree and he seemed set for an academic life.

But when he told his tutor of his engagement to my mother, his tutor privately withdrew the first-class degree prediction. Unfortunately, he was right, and my father had to abandon his academic ambitions. Instead he entered the civil service.

The outbreak of war intervened. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and later transferred to the Lovat Scouts. He became weapons training officer at Dunbar. He then became part of the bodyguard to the royal family when they were at Balmoral (where his duties included playing grandmother’s footsteps with the princesses).

Things became more arduous when he was sent to the Rockies in North America to train for the invasion of Norway. When he returned, he was sent to Italy instead and saw action there. He was shot in the leg; fortunately, it was a flesh wound, but it took him out of the front line for the rest of the war.

Back as a principal in St Andrew’s House, he soon realised that the life of a civil servant did not suit him. He said: “They taught me how to write.” In the 11 years he was there, he had nine different jobs. The most useful for his future was a spell in the Scottish Home Department, where he dealt with various aspects of crime.

During those 11 years he built what turned out to be an escape route. He wrote a PhD on The Logical Status of the Freudian Unconscious and a book: A Short History of Psychotherapy.

How he managed to fit it all in I don’t know, but he certainly was not a neglectful father. Just one of my happy memories is of Coronation Day: walking up the Braid Hills with pails and nets to a pond at the top, while he explained the details of the ascent of Everest (– he was a keen rock climber).

After 11 years in the civil service, he was entitled to a year’s sabbatical. He managed to get an Honorary Fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford. He must have impressed his colleagues there, because when the Reader in Criminology retired he was invited to apply for the post and was appointed.

He was very apprehensive about this radical change in career, but he need not have worried: he soon discovered he was a round peg in a round hole. His students (mostly postgraduates) appreciated his seminars and, in many cases, his concern for their personal welfare.

One of his particular interests was in the relationship between crime and mental illness. His history of the insanity defence (Crime and Insanity in England Vol 1) was responsible for the award of a D.Litt by Oxford University and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

He managed to set up a small research unit, initially to follow up mentally abnormal offenders. This later became the Oxford Centre for Criminology.

Another of his interests was the theory and practice of punishment. He was sceptical about all forms of retributivism and was a leading voice in favour of a utilitarian approach involving humane rehabilitation.

His book Sentencing in a Rational Society (1969) was held to be important and influential.

He believed that it was essential to have face-to-face contact with the subjects of his research and was allowed to hold discussion groups consisting of mentally abnormal offenders at Grendon. Some of his own students also attended.

Later, he extended the group sessions to include ordinary prisoners in Oxford.

He said that with no prison officers present the prisoners spoke freely and the groups were very informative. “At Ford there’s no room to play table tennis because of the bankers’ bridge fours,” he said.

In 1973 he was appointed Wolfson Professor and Director of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University. He also became a fellow of King’s College. One of his first priorities at the institute was to improve the standard of teaching and examination.

He was also concerned about morale in the department. He believed firmly in Socratic teaching, encouraging students to make their own choices, follow their own interests and develop their own lines of thinking.

On a more mundane level, he instituted a semi-official morning coffee break, attended by himself, academic and administrative staff. The result of such changes was that “morale soared”, according to one of the department members.

He served on various working parties and Home Office committees, the most important of which were the Floud Committee on the Dangerous Offender (they found that no method of prediction of dangerousness had a success rate of more than 50 per cent) and the Butler Committee, whose recommendations were responsible for the setting up of secure psychiatric units in each region of the country.

He retired in 1984 but continued to write and teach. His book Dangerous People (1996) is still on the reading lists of criminology courses today. He wrote 15 books in all, the last of which was his rather mischievous memoirs (2003).

An annual Cambridge lecture was named after him.

Most of this does not convey what fun my father was. He was a debunker of myths. He was a risk-taker: he continued climbing in the Dolomites until well into his seventies. He enjoyed his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren and he enjoyed a good argument.

Because of my mother’s failing health, in 2003 I persuaded my parents to move back to Edinburgh to be nearer the rest of the family. My father enjoyed the hills of Edinburgh after the flat landscape of Cambridgeshire, but these years were overshadowed by my mother’s decline.

After her death in 2007 he himself began to fail, spending his last months in St Raphael’s Care Home.

He is survived by two sisters, one daughter, two grand- daughters and four great-grandchildren.